The Formation of the Chinese Nation

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 00:15
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    What is the Chinese nation? This would not seem like a question worth discussing to many people and others would view it as a very simple question, answering that it is a general term referring to all the ethnic groups living in China.

    But this begs another question: What about the many countries that have different ethnic groups residing there that do not think of themselves as part of one nation even though they are citizens of that country. Centuries ago, the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire ruled over vast territories that contained many ethnic groups, but these empires ultimately collapsed and the people that lived in those empires did not consider that they belonged to a “Roman nation” or “Ottoman nation.” In modern history, it was often said of the United Kingdom of Great Britain that “the sun never sets on the Union Jack” because the UK included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. People living outside of England, Wales and Scotland, however, do not think of themselves as part of the British nation. The Soviet Union once included the Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and other republics, but there was never a “Soviet nation.”  

    This shows the Chinese nation, which is accepted by all ethnic groups in China, is not merely a nation with many ethnic groups or simply someone’s concoction. It was formed on a profound objective foundation through a process that took thousands of years. 

    The Subjective and Objective Conditions for the Formation of the Chinese Nation

    The Chinese nation consists of 56 nationalities that have merged into an organic unity or stable commonwealth, a “whole with many elements.”  This is a view that is universally held by Chinese scholars. This is a phenomenon that is very rare, if not unique, in the world.

    This formation of this unity of many ethnic groups is due to both objective and subjective conditions.

    Let us look first at the objective conditions.

    Looking at the map of China, we can see that China is virtually sealed off from the rest of the world by its geographical features, with deserts and the Gobi to the north, the Pamirs, the Himalayas and the Hengduan Mountains to the west and south and the ocean to the east. In between these boundaries is a vast territory. The Qinghai-Tibet plateau in the Qinghai region is the source for three great rivers. Two major rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, originate in Qinghai and flow cross the mainland of China in an eastward direction, eventually rushing into the sea. The Yarlung Zangbo River flows through the southern part of Tibet. The Yangtze and the Yellow River also have countless branches. These rivers and their tributaries form a close-knit network of waterways.

    Water nourishes living things and allows agriculture to flourish. Villages, towns and cities rise on the banks of rivers, which also served as the most convenient lines of transportation and communications in ancient times. This network of crisscrossing waterways has enabled China to survive and prosper within its borders and the internal waterway network makes it convenient for people from different regions within the territory to engage in economic and cultural exchange and mix together.

    There are a number of differences between China and the other three great ancient civilizations of the world. Egypt is fed by the Nile alone, which has no major branches, with deserts on both sides. Babylon had two rivers, but its territory was limited to a relatively small space, the two rivers are not nearly as large as the Yangtze or the Yellow River and there were no major natural barriers to deter invading forces. India has the Ganges and the Indus River that mainly run through the northern part of the country. None of these countries had the favorable natural conditions for development that China has. 

    Waterfowl in the Three-river Protection Zone. The Natural Preservation Protection Zone of Three-river Sources is located in southern Qinghai Province in the central part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and covers a total area of 316,000km2. Because the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow River and Lancang River are located in the zone and there are rivers and a large concentration of marshy areas, it has been called “China’s water tower.” The Yangtze and Yellow River are known as the “mother rivers” of the Chinese nation. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Jiang Enyu

    Next let’s consider the subjective factors.

    There used to be national oppression and conflicts and strife among different ethnic groups in China, but traditional Chinese culture has always stressed the interests of the whole, comprehensiveness and harmony while respecting diversity. Chinese culture advocates “great harmony in the world,” “peace for all nations” and “harmony in diversity.” These concepts have left a deep impression in the minds of the Chinese people.

    Economic and cultural exchange among the ethnic groups in China has been going on not for just years, decades or centuries, but for millennia without interruption. This long period of intercourse among ethnic groups gradually led to a blurring of the line between ethnic groups until it was hard to distinguish one from another. The passes in the Great Wall served not just as battlefields, but also as passes that allowed trade in tea and horses. The dynasties of the Central Kingdom often adopted a policy of heqin—peace and kinship—by marrying off princesses of the Han ethnic group such as Wang Zhaojun and Wencheng to chieftains of nomadic ethnic groups not just to forge ties through marriage, but also to allow important economic and cultural exchange.

    This characteristic of the relations among ethnic groups in China can be clearly illustrated by this example. The Qing dynasty government was ruled by a small number of aristocrats from the Manchu ethnic minority that oppressed the other ethnic groups, including the majority Han. During the 200 years since the Manchu broke through the Great Wall, however, the economy and culture, even the customs and habits, of the Manchu gradually changed until they were little different from those of the Han majority. The most rousing cry heard in the runup to the Revolution of 1911 was “oppose the Manchu.” After the start of the revolution, however, there were only a small number of Manchu casualties in a very few localities, nothing like the “ethnic cleansing” that has occurred in a number of other countries in recent times and certainly nothing like genocide. In contrast, the most prominent call soon became “building a republic of the five ethnic groups [Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Hui and Tibetan].” This did not happen simply by chance. One of the factors behind this was China’s historical traditions.

    The following comparison will further demonstrate this point. The regimes of the Roman Empire and the United Kingdom were all formed through military conquest and they were all ruled by force, rather than long-term economic and cultural exchange ultimately leading to a natural merger. It proved impossible to maintain a stable commonwealth in an empire formed by military conquest and ruled by force, and even less possible to form a national identity. The general term of the “Chinese nation” represents all the people of the various ethnic groups in China and even overseas Chinese who identify themselves with the Chinese nation thanks to the very factors discussed above.

    A Millennia-long Historical Evolution 

    The Chinese nation was formed over a long historical period. This course may roughly be divided into two phases: the earlier phase of gradual evolution that took thousands of years and the later phase in modern history, a gradual process of identification by the Chinese people of all ethnic groups with the Chinese nation during their common struggle against foreign aggressors.

    In fact, the reason why the Han nationality, the majority nationality in the Chinese nation, has been able to continuously grow to become the largest nationality in the world today is because many people from other ethnic groups or tribes in China have merged with the Han nationality in the course of economic and cultural exchange over the centuries.

    Let us start with the pre-Qin history of China and look back to the three dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou. Archaeological excavations have shown that the rule of those three dynasties was probably not a continuous rule by one ethnic group, but by three different ethnic groups or tribes taking turns ruling in the inland area of China which accordingly merged with one another. It is believed that the Xia ruled over the central-western part of today’s Henan and the southwestern part of today’s Shanxi, represented archeologically by the Erlitou Culture. It was originally believed that the Shang emerged in Qingzhou, Jizhou or Youzhou (roughly present-day Shandong, Hebei or Northeast China) but archaeological findings have shown that the Shang emerged in what is now central Hebei and spread to present-day Henan to replace the Xia, with the Shang culture showing clear signs of carrying on and further developing that of the Xia. The culture of the Zhou was even more obvious. Before the Shang fell, the region of Fufeng and Qishan in Shaanxi where the Zhou first emerged showed obvious signs of Shang culture influence. The Western Zhou capital was not moved to the region of Feng and Hao in Shaanxi until after the conquest of the Shang dynasty by the Zhou. The three successive dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou gradually became known collectively as the “Huaxia.”

    The relatively continuous records since the Eastern Zhou show that the Han nationality was the result of a merger of many ethnic groups with different blood relationships. This great ethnic merger took place twice, each on a very large scale and spanning several hundred years. The first took place during the Spring and Autumn Period and the second during the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties. After the first large-scale merger, the unification achieved by the Qin dynasty was followed by the emergence of the great empire of the Han, and after the second large-scale merger, the reunification carried out by the Sui dynasty was followed by the emergence of the great empire of the Tang (618-907). The two prosperous reigns of Han Wendi and Han Jingdi at the height of the Han dynasty and the reign of Zhenguan at the height of the Tang dynasty were all the result of a great deal of ethnic intermixing. For this reason, overseas ethnic Chinese communities (called “Chinatown” in English) are known in Chinese as “tangren jie” or “Street of the Tang People” and the majority ethnic group in China is known as the Han.

    Why did the first great ethnic merger begin in the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods? During the three dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou, the people inhabiting the main part of the central plains were known as the “Huaxia,” also known as the “zhuxia,” meaning the numerous Xia. The term “Han” had not yet emerged. The tribes around the central plains were known generally as the “Yi of the east,” “Man of the south,” “Rong of the west” and “Di of the north” (of course, these are very vague terms). The states of Qi and Lu at the time ruled over a region inhabited by the “Yi of the east,” represented by the Neolithic Dawenkou Culture, which was on a par with the Yangshao Culture on the central plains in the similar period of time. Qi was the earliest to emerge of the five most powerful states during the Spring and Autumn Period. Almost all the people living in the states of Chu, Wu and Yue (roughly present-day Hubei, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces) were known as the “Man (barbarians) of the south” and the state of Chu, which occupied the largest area among the seven most powerful states during the Warring States period, was also known as “Jingchu.” When the Qin dynasty rose to power, it included quite a few western tribes and gradually became the most powerful state, eventually reunifying all of China. The “Di of the north” occupied quite a large area, mainly in the north and not all the people in that area were assimilated. Some of them entered the northern part of the central plains, for example, the State of Zhongshan, was set up by the “Northern Di.” When the State of Zhao annexed Zhongshan, the Di in the area merged with the tribes of the central plains. Historical records say of Wuling, the king of Zhao, that he “liked the clothing styles of the Di as well as riding horses and archery,” shows that he adopted some of the culture of the Northern Di. Without this great merger of ethnic groups across the country, the thriving Han dynasty that followed and the formation of the Han nationality would not have been possible.

    Many people are familiar with the extensive merging of ethnic groups that took place during the Wei, Jin and the Southern and Northern dynasties in China. The five largest minority ethnic groups in the north known as the hu were a portion of the Xiongnu, and the Xianbei, the Jie, the Di, and the Qiang. Research has shown that Li Yuan and Li Shimin, the founding emperors of the Tang dynasty, were not of the Han nationality, but of one of the five northern minority ethnic groups. The profound influence of the culture of the western part of China on the central plains is well known. The huqin (a two-string violin-like instrument), the hujiao (called pepper in English) and the hujia (a musical instrument of the minority ethnic groups occupying the western part of China) have remained popular today and have become part of traditional Chinese culture. Without that extensive merging of ethnic groups that took place prior to the Tang dynasty, the Tang dynasty would not have become so powerful and prosperous, and the term “Tangren” would not be popular to this day overseas. 

    This author was amazed when viewing a chart of the genes of the Chinese people in Yunnan University. It showed that the genes of the Han people in northern China are much closer to those of the ethnic minorities there than they are to the Han people in southern China. Similarly, the genes of the Han people in southern China are much closer to those of local ethnic minorities there than they are to the Han people in northern China. This shows not only that the Han nationality is a result of the intermixing of many different ethnic groups, but also that during the long period of close contact between the Han nationality and other ethnic groups the difference between ethnic groups shrank and ties of blood played a limited role in distinguishing one ethnic group from another.

    The rulers of the Yuan and Qing dynasties that followed the Han and Tang were from minority nationalities in China. The rulers of the Yuan dynasty adopted a domestic policy toward other ethnic groups of severe discrimination and oppression, thus ignoring the importance of harmony among ethnic groups. As a result, the Yuan dynasty survived less than a hundred years, but it did make an important contribution by incorporating Tibet into the territory of China.

    The Qing dynasty made an outstanding contribution in the history of the Chinese nation. It was the Qing that finally defined the Chinese territory. When we talk about the loss of Chinese territory to foreign invaders during the period of the Qing Dynasty, it is not in comparison with the territory of China during the Han and Tang or the Yuan and Ming dynasties, but a comparison between the early and late Qing periods.

    The highest officials of the Qing dynasty were all Manchus. Although the Manchus of the Qing dynasty enjoyed special privileges and ruthlessly suppressed some minority nationalities, generally speaking, the Qing rulers attached great importance to maintaining unity among all ethnic groups. It is well known that the emperors Kangxi and Qianlong greatly respected the Han culture. The rulers of many dynasties in Chinese history built or reinforced the Great Wall to ward off invasions from northern ethnic groups, even including the rulers of the Jin who were also of a minority nationality. Emperor Kangxi, on the other hand, rejected the idea of reinforcing the Great Wall. Instead he had his summer resort built at Chengde, north of the Great Wall. Emperor Kangxi in his old age and Emperor Qianlong stayed at Chengde five months every year. They also invited aristocrats of other nationalities to hunt there, not only to demonstrate the power of the country, but also as a gesture of goodwill toward the other ethnic groups. The fifth Dalai Lama was granted an interview by Emperor Shunzhi. Panchen Erdeni once spent a short vacation in Chengde as well. It was Emperor Qianlong who decided that lots should be drawn from a golden vase to elect a new Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama and stationed a high-ranking Qing official in Lhasa.

    The tremendous contribution made by our ancestors toward this unified, multi-ethnic country can be seen in a number of aspects. After the Western powers carried out their “great geographical discovery,” they began establishing colonies around the world. In Africa, the Americas and India they first established a foothold in a coastal port. Then, taking advantage of the fact there was no strong central authority holding together the many small states, they conquered them one by one, gradually forming their own colony. The Western colonial powers also came to China. Portugal, for instance, came to Macao and Spain came to Keelung and Danshui in Taiwan. The Dutch occupied Taiwan for 38 years and the British early on attempted to occupy the coastal region of China. China, however, was not just a group of small, isolated states, but a large, united country, making it hard for their same old tricks to work. China was not divided up and transformed into the colony of a foreign power. We all owe a debt of gratitude to our ancestors for leaving us this most valuable heritage. 

    Formation of Awareness of China as a Nation

    The Chinese nation only became aware of being a commonwealth in modern history, especially after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, in which the Japanese imperialists invaded China. 

    The frenzied aggression against China by Western powers aroused the indignation and fierce resistance of the people of all the nationalities in China. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Sun Yat-sen began using the slogan of “Reviving China,” in the charter of the Revive China Society he set up. The slogan motivated many Chinese young people to go into action. When China lost the war in 1895, Yan Fu published an article entitled “On National Salvation,” a theme that reverberated loudly among the Chinese people right up to the start of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. It was examples of common fate such as this that bound all the nationalities in China together.

    The term, “the Chinese nation” first appeared in an article titled, “General Development Trends of Academic Ideology in China,” published in the journal Xin Min Cong Bao in 1902. Liang Qichao, the author, wrote, “In the ancient history of China, the only people in the Chinese nation to know about the sea were the Qi.” Later, in his article, “Observations Concerning the Chinese Nation in History” published early in 1905, the term “Chinese nation” appeared seven times. Yang Du in his article, “Economic and Military Affairs” published in May 1907, made a more systematic exploration of the factors behind the term, “Chinese nation.”

    The term, “Chinese nation,” came into wide use after the founding of the Republic following the Revolution of 1911. Sun Yat-sen in his “Declaration” on assuming the office of Provisional President of the Republic of China wrote, “The state is based on the people, including the Hans, Manchus, Mongolians, Huis and Tibetans, who make up this country. In other words, they form a single people composed of the ethnic groups of the Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Hui and Tibetan, or a unified nation.” The slogan of “A Republic of Five Nationalities” spread far and wide across the country. In March of that year, Huang Xing and his comrades formed the Association of National Unity of the Republic of China, which was later changed into “The Association of National Unity of China.”

    Following the founding of the Republic, Japan stepped up its aggression against China. It forced the “21-Article Agreement” on China, seized the privileges in Shandong, China that were originally held by Germany, committed the Jinan atrocity and many other crimes against China. After the September 18th Incident in 1931, Japan occupied Northeast China by force. The Japanese imperialists dealt with China as a whole, without discriminating the Hans from the Manchus, Mongolians, Koreans, Daurs, Ewenkis, or Hezens, or any other ethnic groups in China. The people of all nationalities in Northeast China faced the same fate and were aware that no single nationality could single handedly resist the Japanese invasion. There was a very popular song of national salvation that contained these lines: “Don’t say yours or ours, don’t say who is rich and who is poor. We are all the same when the enemy invades with guns.” The Japanese invaders, through their negative influence, tremendously intensified the identification of the people of all ethnic groups in China with the Chinese nation. 

    The Japanese aggressors staged the “Autonomous Campaign of the Five North China Provinces” in 1935 in an attempt to partition North China from the Chinese territory. That set off the fervent “December 9th” patriotic national salvation movement in 1935. The song, “March of the Volunteers,” which was born in the same year, called on the Chinese people to “Arise, the Chinese nation is facing its most dangerous moment!” The song quickly spread across the country and soon became popular among Chinese people around the world as it expressed the common concern of all Chinese people. The outbreak of the War of Resistance across the country further strengthened the cohesion and identification of the Chinese nation from which no Chinese could be excluded. A glimpse at Chinese history shows that the Chinese nation has always been recognized by all Chinese people at home and overseas as a lasting commonwealth, the existence of which cannot be affected by the will of any one individual. The Chinese nation is not based only on geographical and cultural factors, but on historical memories, practical interests and a future shared by all that bind all of the people together in a close unity. This unity has been formed over the course of thousands of years and will last for a long, long time. No one will be able to wipe it out by force.

(From Red Flag Manuscript No.2, 2009)

Note: Author: Former standing deputy director of the Party Literature Research Center of the CPC Central Committee and former Chairman of the China Society of History Studies

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