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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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4 Migration, Cultural Encounter, and the Nation: The East Asian Receptions of Sino-Babylonianism

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In 1894, the French-British scholar Terrien de Lacouperie wrote in Western Origin of Early Chinese Civilization as follows:

Nakhunte (modern pronunciation: Nai Hwangti), the leader of the Bak tribe who reached China first, as he led his people across the Chinese Turkestan along the Kashgar or Tarym river towards Kuenlun, “the Flowery land,” a name indicating fertility and cherished by future China. We learn this lesson from a comparison of the Chinese traditions related to Nakhute’s migration and an identification of the aforementioned geographical features and names. (Lacouperie 1894, p. 4)

According to Lacouperie, Nakhunte (also known as Nai Hwang-ti) was an alias of the Yellow Emperor, and baixing (百姓) was a phonetic variation of “Bak,” the tribe’s name. In this sense, the Yellow Emperor, who was widely considered as the founder of Chinese civilization and the starting point of the imperial genealogy, was actually a Babylonian, and the Han Chinese are also Babylonians in nature. These two “discoveries” of Lacouperie constituted what we now call Sino-Babylonianism.

Although many attempts had been made in Europe to prove the western origin of Chinese civilization, sinologists in the main did not accept Lacouperie’s view. But the dismissal of Lacouperie’s argument in Europe did not stop it from gaining widespread support from China and Japan. In 1900, Shirakawa Jirō and Kokubu Tanenori summarized Lacouperie’s Sino-Babylonianism in their book History of Chinese Civilization. This book was a popular work published in Meiji Japan and did not represent the viewpoints...

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