And the point is…?
The basic premise of the book is that China, as a nation-state, only came into existence as an invention of a few intellectuals in the 19th century, and that therefore its claims to a 5,000-year-old civilisation are somehow false. It’s the “therefore” in the proposition that is the problem – the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premise. Take the UK – a construct of a few power-brokers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Does that somehow negate the shared history of the four nations prior to the Union, even if that history was often one of strife? Or take the EU, if it survives in the long-term – will future generations suggest that Europeans don’t have a shared history prior to the end of WW2?
Hayton argues that the intellectual underpinning of the idea of a Chinese nation-state was absorbed from European ideas in the 19th century – agreed, of course. He also seems to suggest that the idea of an ancient nation of “China” is used still today to promote the idea of a Chinese race, as distinct from a Chinese nationality. Well, OK, perhaps – but, in reality, is that much different to the West? We’re so tied up in questions of race and nationality that people now often need several hyphens to describe themselves – Kamala Harris, first Asian-African-American woman to become VP, etc. If we haven’t learned to think of Brits as simply Brits rather than Asian-British, Afro-Caribbean-British, etc., can we afford to be too sniffy about China’s failures on racial integration? We may talk the talk, but the year of race protests and riots we’ve just endured suggests that perhaps we don’t walk the walk much better than China.
Hayton suggests that part of China’s foreign policy is to keep the diaspora feeling that it is Chinese in order to promote China abroad, partly by automatically allowing citizenship to those descended from a Chinese ancestor. Well, while it’s not (as far as I know) British policy to exert some form of British control over its diaspora now, it certainly was in the days of Empire – we fought wars over it, eh, America? And we certainly still give priority paths to British citizenship to people descended from a Brit – my greatest fear is that Trump will remember his Scottish mother and decide to seek residency here, which we would be hard put under our rules not to grant, I believe. As evidence of China’s desire to influence its diaspora, Hayton discusses events held abroad to promote Chinese culture and heritage to emigrants of Chinese descent. Hmm, not so different, I felt, to St Patrick’s Day parades, beloved far more by the Irish diaspora than at home, and heavily promoted by Ireland nowadays to boost the tourism industry, and used in the recent past to garner Irish-American support for the IRA terrorist campaign against the UK; or Burns Night, a knees-up that is more enthusiastically attended among descendants of Scots abroad than it is here in Scotland. We even have an annual Tartan Day parade in New York, specifically promoted by the Scottish government to try to make Scottish-Americans so nostalgic about the old country they will spend lots of American money on Scottish goods. Not sure it works.
So the more I read about how different China supposedly is, the more I felt that it was pretty much the same as all the other nation-states with imperial tendencies – perhaps it just took a little longer for it to adopt an essentially European idea. And I don’t think that its modern nation-state status in any way means it shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to its 5000-year-old history. We do. We look on Roman Britain as our heritage – iron age Britain, Viking Britain, Norman Britain, Empire Britain, multicultural modern Britain – all parts of what makes us us, for good or ill. And for most of that long history, we weren’t a nation-state either.
Hayton suggests, though, that the Chinese desire to maintain control over places like Taiwan and Tibet arise out of an untrue history that all these regions (or nations) are historically part of a nation of China which he suggests never existed before the 19th century. Again, simplistically true, but is not that always the way of Empire? China is simply at a different stage than Europe – we have been forced unwillingly to accept the loss of our Empires and redefine our nation-states and re-write our histories accordingly; China is still grimly hanging on to its claims over its ancient tributaries and, as we did, using distorted narratives and racial arguments to justify them. Let’s face it, fan though I am of the Commonwealth, it exists merely to tie together the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Is that a bad thing? The only difference is that states can leave the Commonwealth if they choose, but that’s only been the case for half a century or so. No doubt in time the Chinese Empire will go the same way, and who is to say if the breakaway parts won’t find, as with the old colonies of the European Empires, that there is a benefit in maintaining historical, cultural and economic ties once the shackles of enforced domination have been thrown off?
I gave up on the book halfway through, since I found the arguments tenuous, shallow and not particularly well laid-out. And, to be honest, I’m not sure if the point is one that it was worth the effort of making. China is a fascinating nation with many facets, good and bad. It does many things I find objectionable, especially in terms of its human rights abuses. But this effort to deny it its claim to its heritage seems odd – a throwback to the days when we in Europe looked sneeringly down on the rest of the world. We don’t still do that. Do we?
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher Yale University Press via Amazon Vine UK.