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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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1 Imagined Blood Ties: The Creation of a Community of Memory through Sworn Brotherhood


When we describe what Chinese society is, people cannot avoid the issue of family or clan. The term “clan” generally refers to a group of people who have a common ancestor and are bound by patrilineal blood relationship. As an analytical concept, “clan” can be widely applied, when describing Chinese society, but when it is used as a substantive concept, its limitations become obvious: people discover that the idea of “clan” does not work for the whole Chinese society, and clans must be frequently imagined and reconstructed by virtue of “simulated blood ties” or behaviors intended for a shared ancestry. Taking a closer look at “clan,” one may realize another important issue almost completely neglected by those who are concerned that the word “blood” found in such expressions as “blood relationship” and “simulated blood ties” is imbued with special cultural connotations and proves to be something formulated afterwards. This is because in traditional Chinese society, people did not use “blood,” but employ “flesh and bones” to imagine and explain the kinship; later, the widespread use of “blood” as a concept probably reflects the influence of European Christian culture. Such being the case, how did Chinese people of ancient times visualize “blood”? Which place in the social structure did the idea of “blood” have? In this chapter, I attempt to approach this subject by describing the Chinese practice of smearing blood on the mouth to keep an oath ←9 | 10→of loyalty and then, through a study of the phenomenon of...

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