Han Man’s Burden: The Communists and the Construction of Zhonghua minzu

  • James Leibold


In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm argued that traditions that appear or claim to be old, especially those that have to do with the supposed antiquity of national identity, are often of quite recent origin.1 China might appear to be a natural exception to this current historiographie axiom. With more than three thousand years of written history—progressing from ancient ideographs inscribed on animal bones through the numerous official and unofficial dynastic histories—Chinese historians, unlike their counterparts in Australia, France, or the United States, seem immune from the need to invent a historical legacy for their nation. But because of the sheer size and complexity of this documentation, historians in China have assumed the important responsibility of creating continuity from the dissonance of the historical record—inventing order where none exists. So, too, early twentieth-century historians, answering the nationalist appeal to save the nation, attempted to project a desired state of national unity onto Chinas historical past. In imagining a unified and homogeneous national community, Chinese historians imposed a linear and unbroken narrative of racial and cultural continuity on the rich ethnic mosaic of Chinese history—creating an arabesque of temporal and spatial connections that tightly bound the diversity of the Chinese minzus, or “nationalities,” together in a shared myth of national unfolding.


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© James Leibold 2007

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  • James Leibold

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