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What Did Make the Chinese “Chinese”? Some Geographical Perspectives

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Any reflection on the origins of civilization in China has to consider both the “whatness” and the “whyness” of the question: what the early culture was and why it assumed the particular forms that it did.1 I have discussed, in a number of papers, the religious, aesthetic, and stylistic choices that, in my view, helped to define the content of early Chinese culture, that represent its  whatness.”2 Some of these strategic cultural features would include: (1) A stress on hierarchical social distinctions; (2) the ability to mobilize labor on a massive scale; (3) an emphasis on the group rather than the individual—expressed in the impersonality and generality of artistic and literary representation, and generated and validated by a religion of ancestor worship that defined individuals in terms of their role and status in the system of sacrifice and descent; (4) an emphasis on ritual in all dimensions of life; (5) an emphasis on formal boundaries and models, as revealed in part by the great stress on social discipline and order in ethics and cosmology; (6) an ethic of service, obligation, and emulation; (7) little sense of tragedy or irony. 3 The issues addressed here represent some of my speculations on the “whyness” of the issue. They are designed to stimulate enquiry and reflection without necessarily hoping to convince.

And we can ask, what made the ancestors “ancestors”? . . . in the sense of what were the factors that led the early Chinese to make their ancestors, and their High God, in the particular ways that they did.


A consideration of the origins of civilization in China is likely to be shaped by what the literate Chinese of the early historical period thought, or claimed, had made them what they were. The kind of selective reshaping of the past, the creation of historicized fiction, that the Zhou (circa 1045–221 BCE) engaged in to justify their own political and cultural situation is, of course, not uncommon. One thinks, for example, of Israelite historiography, which has also reworked, if it did not create, the early history of Israel to tell a particular story of the chosen people.4 In the case of China, the transmitters of the received texts chose to emphasize the story of a morally-superior, centralizing elite, a story that can certainly be challenged on a variety of historiographical, regional, and class-based lines. Nevertheless, the early texts do much to establish the cultural terminus, at least that reserved for elites, to which early Chinese civilization, under a teleological perspective, may be seen as heading. I am prepared to define the emerging culture of the Eastern Zhou (771–221 BCE), Qin (221–206 BCE), and Han (206 BCE–CE 220) elites—with its respect for the written language, its concern with ritual and filiality, and its creation of a bureaucratic state that was nevertheless permeated with metaphors and practices that derived from kinship ties—as “Chinese,” and to treat the significant legacies those cultures inherited from the Shang as proto-Chinese.5