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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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3 Continuity and Discontinuity: Narratives of the Yellow Emperor in Early-20th-Century History Textbooks


In all narratives of the origins of Chinese civilization, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), whether seen as a divine cultural hero or a human ruler, serves as the starting point of an imperial genealogy that spans over 2,000 years. This significant role of the Yellow Emperor has not been substantially changed throughout Chinese history, yet at the beginning of the 20th century, the Yellow Emperor’s image experienced repeated reinterpretations by various politicians and scholars. Politically speaking, the Yellow Emperor was depicted as the founder of a modern nation rather than the ancestor of certain tribes or the Han people alone. In the minds of such scholars as Gu Jiegang, the Yellow Emperor was a fictional figure looming in an obscure prehistory. One might further argue that under the influence of modern nationalism, the Yellow Emperor no longer belongs to history per se, but is continuously reviewed according to the demands of times and thus living in the “contemporary” moments. In this sense, he imposes profound influence on the concepts and assumptions of Chinese history in all periods. In early 1936, Gu Jiegang wrote the following words in his “Sanhuangkao·Zixu” 三皇考•自序 (Textual Research on the Three Sovereigns: The Author’s Preface, co-authored by Gu and his student Yang Xiangkui) as follows:

In talking about China’s systematization of ancient history, many refer to the Three Sovereigns and Five Thearchs, who were followed by the Three Kings and Five Hegemons. In fact, this way of understanding ancient history has been adopted over...

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