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Revisiting China’s Modernity

Ethnicity, Religion, and Nation

Jiang Sun

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.

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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...

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