+ All documents
Home > Documents > Thoughts on Four Subversive Words

Thoughts on Four Subversive Words

Date post: 10-Apr-2023
Upload: independent
View: 0 times
Download: 0 times
Share this document with a friend
“Thoughts on Four Subversive Words”, The Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 2, April 2012, pp. 192-202 Thoughts on Four Subversive Words Wang Gungwu National University of Singapore My interest in anthropological studies in China began with the relationships between Han Chinese and China’s various minorities, especially in Yunnan. But it was only recently that I noted the attention being paid by anthropologists in China to larger questions of ‘empire’ and ‘civilisation’. What are anthropologists doing with words that describe such a large historical entity like China? This may be no more than a reaching out beyond the confines of the discipline, the kind of subversion produced whenever academics refine and expand their intellectual concerns. However, when it concerns anthropologists working on China, it is intriguing. Anthropology has long been a contested area, from the time when the first generations of ethnographers and ethnologists began to introduce the work of anthropologists to Chinese scholarship. Scholars like Wu Wenzao, Ling Cunsheng and Fei Xiaotong before the Second World War did a 1

“Thoughts on Four Subversive Words”, The Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology,

vol. 13, no. 2, April 2012, pp. 192-202

Thoughts on Four Subversive Words

Wang Gungwu

National University of


My interest in anthropological studies in China began

with the relationships between Han Chinese and China’s

various minorities, especially in Yunnan. But it was only

recently that I noted the attention being paid by

anthropologists in China to larger questions of ‘empire’ and

‘civilisation’. What are anthropologists doing with words

that describe such a large historical entity like China?

This may be no more than a reaching out beyond the confines

of the discipline, the kind of subversion produced whenever

academics refine and expand their intellectual concerns.

However, when it concerns anthropologists working on China,

it is intriguing.

Anthropology has long been a contested area, from the

time when the first generations of ethnographers and

ethnologists began to introduce the work of anthropologists

to Chinese scholarship. Scholars like Wu Wenzao, Ling

Cunsheng and Fei Xiaotong before the Second World War did a


remarkable job under very difficult circumstances. They were

able, including in practical areas pertaining to the

country’s minorities, to help reshape national policy and

redefine some of the ethnic boundaries within China.

Over the decades, however, Fei Xiaotong’s generation may

have failed because they also provoked official questioning

of the very nature of anthropology when applied to China.

What seemed subversive arose from the discontent aroused

towards aspects of methodologies when these were applied to

different periods of Chinese history and different areas of

Chinese society. Unfortunately, the scholarship that was

criticised also included some important and stimulating

studies that had opened up a wide range of research

possibilities. Subversive here does not mean that the

scholars had conducted acts against the profession, but

their work raises doubts about the nature and value of the

field of anthropology in China.

Wang Mingming and his colleagues have shown how words

that were used to open up the field were contextualised for

the specific time and place when the research was done and

the reasons why the research was done, for example, how new

concepts were first brought into China and how scholars

responded to them. That is familiar to historians who often

face the same questions. I recently wrote about the word

‘geming’ meaning revolution, how the modern concept came to

China and what happened to it, how Chinese scholars and


activists understood it, how they used or abused it and

turned it into something else, and how the meanings became

confused as they were used in different contexts. Words like

empire and civilisation are comparable. Indeed, it is

particularly striking when these two words are used in the

context of two other words, anthropology and China. All four

are foreign to the Chinese language and need to be

contextualised. 1

When anthropologists bring these words together, they

seem to be undermining something fundamental. For me, the

anthropology I first encountered was based on the intimate

study of small societies, whether in Africa or various parts

of Southeast Asia. Scholars like Raymond Firth and Maurice

Freedman had come out of that tradition. From that point of

view, Freedman was the first subversive. He turned to study

China through a large community of Chinese living in the

large port-city of Singapore. Others had done the same kind

of research from other angles but, as a professional

anthropologist from the core tradition who took on the study

of such communities, it was particularly striking. The other

person who introduced me to anthropology was Bill (G.

William) Skinner, who focused on the overseas Chinese in

Thailand. Like Maurice, he looked at China from the outside

through the Chinese who were residing in Southeast Asia.2

Bill Skinner used to say that he was forced to do that

only because he had been chased out of China. As he put it


to me, ‘I have no choice. I have to work on the Chinese

overseas to understand China’. I thought that was refreshing

and challenging. Together with several other scholars,

Maurice and Bill linked up the London School of Economics

with Cornell University and built up powerful teams to study

external China systematically. Tian Rukang and Marjorie

1 The survey by Wang Mingming and his colleagues of a

number of key writings in the prehistory and early history

of anthropology in China bring this issue out very clearly,

Wang Mingming 王王王 et al. (editors), Minzu, wenmingyu

xinshijie: 20 shiji qianqi de zhongguoxushu 王王 王王王王王王王、:20 王王王王王王王王王.

Beijing: Shijie tushu chuban gongsi, 2010. I spoke on

‘geming’ in Wang Gungwu, China’s Century of Revolutions,

Asia Research Institute Lecture, January 20, 2010 (Video

webcast) http://www.ari.nus.edu.sg/publication_details.asp?


22 Maurice Freedman’s report, Colonial Law and Chinese Society, was

published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great

Britain and Ireland in 1952. This was followed by his

doctoral thesis for the University of London entitled Kinship,

Local Grouping and Migration: A Study in Social Alignment among the Chinese

Overseas (1956). G. William Skinner did his first report on

the Chinese in Southeast Asia at Cornell University in 1951.

A few years later came his two volumes, Chinese society in

Thailand: An Analytical History (1957) and Leadership and Power in the


Topley were also precursors of that group and also applied

methodologies drawn from African and Papua New Guinean

societies to study groups of Chinese in Sarawak and

Singapore respectively.3

Their work was fascinating and I learned a great deal

from the first generation of anthropologists whose original

work on overseas Chinese brought new perspectives to the

field. Most other scholars at that sensitive time tended to

be politicised, but the anthropologists could get underneath

the official jargon and appear innocent of politics. Being

very clever people, these anthropologists succeeded in

looking innocent, but of course they were also subverting in

other ways. For me, the interesting part was the way they

Chinese community of Thailand (1958), both published by Cornell

University Press. I met each of them for the first time

shortly after their books were published.

33 There were several anthropologists working in the region.

I read and admired T’ien Ju-k’ang’s (Tian Rukang) The Chinese

of Sarawak (1953) when it first appeared. When I finally met

him in the late 1970s, he had become a fine

anthropologically-trained historian. As for Marjorie Topley,

we met in Singapore when she started her research on the

chai-t’ang of Singapore Chinese women and I followed her

writings for many years before she moved to Hong Kong.


did that, by moving away from small communities and doing

what we normally expected sociologists to do. As far as I

know, the sociologists at the time did not seem much

interested and it was the anthropologists who led the way in

this field.

I came to appreciate the multiple methods of

anthropology from these friends of mine. Their methodologies

were helpful and produced insightful results. Among other

things, they provided relief from the usual sources that

historians depended on, and prompted us to look beyond the

written word. Of course, using Chinese documentary materials

have now become much more sophisticated. Philip Kuhn and

David Faure, for example, have demonstrated how much using

some of the methods could learn more that Maurice Freedman

and others had introduced when reading literate sources.4

44 Philip Kuhn is one of the first historians of China to

take anthropology seriously. His early research in the 1960s

has been an inspiration to many, most notably the work that

went into his book, Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China

(1970). David Faure was studying at the University of Hong

Kong when that book appeared and was equally taken by the

work of Maurice Freedman, as seen in the thesis on political

disturbances in Kiangsu province (1870-1911) that he

presented at Princeton University.


Nevertheless, when words like empire, civilization are

placed together with China and anthropology, it leads to the

feeling that subversion is in the air. Each of the four

words provides problems no matter whether the users are

historians or anthropologists. However, when the four words

are used together, I wonder how they can be contextualized.

When they appear together, they are more like historians’

words, and it is intriguing to try to understand how the

words can be helpful to anthropologists.

The most striking feature of all four words is that they

did not exist in the Chinese language. For example,

historians have had to confront the fact that the word

‘China’ is foreign and there is no exact Chinese

translation. There are many possible translations and each

alternative in Chinese has to be explained in context, and

adjectives have often to be added to ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’

to convey what is meant and who are being referred to.

But let me begin with what may appear to be the simplest

of the four words, the word empire. It came from imperium in

the context of Rome and its empire. When it was applied to

Greek, Egyptian, or Babylonian equivalents, it became one of

the central concepts in Mediterranean political culture.

Indeed, empire is rooted in this historical connection. When

the word was first applied to China, it described the Qin-

Han Empire quite well. What Qin Shihuang founded, and what

his Han successors expanded when they pushed further towards


the north-eastern and western frontiers, were certainly

empires that can be said to have worked with means and ends

that were similar to those of the Roman Empire.

However, what followed after the Han was different.

After the division into Three Kingdoms and a brief and

partial reunification under the Western Jin dynasty, the new

kingdoms in North China established during the 4th to 6th

centuries were not Han Chinese but were in reality other

people’s empires established in lands identified as ‘China’.

From the fall of the Western Jin dynasty in 316 to the Sui

reunification in 589, several tribal empires of the northern

and western steppes invaded the Han lands in turn and ruled

as local dynasties. Even the Tang dynasty the Chinese are so

proud of was established by descendants of these invaders,

the most important among them having had ancestors who came

out of the Turkic tribal confederations.5 For close to two

millennia down to the end of the Qing dynasty, the Han

people did not move much beyond the Qin and Han borders,

notably the perimeters of the Great Wall and the long

55 Chen Yinke was familiar with Western and Japanese

scholarship by the time he wrote the two books that

decisively changed Chinese thinking on this subject

decisively: 王王王王王王王王 (Tangdai zhengzhishi shulungao, 1942) and 王王

王王王王王王王 (SuiTang zhiduyuanyuan luelungao, 1945). Both had an

enormous impact on Chinese historiography.


coastline of China from the Gulf of Zhili to the Gulf of

Tongking. That is why it is appropriate today to call them

Han Chinese. Later, Han Chinese moved to the lands south of

the Yangzi River that the Qin and Han emperors had

conquered, and the natives living there were largely

assimilated. From time to time, some Han Chinese did

emigrate to Korea and Southeast Asia, but that was often

when foreign conquerors forced them to do so.

This is not the place to determine how ‘Chinese’ the

empires were, but simply to stress that the early empires

were not all Chinese. For centuries, they were in many

respects somebody else’s empires in which Han and other

peoples were involved either as subjects or partners. Later,

after 960, the Song dynasty could certainly be called

Chinese, but this was a weak empire that could barely

control the Chinese lands that it managed to reunify.

Generations of Song rulers struggled for centuries to

survive, in particular, after it lost North China to the

Jurchen tribal leaders and moved their capital to Hangzhou

south of the Yangzi River. Nevertheless, the Song

represented, without making imperial claims elsewhere, a

great flowering of Chinese ‘civilisation’, another word that

has surfaced a great deal of late. Song China shrank

steadily and was finally conquered by the Mongol emperor,

Kublai Khan, who established by far the greatest of the

outsiders’ empires on Chinese soil. Clearly, the Chinese


after the Han did not build empires. They lived in empires

that their historians claimed to be their own but, for long

periods, they also suffered hard times as subjects, and

never more thoroughly conquered than by the Mongols in the

13th century.

The Chinese had often experienced disorder under Heaven

throughout their history. However, it was during the Mongol

Yuan dynasty that they first felt threatened by a world that

was totally alien. Never before had all Chinese become

subjects of a foreign empire. This had an extraordinary

sequel. The alien imperial house was overthrown in 1368 by

the first truly successful popular rebellion, that of Zhu

Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty. He succeeded

because the Mongol rulers he overthrew were not only corrupt

and incompetent but also un-Chinese. There was enough

resentment all round for widespread rebellions to coalesce

and drive out the Mongols. In that way, some sense of

Chineseness was emerging, although it was not anything like

a modern Chinese nation. In fact, even after two and a half

centuries of the Ming, with its great emphasis on Neo-

Confucian ideals and rhetoric, the consciousness of being or

becoming ‘Chinese’ was closely linked with that orthodoxy.

And after two centuries of strong and effective Manchu rule

that adhered to the same set of values, there was still no

sense of a Chinese nation. For example, when the Han Chinese

Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century (1850-1864) was


close to success against Qing imperial rule, the rebels

insisted on identifying the Han Chinese mandarin classes as

their prime enemies. Many more Han Chinese were killed

during the years of rebellion than anyone else. It is now

widely recognised that the rebels ultimately failed because

their target was not the ethnically alien Manchu ruling

house and they did not even try to win the support of the

influential Han Chinese literati.

In Chinese history, Han Chinese as imperial subjects

never successfully rebelled against Han Chinese dynasties.

They fought against local corrupt officials but, by and

large, believed that their emperor were just and fair. They

usually blamed the representatives of bad government but not

the system. What was significant was how most Chinese

remained ‘local’. The emperor was indeed far away and, on

the whole, left people alone. This was one of the reasons

why the system worked for so long under different rulers,

even under foreign rulers. The rulers who grasped that

principle found that times could be good and their dynasty

lasted longer. Those who interfered with local affairs

unduly were likely to face needless revolts.

The Confucian mandarins coherently articulated this

principle of rule and were rewarded with the trust of each

dynastic house. Rulers accepted their advice to tax lightly,

appoint good officials and not to have too many of them

around. The fewer the officials, the less likely it would be


for reactions against the emperors to be negative. When

things went wrong, they could be left to local lineages to

sort matters out. The officials would come in as wise

problem-solvers only when all else failed, which was much

better than telling people what to do and having them fight

against authority. This is contrary to the common picture of

Confucians as busybodies who were always telling people how

to be better and work harder in order to succeed in life.

The image of Confucians as busybodies is further

contradicted by the fact that they were continually advising

their emperors to do less and leave more matters to the

wisdom of the ordinary people. The Song dynasty was a bit of

an exception. It did have more officials than any other

dynasties, and most of them were staunch Confucians. In

particular, the reforms introduced by Wang Anshi during the

11th century did require unusual official involvement in

local affairs. However, on the whole, Song rulers and their

mandarins had too much to do to save the dynasty from

foreign invaders and, despite appointing more bureaucrats

than any other period of Chinese history, they did not

burden the people with too much red tape. The travails of

the dynasty in both its northern and southern phases

demonstrated that having more Confucian officials made for a

civilized court and a richer and more literate people but

did not make the dynasty safer. 6


In contrast, the Ming and Qing dynasties had relatively

few officials appointed from the centre. For over 500 years

up to 1911, that remained the policy. It was not until the

rise of the modern state that the policy was changed. It was

the revolutionary state established by Mao Zedong that

placed ganbu or cadres at several county and local levels

and in all corners of the country, all chosen by the Chinese

Communist Party or the central government. By that time, the

policy of tens of millions working for the government in one

way or the other was carried to the extreme. There are still

too many officials in China, but it is unimaginable and, for

the Chinese today, undesirable for the modern state to

return to Qing Empire practices.

In any case, the word ‘empire’ does not translate

accurately into Chinese. European usage for the empires that

inspired the development of modern imperialism makes it

difficult to use the same word to describe China. The

British and French empires were obviously very different

from that of the Qing. Some of the dynastic empires, like

the Ottoman, Russian Tsarist, or Austro-Hungarian empires,

would make better comparisons. However, there were also many

features in those empires that cannot be found in the Manchu

Qing, the most notable being the central role of the Islamic

and Eastern Orthodox faiths and the elaborate constitutional

arrangements in Central Europe.


The maritime conquest empires established by the

mission-driven kings of Spain and Portugal after the

sixteenth century represented a new phenomenon in Asia. As

for the Dutch and English East India Companies, their

commercial maritime enterprises did not set out to create

empires, but they planted the seed for a new kind of empire

to emerge. What led to fundamental changes came after new

states were recognised after the Treaty of Westphalia of

1648. The Treaty acknowledged the secession of the Dutch

Republic from the Spanish empire and saw the rise of the

world’s first nation-state.7 This was the genesis of a more

efficient kind of state based on the idea of a united people

that constituted a sovereign nation. The English had been

moving in the same direction and the rivalries of the two

East India companies in India and Southeast Asia heightened

the sense of nationhood in both countries.

During the eighteenth century, these two commercial

empires were also challenged by the maritime power of the

French. When the revolution transformed France into a

republic and the Napoleonic Empire reached out in every

direction, the time for national empires had clearly come.

By the nineteenth century, both commercial empires were

formally taken over by the governments of Britain and the

Netherlands respectively. The nation-states had also become

even more powerful with the rise of industrial capitalism.

As a result, the idea of empire also changed, and the new


imperialism was identified as a product of that capitalism.8

The East Indian companies had employed people to perform

specific tasks to make money for their owners. Their

objectives were limited but clear. Once the companies were

taken over by governments, the empires were thereafter run

along different principles. Although empires did need to

make money, those like the British in India, and the British

and French in Africa, did not always manage to do that. The

costs of administering the empire were too great. Profits

made were by British and French businesses, while the

empires themselves were often burdens and money-losing

enterprises. Of course, national empires were not maintained

to enable industrialists and entrepreneurs to make their

fortunes. They were invariably associated with la gloire and

national greatness and were now major sources of national

pride and an inspiration for patriots.

The achievements were so impressive that these earlier

national empires in turn inspired Germans and Italians and,

in Asia, the imperial Japanese after the Meiji Restoration.

All of them looked to imitate the British and French, the

two peoples who accumulated great political and economic

strength and further unified their nation-states. In the

end, the Germans and Japanese both paid dearly for following

the Anglo-French lead, and many of their descendants regret

that today.


In the case of Manchu Qing China, it was nothing like

these modern empires. The Manchu saw themselves as

successors of their Jurchen ancestors, and of the Mongols,

who claimed the historic right to rule over the lands within

the Great Wall. It was a Manchu Empire inheriting a non-

national, ideally borderless, Confucian legacy. Within it,

7 This extraordinary story was best told by Pieter Geyl, The

Revolt of the Netherlands, 1555-1609, first published in 1932. The

Dutch Revolt by Geoffrey Parker (1977) and the book he edited,

The Thirty Years’ War (1984), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London,

underline the dramatic changes to the nature of European

politics.6. It is no accident that Wang Anshi, the reformer, caught

the attention of scholars early in the twentieth century. In

China, only Cai Shangxiang in the late eighteenth century

gave him a fair hearing. Anyone who has seen the modern

state in action would find his views on the role of

government of great interest. One of the most perceptive was

James T.C. Liu in his book, Reform in Song China: Wang An-shih and

His New Policies (1959), Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

On the Song rulers weakly and desperately defending

itself, Wang Gungwu, "The Rhetoric of a Lesser Empire:

Early Sung Relations with its Neighbours", in China Among

Equals: The Middle Kingdom and its Neighbours, 10th-14th Centuries, edited

by Morris Rossabi. Berkeley, University of California Press,

1982, pp. 47-65; on the emergence of a brilliant and mature


hundreds of millions of Han Chinese, together with many

ethnic minorities, lived as subjects. It was never intended

for the Manchu to become Sinicized but, after 267 years of

privileged rule, most Manchu became indistinguishable from

Han Chinese. Because of that, it is possible for the Chinese

today to identify retrospectively with the Qing Empire but

that does not make the Qing comparable to a national empire.

At the end of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese

intelligentsia came to admire the Japanese. After defeat by

Japan in 1895, the government sent China’s best students to

Japan to study. They regretted losing to the Japanese but,

without the sense of nation, they were prepared to learn

from the victors. Unfortunately, the Japanese were not

civilization during the Song dynasty, Robert M. Hartwell,

"Demographic, Political, and Social Transformation of China,

750-1550," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 42, part 2,1982,

pp. 365-442.

8 The work of J. A. Hobson (1902) opened up the field and

his study of imperialism was one of the most influential

books on the subject, matched only by the more polemical

writings on the subject by Lenin (1916): J. A. Hobson,

Imperialism: A Study. London: Nisbet, 1902; Vladimir Lenin,

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. (1996 edition with new

introduction by Norman Lewis and James Malone), Junius,



content with that and build on the admiration that many

Chinese felt for them at the time. Instead, they followed

their nationalist vision to the next stage of territorial

expansion, to Korea and then Northeast and North China, and

to Southeast Asia and beyond the Pacific and Indian Oceans,

extraordinary adventures that ended with great cost to the

Japanese people themselves. It is enough now to say that the

age of national empires ended with the decolonisation

processes of the 1950s and 1960s. The whole world has come

to accept the nation-state ideal, a condition we live with

today. It is hoped that Chinese leaders have learnt from the

Japanese and will not make the same mistakes.

As for the word civilisation, it is hard to imagine that

the Chinese who pride themselves in their great Chinese

civilisation did not have an equivalent word. The word

wenming we use today for civilisation came from the Japanese

translation of the Anglo-French word. Originally an ancient

Chinese word, wenming is now used with different

connotations altogether and is the closest to the idea of

civilisation. Together with the word wenhua—the word that

translates ‘culture’— its use was a very clever choice.

Unlike the original European words, the two words have no

link with civitas and urban sophisticated living or anything

to do with cultivating the land. On the contrary, both

wenming and wenhua put the stress on ‘wen’, the word

commonly used for the written language. Both Japanese and


Chinese thinkers believe that their values and heritage

arose from literacy and the Chinese readily appreciated the

Japanese choice of the two words. How could anyone be

civilised and not literate? In my experience, this can be

illustrated in the language test that was applied to those

Chinese known in Indonesia and Malaysia as peranakan,

meaning local-born (Wang 2010, pp. 14-26). When republican

and newly nationalist Chinese came to Southeast Asia early

in the twentieth century and found communities of Chinese

who could not read or write their language, some of them

challenged the peranakan claim to call themselves Chinese.

For many, to be recognized as Chinese and to know the

written language was to be associated with being civilized.

This explains why there is no hesitation in associating

the word wen with civilisation and culture. Although

civilisation is not a Chinese word, there is little doubt

that the Chinese have civilisation. Then again, how is one

to explain that when there is no Chinese word for what they

have? There must be other ways to identify what civilisation

had been to Chinese people throughout their history. Here,

anthropologists have done enough to raise serious doubts.

When they find different cultural artefacts that require new

criteria to determine what civilisation means, who then

decides what Chinese civilisation is?

Let me now turn to the words ‘anthropology’ and ‘China’.

Obviously, anthropology was a completely new word and the


Chinese had no idea what it meant. Fei Xiaotong once told me

that he never could convince his bureaucratic superiors to

use ‘renleixue’, the word used to translate anthropology. It

was considered to be colonial and imperialist, a word that

westerners used for the study of primitive tribes. Instead,

officials settled on ‘minzuxue’ meaning ethnology or

nationality studies. Today, a kind of anthropology has been

brought back under the umbrella of ‘shehuixue’ or sociology.

Is this anthropology now fully accepted?

The word China (and Chinese) was used in other

languages. For example, in Japanese and in various Malay

languages, the words ‘zhi-na’ and ‘Cina’ clearly refer to

the people who came out of the place they call China. All

those overseas who have at least one Chinese ancestor also

seem to know what China means to them. It was only when I

found it difficult to find the right word to translate

‘China’ that I realised how serious it is to have different

words to translate the word ‘China’, depending on

circumstance, place and time.

‘China’ came into common European use only in recent

centuries. Earlier Europeans were more likely to write of

Cathay or Kitai. The Portuguese took the word ‘Cina’ from

Malay, going along with the local peoples who had long used

the name for the land and its peoples. However, the Chinese

used other words. As people, they normally identified with

the village they or their ancestors came from. This struck


me some forty years ago when I first visited the old Chinese

cemetery in Jogjakarta. The older graves from the eighteenth

century did not record the province or county of origin but

only the name of the ancestral village. The local historians

assumed that they were all Hokkien, but the village names

carved on the tombstones did not help us identify where they

came from because most of the names were common in most

parts of China: they were based on people’s surnames, words

for tree, bridge, stream, drain, temple, and such like, that

could be anywhere in China.

In life, the merchants and workers who came to the

region were ‘Cina’ to the locals and other foreigners, but

none of the buried called themselves that, nor cared whether

they were Hokkien or not. What mattered was that they

recorded which village they came from. That way they would

know who were related by descent and how to re-connect with

their ancestors. So when did people actually think of

themselves as Chinese? Most did recognise a common identity

as ‘Tangren’ (Tang People), the name used for themselves by

the people of Fujian and Guangdong. That came from the word

‘Tangshan’, their name for the place that others called

‘China’. It meant that they saw themselves as having become

Chinese during the Tang and not the Han dynasty. When the

Han conquerors came 2,000 years ago, the south had their own

kingdoms that strongly resisted the invaders.


The idea of being ‘Hanren’ became important during the

Qing dynasty in order to distinguish the Han from the

Manchu. Earlier on, the Mongol Yuan used ‘Nanren’ for people

in the south, and ‘Beiren’ for those in the north, and the

word ‘Han’ was not used.9 Han was popularised in the context

of the Manchu-Han divide. Thus it is understandable why

officials preferred another word, Hua (short for Zhonghua),

when referring to the Chinese they met abroad. Tangren was

not appropriate because few of the Qing officials would have

identified with the Tang. Neither was Hanren because these

Chinese were subjects of a non-Han Manchu empire; in

addition, there were also some Manchu and other minority

peoples living outside China as well. So Huaren could act as

an overarching term that embraced the Han and Manchu and

other ethnic groups. Hua by itself does not translate the

word ‘China’, but when used in combination with Zhong as in

Zhonghua, now the name of both the Republic of China and the

People’s Republic of China, the word could be used as a

short form for ‘China’. However, Zhonghua is not normally

used as a word by itself for Chinese people overseas, except

in the Netherlands East Indies, and now Indonesia, where the

Chinese prefer it to the word ‘Cina’, a word that they find


offensive (Coppel & Suryadinata 1970, pp. 97-188; Coppel

2002, pp. 369-80; Suryadinata 1978).

In short, when the four words empire, civilization,

China and anthropology are highlighted, there is a

subversive undertone that suggests the following: either

that what has been done before in anthropology is no longer

enough and new approaches are needed to push out the edges

of the field, or that compromises are called for, even with

indeterminate disciplines like area or country studies that

have no clear sense of academic identity.

In the West, area studies have been more about language,

literature, philosophy and history, with anthropology

hovering at the edges. I am not arguing here against

anthropology pushing in that direction. It is perfectly

legitimate to enter the area/country arena as

anthropologists of China. What is striking is that this new

terrain has to be approached with mentalités outside the

venerable traditions of the discipline.

One last point: I not only have trouble with the word

China; I have also found it hard to pin down the people who

identify with China. In Southeast Asia, it is easier because

the Chinese are those who self-identify and affirm that they

are not Malay, Arab, Indian, or ‘Others’. Such people can be

identified in some ways with the country called China.

However, most people identify more with certain distinct

practices, customs, fangyan (dialects), community or trade


associations, etc that are known to have come from China.

Thus, even when they call themselves some kind of Chinese,

they cannot be held to any particular meaning of the word


In contrast, take the example of Taiwan, where identity

has become a sensitive issue and where people do not use

Zhongguoren as long as it is associated with the People’s

Republic of China. Many now do not use ‘Tangren’ or ‘Hanren’

either. ‘Taiwanren’ is more appropriate so that the native

tribal peoples could also be included, but efforts to

introduce Huaren as used for the Chinese overseas have been

met with considerable opposition. The word implies that the

people so called have a foreign national identity and that

adds another political dimension to an already complicated

issue. Hong Kong people, on the other hand, are comfortable

to be both Zhongguoren and Hongkongers, while many Taiwanese

agree that they are both Taiwanese and some kind of Chinese.

This leads to the question, how does all that has been

outlined above fit with the idea of China? Are we talking

about a country, an empire, a civilisation, or an imagined

place that external Chinese acknowledge as their ancestral

home? It is possible to argue that intellectuals who are

soaked in its long history will identify with that

historical entity. The literati elites and Confucian

mandarins through their classical training always had some

superior sense of China in their minds, one that did not


have specific and permanent borders. Their modern

counterparts today may still be expected to identify with

the PRC, but that does not tell us much because there are

people within the PRC who do not identify themselves as

Chinese. In many cases, most people use a variety of

adjectives to find ways to pinpoint what they mean when they

say they are Chinese.

I began by suggesting how the four words brought

together might subvert the study of anthropology. But the

fact that all four words are foreign to the Chinese language

does more to unpick the idea of China and the people called

Chinese. And when used in combination with larger

abstractions like empire and civilization that have such

different genealogies, the enterprise can be treacherous. On

the other hand, finding one’s way round the maze that

surrounds each word can lead to fresh insights for fields

like anthropology and China studies. The effort can also

retrieve words like empire and civilisation from their

historical comfort zones and even dilute some of the

negative images that tainted them in modern times, notably

that of aggressive polities enslaving peaceful communities

and powerful civilisations swallowing up distinctive

cultures. It would not do to simplify too much but, on my

9王王王王王。 王王王王王王 王王王 王王王 王。宋。(Bai Shouyi on history: Five Dynasties and Song-

Yuan volume), 王王 : 王王王王王王王, 2009. 王王王王王 王王王王王。 (Ge

Jianxiong, China’s Population History), 王王王: 王王王王王王王, 2000.


part, bringing the words together called for rethinking. As

for the threat of subversion, the challenge is constant and

there is nothing to fear.




Coppel, C. A. (2002) Studying Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, Singapore

Society of Asian Studies, Singapore.

Coppel, C. A. and Suryadinata, L. (1970) ‘The use of the

terms “Tjina” and “Tionghoa” in Indonesia: an historical

survey’, Papers on Far Eastern History, no. 2, pp. 97-118.

Suryadinata, L. (1978) The Chinese Minority in Indonesia: Seven Papers,

Chopmen Enterprises, Singapore.

Wang Gungwu (2010) ‘The peranakan phenomenon: pre-national,

marginal, and transnational’, in Peranakan Chinese in a

Globalizing Southeast Asia, ed. L. Suryadinata, Chinese

Heritage Centre and National University of Singapore

Museum Baba House, Singapore, pp. 14-26.