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Rethinking Early East Asian History

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“Asia” and National Identities

There may be Asian-Americans in the United States, but as Ronald Takaki shrewdly commented, “there are no Asians in Asia, only people with national identities, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, and Filipino.”1 Asia is simply too enormous, spanning the better part of the entire Old World, and too diverse, to serve as a very meaningful label. In fact, according to Robert Marks, on the eve of the American Revolution, in “1775, Asia produced about 80 percent of everything in the world.”2 Moreover, “Asia” is a concept of Western origin unfamiliar to many of the people who actually lived there. As both word and idea, “Asia,” is a legacy of the ancient Greeks. In East Asia there was absolutely no pre-modern native equivalent term.3 Even within Europe, John M. Hobson argues, it was not until the eighteenth century that a vision of a distinctive “Western Civilization” descended in a continuous line from Ancient Greece and fundamentally different from the Oriental Other, first began to be imagined.4 Certainly pre-modern East Asians did not think of themselves as “Asians.”

Yet they did not necessarily think of themselves exactly as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese in the fully modern sense either. There is a fairly broad consensus among specialist scholars, however counter-intuitive it may seem to a popular audience, that the phenomena of nation-states and nationalism emerged only in relatively recent times. Nationalism began in Europe, and, perhaps especially, in Europe’s overseas colonies struggling for independence in the Americas (including, notably, the future United States).5 The nationalist contagion then spread to East Asia in the late nineteenth century. It might plausibly be argued, therefore, that prior to roughly 1900, few people in East Asia held precisely our familiar modern national identities either.6

NOTES

1. Ronald T. Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (revised; Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), 502.

2. Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 81.

3. See Andrew L. March, The Idea of China: Myth and Theory in Geographical Thought (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), chapter 2: “The Myth of Asia.”

4. John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 219–242, 304, 308.

5. A classic study is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983; London: Verso, 1991). Our word “nation” derives from Latin, but its meaning has changed significantly over time. See Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 9. Examples of the voluminous literature on nationalism in East Asia include: Henrietta Harrison, China: Inventing the Nation (London: Arnold, 2001), and Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1998).

6. For China, see David Yen-ho Wu, “The Construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese Identities,” The Living Tree: the Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, ed. by Tu Wei-ming (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 150.

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