Revisiting China’s Modernity

Ethnicity, Religion, and Nation

by Jiang Sun (Author)
©2020 Monographs XIV, 308 Pages


Investigating the nature of Chinese modernity from the perspectives of social and intellectual history and inspired by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, this book reveals the ambiguity of nation as a modern concept and opens up a new possibility for the turn of China’s national narratives. The definitions of nation as either an imagined community or an entity with a substantive cultural origin are both partially wrong in the Chinese context, since China had its distinctive socio-cultural system in pre-modern times and the binary mode of nationality is inadequate to interpret the complexity of Chinese society. In light of this complexity, this work explores the relationship between the Manchus and the Han Chinese throughout the Qing dynasty, examines the transmission and reproduction of modern knowledge, particularly that of race and nation, on the ground of China’s reactions to the Western influence, and discusses how the supra-nationalist discourse of various religions succumbed to the homogenizing nature of nation state in modern China. To depict a general picture of "Chinese modernity" and avoid the risk of oversimplification, the author combines the methodology of social history with that of intellectual history, abandoning the East-West binary opposition and grouping all ten chapters into three parts that respectively approach Chinese modernity from a specific perspective. On this basis, it can be concluded that Chinese modernity, as a form of new knowledge, is produced out of the combination of a forward-thinking viewpoint and a fantasy about the modern age, which constitutes an inevitable path to China’s "national liberation" from the entanglement of ethnicity and cultural traditions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • PART 1 Memory and Representation
  • 1 Imagined Blood Ties: The Creation of a Community of Memory through Sworn Brotherhood
  • 2 Memory of the Sun: An Archaeological Study on the Discourse of the Birth of the Sun on the Nineteenth Day of the Third Month (Lunar Calendar)
  • 3 Continuity and Discontinuity: Narratives of the Yellow Emperor in Early-20th-Century History Textbooks
  • PART 2 Race and Nation
  • 4 Migration, Cultural Encounter, and the Nation: The East Asian Receptions of Sino-Babylonianism
  • 5 Blumenbach in East Asia: The Dissemination of the “Five-Race Theory” and a Comparison of Related Texts
  • 6 Return of the Rebels: Muḥammad Ᾱmīn Bughra’s Submission to the Nationalist Government during the Sino-Japanese War
  • PART 3 Religion and Power
  • 7 Yangjiao or “the Other”: Christianity and Chinese Society in the Second Half of the 19th Century
  • 8 Representing Religion: Issues of “Chinese Religions” at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions
  • 9 A Salvationist Religion’s Journey of Disaster Relief: Ōmotokyō and the Visit of the Red Swastika Society’s Delegation to Japan in 1923
  • 10 Predicament of a Redemptive Religion: The Red Swastika Society in Manchukuo
  • Index


As a corpus of my writings in the past 15 years, this book includes some chapters that were published before in academic journals. I hereby express my gratitude to Routledge, Oriens Extremus, Frontiers of History in China, and Chinese History and Society for their reprint permission. I am also indebted to Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, my former employer, and Prof. So-an Chang at Academia Sinica, who invited me to join her research project. My particular thanks go to Prof. Liu Jianhui. Without his support, I could not finish this book as a visiting scholar at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, where I spent an unforgettable year doing research and hosting the seminar for a comparative study of the formation of academic concepts across East Asia.

As my research covers various academic fields, I got help from many distinguished scholars. I really appreciate Prof. Wang Yueqing, Prof. Ma Guoqing, Prof. Zhou Daming, Prof. Di Wang, Prof. Q. Edward Wang, Prof. Zhang Qing, Prof. Chen Liwei, Prof. Kwang-Che Pan, Prof. Zhang Zhongmin, Prof. Liu Wennan, Prof. Li Gongzhong, Prof. Li Lifeng, Prof. Tze-ki Hon and Miss Margaret Li Seeley’s assistance. I am also sincerely grateful to my graduate advisor Prof. Namiki Yorihisa at Tokyo University, Prof. Elizabeth Perry, Prof. Prasenjit Duara, Prof. Mechthild Leutner, Prof. Axel Schneider, Prof. Marc Matten, my collaborator Prof. Kai Vogelsang. Ms. Li Na’s kindly help is also worth mentioning here. I would like to thank my students Dr. Wang Nan, Dr. Song Yiwei and Dr. Zheng Xuejun for their collation of historical texts. I also owe the publication of this book to the support of Prof. Steve Roddy and Prof. Liu Chao. Last but not least, this book is dedicated to my wife Donglan and my daughter Chengyin, who always stand with me and back me up. In the writing process, I was sponsored by the “Double First-Class University Project Funds” and the “Endowment for the Humanities” of Nanjing University.


Chapter 1, 2 and 10 are largely updated editions of the following articles, respectively, at https://www.tandfonline.com:

Sun Jiang (2005) Imagined Blood: The Creation of a Community of Memory Through Sworn Brotherhood, Chinese Sociology & Anthropology, 37 (2–3): 9–52. DOI: 10.1080/21620555.2005.11038345

Sun Jiang (2005) Memory of the Sun: An Archaeological Study of Knowledge Concerning the Discourse on the Birth of the Sun on the Nineteenth Day of the Third Month (Lunar Calendar) Chinese Sociology & Anthropology, 37 (2–3): 113–156. DOI: 10.1080/21620555.2005.11038341

Sun Jiang (2013) The predicament of a redemptive religion: The Red Swastika Society under the rule of Manchukuo. Journal of Modern Chinese History, 7 (1): 108–126. DOI: 10.1080/17535654.2013.772358

Chapter 7 is a largely updated edition of the following article:

Sun Jiang (2011). "Yangjiao or the Other: Christianity and Chinese Society in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century," Frontiers of History in China, Vol.6, no.1, March (2011), pp. 53–73.

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One’s hometown may be far away, but the world we share is right before our eyes. At the start of each new academic year, I always ask my students to tell me about the history of their hometowns. But the answers I receive invariably disappoint me, because not a single one of them can provide even a sketchy outline of the history of their hometowns. In his essay “A New History” published in 1902, Liang Qichao scathingly noted that traditional historiographers “only care about the imperial court, but know nothing of the nation … and only refer to individuals, but ignore the collective.” Now, over a century after Liang’s observation, if we replaced “imperial court” with “hometown,” this statement would still ring true, for all the new historical understandings over the past 20th and early 21st centuries were acquired at the cost of sacrificing some significant underpinnings of the historiographical tradition that Liang so urgently criticized.

The history of China from the mid-19th century on has been categorized as modern history, a history in which a process of homogenization gradually takes place owing to the joint forces of markets, wars, reforms and revolutions. A linear conception of time has emerged, and the heterogeneity of space has been (in an imagined way) effaced. The difference in public consciousness among individuals also seemingly disappears. The goal sought by a modern nation dominates Liang ←1 | 2→Qichao’s historical narrative, a narrative that can be traced back to 18th-century Europe.

At the end of the 18th century, the modern conception of “history” emerged. In the middle of the 19th century, the German historian Leopold von Ranke dismissed the idea of universal history in terms of civilization and progress. Employing a scientific dialectical methodology and applying it to the study of human collectives across time and space, he constructed a historiography that possessed the character of a modern academic discipline. This modern historiography proposed by Ranke is commonly referred to as the historiography of peoples and nations, which serves as a proper object of research and imposes profound influence on future generations. In 1887, two years after Ranke’s death, his student Ludwig Riess arrived in Japan to teach at Tokyo Imperial University. With his awkward English, Riess established the paradigm of historical writing that inspired the first generation of modern Japanese historians. His impact lingers on even to the present day. At the same time, China, with its long-existing tradition of historical writing, also fell under the influence of Western learnings introduced both directly from the West and indirectly via Japan (and in a Japanized form). The notion of universal historiography in terms of civilization and progress and that of modern historiography in Ranke’s sense entered into China in succession, leading to the birth of modern Chinese historiography.

The hierarchy of the West and the East established by modern historiography is based on the superiority of the advanced over the backward, with a clear implication of Eurocentrism. The Japanese version of Asian History tried to neutralize this Euro-centric overtone, but merely by substituting Japan as the center of an alternative form of Orientalism. The abandonment of Eurocentrism was accomplished only after World War II. Postcolonialism and internationalism that arise out of the increasingly globalized world transform the power relationship between the colonizers and the colonized, thereby invalidating the Eurocentrism of the past. Moreover, postmodernism seeks to undermine the essentialist and teleological basis of modern historiography. In contrast to the nation-bound narrative of modern historiography, global history is concerned with the flux of humans and objects across space and the social relations that facilitate this unprecedented flow, resulting in the deconstruction of Euro-centric perspectives. At this juncture, when globalization and regionalization, decentralization and recentralization, are intertwined and interacting with one another, is the global historical narrative a utopia that lies somewhere beyond the horizon, or a reality now within our reach? Its realization awaits the future efforts of the writers of historical texts.

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This work investigates the contours of Chinese modernity from the perspectives of social and intellectual history, and it is the debate on national narratives during the 1990s that impels me to ponder over some related questions in this book. Needless to say, central to this debate was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. This book exposes the ambiguity of the concept of nation and contributes to a marked turn of national narratives. By contrast, the definition of nation as an essential being is greatly challenged with nation being reduced to a sheer derivative. In truth, the understandings of nation as either an imagined community or something original are both partially reasonable. One stresses the subjective, political character of nation states in the Western European tradition, whereas the other highlights the substantive cultural origins of the Central European nation states. These two types of nation states both emerged in the process of modernization within Europe. Back into Chinese context, when it comes to the debate over Chinese identity, Western scholars tend to adopt Anderson’s narrative mode, while Chinese scholars find Smith’s views more favorable. If we can claim that the former conjures up an image of ever-drifting snowflakes, the latter depicts something more like a snowball that grows increasingly big as it rolls over. This contradiction can be seen as an indication of the limits of the concept of nation when applied to China. The word nation derives from nation in Latin, which, among other things, refers to one’s place of birth, place of production, or tribe. In the second half of the 18th century, with the rise of republicanism and citizenship in Western Europe and North America, nation was endowed with the implications of a republic or a whole body of citizens. Before this concept was introduced into China, China had its own distinctive socio-cultural system, and the binary mode of nation or ethnicity was inadequate to interpret the complexity of Chinese society.

In this connection, the first part of this book focuses on the relationship between the Manchus and the Han Chinese during the Qing dynasty in three chapters. The first chapter discusses some basic principles of the social formation of Qing China, pointing out that although secret societies of late Qing period were organized on the basis of imagined blood ties, the blood ties that bound members together were not imagined in terms of literal blood, but instead as those of “bones and flesh.” The second chapter deals with symbolism, namely how the 19th day of the third lunar month of 1644, the day when the last Ming Emperor (Chongzhen) committed suicide, was associated with the “pain of losing the sovereign” and “the suffering of a fallen nation” and thus readdressed in the Qing as the birthday of the sun. On the surface, this story seemed to commemorate Chongzhen’s death, while behind the scene it was really a tale of forgetting. ←3 | 4→Although during the early 20th century, this story was revived by anti-Manchu revolutionary parties to construct a modern collective identity among Han people, in actuality, this form of commemoration and forgetting turned out to be an empty signifier with no fixed subject. The third chapter conducts an analysis of history textbooks composed during the last years of the Qing dynasty to show that the signifier known as the Yellow Emperor underwent a notable semantic change in modern period, as it was refigured and celebrated as a marker of public consciousness.

Focusing on the complexity of Chinese modernity from the perspective of social history, I do not intend to relocate the “modern age” of China to a new category. Instead, my purpose is to have a more accurate grasp of China’s reactions to the impact of the West in view of global history. That is why the three chapters of Part Two adopt a different perspective, examining issues of the transmission and reproduction of modern knowledge, particularly that of race and nation, on the ground of East-West relations. The fourth and the fifth chapters are critical reflections on several other hot topics. When discussing the concept of “race” as related to nation, scholars outside China tend to treat “race” as a permanent feature of Chinese history. Exploring and analyzing the process of the introduction of Blumenbach’s “Five-Race Theory” into China, Chapter 4 shows how this racist theory provoked fierce controversies in modern China under the influence of both Japan and the West. In contrast with their Japanese counterparts, who emphasized racial difference, Chinese intellectuals, tended to redirect this theory along the cultural line. Chapter 5 recounts how Lacouperie’s theory of the Western origin of Chinese civilization was transmitted from England to China via Japan. Unlike previous researches on the very topic, this chapter attempts to manifest the difference between Japan and China from the perspective of cross-cultural knowledge production, as it reveals that the rapid disappearance of such Western-origin theories from the writings of anti-Manchu intellectuals at the end of the Qing was due to its unstated implication of the foreign origin of the Han people. Therefore, we can claim that “Chinese modernity,” as a form of knowledge, was produced out of the combination of a forward-thinking viewpoint and a fantasy about the modern age. Xinjiang’s East Turkestan problem is another major concern of this book, as Chapter 6 discusses the case of the “theoretical father” of East Turkestan, Muḥammad Āmīn, and unravels the little-known fact that he pledged fealty to the Republic of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

In depicting a general picture of “Chinese modernity,” I find it all too easy to fall into the trap of an absolute East-West binary opposition. As a consequence, I have combined the methodology of social history with that of intellectual history ←4 | 5→in a bid to avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification. The four chapters in Part Three examine the Other that lurks behind Chinese modernity. Chapter 7 deals with what is regarded as the Other—Western Christianity—and how Christianity was merged with folk tradition and turned into a “Self.” Chapter 8 investigates the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago, at which the Chinese diplomat Peng Guangyu, the “first Confucian scholar visiting the West,” raised doubts about the concept of religion that derived from Christianity in terms of Confucian ideas. It also discusses the problems encountered by Christian missionaries in translating the concept of religion into Chinese. Chapter 9 analyzes two popular religions in China and Japan, namely the Red Swastika Society and the Ōmotokyō. In the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the two organizations adopted different strategies to undertake the task of social reliefs. Under the pressure of the imperial government, the Ōmotokyō sought to expand to the empire’s borderlands—that is, China—in search of new territories. The Red Swastika Society, by contrast, hoped to spread its ideals of salvation to the world at large. Chapter 10 discusses the complex dynamics of dominance and subservience that existed between the Red Swastika Society and the state of Manchukuo, to show how supra-nationalist discourse succumbed to the homogenizing nature of modern nation state.

The ten chapters of this book are grouped into three parts and each of them conducts an empirical research on a specific topic of Chinese modernity. I still recall the quiver of excitement I felt as a middle school student when I read Sima Qian’s statement, “I explore the relationship between the Way of Heaven and the Way of Man to acquire a thorough understanding of the changes from the past to the present.” After more than thirty years of work as a historian, I still dare not to “correct the Book of Changes or write a sequel to the Spring and Autumn Annals.” On the contrary, more than ever I feel that I should return to Herodotus’ “historia” to seek the ultimate purpose of this kind of research. In the words of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, “weak thinking” (pensiero debole) in the end constitutes a path to the liberation of ourselves from the entanglement of metaphysics.


XIV, 308
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XIV, 308 pp., 9. b/w ill., 7. tables.

Biographical notes

Jiang Sun (Author)

Jiang Sun (PhD, University of Tokyo) is Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at Nanjing University. His recent research interests include conceptual history of East Asia and historical memories. He is the author of The Revolution and Secret Societies in Modern China: A Social History of the Chinese Revolution 1895–1955 (2007), Religion, Society and Power in Modern China (2012), and Religion as the Other: Politics and Religions in Modern China (2018) as well as other works.


Title: Revisiting China’s Modernity
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324 pages