chapter  5
Deconstructing the Chinese Nation: How Recent Is It?
Pages 20

When I first wrote this essay in the early 1990s, I was determined to discern what was modern or alien about twentieth-century nationalism in China from the forms of political community in late imperial society, especially the Qing (1644-1911). I continue to be in full agreement with the analyses and conclusions I developed in the original essay. Perhaps if I rewrote it today, I might emphasize the traffic of global ideas in the formation of Chinese nationalism, but the virtue of the essay as it stands is to show us how Chinese historical ideas of community and political belonging have, to a considerable extent, also structured and legitimated the inflow of powerful modern ideas. I seek to develop an understanding of nationalism in China that charts an

alternative path to both the nationalist self-understanding of an ancient, continuous political community and the modernist understanding of a radically novel type of community and identity. I argue that both conceptions view community and identity as more cohesive than warranted. In effect, they impose unity spatially and temporally. In the first case, this cohesion of the ‘national subject’ is projected back in time to a primordial condition; in the second case, the cohesion is reserved for the modern nation-state. In most theories of nationalism, the nation-state embodies a moral force

that makes it superior to dynasties and ruling segments which are seen as merely partial subjects representing only themselves through history. By contrast, the nation is a collective subject – the national people – poised to realize its historical destiny in a modern future.1 To be sure, modernization theory has clarified many aspects of nationalism. But in its effort to see the nation as a collective subject of modernity, it obscures the nature of national identity. I propose, instead, that we view national identity as founded upon fluid relationships; it thus both resembles and is interchangeable with other political identities. If the dynamics of national identity lie within the same terrain as other

political identities, we will need to break with two assumptions of modernization theory. The first of these is that national identity is a radically novel form of consciousness. Below, I will develop a crucial distinction between the modern nation-state system and nationalism as a form of identification. As

identification with a political community, nationalism is never fully subsumed by the nation-state, and is best considered in its complex relationships to other historical identities. The second assumption is the privileging of the grand narrative of the nation as a collective historical subject. Nationalism is rarely the nationalism of the nation, but rather represents the site where very different views of the nation contest and negotiate with each other. At the same time, participation in the global nation-state system distances the institutions, technologies, ideologies and goals of the emergent nation from its historical predecessor.