Chinese in Motion

Migration and identity are tough issues, particularly as our tendency towards literalism (you thought we were all postmodernists? Not even close.) with regard to concepts like nation and ethnicity continues to grow. Using Nationmaster, Sun Bin produced some lovely maps of the Chinese Diaspora. My only big quibble is the lack of data for the Russian Federation, given the thousands of Chinese in the Russian East before the PRC and particularly in the present. Still, it’s a fantastic example of the ease with which data and imaging tools can produce fantastic graphics.

A while back, I ran across this critique of media coverage of Taiwan [via] from Michael Turton (a fantastic Taiwan-based blogger, with lots of links and interesting things to say, including a regular roundup of Taiwan blogs that looks like a great resource) which actually illustrated for me this tendency to literalism quite strongly. In this particular post he actually argues that “China has never owned Taiwan” largely because Taiwan was “never the possession of any ethnic Chinese emperor.” In other words, the Qing dynasty which conquered Taiwan and which was the acknowledged possessor of it in international law (up to 1895, when the Japanese got it as part of the Sino-Japanese war indemnity), doesn’t count as Chinese.

From a strictly literal ethnic point of view, and based on thoroughly modern concepts of international law, there’s some grounding to that: the Qing dynasty was Manchurian in origin, ethnically distinct and based on conquest. Though Qing emperors lived very typical Chinese Imperial lives, throughout the Qing, the government was deeply concerned that non-Manchu Chinese would discover some ethnic solidarity or identity (Kuhn’s Soulstealers is a good example, from mid-dynasty) and there’s no question that part of the fall of the Qing was related to irredentist Han nationalism. But that’s a very late development; there’s about two centuries of the Qing dynasty in which nobody seriously questions the legitimacy of Manchu rule. If the Qing isn’t legitimately Chinese, then the modern borders of China — based on Qing conquests — need serious reconsideration, particularly in the west.

But the “strictly literal ethnic” and “thoroughly modern concepts of international law” are absurdities when applied that far back or that literally. While I’m sympathetic to Turton’s position on Taiwanese independence, applying the same principles would delegitimize its current government — based on ethnic migration and conquest — and probably (since Turton seems to acknowledge Japanese colonization) result in US control of the island. More to the point, it presumes an historical purity which runs counter to all experience.

Non Sequitur: a bibliography of Chinese popular religion scholarship


  1. first, thanks for the link.

    i share your view on the 2 posts about taiwan.

    a couple short notes
    1) about “manchu vs han”. a point to note is that they are both chinese now,
    in that almsot all manchurians are of chinese nationality today (except some who live in Outer Manchuria (Russian FE),
    and there is no independent manchu nation nor even separatism movement.
    so one way to view this is that manchu owned taiwan, manchu merged with han to become a nationa called china today.
    when 2 nations merger…

    2) there is also Zheng Chenggong (aka Koxinga, the separatists preferred to use that name to make him look non-chinese,
    but koxinga is really fujian dialect for Guo-xing-jia (the family who has been awarded the surname of the (Ming) emperor).
    Zheng may have some japanese gene in his blood, but he was raised in china and culturally chinese, he also pledged his loyalty with Ming.

    i think arguments like those put forward by thurton is quite meaningless (even commical).
    i am always puzzled at why the taiwan separatist would use the much weaker
    historic/legal argument instead of simply the principle of self-determination.
    it is like a bird choosing to fight a cat on the ground.

  2. I have my academic bias, but respectfully it’s not an absurdity, but a reality. It’s politics, the might part butting up against the right part. It’s an extreme case thta demonstrates that law needs to be supported by power That’s why the Taiwan case is so fascinating. Taiwan is everyhting all protagonist say it is, all at the same time. Historically, what is compelling is how all these perspectives, Chinese, old and new, Japanese, American, indigenous Taiwanese, and KMT came together to create these conundrum. From an IR and geostrategic perspective, the task is figure out the why and the solution.

  3. While I sympathize with the Taiwanese state remaining independent until it decides that union with the mainland is in its interest, the fact remains that it still claims to represent the “Republic of China”, Chinese is its language, and Chinese is its culture to the great majority of Taiwanese. That said, the world is large enough to accomodate multiple Chinese states, just as it presently accomodates several German states.

  4. lirelou is right.

    even in post-Qin history,
    there had been 10 chinese states in the 9th century,
    2-16 states from 5th-6th century,
    3 states in the 3rd

    in china’s modern definition that includes the jurgen as chinese,
    it was 3 states (song+liao/jin+west hsia) from 10th-13th centure.

    PRC really needs to take a more pragmatic appraoch to its ‘one china’ policy.

  5. For those of you who are interested in debating the nature of China’s present day governance and society, why not visit The MAJ-Sojourner Debate at:

    Both Sojourner and I would greatly appreciate your participation – subjects cover the issues of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, media autonomy, and the growth of a civil society.

    [Technically, this is spam — out of context trafficmongering — but the site itself is sufficiently interesting that I’m gonna let it slip through. — JFD]

  6. Then should we grant that the People’s Republic of China the status as the inheritors of the Qing Empire? Are Qing and China the same thing? When people ask me my field of study, I tend to reply “History of the Qing Empire” and then respond to the inevitable quizzical looks by simplifying my response as “Chinese” History. Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang all at some point or another fell under direct control of the Qing government. The PRC’s claims to these territories is based on their being the direct successors to the Qing. Countries such as the US might want to tread lightly in sorting out territorial sovereignty claims based on historical conquest and territorial seizure. (Many Americans would like to see a “Free Tibet” but not so many are eager to give Alta California back to Mexico.)

    As Sun Bin suggests, the principle of self determination seems a stronger argument here. What do the people in those places really want? Is there any way to accurately measure support for independence or change in status?

    In the end, the issues of territorial integrity suggest (after Kuhn’s Soulstealers) a dark forboding in prosperous times for the current regime. If the Qianlong Emperor’s boogie man was Manchu ethnicity then surely for the CCP one important question is its own legitimacy as the heirs of an Empire.

    I agree with scholars such as Peking University’s Pan Wei 潘维 (admittedly controversial) who have suggested that China needs to develop the confidence to admit that their claims to these territories are based solely on Qing conquest but that what’s done is done and it’s all a part of China now. This would stop the silly charade of Chinese History textbooks in the PRC spending pages tracing the depths of the friendship between Han and Central Asian down to the days of the Han Dynasty and whatnot.

    Final note, I would modify Sun Bin’s claim by saying that Zheng Chenggong/Koxinga 鄭成功/國姓爺 had more than just “some Japanese gene in his blood,” his mother was fully Japanese and some sources claim that he was actually born in Nagasaki Prefecture in Japan.

  7. J. Many of the arguments pro and con Koxinga’s career remind me of arguments pro and con a certain Genoan born Cristobal Colon/Cristofero Colombo, possibly the son of a Jewish mother or “conversos”, who sailed for Spain and died “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”.

  8. lirelou,

    I would agree with you. I think it is fascinating how the figure of Koxinga has been deployed in Taiwan, China, and Japan. There are temples assigned to him in, I believe, both Taiwan and Japan. In literature, he is appears often in stories, novels, and teleplays in China and was also the subject of Chikamatasu Monzaemon’s play (bunraku, was it?) “The Battle of Koxinga.” (国姓爺合戦) As for Koxinga’s lineage, don’t you think that it’s sometimes more interesting to track the (often competing) claims on a particular historical figure over time than it is to try to peg down the actual birthblace or nationality? Columbus was a nice comparison. Thanks.

  9. J, as far as I know there are no competing claims for Koxinga’s lineage. I’ve seen multiple sources in Chinese, Japanese and English that all say his mother was Japanese. The exact details of how much time he lived in Japan as a child and so on are perhaps a little less clear, but his actual parentage seems to have been well document.

  10. Sorry, I wasn’t more clear in comment #9 as in my original comment (#7). Koxinga was kind an aside to my larger argument anyway. By ‘competing claims’ I wasn’t disputing his lineage, only the continued use of Koxinga in popular culture and mythology, sometimes as a Chinese hero, sometimes as a Japanese, and sometimes as a Taiwanese hero.

  11. The comments that “China has never owned Taiwan” and “Taiwan was never the possession of any ethnic Chinese emperor” don’t quite go far enough. The fact is that the Republic of China has no legal claims to Taiwan either. For those who are unfamiliar with the history, when the ROC was founded in 1912, Taiwan was part of Japan. In 1945, the military troops of Chiang Kai-shek were directed to come to Taiwan to accept the surrender of Japanese forces, thus marking the beginning of the military occupation of Taiwan. The United States is the “conqueror” and the “principal occupying power”, and the ROC military troops are only exercising delegated administrative authority for the military occupation. In the post war peace treaty, the territorial sovereignty of Taiwan was not awarded to the ROC. Based on these historical and legal facts, Taiwan is “an overseas territory under the jurisdiction of the USA.” A new lawsuit has been filed in Washington D.C. in order to have the Taiwanese people’s rights under US laws, and the US Constitution, fully recognized. Details on the case are available at —

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