Every rule invites an exception as proof of itself, and if nation states were invented as a result of the rise of nationalism as an ideology in the 19th century, China seems at first sight just such a handy exception. Pre-modern China already had the features of a nation state: a common language, culture and bureaucracy. What occurred, the argument runs, was t the invention of a nation but a transition between culturalism (a sense of China as the centre of civilization) and nationalism. This study is a robust rebuttal of that view. Nationhood was invented for China in ways inflected by its experience of imperialism and colonialism but otherwise similar to those that occurred elsewhere. The early 19th century found Chinese people of all classes with a strong sense of identity focused around the state. During the course of the century, a series of military defeats created widespread awareness of the world of nation states. Elite modernising responses to this threat led to a division between popular nationalism and elite modern nationalism. At the centre of modern nationalism lay the political parties that had arisen in the early 20th century and that by the 1920s had succeeded in dominating the processes through which the nation was being imagined and invented. The politicized nation they created then spread from the coastal cities to the rural interior through propaganda, Japanese invasion and the deep penetration of the post-1949 communist state.
Henrietta Harrison is Professor of History at Harvard University.