The Invention of China Bill Hayton

Publication date:
26 Apr 2022
Yale University Press
320 pages: 197 x 127mm
24 b-w illus. + 2 maps

"[A] smart take on modern Chinese nationalism" (Foreign Policy), this provocative account shows that “China”—and its 5,000 years of unified history—is a national myth, created only a century ago with a political agenda that persists to this day

China’s current leadership lays claim to a 5,000-year-old civilization, but “China” as a unified country and people, Bill Hayton argues, was created far more recently by a small group of intellectuals.
In this compelling account, Hayton shows how China’s present-day geopolitical problems—the fates of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea—were born in the struggle to create a modern nation-state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers and revolutionaries adopted foreign ideas to “invent’ a new vision of China. By asserting a particular, politicized version of the past the government bolstered its claim to a vast territory stretching from the Pacific to Central Asia. Ranging across history, nationhood, language, and territory, Hayton shows how the Republic’s reworking of its past not only helped it to justify its right to rule a century ago—but continues to motivate and direct policy today.

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House and a journalist with BBC World News. He is the author of The South China Sea and Vietnam.

“This highly readable book is a fascinating primer on how the Qing Great State, reflected in a hall of mirrors formed of western ideas, reflects back a founding narrative which serves current Chinese political objectives. Contemporary Chinese policy is contextualised and thus somewhat demystified for the reader.”—Christopher Ruane, Asian Affairs

‘China is never out of the news, but we need to stop and think why our conventional wisdom about the country may need rethinking.  Whether it's the name of the country itself, or the maps that underpin its territorial claims, Hayton is a sure, informed and often witty guide to understanding how this major state came to imagine itself.’—Rana Mitter, author of China's Good War

Immensely readable … As China becomes increasingly nationalistic and aggressive, how Party leaders view their national identity and destiny grows ever more critical. This is a valuable porthole into that important subject.’ —Orville Schell, author of Wealth and Power 

‘A remarkable tour de force. This prodigious, highly readable book enhances our understanding of the origins and possible future of China’s ethnic conflicts, territorial disputes, and great power aspirations.’ —Suisheng Zhao, Professor of International Studies, University of Denver

“Engaging . . . Historians, poets, film-makers inside and outside China have built, demolished and rebuilt a multidimensional country/culture object that is more shaped by than shaping the aspirations and anxieties of humanity."—Pamela Kyle Crossley, author of  The Wobbling Pivot, China since 1800

‘Hayton’s work challenges readers to remember that ideas defining “China” today are no more exceptional than those underpinning any state or nation. Assertions about rising from humiliation and immutable positions existing “since ancient times” are in fact creations of an ongoing, modernist state-building project.’—Ja Ian Chong, Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore