The title of The Invention of China, and of each of its chapters that address sovereignty, the Han race, Chinese history, language, national territory and maritime claims, echo The Invention of Tradition. That seminal collection, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, was published in 1983 and remains relevant, but Bill Hayton only refers to it once in passing. ‘Invention’ is the creative interplay between memory, narrative, interpretation and reimagination: applying this approach to the history of China today is appropriate but problematic. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly but not exclusively since the rise of Xi Jinping, has sought to control the narrative, not only of its own history – the authorised account of which has often changed dramatically over the years – but also the total history of China. Alternative interpretations are not tolerated and are seen as deliberate attempts to undermine the authority of the CCP and, by implication, the integrity and stability of China.
The Invention of China is both a polemic against Xi Jinping and an attempt to demolish Xi’s account of China’s history, although in reality that is a conventional version that long predates Xi. Hayton’s readable and well-paced narrative ranges widely but can be confusing when it skips across thousands of years of Chinese history. He draws selectively on scholarly secondary sources, all in English in spite of the strategic deployment of Chinese terms in pinyin romanisation. The thrust of the book is that there is really no such thing as China: the idea is a merely a construct of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although there is merit in that argument, and Hayton dispenses with much murky nationalist bathwater, significant babies also disappear.
Consider the last four centuries, beginning with the Qing dynasty imposed by conquering Manchus in 1644. Although scholars have done a fine job in unearthing and interpreting court documents in the Manchu language, it was never the language of China. It was unknown to the majority of the population, declined rapidly in the dispersed Manchu banner garrisons and never dominated the administration. Han and Manchu officials communicated primarily in literary Chinese, wenyan. China really did exist: for centuries, millions living and working in roughly the same geographical area spoke some form of Chinese and read – when they were able to read – literary Chinese. Chinese culture dominated the region, much to the chagrin of the Manchu elite, who considered it effete. What is more, literary Chinese had already spread beyond what is now Chinese territory and formed the basis of the early written languages of Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Chinese emperors, even those of ‘barbarian’ origin, appropriated the historical imperial tradition to legitimise their authority.