News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A rushed and incomplete review of Escaping the Muddy Trap of China by Lin Zhi-Sheng. Lin trots out the usual suspects while explaining why Taiwan should be independent from China. But there is a simple logic which he does not go into and which I've not seen raised in magazines and books so far. And that is that Qing dynasty China, which ruled Taiwan, is not at all politically speaking the China of today.

China was ruled by the Manchus from 1661 until 1911. Ergo, China was not China but was an extension of Manchuria. In other words, part of the Manchu empire. Ergo, Sun Yat-sen was not born in China, he was born in the Manchu Empire's Canton Province. Just as Benjamin Franklin was not born in the United States: he was born in the British Empire's Massachusetts Colony.

So, the Manchus ruled Taiwan during the Qing dynasty; not China and not the Chinese. After all, when the Manchus came into power in 1661 they legislated a caste system for their new empire. There were four castes: the Manchus being top-dog, the Mongolians coming second, the Chinese third, and the aborigines fourth. Marriage between Manchus and Chinese was a capital offense. (The death penalty for those who aren't sure). Chinese were forbidden from moving to the Manchu homeland until late in the 19th century. So to say that the Manchus and their empire were rapidly Sinified seems like a bit of a stretch and more like wishful thinking.

One of the first national edicts that the Manchus laid out was the banning of a mainstay of the Chinese diet and traditional Chinese pharmacology: human meat (consistently the cheapest meat for 2000 years) and human organs (Chinese traditional medicine was never just about politically correct herbs).

Even the notion of China as a nation-state is a modern invention, because the notion of nation-state is a modern one. This helps explain why Mao Zedong was first an advocate of an independent nation of Henan before becoming the Great Helmsman. Zhongguo is a term that only became popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to this, terms such as Zhonghua and Hua were used and they more properly connote Chinese civilization and not the notion of fixed national boundaries.

An enduring reflection of this is the fact that about 46% of today's Chinese population does not speak Mandarin Chinese and that the Party has recently begun to ban the use of dialects in radio and television again. China traditionally was not a nation of Chinese people, but a collection of disparate provinces populated by illiterate, untraveled, and geographically ignorant peasants who spoke different often mutually unintelligible languages and who had no conception of membership within or loyalty to a nation at all. They were proud to be affiliated with Chinese culture, but their loyalties were local, to their village or hamlet, and not national. Even today there are millions and millions of school-graduated folk living in the interior and who speak and read Mandarin and who yet can't find the capital city, Beijing, on a map of China and who have yet to even discover that Taiwan is an island.

China (the nation-state of the Chinese people) never ruled Taiwan because the Japanese took over control of Taiwan in 1895 and the Manchu Empire did not fall until 1911. China did not come into existence until the civil war ended, the country was unified, and the last elements of warlordism eradicated in 1949~1950.

Chiang Kai-shek took control of Taiwan in 1945 but he himself was never in control of China the nation-state as it remained a congeries of warlords while he headed it. One of the problems that US General Joseph Stillwell had with training Chang Kai-shek's troops to fight the Japanese was that he did not dare deploy any of his troops from China proper. His leadership position was so weak that he was afraid he would be overthrown in a coup d'état by his fellow generals (a polite term for fellow warlords) were he to remove any of his troops from central China to the border with Burma.

'China' prior to the unification of the country under Mao Zedong was a loose, rubbery term akin to 'America' prior to the unification of the United States in 1776 (or 1782, depending on how you wish to define things). America, prior to the declaration of independence by thirteen of the colonies of the British Empire, referred to the land mass existing between the North Pole and the Panam√° isthmus. In other words, America then is not America today, which refers to the 50 United States including Hawaii and territories such as Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Similarly, China is a term of convenience which, under the magnifying glass, turns out not to be a term referring to a fixed territory. Worse, China, if used as a term to describe the nation of the Chinese people, disappeared under the Moguls and the Manchus. What was not a nation-state was even less so while conquered and reorganized by empires administrated by alien peoples. Saying that China has existed continuously is comparable to a scenario whereby the present-day Indian nations were to throw out all of America's immigrants of the last 400 years and then claim that America has always and uninterruptedly been the nation of the Indian peoples. This could only be superficially persuasive if, as victors, they were rewriting history. Communist China, the victor, has done just this.

At this stage, anyway, the claim that Taiwan belongs to China today because Taiwan belonged to China in the past, fails to persuade me. Just as the cry of numerous Chinese patriots in Shanghai that Alaska in fact belongs to China fails to persuade me. Just as the predictable future bleating of Chinese patriots that Zhengho's discovery of America (if Gavin Menzies theory turns out to be correct) signifies that the entirety of the North American continent belongs to the sacred territory of the Chinese people will inevitably fail to persuade me.

Biff Cappuccino

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