Jerome Keating on “the Myth of One China”

The following is a guest post.

“Restore the Ming,” the Myth of One China, and Post-Colonial Revisionism

Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

My first mistrust of historical nomenclature came in a European History Class. Speaking about the German King Otto I (912—973) who wanted to be known as the temporal—not spiritual—sovereign of Christendom, our professor made this point about Otto the Great’s self-proclaimed Holy Roman Empire—the area he ruled. “The first point I would like to make about this kingdom,” he said “is that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

Whether Otto’s kingdom was “Holy, Roman, or an Empire or not” made little difference in the lives of us undergraduates. It didn’t affect us; we had memorized it and that was that. The same could be said about many other historical titles and labels. Thus I began to develop a healthy skepticism of the convenient nomenclature used by historians. At the same time, however, I also began to realize that many times historical labels can affect lives. Too often they are used and manipulated to deny people basic human rights like self-determination as well as to disenfranchise people of their heritage. One classic example that remains is that of the Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs and Taiwanese.

Examine and judge for yourself some misnomers that continue in western historical parlance and point to a need of post-colonial revisionism. In 1206, the Mongol Ghengis (c.1162—1227) was named the Great Khan by the Mongol nobility. He would soon embark on one of the greatest conquests in the history of man. When he and his successors had finished the Mongol Empire extended from Korea to Hungary, from Moscow to India. So large was this empire that it was divided into four different khanates for administrative purposes, control and perhaps also to avoid Mongol in-fighting, or shall we say the “internal affairs” of the Mongol Empire.

One of the many countries that the Mongols conquered was the Chinese Southern Song Kingdom which finally fell in 1279. Before that they had conquered the lands in the west as well as the Tangut His-Hsia Kingdom (present day northwest China) and the Jurchen Jin Empire which had originated in Manchuria and encompassed present day north China and Beijing. They also had conquered Korea, Russia, Tibet and the Uighur people as they stretched their borders to present day Hungary. All of the above would then become one of the four khanates that the Mongol Empire was divided into.

Kublai Khan (ruling 1260—94) moved his capital to present day Beijing in the conquered Jurchen Jin Empire (1264) and named his rule Yuan in 1271. For Chinese historians, however, the Yuan Dynasty could only officially be recognized and begin in 1279 when the last of the Song Dynasty armies were defeated. Fair enough from their perspective.

When Marco Polo visited Kublai Khan circa 1274, most western history books will say that he visited China, but in reality, he crossed through vast amounts of “inviolable and/or inalienable” parts of the Mongol Empire and visited one of its capitals. He used the name Cathay which seems to have come from the Khitan people. Mongolian historians had recognized Kublai’s title and rule over this part of the Mongol Empire. Unfortunately since the nomadic Mongolians were not strong on libraries, their sparse records and viewpoints are rarely recognized in the West.

For the Chinese historians following a select tradition, the Yuan Dynasty did not yet exist; however, the area around modern Beijing while part of a Khitan kingdom for over 300 years and not part of Song Dynasty China could still be considered China. Westerners continued to repeat such positions and when Marco visited Kublai’s Empire, most western history books will conveniently say he visited China and not a Mongolian Empire; it is barely admitted that what Kublai ruled more than the soon to be conquered Song China.

The Mongolians never did have good marketing and/or public relations skills to get their perspective of history known. When the Chinese would conquer a land, it became a part of China, but when Mongolia conquered a land, it did not become part of Mongolia, at least as presented to and acknowledged by outsiders.

Part of this comes from a convenient inconsistency in the use of the name China. It is alternately applied to lands that used an administrative system developed by Han Chinese, to lands that exhibited Chinese culture but were ruled by others, to lands that had once been conquered by Han Chinese, and finally to lands that are ruled by the Han.. This allows for great flexibility in nomenclature so that one form can be used (in land acquisition) when another does not apply. Take for example, Tibet which has a totally different culture and language from the Chinese but still is an “inalienable” part of China.

Returning to the Mongolians, as their Empire fell apart, the many conquered lands that were under the various khanates began to break free and regain self-rule. The Tibetans regained their territory, the Manchus theirs, the Uighurs staked out areas for themselves. As the Han Chinese broke free, they did not return to the Song lands. They expanded. Some would say they “took back” territory that 450 years previous roughly fit the borders of the ancient Tang Dynasty (618–907) with the exception of the Tarim and Turfan Basins. Tibet of course was never a part of Tang China.

These new Chinese rulers called their reign the Ming Dynasty. As for the Yuan Dynasty Mongolians, they were never fully defeated like the Song Dynasty and they retreated to rule in the steppes from whence they had come. Though they still ruled there, as far as the Chinese historians were concerned, the Yuan Dynasty ended in 1368.

Tibet, Mongolia, the Uighur kingdom etc. were never under the Ming Emperors who reigned from 1368—1644. In the latter years of this reign the Manchus regrouped and began to build a new kingdom northeast of the Great Wall. They expanded into Inner Mongolia and then taking advantage of favorable Ming internal weakness and in-fighting, the Manchus got through the Shanhaiguan pass and started their conquest of Ming China.

After they conquered the Ming, they continued their conquest of the neighboring countries including Tibet, Mongolia and that of the Uighurs. They also occupied the island of Taiwan to prevent any Ming loyalists safe harbor there. Interestingly enough all of these conquered lands of Tibet, Mongolia, Taiwan, and China etc. now became a part of China and not Manchuria. The Manchus like the Mongolians did not have good spin historians.

Like the Mongolians, the Manchus (not having the required manpower) kept the administrative structures of the countries they had conquered. Like the Mongolians of course, the top men were always Manchus. For the Han Chinese that they were under alien rule was not lost on them. They all had to shave their heads and wear the Manchu queue. Even now, many Chinese still smart at the “indignity” of any mention of that fact; it was a disruption of the order of the universe as they perceived it. Ironically when they in turn Sinicized lands that they conquered it was different. The Manchu queue requirement was an indignity; but required Sinicization was not. Perhaps someone should ask the Tibetans or other dispossessed.

In the same way there are many Chinese who still cannot forgive or forget the humiliation of the Opium wars with England, even though at that time the English were “humiliating” the Manchu Empire and not China. But, of course in their historians’ minds all the countries that the Manchus had conquered had now miraculously become China and not the Manchu Empire.

Throughout the long Manchu reign, the Chinese cry was “Down with the Qing and restore the Ming.” There was however one catch. The Han Chinese wanted to restore the Han rule of the Ming, but they did not wish to restore the borders of the Ming. They preferred to keep the borders of the other countries that the Manchus had conquered, i.e. Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang and even Taiwan which the Qing had since given to the Japanese “in perpetuity.”

The Tibetans had a slightly different phrase, they said “Down with the Qing, restore Tibet” but they did not get outside acknowledgement. Only the Mongolians were lucky in this regard; this was ironically due to their relationship with Russia (not the democratic West) who preferred a buffer between their long border with China. Outer Mongolia even got into the United Nations in 1961; Inner Mongolia was not as lucky.

Somewhere in all these discussions someone will also bring up the nomenclature of dependant “tributary states.” This also has a variety of applications and interpretations. More often than not, it applies to bordering states wishing to keep peace on their borders and to facilitate trade with and gain access to the lucrative China market.

Not long ago, I read about how Henry Paulson, chief executive of Goldman Sachs recently worked out a lucrative deal with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Goldman Sachs was given much greater access than any other foreign investment bank to China’s growing financial services market. In exchange for this access, Goldman Sachs made a US$67 million “donation or gift” to cover investor losses at a failed Chinese brokerage firm, and agreed to lend US$100 million to Fang Feng Lei, a Chinese banker who brokered the deal. US$167 million is no small change.

Now in some circles, the nomenclature of the above could be called “sweetening the pot,” a “bribe” or even setting up a “well-executed kickback.” In other circles it might be termed “business as usual,” and probably as it was put to the board of Goldman Sachs it was “getting one leg up on the competition.” I often wonder however that in some future history book, an enterprising and loyal Han historian will point out how Henry Paulson of the kingdom of Goldman Sachs paid homage to and offered “tributary fealty” to the Chinese Emperor, I mean, President Hu Jintao.

A friend of mine once said, Taiwan is a part of China inasmuch as China is a part of Mongolia or of Manchuria for that matter. It is a matter of perspective or perhaps finding a more adequate paradigm.

Face it, a post colonial revisionist history that represents oppressed voices is still noticeably lacking and still remains in order. All of the above could be considered academic trivia if peoples’ lives were not affected. Except for a few, most sinologists still don’t want to touch this. They don’t want to challenge, clarify or to talk openly about the perpetuation of out-dated nomenclature as regards China because first of all it is complex and secondly in the process they would probably endanger their research in the People’s Republic of China. Fair enough, but then again, not so.

Decades ago, historians were able to separate their appreciation of Russian culture and their analysis and critique of Russian history. Sinologists still have not measured up in that regard.

What does this have to do with Otto’s claim to the Holy Roman Empire? Well, whenever you hear someone talking about what “has always been a part of China,” what is an “inalienable and/or inviolable” part of China, and/or what is “splittist” talk about the “internal affairs” of China, this is the first warning sign. Check to see what history books they have been reading, because what you are really witnessing is the cover up and justification for a simple, good old-fashioned “land grab,” and a lot of people are being dispossessed.

Jerome F. Keating Ph.D., co-author of Island in the Stream, a Quick Case Study of Taiwan’s Complex History and numerous articles on Taiwan’s politics, has lived in Taiwan for the past 16 years. Other writings can be found at


China’s export onslaught

Posted by Martyn

One thing that many China expatriates have known for years, especially those involved in joint ventures, is that foreign firms with Chinese joint venture partners, with their insatiable demands for cash, technology and professional know-how, would badly lose out when their ex-joint venture partners and Chinese subcontractors started manufacturing and exporting for themselves. In my experience, Chinese companies normally use foreign firms as merely a stepping stone on the way to acheiving their own goals.

In the last two decades, Japan and the former Asian Tigers progressed from manufacturing-based to high-tech economies just at the same time as China opened up to foreign investment. Jobs and factories were outsourced to China to take advantage of the cheap and unlimited labour. Currently, other Asian countries account for around two thirds of total F.D.I. into China. South Korean companies, however, are seeing their decision to invest in China come back to haunt them:

Take Chinese MP3 player manufacturer AVC, which recently entered the Korean market with its SIGN brand. Located in Shenzhen, the company was originally a subcontractor for Korea’s largest MP3 manufacturer Reigncom. To add insult to injury, its products are well received in Korea and have won design prizes in Europe.

China’s largest home electronics manufacturer Haier, meanwhile, whose affordable air conditioners are a hit in Korea, has now started selling premium LCD TVs, while China’s top PC manufacturer Lenovo, which has launched a full-scale assault on the Korean market this year, is vowing to cleanse the image of Chinese products of its cheap and tacky reputation.

Chinese-made goods have already secured over 80 percent of the Korean market. Now, the Chinese invasion has gone upscale, with anything from digital TVs to spandex and heavy industries like steel and chemicals.

China already dominates many international markets, such as textiles. Although foreign-funded companies still account for a majority of exported goods out of China, domestic firms are catching up fast. Chinese manufacturers are also moving up the technology ladder and starting to export high-tech goods. As above, dominating countries like South Korea in their own markets with cheaper versions of products that Koreans have long made for themselves and the rest of the world. The next big Chinese export onslaught will be automobiles.

While Chinese companies still have a lot to learn about the global marketplace and, unlike Japan in the 80s, are somewhat less willing to learn from foreigners and overseas Chinese, the oncoming onslaught of Chinese manufactured goods is, I fear, unstoppable.


Always use a Clinton

Posted by Martyn

China’s citizens will soon have the choice of buying two new brands of condoms, ‘Clinton’ condoms and ‘Lewinsky’ condoms:

A condom maker in southern China’s Guangdong province is marketing its products under “Clinton” and “Lewinsky” brands and has registered the names as trademarks, state press said.

The Guangzhou Haojian Bio-science Co is selling its wares under the Chinese spelling of the names that read “Kelintun” and “Laiwensiji,” the New Express reported.

The names in China are easily recognizable as former US president Bill Clinton and his one time lover, Monica Lewinsky.

The Clinton brand is set to be the company’s top product selling for some 30 yuan (3.7 dollars) for a pack of 12, while the Lewinsky brand was expected to fetch 18 yuan.

The company unveiled the product on Monday. General manager Liu Wenhua expressed confidence the names would not get him into trouble since they are only “trademarks of two foreign surnames and can’t be seen as a violation of rights,” the report said.

For anyone not au fait with the price of condoms in Mainland China, almost US$4 for a pack of twelve ‘Clintons’ is fairly expensive. However, US2.50 for 12 ‘Lewinskys’ is fairly cheap and towards the lower end of the market.


“Shanghai at Risk” – Three Gorges Dam threatens “chaos”

Simon Winchester warned us all about it years ago in The River at the Center of the World — the Three Gorges Dam was a geological aberration that would one day reap its retribution on Shanghai. This Chengdu professor backs up Winchester’s claims and fears that with less silt and less water heading to Shanghai, myriad problems will result including less land, acute water shortages and water salinization, both of which would devastate local economies. Just one more thing for China to worry about. Thanks, Li Peng!


China’s charm school challenge

Posted by Martyn.

China’s government has initiated a charm offensive to try to teach its citizens good manners before the 2008 Olympics. Although China certainly does not have a monopoly on rude behavior, among the bad habits that the government is keen to eradicate before 2008 are spitting, blowing one’s nose onto the pavement, queue jumping and aggressive jostling, men lounging around half-naked in public, cooking on the street, urinating in public, eating loudly, not using napkins, throwing discarded meat bones on the table or floor, shouting into mobile phones anytime, anywhere, aggressive driving, poor personal hygiene and other socially unacceptable behaviour, as this article explains:

“Some people’s manners in China are atrocious, but you have to start somewhere,” said Yue-sai Kan, author of “Etiquette for the Modern Chinese.” “I think it’s great what the government is doing. I wish the New York City government would do this.” Among various initiatives in manners are televised courses, slogans, billboards and local contests.

China’s politeness push may be more challenging than elsewhere, however, in part because of the country’s history. After the communists took power in 1949, etiquette wasn’t just pushed aside, it was often actively rooted out, sociologists say. That was particularly true during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when refinement was condemned as a ruling-class plot to inhibit people and keep them down.

TV talk shows, dramas and prime-time mini-spots provide lessons nationwide on everything from public fighting to the proper use of cellphones. Universities hold etiquette contests, slogans on village walls urge farmers to create a civilized society, and neighborhoods take part in “courteous community” competitions.

The behaviour of mainlanders has also been in the news recently. Last week, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily newspaper reported that mainland visitors to HK Disneyland behaved appallingly, flouting rules, smoking cigarettes in restaurants and other nonsmoking areas, dropping litter, wandering around barefoot and allowing children to urinate everywhere. A mainland tourist at the theme park responded by saying that they had paid their money and can do what they want.

Referees at a world snooker tournament held in China last April were exasperated at the behaviour of some spectators, specifically the noisy outbursts and constant ringing of mobile phones. Also, in July, on an evening that China’s state press called a “night of shame,” the crowd at a China-Puerto Rica basketball game went crazy, throwing missiles and screaming insults after a Chinese player was fouled. The China Daily warned that this kind of atrocious behaviour could grow like a cancer and destroy the entire Olympics.

Is it arrogant for non-Chinese people to accuse the people here of rudeness just because they don’t conform to their own ideas of polite social behaviour? Is there an international standard for basic good manners? Does the government really need to use public campaigns to try and improve behaviour?


How Many Moon Cakes Did You Eat?

An open thread to start the week…


Boycott Yahoo?

The SCMP is unlinkable, but luckily I got my hands on this complete, must-read article (it’s a pdf, I’m afraid but still required reading) on how Yahoo damaged itself with its handling of the Shi Tao incident. It quotes blogger Stephen Frost, who gets it just right:

Stephen Frost, research fellow at the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, said foreign internet companies were too caught up with making money in China and had failed to think through the potential fallout should they be called on to behave in ways unsettling to customers at home.

“While it is easy to get seduced by all the money that can be made out of these new technologies in China, there is a flip side to the coin. It’s taken Yahoo a number of years to develop a good reputation, but it has taken a couple of days in the blog frontline and mainstream media to bring that reputation into disrepute,” he said.

“This is the kind of thing that people don’t forget. It will always be there on the internet. Whenever you type in Yahoo and China in the search engine, these are the sorts of things that are always going to pop up. People will always sort of refer back to them: ‘You know Yahoo was the informant for the mainland police.'”

Read the whole thing, and then scroll down to the second article about Bill Gates whining about how Microsoft “was f*cked by China.” Coudn’t have happened to a nicer company.


No In-Laws, and a Place to Hang Your Hat…

posted by Other Lisa, cross-posted at the paper tiger

Fascinating article at BBC News about a traditional culture in China that is anything but “traditional” in terms of its social structure:

Tourists come to Lugu Lake for the beauty and tranquillity. The still azure waters are surrounded by densely forested mountains, and the homes are made of natural timber with colourful Tibetan-style window shutters and balconies.

But that is not the only reason the tourists come. Visitors also beat a path to the region because of their fascination with the unique social structure of the Mosuo people, which is very different from that of China’s other 54 ethnic groups.

“Mosuo women have the responsibility for all family affairs,” explained 42-year-old Ruhen Zashi Chili, in the lakeside hamlet of Lou Shui.

“And most importantly, women determine the family line and only women have the right to inherit.”

Traditionally, sons live with their mothers, while their fathers have little to do with the child’s welfare.

In fact, in the Mosuo language, the word “father” does not even exist, and neither does the concept of in-laws.

It’s unclear what factors are responsible for the Mosuo’s unusual social arrangements – the article mentions the lure of the Silk Road, which led many Mosuo men far away from home. But what developed among the Mosuo is so different from traditional Han society that I’m reminded how so much of what we sometimes take for granted as being “traditional” or “natural” forms of social structures are just some of the variations that human beings have devised to live with each other.

For instance, according to this article, marriages in their more traditional forms did not exist among the Mosuo:

Love affairs were encouraged – but only “walking marriages” took place, in which men could visit at night so long as they returned to their mother’s home before breakfast.

In a “walking marriage,” the man enters the woman’s home by the back door of the house, or if necessary, climbs in through the window. The man then hangs his hat outside the window to inform others that he’s inside.

Mosuo relationships are uncomplicated. There are no formalities binding a couple together. If complacency sets in, they just stop seeing each other.

In a ‘walking marriage’, you have to enter the girl’s home by the back door or climb up through the window… We then hang our hat outside the window to tell others that there’s a man inside.

“The advantage of our walking marriage is that we don’t have the in-law problem to deal with. But the Han Chinese have this problem,” said 17-year-old Bima Qizou, who described Mosuo relationships as “pure love”.

“Our love is direct! If we love each other, we tell each other directly. We don’t consider family background, social position and economic standing.”

With the influx of tourists, Han Chinese and the inevitable intrusion of the 21st century, it’s uncertain how much, if any, of the Mosuo’s traditions will survive. For the immediate future, their economic security may depend on their draw as a tourist destination – selling handicrafts and souvenirs and performing traditional songs, ballads once sung by the women to attract a lover. Now, as the article puts it, the future for the Mosuo of Lugu Lake may be “as performers…in a reality show about their lost culture.”


China warns on U.N. right of intervention

Posted by Martyn

China reacted angrily to a new United Nations agreement on Monday which approved the principle that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians threatened by genocide, war crimes or ethnic cleansing and includes the right to intervene if necessary. The agreement aims to prevent further massacres such as those seen in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxiang insisted in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly that the authorization of the Security Council was required for any action to prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis:

“We are against any willful intervention on the ground of rash conclusion that a nation is unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens,” Li said.

China, a veto-bearing permanent member of the Security Council, has been the major power most reluctant to allow U.N. intervention to protect civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region or censure of the human rights record of Zimbabwe. It also opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

One of the main principles of China’s foreign policy is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Indeed, China regularly roars its disapproval every time the West cites hum@n r1ghts abuses, the Taiwan issue, internal fre3d0ms and the like. China’s critics have called this policy very convenient as China counts such pariah states such as North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Uzbekistan among its international friends. China, however, argues that it simply respects the internal affairs of other sovereign nations.

This principle of non-interference, for good or for ill, does suit China’s purposes very well. This also explains why China consistently resists any further U.N. moves to increase its powers regarding international intervention. Is China sticking to its principles or simply avoiding the risk that one day the U.N. might possibly turn its attention towards China?


China’s increasing size

Posted by Martyn

Shenzhen Ren has a great post regarding obesity in both America and, increasingly, China. He also smashes a few myths along the way in ‘Nature, Nurture and Fat’:

I’ve heard analyses for I don’t know how long, on cultural differences and obesity. America is one of the most overweight countries on earth, maybe the most. It’s been attributed to gluttony, sloth, and all sorts of sinful attributes.


A lot of this piffle comes from people who have more eagerness to pontificate than to pay close attention. Before getting into complex moral analyses, why not look at some very simple facts first.

The rest of the post is essential reading. Obesity comes soon after a population has access to cheap and plentiful food, especially of the high-fat, high sugar variety. Also, lack of exercise, car ownership, watching TV, sitting in front of a computer, playing electronic games etc. all contribute to the problem.

More than 60% of US adults are overweight or obese. The figure is 30% in China. Obesity is especially prevalent among Chinese children, particularly urban middle-class children. Some commentators argue that the One-Child Policy has produced a nation of doting parents and grandparents indulging their little prince’s/princess’s every whim, which normally includes McDonalds and KFC.