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Introduction

  • James Leibold
Chapter

Abstract

To most observers, China appears to be a uniquely bounded and indivisible entity with a long and unbroken history as a single, unified civilization. The eminent English historian Eric Hobsbawm is not alone in claiming that China (like Korea and Japan) is “indeed among the extremely rare examples of historic states composed of a population that is ethnically almost or entirely homogeneous.”1 Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed the highly advanced nature of the civilization that took root in the Yellow River valley more than five thousand years ago. With its stratified social order, plant and animal domestication, and sophisticated bronze tools, this civilization, in the words of the best-selling author and evolutionary biologists Jared Diamond, had a “disproportionate” influence on its neighboring peoples, drawing them into an “ancient melting pot” and creating today’s political, cultural, and linguistic monolith.2 It was the “civilizing superiority” of this culture that led the doyen of American sinology, John Fairbank, to conclude that by the beginning of their written history “the Chinese people had already achieved a degree of cultural homogeneity and isolated continuity hard to match elsewhere in the world.”3 Chinese scholars share a similar confidence in the unified and primordial nature of the Chinese people. While admitting that consciousness of a distinct Zhonghua minzu (Chinese race/nation) developed only in the course of the country’s resistance to Western imperialism, China’s most famous ethnographer Fei Xiaotong has argued that the Zhonghua minzu has a long history rooted in more than five thousand years of racial and cultural melding minzu ronghe). 4

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© James Leibold 2007

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  • James Leibold

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