Interview with Xu Zhuoyun (许倬云): WWII can be Blamed on Narrow Concepts of Nationalism


Original Chinese Language Text By: Xin Hua Newsagency

(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)

Translator’s Note: Prof. Xu Zhuoyun (许倬云) was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu province in 1930, but as his father had worked for the National Government, they left Mainland China for Taiwan in 1949. Prior to this, Xu Zhuoyun had received a very good education in Wuxi. Interestingly, Xu Zhuoyun has spoken in the past about the Nationalist ‘invasion’ of Taiwan and the hardship this caused the indigenous people living there, but he stops short of openly criticising the destructive ‘nationalism’ of Chiang Kai-Shek (although it might be argued that he implicitly condemns it through his rejection of nationalism as a guiding ideology for a society). Having continued his education in Taiwan, Xu Zhuoyun is now an established academic with a world-wide reputation, lecturing in the US, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as in Mainland China. The following interview was given to the Mainland Chinese Xinhua Newsagency in 2016, and very much deconstructs any notions of Chinese nationalism premised upon the mythology of race or ethnicity. ACW 26.5.2018

[Abstract] When a group becomes stronger, the people of other ethnicities will for a time, gravitate toward that identity, and even change their names. The Mongol Empire is a case in point: When this group reached its zenith of integrative power, it subsumed all other ethnic groups into itself. Once merged, all these previously ‘different’ ethnic groups become known as ‘Mongolian’ for a time – but when this empire fell apart, indigenous identities re-emerged and the Mongolians found themselves absorbed into local populations they once dominated.

[Editor’s Note]  In recent years, the terms of Chinese identity ‘huaxia’ (华夏) and ‘zhongguo’ (中国) have become the focus of discussion in academic circles, and works upon this subject have attracted much attention. Where do these abstract concepts of ‘huaxia’ and ‘zhongguo’ exist, and what is their relationship to nationalism? The historian Xu Zhuoyun discusses these issues in his new book entitled ‘Discussions on China: A Changing and Complex Community’. The Xinhua Newsagency interviewed Mr Xu Zhuoyun  (with particular thanks to Mr Chen Hang [陈航] for his assistance). This article is slightly revised on the basis of the oral draft, which has been approved by Mr Xu Zhuoyun.

Peng Pai (澎湃) Journalist: Mr Ge Zhaoguang (葛兆光) interprets your book as discussing the plurality of China’s ethnic identity, within the context of its long and complex history. Your assessment has ‘networked’ and ‘integrated’ the many trajectories that comprise Chinese history (including the examination of ancient ‘classical’ texts, and other discussions regarding China). From the close examination of texts that cover highly localised events, to the assessment of broad historical and far-reaching narratives, what has been your most difficult experiences interpreting this complicated and extensive body of material?

Xu Zhuoyun: I think the biggest difficulties involve the qualitative and quantitative aspects. As regards the concept of ‘qualitative’, I can find four main factors, ethnicity, economy, society, and geography (that is, pertaining to the country). It is difficult to quantify these four factors, and it is always more difficult to determine which factors play the largest role. Quantification is extremely difficult to do. This can only be handled intuitively. Without quantification, it is difficult to identify the timing of interaction between factors.

Prof. Ian Morris of Stanford University in the United States, in order to discuss the process of decline in various countries (mainly the West), believes that his accuracy of quantitative measurement has been accurate. However, precise quantification cannot be achieved when raw materials are inaccurate. So he thought he could do it very accurately, but errors can occur when data is lacking, incomplete or inaccurate. Therefore, we should be very careful at making sweeping assumptions.

Of these four factors, economic factors play a great role because of the interdependence of material exchanges. In social terms, there are cohesive factors and decentralized factors. Geography is fixed, geography is the stage, and the stage itself has its own characteristics. The East Asian stage can be said to be isolated from other regions, not at a crossroads. This is an advantage; China’s Northern and Southern regions have no insurmountable dangers and are also good areas for development. The concept of the State is related to geography because the country has territory. However, the concept of nationality often changes as notions of identity expand (and contract), and new components are absorbed into the definition. Therefore, the interaction between these four factors is still based on an ‘idea’ and can only be judged by one’s own feelings. There is no true way to represent the statistics in a fully objective manner.

Peng Pai Journalist: You are of the opinion that the identifier ‘huaxia’ undergoes a narrowing during the latter Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty, defining Han Chinese ethnicity in exclusionary terms. After the Song Dynasty there followed the Yuan Dynasty (of the Mongols). You interpret the ‘foreign’ Yuan and Manchu Dynasties as being ‘pluralistic’ in nature. As this was the case, it was impossible for people in China not to become influenced by this dual existence – which is exemplified by the Qing Dynasty. How did this influence the thinking and everyday lives of Han Chinese people?

Xu Zhuoyun: The Northern grassland, of course, is a vast and inhospitable region, starting from today’s Xingan Mountain range in the Northeastern part of China, and extending to the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea in the West. There are deserts around the hills forming a natural barrier. This desert is not thousands of miles of level or fine sand —as many are full of rock; and there are also valleys and grasslands. The altitude of this area is too high to be suitable for agriculture, so the human culture that developed in these conditions was nomadic.

The nomadic communities communicated with one another, whilst coming and going, as they must continue to migrate. On the whole, this large grassland area has produced a cultural continuity. From the Xiongnu to Xianbei, Turkic, Khitan, Jurchen, Mongolian, and Manchu, these hegemonies have been greatly automonous whilst appearing continuous.  The problem has been that there was no way to create a bigger (all-inclusive) culture rooted in such a large geographical area. The nomadic production method is animal husbandry and cultivation. This is dynamic and cannot be determined. Therefore, it lacks a stable cultural foundation for its continuation. Under these conditions, the concept of a permanent and greater identity has no way of forming as a common language and culture (as everything is premised upon rapid change and movement). Although it is true that language problems can be relatively easy to solve, the issues of reconciling cultural differences often prove much more difficult.

Moreover, when a group becomes stronger, people of other ethnic groups will unite with it, and eventually change that group’s identity. The Mongol Empire is a case in point. When the Mongolian group was strong, it merged with other ethnic groups. Once merged, the other ethnic groups all become known as Mongolian. However, this kind of hegemony cannot be sustained and it cannot be used to expand and invade the outside world, so as to acquire agricultural land to grow food. Its expansion has a fixed cycle. When the weather is good, the cattle and sheep are plentiful, the children are many and healthy the population is thriving, and the food is adequate. Then this grouping heads Southward and fights costly battles, and the weather becomes bad. Casualties mount, disease sets-in, infant mortality increases, and food supplies diminish. Groups breakaway and resume old habits (and identities) and the hegemonic cycle is in reverse. This is why this type of nomadic existence was always trapped in a contraction-expansion state – with no way to fix it. Strong regional groups would become fragmented and find themselves swallowed-up by the smaller ethnic groups they once dominated.

The most notorious was the great empire of Mongolia, which later fell apart. Their ethnic armed forces – which were stationed everywhere – were assimilated by the culture of local residents: assimilated by the Han in China, assimilated by Indians in India, assimilated by Islam in the Middle East, and Orthodox Christianity in Russia. Therefore, although Mongolian nomadic culture spread and was dominant for a time, such an expansion was impossible to maintain. This is exactly the situation the people of the Qing Dynasty did not think through. They felt that there was also continuity in the North. The Qing could expand their influence, but they could not consolidate their gains. Eventually, although the Han Chinese were subjugated for centuries by the Qing, it was the Qing that ended-up assimilated into Han Chinese culture. For the Qing, there was expansion, there was political power (and cultural domination for a time), but there was no strength in-depth.

Peng Pai Journalist: In your study you prefer the term ‘huaxia’ (i.e. ‘Chinese culture’), over ‘hanhua’ (汉化) (i.e. ‘Chinese identity’). Why do you do make this distinction?

Xu Zhuoyun: I prefer the term ‘huaxia’ because I dislike the association between ‘hanhua’ and the concept of ‘Hanization’.  As any longlasting cultural system must have a core cultural concept, it is difficult in practise to clearly distinguish between these two concepts.  This core culture of the ‘Han’ is defined by the integration of Confucian and Daoist thought, as well as Buddhist philosophy at a later date. In history, there are also core areas. From an economic point of view, each era has its core areas. The general trend is from the South of the Yellow River Basin, to the downstream and middle reaches of the Yangtze River Valley. This is the area of highest productivity and constitutes a strong core. Due to this core, we have the concept of a ‘headquarters’. The ‘headquarters’ is not just a base camp. It is the most economically powerful, the most concentrated in population, and therefore of the highest motive force. Its energy cannot be ignored.

What must be made clear is that concepts such as ‘hanhua’ and ‘hanren’ (汉人) are nothing but normalised fabrications. At the very least, the ‘Han’ was the name of a dynasty and not a nation. Although the Han Dynasty covered a geographical area larger than that controlled by the Qin Dynasty, the system of political and cultural organisation was virtually the same. This being the case, why not refer to this cultural grouping as ‘qinhua’ (秦化”)? After-all, even foreigners refer to our country as ‘China’ because of its association with the Qin Dynasty. My point is that identity is fluid, and as well as ‘Qin’, and ‘Han’ are country can even be referred to as ‘tanghua’ (唐化), with each designator having no more or less validity than any other. These are names of historical eras within Chinese history and should not be used to refer to the totality of Chinese history (which is illogical). It is like I can use my grandfather’s surname, but I cannot use his first name!

A cultural system has a tendency toward change. The ‘Han’ group today, definitely includes Mongols and Manchu people. Shortly after entering China proper, the Manchu people gradually assimilated into the culture of the Han Dynasty; after the establishment of the Republic of China, the Manchus accelerated their assimilation and now there are few. Mongolians in China are also heavily assimilated. Other distinct groups include ethnic minorities from everywhere in the Southwest, including those found in history; the area occupied by the Baiyue is very large. From today’s Xuzhou to Hainan Island to Vietnam, the ethnic content is very complicated. In the Southwest and Central parts of the Mainland, there are so-called ‘manren’ (蛮人) or ‘miaoren’ (苗人) found in history, along with many other names. In fact, these two ethnic groups now exist as part of the Chinese ‘Tu’ (土) and ‘Zhuang’ (壮) family lineages, which preserve many of their cultural traits. Classified through anthropology as distinct in the past, and yet assimilated today. With regards the Tu people, they are now associated with Nanjing – which is viewed as the place of their ancestry – but this only dates to the Ming Dynasty, where garrisoned troops stationed by the dynasty were adopted as ‘Chinese’ ancesters by the Tu.

This is why the term ‘Han’ cannot and does not refer to a single group of people, but is culturally diverse despite adhering to a single written (and spoken) language. Primarily the term ‘Han’ refers to the largest group of people in the core region. This is specifically the ‘guanhua’ (官话), or ‘Manderin’ language area, along with the ‘wuyu’ (吴语), or ‘Wu’ language area of the Southeast. In addition there is the ‘minyue’ (闽粤), or ‘Fujian and Guangdong’ areas, where populations were most concentrated. A continued cultural identity was forged through the use of the Chinese writing system.

Peng Pai Journalist: in the light of the contemporary ‘huaxia-zhongguo’ study context, how do you think this compares with Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山) and his notion of ‘The Chinese Nation is One’?

Xu Zhuoyun: How do I view Sun Yat-Sen’s concept of the Chinese nation? My understanding is that the concept of Mr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Chinese nation was in flux. By 1911, Sun Yat-sen had always insisted on ‘Expelling the Manchus’. After 1911, he discovered that the country’s population must include Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Hui, and Tibetan. He then changed the name of the country to the ‘Republic of the Five Nationalities’.  On this point, some people couldn’t turn a corner, like Zhang Binglin (章炳麟) who could not accept this, and kept extolling the virtues of the ‘Yellow Emperor’ and his ‘Han’ Chinese descendents. The Yellow Emperor is a myth passed on within Chinese culture, rather like the equivalent myth in the West of Adam and Eve. Just as it is scientifically impossible for Adam and Eve to have given birth to all the different peoples of the world, just so, the Yellow Emperor could not have produced the peoples of China or of Asia. Sun Yat-Sen produced progressive thoughts applicable to his time of existence. These ideas are not set in stone and will continue to develop as time goes on. In the future the progressive ideas we use today, will be improved upon by the next generations.

Peng Pai Journalist:  Since the early days of China, especially in the late Qing Dynasty, nationalism has become the slogan and driving force of the revolution. Through the study of ‘huaxia-zhongguo’, do you think it is still necessary to advocate nationalism?

Xu Zhuoyun: I certainly do not advocate narrow-minded nationalism in either theory or practice. This concept is historically the source of conflict. The more you expel others from your circle, the more enemies you will make. The more you define yourself as ‘special’, the more you are hated by those not included within your definition, and the more you hate those who are not ‘special’ like you.

Take the ‘imperial’ Japanese. They kept saying that the Japanese people were deified and stressed that they were the purest and strongest race on the planet!. In fact, the Japanese Nationality itself is a mixed species, a very mixed hybrid: the indigenous people of Ainu and the people of Mainland China migrated from the northeast of East Asia at different times. Most of them are from the Ural language area; there are also people from the south. The people of the South Islands passing through the sea lanes are the people of the Nanyang nationality; the Chinese people who have passed through Wu, Yue, and Shandong of China, have then migrated into Kyushu. From the Qin to the end of the Han Dynasty, millions of Chinese people migrated to Kyushu: this is the source of Xu Fu’s myth. During this period, Japan’s Yayoi culture was developed out of the Neolithic and into Iron Age…

I don’t want to make too much in Japan. Japan is a very strange example, emphasizing pure nationalism, but at the same time it has never forgotten its expansion. It wants to put itself above the weak who are defeated by it. This is inadequacy. We cannot do this. China must not do this. Therefore, I do not advocate narrow nationalism or the pursuit of narrow nationalism.

The Second World War was a scourge of three nationalisms: the Aryan nationalism in Germany, the dream of Roman renaissance in Italy, and Japan’s grand and nationalism, all fuelled by dreams to conquer and rule throughout Asia, and even to rule the world. ‘A single lineage to rule the world’ is to be the master of the world. The ambitions of these three peoples, I think, are based on feelings of inferiority and arrogance. The Chinese people should not be like this.

Original Chinese Language Source Article:

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