AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 127

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Session 127: Contesting Ethnicity in Imperial China

Organizer: David G. Atwill, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Chair: Uradyn E. Bulag, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Discussant: Uradyn E. Bulag, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

What is ethnicity in China’s imperial world? In the last two decades the field of Chinese history has seen a wealth of scholarship emerge on the non-Han peoples in imperial China. Yet, in spite of these studies there is now more than ever a lack of consensus as to the meanings and application of ethnicity as a concept/category for China studies in the pre-modern world. This lack of consensus on ethnicity is broadly centered on the continuing disagreement between people over imperial identities, Manchu identity in particular, and borderland non-Han identities more generally, which has made it problematic for a coherent approach on identity discourse to emerge. For others it is the fear of reading modern conceptions of ethnicity (and ethnonyms) back into the early modern period. For still others, the definitions of ethnicity (or rejection of the term) are based on narrow studies on a single group or region. This panel seeks to address these and other issues by confronting directly the applicability and utility of "ethnicity" for the study of imperial China as a first step to bringing the discussion of ethnicity into a more open forum.

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Ethnicity?
Mark C. Elliott, Harvard University, USA

The ethnic studies boom is one of the major developments in Western- and Japanese-language scholarship on Chinese history over the last couple of decades. This trend now seems to be sweeping the academy in the PRC as well, as suggested by an uptick in books and articles on ethnicity and by an emerging consensus in Chinese-language discourse on its translation by the neologism zuqun. Yet there remains wide disagreement as to what “ethnicity” means and whether historians are justified in using such a category of analysis for pre-20th century China. A continued failure to agree on terms, I would argue, hampers our work. This paper thus seeks to address some of the problems that persist in the application of ethnicity as a critical concept in Chinese historical studies. First, I will survey the uses and definitions of “ethnicity” in scholarship on two distinct periods, late imperial (i.e., Ming-Qing) and medieval (Wei/Jin/Nanbeichao-Sui-Tang), in order to isolate and explain the main points of difference between them. Second, I will compare the use of ethnicity in Chinese historical writing with its application in other historical fields to see what we can learn from the ways scholars have interpreted ethnicity in other contexts. While it is too much to expect that all debate over the heuristic utility of ethnic concepts can be settled in such a fashion, at a minimum I hope to advance the discussion by setting out in specific terms what it is we are talking about when we talk about ethnicity.

Strangers Inside the Gate: Who were the yi, Hui and Fan in Late Imperial China?
David G. Atwill, Pennsylvania State University, USA

In discussions of late imperial China’s ethnically diverse population it is common to begin (and all too often to conclude) such analyses with the Manchu-Mongol-Han triumvirate. Allusions to the Hui Muslim Chinese, Tibetans, and non-Han (yi) appear only fleetingly and often peripherally despite the Qing court’s nearly continuous preoccupation with them and the regions in which they resided. Problematically, the terms Hui, Fan and yi were applied to disparate peoples, customs, and regions. As a result, considerable dissent has emerged over which people they were meant to represent, if the terms carried a deliberately derogatory connotation and if we can take such terms to be ethnic in nature. This paper will examine and discuss the three ethno-categories in two ways: 1) it will examine their usage in memorials, the Qingshilu, and local gazetteers as administrative, legal, territorial and political categories in an effort to come to a more concise conclusion of their ethnic meanings and geographic limits; 2) it will use the writings of one official, Lin Zexu, who was appointed to southeast, southwest and northwest borderlands in order to offer some preliminary conclusions on how these terms might have been implemented in the late imperial period by one of Qing China’s top officials. In this manner a more Qing-centric perception of ethnic diversity and its implications on Qing statecraft can be outlined.

An Interpretation on Huaxia Ethnicity and the Huaxia Empire during the Han Dynasty
Mingke Wang, National Chung Hsing University, USA

This article explores the essence of Huaxia ethnicity and the Huaxia Empire during the Han Dynasty, and explains the relationship between the two. I begin with a discussion on ethnicity and stress its two basic elements—blood ties and common resources claimed by members of an ethnic group. Then I examine concepts of guojia, baixing in the Warring States period, and suggest that guojia at this time was not a mere political unity but also an entity constructed by people sharing territorial (guo) and consanguineous (jia) connections. During this period, the royal families of these states (guojia) began to identify themselves as Hua, Xia or Huaxia in order to distinguish themselves from the Jung and the Di, and to trace back their ancestors to a few legendary heroes, among whom the Yellow Emperor eventually became the first ancestor of almost all the Huaxia families. Paralleling this development was the political unification and establishment of the empires of the Huaxia, the Qin and the Han Dynasties. The Huaxia can thus be seen as a gradually forged ethnicity, and the Huaxia empires, the political embodiments of its mission. In this regard, the modern nation-state is nothing new. Nevertheless, the Huaxia ethnicity is not directly identifiable with the Han ethnicity, nor are the Huaxia empires directly comparable with the Chinese nation-state of today. In the final section I explain how they are different and how over time they evolved from one into the other.

The Sources and Acceptance of Modern Nation/nationality Concept in China around 1900
Rong Ma, Peking University, China

The term “minzu” (nation) only appeared in China around the end of the 19th century when European thoughts and political influences entered the Qing Empire. Nationalism was a social movement to reorganize political entities and aimed to establishing “nation states” with a new political orientation against feudalist hierarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries in Western Europe. When “world image” among Chinese had to be transformed from the traditional framework of “tianxia” (“the land under the sky” and China was the most civilized center of the world) to a new international order with European nations as dominating powers, Chinese started to consider how to transfer China from a “central empire” (Zhongguo) into a “nation-state”. Liang Qichao was a key scholar introducing “nation” (Minzu) into China at the beginning of the 19th century. But even before his publications, the term “minzu” has appeared in China. In recent years, several papers tried to trace which was the first publication using this term and its connection to Japanese literature. Some traced back to the 1880s. This paper will discuss this process of introduction of the “Minzu” and its connection to western term “nation”, as well as how Chinese interpreted this term at that time. This discussion will help us to understand when and how Chinese learned and accepted this modern concept, and the impact of this term on Chinese process of “nation-building”.