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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Looking at the Globe through the Eyes of 19th–20th Century Chinese Reformers

In September 2015, Pablo Ariel Blitstein was a visiting scholar at the URPP Asia and Europe. He held a seminar on the history of the concept of “politics” in late 19th–early 20th century China. Additionally, he gave a talk, in which he set forth a connected history of this concept between East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. In this essay, he reflects on “global history” and “nation” through the example of reform-minded literati who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attempted to transform the Qing empire in a nation-state.

Pablo Ariel Blitstein

Most of us are aware—and my reader is probably no exception—that it is extremely difficult to convey a complex idea in a single word. Since we know this difficulty, we generally remedy the shortcomings with paraphrases, explanations, descriptions, and stories. But even when following those strategies, we often have trouble to make ourselves clear. What happens, then, when some particular circumstances force a historian to find that single, precious term that should clearly identify a leading idea? The result is very often a tragic one. It’s literally tragic because, just like in Greek drama, the heroes follow what they think is the right path, struggle their way, and end up beaten by the forces they have summoned with their own actions. Many global historians are becoming such tragic heroes. The sword they wielded to step onto the stage, “global history,” was intended to be a powerful means to overcome national histories. It was supposed to deliver other historians from nations and nation-states as major frameworks of analysis, encouraging them to think of human societies at the scale of the globe and letting them explain through large social and geographical connections what has been traditionally explained through national endogenous forces. But they are sometimes trapped by the word they use to characterize their agenda. “Global” immediately brings into our minds its contrary, “local,” and since we never know what the boundaries between “global” and “local” are (for nothing is completely global or completely local), many scholars actually take “local” as another name for “nation” and “global” as a another name for “society of nations”—thus naturalizing the nation as much as the national histories do. Is the word “global” to blame for that? It depends on how it is used.

A French map of the Chinese Empire by Conrad Malte-Brun, published in 1837.

Ideas from the two sides the Pacific

The discussions I had with students and colleagues during my stay at the URPP Asia and Europe in Zurich turned around historical phenomena that concern the global history agenda. In the seminar I was kindly invited to give, we dealt with a particular group of people between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries: the Chinese reformers who wanted to turn the Qing dynasty—the last one to rule China—into a constitutional monarchy. This group is certainly one of the favorite topics of many national histories of contemporary China. Since these reformers were born in China, spoke Chinese, and their projects concerned Chinese institutions, how could their history be anything other than a Chinese history? But the fact is that many of the most important reformers did not lead their activities in Chinese territory, but somewhere else, in Tokyo, San Francisco, or Mexico. In such places, many reformers published newspapers, built overseas associations, discussed institutional models from different parts of the world, and combined the ideas of the “sages and virtuous men” of the Chinese past with ideas coming from Europe and the Americas. In so doing, they contributed to the formulation of reform projects that would be implemented in Qing China. The purpose of my seminar was thus to explore the extent to which modern Chinese political languages were shaped by reformers on the two sides of the Pacific. And such a topic inevitably leads the historian to wonder what “global” means.

What I retain from the term “global” is the image that comes to my mind when I use it: the globe, with its inhabited and uninhabited portions, with its seas and lands, with its mountains and plains; not the political map of modern nations, but the physical map, where the clear-cut lines of political borders just look like what they are: an artifice, an accident of human history. When someone talks about the history of China, but also about the history of France, Mexico, or the United States, I try to think of the globe first. Then I wonder: How could one write the history of any of these places as if they were alone on Earth, or as if they got in touch with the rest of the world only by accident? There certainly are discontinuities between people: not everyone has a relation to everyone. And we are fully aware that the nation-states, with all their boundary-making devices such as police, armies, civic education, and national languages, manage to a large extent to shape the circulation of people, things and ideas on the world surface. But now, no historian could seriously take nation-states as the exclusive boundaries that organize the world population. I am not referring here to the evidence of migration or transnational institutions: I am referring to the concept of “nation” itself. The shared language of the “nation” is a sign of the intellectual, social and institutional interconnections that have built the modern world.

The “Great Qing” and the nation

The history of late 19th and early 20th century China is an example of how the nation, as a political idea, has been one of the most successful modern devices to regulate boundaries, delineate groups and create discrete forms of allegiance and feelings of belonging. Most nations are actually the result, not the cause, of nationalism. Nations do not precede nationalists, but nationalists actually create the illusion that the nation exists—and, if successful, they build institutions on its name. This is particularly clear in the case of Chinese reformers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. China was not a nation at the time, but rather a segmented empire identified with its ruling dynasty, the “Great Qing,” which was supposed to rule over “all-under-Heaven” and treated its territories as its owner. This was, for Chinese reformers, a huge problem. They thought that the “owner” of China should be the “nation,” which they mostly conceived as an active, consistently defined community that was expected to take part in political issues. However, they knew that no one except a reduced group of learned men and women knew this concept in the Chinese-speaking world. The nation thus had to be “discovered.” In 1902, one leading reformer, Liang Qichao, gave the example of historiography. Traditional historians only focused on the Qing court, on how emperors inherited imperial power from their parents and how they bequeathed it to their sons. According to him, they ignored that there was a larger, more important historical actor, the “nation,” the majority of the population within imperial borders. For Liang, traditional court history was no more than a family genealogy. Only the history of the nation was real history. Some years earlier, in 1898, another leading reformer, Kang Youwei, complained to the emperor that China was not united, that the different ethnic groups were ruled according to their customs and institutions, that the minds of the people were divided according to different local loyalties: China, he claimed, was not yet a real nation, but only a collection of different groups. The nation did not exist. At the same time, he proposed the abolition of the socio-institutional segmentation of the empire to “protect the nation.” So did the nation exist at this point or not? The empire, which could potentially extend its boundaries without limits and include new groups as long as the supremacy of the emperor was recognized, made false any claim that “China” was a national community with a common race, culture, or territory. The reformer’s nation thus was a theoretical nation. Only institutional reform could turn that theoretical nation into an institutional reality.

Segmented reality of the empire

These Chinese reformers certainly felt the paradoxes of their situation. They knew that, for the time being, the nation was just an idea, an imperfect conceptual tool for political action. They were inspired by different and sometimes contradictory sources, from English-language treatises of international law to classical texts of Euro-American political theory—most of which increasingly arrived through Japan. But they also spontaneously found in the words and texts of past “sages” and “virtuous men” arguments and forms of rationalization that were compatible with the new concept of nation, and that, in some cases, even seemed to provide better arguments than the ones they took from what they called “Western learning” (xixue). The richer the arguments, the better: it was indeed difficult to find evidence that, behind the segmented reality of the empire (based on seemingly natural hierarchies and distinctions), there was an active, internally coherent, history-making nation that was asking to have a say in the institutional organization of the polity. What was indeed the “Chinese nation”? Was it a common “race”? But Manchus, the ruling group, were a different “race” from Han Chinese or Tibetans. Was it a common language? There was no common language between the inhabitants of the empire. A common “culture”? But what was the common “culture” within the Great Qing? The ambiguities of the concept of nation were particularly apparent in its different Chinese-language translations. Many old words were used: minzu, lit. “lineage of people,” which could also be understood as ethnicity; guomin, lit. “people of the country” or “of the kingdom,” which could also mean the inhabitants of the emperor’s lands; guojia, lit. “country-house” or “kingdom-house,” which kept in a way attached to the analogy between the empire and an extended household. All these words could mean nation; but they could also be as easily associated with the segmented institutional reality of the empire.

The fact that there were different translations of the word “nation” in Chinese, or that it could be justified with the words of the ancient sages, is not a sign that the reformers did not understand the concept of nation, but an accurate expression of the insurmountable vagueness of this modern concept itself. The concept of nation was neither an “import,” for it was not a conceptually consistent entity, nor the final expression of the self-discovery of a thousand-year old reality. It was a floating signifier that enabled the reformers both to transform the institutions of the monarchy and to synchronize (not necessarily to replace) their own political language with the languages that were being used in Japan, Europe, and the Americas. This synchronization was made possible by a shared representation of the globe underlying both East-Asian and Euro-American uses of nation: the idea that each nation was an individual and that the world was a society of nations. The Chinese reformers no longer conceived the globe as the potential territory of the ever-extending boundaries of the Great Qing, but as a collection of consecutively arranged national polities that struggled for supremacy in the world order.

Image of the globe

A decade after Kang Youwei’s reform proposals in 1898, and partially thanks to the efforts of these reformers, the pretension to rule over “all-under-Heaven” had been widely replaced with the more modest aspiration to exert national sovereignty, and the mythology of universal rule gave way to a religion of the national identity card. We would certainly be unfair if we said that, wherever it shaped political languages, the idea of nation only produced parochialism. In China, like in many other places, it actually pushed thousands of people to feel that their own fate was related to the fate of distant and unknown persons living thousands of kilometers away, in the city or in the countryside, in their own or in other social classes. In some cases, it even pushed them to adopt a common language that enabled communication with people they had so far seen as strangers. And the image of the globe it conveyed was also far from parochial: the nation only put limits to the ambition of a universal monarchy, but not to the idea that a world society existed in the form of a society of nations. However, it is likewise undeniable that many of our most parochial representations are grounded in the nation. We too easily forget that national boundaries are the result of wars and arrangements, that they are preserved by repressive and non-repressive cohesion-making devices and boundary markers, that most groups who claim to be nations never become one, or that strange aggregations of heterogeneous groups puzzlingly manage to have their borders recognized by their neighbors. If it is true that the idea of nation could have a sense in the case of the Chinese reformers or of other nation-builders of the world who, instead of excluding, want to include populations, this should not lead the historian to overlook the evidence that national institutions, just like the idea that produced them, have been the result of, and are preserved by, wider processes on the world surface. “Global history” has emerged as a reminder of this evidence. And although “global” might sometimes look like a slightly inaccurate word (what word is not?), it can at least be used to recall the image of the globe every time we are told that some nation has made its history alone.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 4–6)

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Pablo Ariel Blitstein

Pablo Ariel Blitstein

Dr. Pablo A. Blitstein is an associate researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context: The Dynamics of Transculturality” at Heidelberg University since 2013. He works on a project on the relation between text circulation, travel experiences and political imagination in late imperial and early republican China (19th–20th centuries). His research interests are global and conceptual history, with a special focus on the history of writing and political institutions. He is co-founder and co-organizer of the Chinese history section of the Research Centre on the Slavic and Chinese Worlds (CEMECH) at the University of San Martín (Argentina). He is the author of Les Fleurs du royaume: Savoirs lettrés et pouvoir impérial en Chine (Ve–VIe siècles), Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2015, and of several articles and book chapters.