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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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7 Yangjiao or “the Other”: Christianity and Chinese Society in the Second Half of the 19th Century


In 1912, the founding of the Republic of China ended two millennia of continuous imperial rule. The French Sinologist Marcel Granet, who personally witnessed the tremendous changes of this period, later included the following note in one of his works:

In a model prison in Peking, which dated back to 1912, there is a meeting hall. Behind the preacher’s pulpit are placed five images representing Christ, Lao Tzu, Confucius, John Howard, and Mohammed. Too much importance should not be attached to this syncretism based upon the five religions. The fact that the Buddha is missing means nothing, nor the presence of John Howard either. (Granet 1951)

Granet thereby showed how pantheism and practical rationalism were special characteristics of the Chinese people’s beliefs and touched on the question of how different religions co-exist in China. However, looking back on the spread of Christianity in China during the second half of the 19th century, we can find that the process of its penetration in Chinese society did not go on smoothly. (Except when specifically addressing either Catholicism or Protestantism, this essay will ←205 | 206→refer to both as a term “Christianity.”) Between 1842 and 1911, there were a total of 1,998 disputes of all types, or “missionary cases,” regarding Christianity (Zhao 2001, p. 247). Among these cases were civil disputes, criminal cases, and quite a few cases of opposition to Christianity caused by customs or sentiments which were antagonistic towards religions. We have no way to know...

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