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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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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)


During the seventeenth year of the Ming Emperor Chongzhen’s reign (1644), or the year of jiashen (the twenty-first year of the sixty-year cycle), “an earthshaking period in Chinese history” formally made its debut. On the eighteenth day of the third month of the lunar calendar, a strong military force led by Li Zicheng stormed into Beijing and besieged the Forbidden City, where the Emperor Chongzhen was living. On the nineteenth day, Emperor Chongzhen, desperate and helpless, committed suicide by hanging himself on the top of the Mei Mountain (a small hill). Within a month or so, the tragic news of Chongzhen’s death reached the Yangtze River region, making common people deeply aggrieved. On the third day of the fifth month, Zhu Yousong, the Prince of Fu, assumed the post of imperial regent [jianguo] in Nanjing. At the very moment, the city of Beijing changed its rulers once again with the Manchu emperor ascending to the throne in the Forbidden City. In the following twenty years of bloody conflicts, although the loyalists of the Ming successively established the Hongguang regime (1644–1645), the Longwu regime (1645–1646), and the Yongli regime (1646–1661) in south China, these regimes fell one after another into the hands of the Manchus, ←43 | 44→and the social ethos of “opposing the Qing and restoring the Ming” also gradually faded away.

A tree that has been struck by lightning bears scars on its growth rings even if a thousand years went by. What memory,...

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