What does this map have to do with Brexit?
The answer may surprise you!
But first, the wait is over, people. My Brexit hot take is up at Asia Times: The Brexit Upside for China
The PRC was not happy with Brexit, despite the Atlanticist fetish with spinning any difficulties with the neo-liberal project as a foul victory for Putin & the Chicoms.
In parsing the PRC discomfort with the possibility of the United Kingdom fragmenting into Britain + Wales, independent Scotland, and a merger of Northern Ireland with Ireland, and perhaps the EU losing a clutch of key states and regressing into a lesser union, I draw parallels and contrasts in my Asia Times piece between the shaky state of play in western Europe and the PRC’s own problems with its internal multi-national order in a manner I predict readers will find entertaining and informative.
The PRC has a bias toward stability and against direct democracy. There’s more. It also has a major vested interest in the legitimacy and viability of multi-national institutions. In case you haven’t noticed, the PRC is the biggest multi-national enterprise on the planet, avowedly run on multi-national principles with the full panoply of nationalities and autonomous zones.
The outsized emotional reaction to the Brexit vote provided me with an interesting and unexpected perspective on another area of identity-emotionalism: the CCP’s obsession with the New Qing History (“NQH”) debate and the prospect for PRC disintegration abetted by unhelpful competitors and adversaries.
To give an idea of the fears and anxieties the seemingly esoteric NQH tussle arouse in the CCP, I’m going to characterize the dispute as “ 中国 Denialism” here. I have to call it “ 中国 Denialism” instead of the more Western-friendly “China Denialism” for reasons you’ll see at the end of the piece.
In my AT piece I wrote:
One of the most furious and reliable sources of scholastic spittle on the Internet is the invective against “New Qing History”, which embodies CCP fear and indignation at the skepticism of modern social science toward the objective, enduring existence of something called “China” (including the Tibetan and western holdings, to which the PRC positions itself as the “rightful heir”) as opposed to viewing East Asia as the parade ground for an irregular march of multi-ethnic kingdoms and ill-defined territorial ambitions through history and “China” as little more than a self-serving post-modern projection by the current rulers.
Interestingly, the Marxist materialists holding the key ideological slots in Chinese social science have chosen to plant their flag on the idea that “中国 “ does exist as something more than a subjective abstraction in the minds of malleable and fallible meat puppets. Tough row to hoe, but there’s a reason:
The passion is understandable because denying “China” and exploiting China’s local divisions to seize the more useful and profitable bits has been a preoccupation of adversaries and competitors ever since nationalism became the driving principle of geopolitics.
The West started it with “spheres of influence” and the “Open Door”, both of which assumed an effective absence of “Chinese” sovereignty during Manchu Qing rule. Japan continued it during the Republic of China period by asserting superior claims and needs of the Japanese empire to the Korean peninsula, “Manchuria”, and even Tibet and Mongolia.
Japan imperial philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century regarded “China” as what we would today call a “failed state”, a territorial designation for a grab-bag of ethnicities with virtually no overall national identity and legitimacy–as opposed, of course to the Japanese Empire itself.
This philosophy supported the permanent alienation of the Korean peninsula from China (and a brutal failed attempt to extinguish its indigenous civilization and incorporate the people and territory into Japan); the establishment of puppet states supposedly incorporating the national aspirations of the Manchurian and Mongolian people, and the “Reorganized ROC” puppet regime in Nanjing (which derived its imperfect legitimacy not from the “Chinese people” but from Wang Jingwei’s purported stature as Sun Yatsen’s political heir; interesting point!), all under the tutelage of the Japanese empire under the principle of Hakkō ichiu.
In my Asia Times piece, I viewed this as a contemporary as well as historical phenomenon and make the observation:
A lot of the China partition maps put out by Uyghur and Tibetan independence activists seem to have their roots in Japanese partition scenarios.
Retraction/correction time. Well, hedging time. Well, actually, teachable moment time as digging into the story behind these maps raised and, to some extent, answered some interesting questions.
When I wrote the passage, I was thinking about this map (also reproduced at the head of the piece), which I’ve seen floating around the Internet a fair amount in Tibetan/Uyghur circles in various incarnations:
You’ll see the yellow bit over Shanghai way is called “Goetsu”. Hmmm. Doesn’t quite sound Chinese.
Here’s another version, with “Goetsia” instead of “Goetsu” and showing some love to the Hui and various nationalities in the South:
And one more. With flags! The Khitans finally get some recognition, with the result that “China” is evicted from Beijing and is relegated to a Kosovo-style enclave in the Central Plain/Xian area.
I might also point out that the Japanese imperialist roots of this version are embarrassingly plain. The flags for the Manchurian and Khitan states are warmed-over versions of the flags for the Manchukuo and Mengjiang puppet regimes of the 1930s. Nor is “Goetsu” (which gets most of the eastern seaboard here as 大吴越国 ) doing itself any favors with a hybrid rising sun backdrop in its banner.
To get the simple part out of the way first, Goetsu is not a Mandarin or modern local Chinese dialect variant; it’s the Japanese rendering of the term 吴越. 吴and 越 were Chinese kingdoms that date way back to the Warring States period, of course in the East China regions championed by the Goetsu separatists.
吴 and 越 are “Wu” and “Yue” in Mandarin. Judging by a useful on-line pronunciation dictionary with audio files for several dialects including Wu, http://zh.forvo.com/, 吴越 is pronounced somewhere around “Wo ya” and “Ho yue” in two Wu dialects variants (Wu dialects are notoriously fragmented).
Whatever it is, 吴越 is not “Goetsu” in Mandarin, or in modern Wu dialect.
“Goetsu” probably entered the Japanese vocabulary as a pronunciation of “吴越” pretty early on, since the character pair appears in Sunzi’s Art of War, which itself had made its way to Japan by the eighth century CE via Korea.
The reference appears in a passage: 《孫子·九地》：“夫吳人與越人相惡也，當其同舟而濟，遇風，其相救也，如左右手： “People from Wu and Yue detested each other, when they were crowded on a boat together and ran into a storm they had to work together to save each other”.
Same idea of “in the same boat” or “we’re all in this together so let’s help each other”. Or, if you’re David Cameron, “I’m going to chop a hole in the bottom of the boat, hand the oars to Boris Johnson, and jump overboard.” There, your Brexit reference.
In China, this anecdote was summed up in the four-character idiom, 吴越同舟, “Wu and Yue Same Boat”; in Japanese, it becomes 呉越同じ船 , which is phonetically rendered as Go etsu onaji fune.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have our “Goetsu”. It’s Japanese.
Therefore, I drew the inference that the maps employing the term “Goetsu” drew on Japanese separatist agitprop dating back to the 1930s.
Well, it is separatist, and the term is Japanese, but I haven’t found a use of the term in literature related to Imperial Japanese partition-related scheming AFTER GOOGLING FOR A WHOLE HOUR AND A HALF!
The closest I could come up in a link between eastern China separatism & Japanese skullduggery was a Youtube posted by “Great Goetsu” of a 1942 barnburning military tune, “Song of the Decisive Battle in Great East Asia” playing over a depiction of what is apparently regarded as the “Goetsu” logo:
The song seems to enjoy considerable favor among nostalgic Japanese militarists, since it is a) a bitching ditty and b) on the Internet in several loving incarnations like this one:
It does not appear, however, to mention “Goetsu”. Consider it likely that “Great Goetsu” is a Japanese imperial fanboy, not a local separatist.
Unfortunately, the situation is muddied by the fact that somebody—and I didn’t get close to nailing this down—recently decided it would be a good thing to use “Goetsian” as an umbrella term for various Wu dialects in the southern Jiangsu/northern Zhejiang area that previously simply called themselves [name of your town here] local dialect. So Goetsu has made its way into the neutral discourse, and isn’t a pure Japanese imperialist signifier.
So, as to the question of there’s any sinister current Japanese involvement in the presentation of “Goetsu” as a descriptor for Wu-language separatists, right now I’m just hangin’ here.
But on the whole there’s no reason not to call the proposed separatist bastion “Wuyue”, an identification that carries considerable local pride with it.
Local chauvinism by Wu speakers in central China, especially against impositions from Mandarin speakers in Beijing, is definitely a thing. And there is a local independence movement, albeit to be pretty small, well miniscule if judged by its anemic Internet presence.
Trying to get a line on Wu chauvinism, I found a ten-page report from a one-time member of a Wu-language on-line forum. Judging by the parts I plowed through, there was a lot about frictions between various identity-politics activists and a lengthy catalog of grievances concerning northern Chinese outrages against Wu culture dating back to the Taipings and beyond, but I didn’t find anything relating the independence movement to the genuine ties between the region and Japan, which actually go back 1000 years.
From what I’ve gathered, the Wuyue kingdom of the 10th century (which occupied much of the space as well as the names held by the ancient Wu and Yue states of the Spring & Autumn period referenced by Sunzi) is considered to be an apogee of Chinese civilization and the foundation for localist Wu pride & identity. It also occupies a special place in the pantheon of worthy interlocutors of the Japanese empire.
Significantly, the kingdom had extensive and significant exchanges with Japan, especially in cooperative development of Buddhism through exchange of sutras. I get the impression Wuyue may be regarded by Japanese nationalists as the “good, sophisticated” China that nourished the development of a superior Japanese civilization before it unfortunately got submerged by various lumpen actors. Spitballing here, but I get the feeling there’s a lot of 1930s-40s Japanese academic work on the historical roots and contemporary implications of Chinese “inferiority” and regional bright spots that scholars are not keen to discuss, just as few people are eager to brag on the racially-informed anthropology of 1930s America, the alleged superiority of light-skinned blacks, and so on.
According to the report, members on the forum used another geographic indicator that I found pretty significant, the characterization of “China” as 支那 , not 中国. 支那 harks back to the absolute Ur term for China as a geographic place name, which maybe came out of Sanskrit way back when. That’s the term the Japanese used in the 1930s and 1940s, as can be seen from this military map, not “ 中国 “。
Trouble is, 支那 is universally understood as a derogatory term for China favored by Japanese nationalists, and has been for about 80 years.
Wikipedia China has a good entry on the evolution of the term 支那 from a neutral descriptor to a term of disparagement by the time of the second Sino-Japanese War (a.k.a. World War II). After the war, Chiang Kai-shek called on the Japanese government to drop the term from its official documents and textbooks, and the Japanese obliged.
And that’s why I defaulted to “中国” denialism and not “China denialism” to get across the issue of what the CCP is concerned about–because calling some place “支那” i.e. “China” is a way of denying its legitimacy as a “nation”, in the case of ” 中国 “ the “nation” at the center of Asia.
The phonetic rendering of 支那 that comes out in Japanese is “shina”. Shintaro Ishihara and other right wing nationalists employ “shina” when they want to get China’s goat. Sorta like calling a football team “The Redskins” or the West Bank “Judea & Samaria”. It’s the taunt of an unrepentant and contemptuous colonizer.
So I consider the appearance of 支那 as something of a leading indicator when it pops up in “Goetsu” chatter. It not only gives aid and comfort to local separatists keen for an alternate signifier to “中国 “； it also reminds me the Japanese revisionist agenda for the “Second Sino-Japanese War” as a noble exercise in decolonization and nation-building is still alive and well, perhaps even resonating inside China. It also reinforces my suspicions concerning the ongoing ambitions of right wing Japanese nationalists to hive off the “advanced” coastal parts of China and secure them, together with Taiwan, in Japan’s sphere of influence.
With this perspective, the New Qing History dispute doesn’t look quite like just an abstract academic dustup between PRC traditionalists and largely but not exclusively foreign scholars who want to introduce contemporary theoretical rigor to the examination of the concept of “China”.
For the CCP, perhaps NQH is something more than an unpleasant modern echo of a belittling historical trend dating to the 1930s, when the Japanese empire declined to grant the place they were invading the courtesy of calling it what the locals wanted to call it , instead seeming to regard it as a place on the map to which nobody else had a superior claim to rule or even name, and they were free to occupy, define, and exploit…and partition.
Maybe it has to be viewed in the context of a current threat to the PRC’s territorial integrity, its legitimacy, and its survival.
In my opinion the CCP views NQH in the context of a trend, supported by Japanese revisionists, Western strategists, and Indian hawks to question the existence of “ 中国” and legitimize support for separatist movements (of which the “Republic of Goetsu” is probably the least of the PRC’s worries).
Of course, the outsider insistence on defining “China”–in a way that would probably have Edward Said nodding his head in rueful recognition–probably colors PRC resistance to Western efforts to question and supersede its sovereignty over another non-Han holdings: the South China Sea. The claim to the SCS, in the CCP’s eyes, is not much weaker–or stronger–than the PRC’s claims to any of its territories. If one is repudiated, what’s the case for asserting legitimate sovereignty over the rest?
It’s not just an academic issue with unpleasant implications for current affairs.
Denying the legitimacy of “ 中国” is a convenient bookend to current efforts to characterize the PRC as an enemy of the liberal order i.e. a rogue state. Not only is the government a pariah, the nation it claims to govern doesn’t even exist!
It looks like a way to deny PRC sovereignty over its territorial holdings, and open the door for opposition to the PRC as an illegitimate occupier on the grounds of–take your pick– R2P (neo-liberal flavor), struggles of national determination (liberal flavor), failed commie state that needs a healthy push into its pre-dug grave (knuckledragger).
Revisionism is alive and well as the dominant Japanese political discourse, as is questioning the PRC’s legitimacy as a geopolitical stratagem (remember the “struggle of the international liberal order against authoritarian revisionism”, anybody?), and encouragement of separatism as a strategic lever for the PRC’s many adversaries.
“One China” may not be on its deathbed, but it’s not looking that great.
One China? How about “No China”?
So there you have it: Brexit, New Qing History, and the South China Sea, and the ontological reality of “China”, all wrapped up in one smoking hot take. You’re welcome!