The Myth of China
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Courtesy: MIA Minneapolis Institute of Arts –

Myth attempts to capture in terms conceivable to humans some of the indeterminate qualities of the divine unknown. Hence myth is something that is understood as – “does not tell truths, but does tell the truth”; a myth is something that “never was, but always is.”1 The myth of China while not real, has a reality of its own and is subject to reinterpretation. This reality acts as a metaphor2 in conducting politics and other collective tasks, such as the territorial idea. China’s traditional understanding about the limits of its territory was ‘unlimited’ since it was not ethnic and geographical that limited the extent of Chinese civilization, but the cultural. The adaptation of the ritual based culture was Chinese, and encompassed the whole world under the principle guidance of the heaven3.

The modern reference for the territorial limits of China is a political construction necessitated by time and space concerns of various dynasty that ruled China, thereby altering its meaning over the entire course of its history4. Given the rich documented history (political) of China, it is now established that the concept of “All Under the Heaven” (Tianxia, 天下) which limited the geographical limits of what we now refer to as China was only 10 percent of it5. The term Zhongguo (中国) – China [the Middle Kingdom] – was first coined in Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) gained in frequent reference during the Ming (c.1368 to 1644 AD) and Qing (c.1644 to 1912 AD) Dynasty and was legitimised as a reference during the Republican era after 1911 revolution which marked the end of imperial dynasties in China6. This need to legitimise was necessitated by temporal factors, since a continuity was needed to establish the modern nation-state by re-engineering a “national history”. This included naming Xia (2000/1900-1600 BC), Shang (1600-1100 BC), and Zhou (1100-256 BC) as its first three dynasties, there by projecting the concept of nation to distant past. This was all the more important since the concept of nation was tied closely with empire at any given point of time during most of the period from Shang Dynasty to the end of the Imperial era. While the term Zhongguo gained in frequency during the Qing dynasty [c.1644 to 1912 AD] with its first official use in the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) with Russia, the term Da Qing (大清) was often used to refer to the geographical limits of the dynasty as was the practice with dynasties of the past. Each dynasty was in some sense a separate state7.

The geographical limits which are often demarked and delimited by territory, was in fact limited by its culture and its incompatibility8 with cultures outside this limit. Towards the end of the classical age, during the Warring State period (c. 403-221 BC) the kingdoms of the central China plain (Zhongyuan) had developed a shared sense of values defined in terms of a direct inheritance from the Three Dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou) and they began to call themselves Huaxia and could also be described as being unique Chinese kingdoms surrounded by various non-Chinese peoples9. This marked the emergence of a discernable ‘consciousness’ of being Chinese (Huaxia), in opposition to neighboring alien peoples such as the Rong, Di, Man, and Yi. While the term China only reasonably translates into Huaxia, it is possible that Chinese did have some sense of self-conception. Huaxia seems to have been a somewhat elastic cultural marker, referring neither to race nor ethnicity nor any particular country but rather to ‘civilised’, settled, literate, agricultural populations adhering to common ritual standards, in contrast to ‘barbarians’. The term Zhongguo referred to geographic description rather than a proper name with specific identities10. The official term now includes a hybrid of Zhongguo (中国) and Huaxia (华夏) – “Zhong-Hua” (中華/中华)11.

The territorial paradigm of territorial state12, which places China in a cultural vaccum, enlists an orientalist device that contains at least four discursive mechanisms: civic culture, modernisation, human rights, and national defence. This being in contrast to what the Chinese education system taught – heavenly order, cyclical pattern, self-less virtue and moral appeal13. This culminates in creating tensions between China’s feudal past and western modernity14. China’s quest for modernity through imperial, republican, and socialist periods has been to create a territorial space in exclusion of imperialist intrusion by transforming civilizational gathering. However this quest modernity is conducted through a foreign policy of national consciousness that makes civilizational politics noteworthy15 . This dual approach towards approaching modernisation in China goes as far back as the late nineteenth century when reformers couched their tentative affiliation with global knowledge through the ti-yong (Chinese learning for the essence, Western learning for practical use) formulation; similar formulations also appeared in other East Asian societies16.

This quest for modernity altered the very meaning of ‘Chinese’, which remained in the past as a cultural identity (Confucian ideal)17 in absence of conscious recognition of any other equivalent culture. The idea of being ‘Chinese’ in the sense that we understand it, as either national or ethnic identity, is a product of the 19th century (as is the term Zhongguo). The idea of modernity is associated with self-awareness (‘enlightenment’) and the identities that emerge from it, such as nationhood. While the idea of modernity has led the west to draw far too strong distinction between itself and others, China had already established certain aspects of modernity over thousand centuries which included the idea of bureaucracy and commercial economy. The western leap towards modernity beginning in 16th century was an attempt to breakaway from a religious super structure based on Jew-christian doctrine. Emancipation of mind and inclusion of self-awareness and anti-hierarchy was a quest to get away from past, and less with seeking a new future. In terms of statecraft the idea of social contract between the people and its rulers marked the era of modernity, it was a Confucian ideal in many sense which however did not include confirmation of guaranteed rights to the citizens.

Today, China is the sole ‘multinational’ (多民族国家 duo minzu guojia) system in the world that continues to operate within the Marxist ideological matrix18. During the initial phase which marked the beginning of modern territorial state of China a stark contrast was maintained between the “China proper” (本部 benbu) and the “nomadic, primitive” non-Han frontiers. The present Communist Party of China which began its political movement based on the aspirations of the urban working class had overlooked peasants, the vast majority of the Chinese population and viewed non-Han peoples of China as residents of remote borderlands. The concept of the “Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu) was interchangeable with the “Han people” in the party’s earlier documents19. In referring to the extent of Japanese incursion into China, Chaırman Mao once noted that “Japanese are close to ‘China proper’” thus marking the territorial consciousness derived from “great Hanism” (大汉族主义 da hanzu zhuyi) and “alien races” (一种民族 yizhong minzu).

Any culture at any given period in its history appears to be characterized by a particular space-time coefficient20. Time and space are two of the most basic dimensions of human life, which provide the basic context of existence. Literature on time and space has treated these concepts as separate dimensions – “space and time”– and also as unified dimensions of – “space-time”(空间时间)21. Applications of these concepts at macro societal level have been operationalised through the individual being in mind. This challenge in operationalising is caused due to the concept of time, which has been understood to be ‘limited’ in case of individual and ‘unlimited’ in case of society or nation-state22. The second factor being that time flows, as well as being present (static), creating a complex problem. For example the objectivity of the passage of the ‘now’, against the subjectivity of the ‘here’23. The third factor being, an individual is constrained in time with respect to space, this does not apply to society or a nation-state24. For both individuals and societies, space is a limited resource and framework. As such in social sciences the definition of space and time is non-existent. In Western conceptualisation, time is considered to be orderly, linear, uniform, unidirectional, irreversible and homogeneous, however in a Eastern approach time, has a cyclical nature25. In conceptualising the concepts of time and space, a contextual time-space framework of human actions treats both dimensions as “limited resources”, while a empirical inductive approach refers to time as a ‘factor’ in human action26. There is an inherent duality of nature at play while developing a framework for human action based on time and space, which may be viewed as being both ‘contexts’ and ‘compositions’, as the most basic dimensions of human life, they serve as obvious and almost trivial ‘contexts’ of human life. On the other hand, time and space are also ‘compositional’ in their being resources and factors for human action27. The conception of space and time is the process by which the spatial and temporal become social, since existing spatial and temporal patterns and uses shape social values and norms regarding time and space. The use of time and space is the process by which the social becomes spatial and temporal, since these uses reflect social structures and values. The concepts of time and space are therefore not within time and space but in Man and Society28.

The correlation between time and space is such that, both can be referred to in each others term. For example a question pertaining to space – how far is it?, can be answered in reference to time – it is 11 hours away and a question pertaining to time – how much time does it take? Can be answered as – just a ‘short’ or ‘long’ time29. Both time and space, are concepts and thought of in terms of abstract reality which may or may not be based on certain concrete structures derived from the physical realm. It is but a natural inclination to refer to space in terms of time and vice-versa30. The idea of phenomenonal world itself is understood as the surface that would be generated, if time is represented by a straight line extended to infinity, and simultaneous things at any point of time by lines drawn perpendicular to it31.

Historical phenomenons represented by events are idealized at certain points, coordinates of such points are marked at a point in space and an instant of time.

When our country was founded it was given a fine name: ‘Zhonghua’. What does ‘Zhonghua’ mean? Zhong is what lies at the center of an area; But it is the duty of our generation’s youth To consider this Zhong not just from the point of view of space, as if China were the center of the world, But also from the point of view of time. Let us look at the history of the world: So many changes from antiquity to now! – Li Dazhao in ‘Spring,’ October 1916 [Adapted from Des Forges V Roger (2003)]

There is no classical Chinese word equivalent in meaning to the English word time32. The term Shi (逝) used as an reference to time in Chinese, denotes “what passes” or “passes by”. In the Analects, Confucius compares it to the “passing river”33. The original meaning of Shi (逝) is ‘timeliness’ or ‘seasonality,’ in which both time and space are affected. The idea of time which is conceptualised as linear or horizontal in the case of western civilization influenced by the Judaic-Christian tradition where birth marks the beginning and death the end, time is understood as a function of non-repeatability. For example an event such as the crucification of the Christ is non-repeatable and located at an important point of time’s linear unidirectional progress. In Chinese traditional understanding there is no specific God created beginning of time, and is often understood as beginning of an empire, dynasty, royal family etc. The concept of space too has no equivalent in Chinese language, where the terms tiandi and yuzhou are closest. ‘Centrality’ is of paramount importance in Chinese conceptualisation of space. Both language and culture play a deterministic role in understanding of space-time paradigm. While a English speaking native might conceptualize future as something ‘ahead’ of him, a Mandarin speaker is likely to think of it as being ‘below’ [下个星期, xia ge xingqi Next Week (下 xia = down/below)]34. Centrality may occur in different arena’s – geographical, cultural, political, social, economic, and so on. Centrality may also be distinguished from the arguably cognate but readily distinguishable concepts of superiority, hegemony, and centralism.35

While the idea of centrality is commonly associated with circle, in Chinese traditional conception centrality was associated with a square. The cardinal points of squares represented the lords of the neighbouring regions that were perceived to be excluded from Chinese world order. In China’s case, the notion of centrality was primed on the centripetal force36. For example, the “Great Wall of China” which represents an important idea in understanding China’s territorial consciousness has been interpreted as a representation of China’s defence orientation. This interpretation assumes that the purpose of the “Great Wall” was to keep the northern nomads away, without incurring special military costs. Further specialized research has now established that the strategic purpose of the Great Wall was to keep the Chinese (Han) population from going across to the nomadic way of life, which was in many sense attractive to a settled and mundane agriculture oriented life style37.


China’s territorial consciousness is not derived from its territory defined in geographical terms but from a set of meaning associated with what its territory represents in contrast to other forms of representations. The meaning thus associated with China’s territory alters along with its renewed understanding of notions of space-time represented and carried over by its culture. As a territorial conscious unit within international system China may seek centrality over other coordinates of space-time. From humiliation as the inspiration for its territorial consciousness during the 20th century, China is likely to be inspired by national rejuvenation in the 21st century. The idea of rightful place in Chinese political discourse is perhaps associated with China’s desire to be at the center of its imagined space-time.

China’s territorial concerns along the yet unsettled Sino-Indian border or South China Sea are further associated with China’s quest for centrality. Apart from being tactical issues between China and its immediate neighbours, at the strategic level these issues are likely to offer resistance to China’s quest for centrality. According to Jonathan R Adelman and Chih-Yu-Shih China’s use of military force has been less about territory and more about a means to restore its national image38. For example, According to the Indian Ambassador to China in 1962 – “It was the attitude of a brother who was considerably older and well established in the world, who prepares to give his advice to a younger brother struggling to make his way. Independent India was welcome, but of course it was understood that China, as the recognized Great Power in Asia after the war, expected India to know her place.”

The quest for ‘centrality’ constitutes as an important aspect of China’s recent national projects such as Belt and Road initiative, China Dream, maritime transformation along with multi-national organisations such as BRICS, SCO etc.


  1. McDonald, C Lee (1969), “Myth, politics, and Political Science” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 141-150.
  2. The possibilities of metaphor are infinite and omnipresent, it links the limited abilities to gain knowledge with the ultimate truth. Metaphors condition the perception and this in turn provides meaning to the unknown reality.
  3. In author’s discussion with Prof Wang Li Cheng, Department of History (Fudan University), Shanghai, People’s Republic of China. [3 April, 2014].
  4. The term China usually refers to the first dynasty Qin (221 BC) which unified China for the first time and altered its geographical composition. However this term is not part of Chinese inventory but a outside reference to the people of China. Such as the jesuit missionaries and neighbouring countries such as India, where sanskrit term cina was used in reference to its northern neighbour.
  5. Tianxia usually rendered ‘empire’, as “the realm,” “the known world,” or simply “the world” to convey the idea of the borderless, universal order implicit in the Chinese term that means literally “all under heaven.” Forges Des V Roger (2003), Cultural Centrality and Political Change in Chinese History: Northeast Henan in the Fall of the Ming, Stanford University Press: California. p.xiii
  6. The Qing veritable records use Zhongguo a total of 1700 times, but mainly in the last 60 years of the dynasty, which account for 78 percent of its use. During these years it appears on average about 22 times per year compared to 1.6 times per year in the preceding 235 years. By the end of the dynasty Zhongguo was becoming the normal word for China. Prior to 1851, other terms-notably, Da Qing 大清, commonly used. Endymion Wilkinson (2012), Chinese History: A New Manual, Harvard University Press: Cambridge. p. 192.
  7. Charles Holcombe (2011), A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilisation to the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. p. 6.
  8. Incompatibility was on account of a settled agrarian ritual based society with the capacity to produce Bronze in contrast to nomadic and semi-nomadic unsettled tribes. While this being true, in most of Chinese history China has been more conscious of its incompatibility with the southern region than the nomadic north.
  9. The territorial reference had widened and Zhongguo now normally meant Zhongguo-that is, the “central (inner states) in the middle and lower reaches of the yellow River or, in a few instances, Luoyang and the area around it (the early narrow definition of the Central plains, Zhongyuan)”.
  10. After its first unification under Qin which set the uninterrupted precedence of continuing imperial rule in China, the term Zhongguo excluded the southern part of what is generally understood to be proper China.Charles Holcombe (2011), A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilisation to the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. p. 6.
  11. John H Miller (2008), Modern East Asia: An Introductory History (Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 2008), Gilbert Rozman, ed., The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and Its Modern Adaptation (Princeton University Press, 1991). Andrew L March, The Idea of China: Myth and Theory in Geographical Thought (New York: Praeger,1974). Warren I. Cohen, East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001); Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B Palais, East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History (Boston: Houston Mifflin, 2006); John K Fairbank, Edwin O Reischauer, and Albert M Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, rev.ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989); Conrad Schirokauer, Miranda Brown, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilization, 3rd ed. (United States: Wadworth, 2006).
  12. The Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, drew up the border which still exists today between China and Russia; clearly Qing China did not lack a sense of territoriality.
  13. Jin Yuelin (1934), The Outlet for Chinese Culture (Zhongguo wenhua de chulu) , The Commerce Press: Shanghai.
  14. The earlier representatives of this progressionist response were May-Fourth intellectuals who introduced to China a variety of Western thoughts among which there were liberalism, socialism, empiricism, humanism, and so on examples of advocates for socialism can be Zhang Dongsun and Li Dazho, for liberalism, Hu Shih and Chen Xujin, for empircism, Yan Fu and Jin Yuelin, for humanism, Zhou Zuoren and Chen Duxiu.
  15. Chih Yu-Shih (2013), “Harmonius Realism: Undecidable Responses to the China Threat” in A World Sinicised into Harmony, Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
  16. Prasenjit Duara (2008), “History and Globalisation in China’s Long Twentieth Century” Modern China, Vol 34, No 1, January 2008. pp 152-164.
  17. Confucianism is based on ideas of mutual obligation, maintenance of hierarchies, a belief in self-development, education, and improvement, and above all, an ordered society. While it is vaguely understood to be a religion, it is more precisely a body of norms and ethics. Confucious doctrine is based on the achievement of “order” and “stability”.
  18. While duo minzu guojia literally translates into “multi-national” state, official Chinese translation prefers “multi-ethnic” state. “’National Question’ with Chinese Characteristics” in Xiaoyuan Liu (2010), Recast All Under Heaven: Revolution, War, Diplomacy, and Frontier China in the 20th Century, Continuum: New York. p. 109.
  19. “Resolution of the CCP Central Committee on the current political situation and the party’s tasks, 25 December 1935,” ZZWX, 10: 609-617.
  20. Curry, L (1978), “Position, Flow and Person in Theoretical Economic Geography” in T. Carlstein, D. Parkes, & N. Thrift (eds.), Timing Space and Spacing Time 3. Time and Regional Dynamics London: Arnold, pp. 35-50.
  21. Fritjof Capra (1975), The Tao of Physics, Shambala Publishers: Boulder; Aharon Kellerman (1989), Time, Space, and Society: Geographical Societal Perspectives, Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht.
  22. However at the societal level, the “use” of time by a certain society for some spatial change or for the adjustment of one spatial system to a change in another is mainly limited by authority constraints. These may take many forms: There are master plans, zoning laws, etc., at the practical level; the eocnomic-political system at the legal level; and national (or religious) ethnological characteristics at the cultural level. Thrift, N (1977), “Time and Theory in Human Geography – Part II” Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 1, 413-457.
  23. Jeremy Butterfield (Ed) (1999), The Arguments of Time, Oxford University Press: New York.
  24. For example an individual cannot occupy multiple spaces at any given point of time (home, work place, club, market etc), but a society or nation-state can. Limits, though are set on societal duration in space by authority constraints boundaries) or by the terrestrial size of space (islands, for example).
  25. The idea of linear time is supposed to have formed during the post-medieval period, and gained with rise of Christainity and Renaissance which banked on concepts such as irreversibility, point in time, continuity of social events and consciousness of continuity. Landes, D.S. (1983) Revolution in Time, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Rose, C. (1977), “Reflections on the notion of time incorporated in Overstrain’s time geographic model of society” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 68, 43-9. Whitrow, GJ. (1972), “Reflections on the History of the Concept of Time”, In: J.T. Fraser, J.F.C. Haber & G.H. Mueller (eds.), The Study of Time, Berlin: Springer Verlag, pp. 1-11.
  26. Chapin, F.S. fr. (1974), Human Activity Patterns in the City: Things People Do in Time and Space, New York: John Wiley; Hagerstrand, T (1970) “What about people in regional science?” Papers and Proceedings of the Regional Science Association 24, 7-21; Hagerstrand, T. (1973) “The domain of human geography” In: R.J. Chorley (ed.),Directions in Geography London: Methuen, pp. 67-87; Hagerstrand, T (1975) “Space, time and human conditions”, In: A. Karlqvist, L. Lundqvist, & F. Snickers (eds.), Allocation of Urban Space. Farnborough: Saxon H0use, pp. 3-12.
  27. Aharon Kellerman (1989), Time, Space, and Society: Geographical Societal Perspectives, Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht.
  28. Lefebvre, H (1977), “Reflections on the politics of space” In: R. Peet (ed.), Radical Geography. Chicago: Maaroufa.
  29. Daniel Casasanto (2010), “Space for Thinking” in Vyvyan Evans and Paul Chilton (Ed), Language, Cognition, and Space: State of the Art and New Directions, London: Equinox Publishing.
  30. Boroditsky, L. (2001), “Does language shape thought? Mandarin and English Speakers Conceptions of Time”, Cognitive Psychology,Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 1–22
  31. Walford and Meerbote (1992) cited in Gordon Belot (2013), “Time in Classical and Relativist Physics” In Heather Dyke and Adrian Bardon (Ed) (2013), A Companion to the Philosophy of Time, John Wiley & Sons, Inc: United States.
  32. Orjinta Aloysius Ikechukwu (2013), “Chinese Conceptual Modeling of Time and Space: A Heuristic Approach to the Study of Semiotics and Semiology”, Asian Journal of Social Science and Humanities, Vol.2, No.2, May 2013. p. 452.
  33. “The Conceptual Scheme of Chinese Philosophy – Time”, Literati Tradition, Available at [Accessed on 7 May, 2014]. Gao, Ming (高明) (1996) Commentaries on the Silk Scroll Book of Laozi, Boshu Laozi Xiaozhu 帛書老子校註. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.
  34. Lera Boroditsky (2011), “How Languages Construct Time” in Space, Time, and Number in the Brain, Elsevier Inc: New York. p. 333.
  35. Forges Des V Roger (2003), Cultural Centrality and Political Change in Chinese History: Northeast Henan in the Fall of the Ming, Stanford University Press: California. p. 315.
  36. Centrifugal force (Latin for “center fleeing”) describes the tendency of an object following a curved path to fly outwards, away from the center of the curve. It’s not really a force; it results from inertia i.e. the tendency of an object to resist any change in its state of rest or motion. Centripetal force is a “real” force that counteracts the centrifugal force and prevents the object from “flying out”, keeping it moving instead with a uniform speed along a circular path. Available at [Accessed on 18 May, 2014].
  37. Arthur Waldon (1990), The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  38. Jonathan R Adelman and Chin Yu Shih (1993), Symbolic War: The Chinese Use of Force 1840-1980, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China: Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University. p. 207
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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