Monday, February 22, 2010

William A. Callahan's "China: The Pessoptimist Nation"

William A. Callahan is Professor of International Politics and China Studies at the University of Manchester, and Co-Director of the British Inter-University China Center at Oxford University. His recent publications include Cultural Governance and Resistance in Pacific Asia (2006) and Contingent States: Greater China and Transnational Relations (2004).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, China: The Pessoptimist Nation, and reported the following:
The goal of China: The Pessoptimist Nation is to offer a new approach to understanding China. It does this first by showing how positive and negative factors (e.g. optimism and pessimism) are intimately intertwined in Chinese understandings of China’s politics. Hence to understand China’s dreams of national glory, we also need to understand its nightmare of national humiliation.

The book’s second strategy is to shift from answering the standard social science question “what is China?” with statistics of economic and military power, to ask “when, where and who is China?” The aim is to explore how identity and security inform each other. Page 99 is part of Chapter 3, “Where is China?” The answer to this question seems obvious. We just need to look at a proper map. But this chapter digs up different maps from the early twentieth century, when China was emerging as a nation-state after two millennia as an empire, to show how the proper shape of China was not at all clear. Rather than treating such maps as objective presentations of the facts, the chapter uses the concept of “geobody” to see maps as social artefacts that are instruments of political power.

To recall China: The Pessoptimist Nation’s first strategy, I point out how these maps are both positive and negative, recording China’s dreams of continental grandeur, alongside its nightmare of “lost territories.”

Conveniently, Page 99 opens with a new section:
Defining China’s Borders (1): Outside/In

To understand how the geobody emerged through an interplay of imperial domain and sovereign territory, it is helpful to see how on Chinese maps the outside defines the inside, and the inside defines the outside. The first official map of the Republic of China, which was published in the Republic’s founding Almanac (1912), graphically shows the ambiguity of China’s borders (see Figure 4.4). This Almanac is interesting precisely because it does not simply list dates and places. As we saw in Chapter 3, the Almanac actively asserts a new time for a new China by instituting a new calendar, complete with tables to convert dates from the old imperial Lunar calendar to the new Republican Julian calendar. Likewise, the Almanac’s “Map of the Republic of China” carves out a new space for this nascent nation-state; as with the new calendar, the new map was “issued for enforcement.”1

Still, this map of China and its Asian neighbors does not assert clear boundaries between the ROC and other sovereign states; it is actually hard to pick “China” out from the rest of the continent. The map is thus like the first constitutions of the Republic, which state that “The sovereign territory of the Republic of China continues to be the same as the domain of the former Empire.”2 But this simply begs the question of defining the domain of the Qing dynasty – which as we saw above relied on a different way of mapping the world. While maps of the late Qing empire are characteristically dotted with textual annotations,3 the Republican map is largely blank. On this 1912 national map, physical and economic geographies are more important than political geography: the lines marking rivers and railroads are more prominent than those defining international boundaries. The first official map of China thus shows that in the early twentieth century it was not clear how the Qing imperial domain would map onto the sovereign territory of the new Republic: if we look closely we can see that this map is already claiming much of Central, East and Southeast Asia as lost territory for the Republic. While the Qing dynasty’s late imperial maps marked various places as vassals, the Almanac’s map of the Republic marks Korea, Vietnam and other territories as “originally our vassal, now a vassal of Japan/France/Britain.” Like on the untitled map of civilization and barbarism (1743, Figure 4.3), China is Asia. China’s first national map thus reproduces the logic of imperial cartography to frame neighboring territories as part of China’s domain.

The “Map of Chinese National Humiliation” (1916, Figure 4.5) and the “Map of China’s National Humiliation” (1930, Figure 4.6) graphically
The sentence continues on page 100: “demonstrate both the anxiety of China unravelling, and the importance of asserting a new unity through the Republic.4” The point is that Chinese understandings of their territorial identity are still framed by this positive/negative, unity/disunity dynamic. Even though China has enjoyed fabulous political and economic success recently, new maps of national humiliation have been issued in the past decade. Such maps also help us understand the Han majority’s remarkably unsympathetic view of ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. Rather than seeing peoples who want to express their distinctive identities, Han Chinese see territories that risk being “lost.”
Read an excerpt from China: The Pessoptimist Nation, and learn more about the book at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue