Demystifying Mainland Southeast Asia

There is an edited volume that was published a year ago called Demystifying China: New Understandings of Chinese History. It contains 24 chapters and the authors of each chapter attempt to challenge many assumptions that people have about China, such as the assumption that there has always been a unified and clearly defined place and people that we can safely refer to as “China” and “the Chinese,” respectively.

In the first chapter, “The Chinese,” Peter Perdue takes up the task of “demystifying” ideas about “the Chinese” people. He begins by stating the following:

“One of modern China’s most powerful ideas has asserted that the Chinese people have formed a single collective unit from ancient times through the present. This nationalist claim of primordial unity still retains a strong grip on academic history and popular consciousness. The historian who wants to tell a more nuanced story has to debunk this idea but also explain why it has such broad appeal.”


Perdue then goes on to look at, and challenge, various aspects of the view that “the Chinese people have formed a single collective unit from ancient times through the present.” He notes, for instance, that “Genetic evidence does not indicate that all citizens of contemporary China descended from a common ancestor.”

He also points out that “Modern archaeology also does not support the thesis of a single people inhabiting the territory of modern China,” but instead, that modern archaeologists have come to realize that there were “multiple centers” in antiquity in the area that we now refer to as “China.”

Perdue then notes that “Such evidence for multiple centers of cultural innovation undermines the idea of essential unity that supports the notion of a single people. . . Chinese and Western archaeologists still debate the extent to which these multiple cultures formed a single ‘interaction sphere,’ but the assumption of a blended, uniform culture from ancient times has no empirical support.”


One thing that did create some degree of unity was political control, but the history of political rule in the region is complex. Perdue states, for instance, that “Dynastic rulers. . . have repeatedly consolidated control over much of modern China’s territory. . . . [but that] For a large part of the period from 221 BCE to 1911 CE, contending polities divided up the core of modern China (China Proper).”

He then goes on to note that “In any case, political unification is a poor indicator of cultural or racial unity. All of the dynasties ruled over a great diversity of peoples, and they never called them all by a single name. The only feature these peoples had in common was their subjection to an imperial elite. They spoke different languages, made a living in different ways, practiced different religions, and frequently moved around, through, and across borders.”


“The elites of the dynasties whose rulers came from Central Eurasia, like the Tang, Yuan, and Qing, had mixed ethnic origins. The Tang rulers were part Turkish, the Yuan combined Mongols, Persians, Turks, Han Chinese, and even a European (Marco Polo) in its governing class, and the Qing ruled with a triple coalition of Manchus, Mongols and Han Chinese.”

“The dynasties held together for a long period of time not because they represented a single unified ethnic group. On the contrary, they succeeded because they adapted their policies to meet the demands of multiple distinct ethnic groups. These groups did interact with each other, but they never ‘blended into a single nation.’”


The ideas that Perdue expresses in this chapter are not new. What he has done in this chapter is to collect together ideas that many historians in the West have talked about over the past few decades.

Reading his chapter made me think about what a chapter that follows Perdue’s line of argumentation would look like it if was written about “the Thai” or “the Burmese” or “the Vietnamese.” I think that a lot of what he says about “China” and “the Chinese” has definite parallels with peoples and places in mainland Southeast Asia, and the ways that they have been written about by modern scholars.

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