In This Review

What Is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History
What Is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History
By Ge Zhaoguang. Translated by Michael Gibbs Hill
Belknap Press, 2018, 224 pp

This erudite polemic targets the aggressive nationalism that is widespread in China today. The author draws on a wide range of Chinese and foreign sources to describe how the majority Han ethnic group was forged, how it negotiated relations with surrounding peoples, and how China’s borders grew and shrank and grew again over time. He accepts that China has a distinct Han culture, characterized by a belief in an orderly moral hierarchy flowing from nature through the state, society, and family to the individual. But he denies that this culture is eternally fixed, essentially benevolent, or inherently superior, or that it can speak for China’s other ethnic groups. In a similar way, he sees China’s current borders as a product of history, not cosmically mandated or, as the Chinese government claims when speaking ofTibet, unaltered “since ancient times.” Only in the final chapter does he explilitly address what he calls “practical questions,” drawing together the threads of his argument to criticize those who use a mythicized version of history to justify a China-centric world order.