A Thief In The Night, But Not Too Smart
Written By: 矛盾龙 Published: 22/11/2020
When it comes to the so-called China-watchers community, a vaunted amalgamation of second-rate or worse think tank people, overall bad journalists, and run of the mill terminally online sinophobes, racists, orientalists, and paranoid natsec clowns, it really is like one of those whack-a-mole games from back in the day. You whack one on the head, it goes down and another one instantly jumps in their place.
You got your Serpent_zas (Winstons Sterzel, the scam artist extraordinaire, who retweets anti-China FBI posts on Twitter), your Leta-Hong Finchers (who considers Han-Uyghur intermarriage ‘race-mixing’ – that lovely fascist terminology), the Beijing Palmers (James Palmer: real-life Peter Griffin, only not as smart), or Stephen McDonells (who arriving in Wuhan back in January was surprised people in China followed the country’s laws because coming from the UK that was a new experience to him), Nathan Ruser (ASPI “satellite imagery expert”, i.e. dork in a dark room checking Google Earth every ten minutes with Cheetos stained fingers) and even some Chinese people like Vicky Xiuzhong Xu (who’s work at ASPI is her greatest stand-up comedy) and Melissa Chan (who used the grief of quarantined Chinese people during the Qingming mourning festival this year to grift her anti-CPC garbage).
But so far none has been as egregiously bad as Bill Hayton. I learned of Hayton on Twitter like many others and if memory serves, it was the first time Carl Zha sharing Hayton’s tweet gloating about his upcoming lecture on „the invention of the Han race” wherein the description of the event I learned about his book ‘The Invention of China’ (Yale University Press, 2020). I really didn’t know what I was getting into back then.
Before getting into the details, I just want to set out that upon learning about this stupefyingly moronic book and premise, I made a thread on Twitter about it and even engaged Hayton himself, but his replies were short and without much content, I’ll share some examples below both from my interactions with him and his online debate with Silk and Steel podcast host Carl Zha.
Also, I will concentrate on his ignorance regarding Chinese history, since if I would take everything into account, this would turn into a book proposal instead of an article. Like how when his map touting nonsense was shot down by Carl, he tried to turn it around by saying „oh well, maps are only ideas of the physical places they represent”. I mean, this is such a truism that I’d kick anyone out of the junior year philosophy course I’m teaching for making it. It’s something one says when first encountering phenomenology and thinks it’s the end all be all of philosophical possibilities.
I shall not go into his complete lack of ethics of debate either which was proven by how Carl did not interject once while he was speaking, yet Hayton cut in on him almost every single time multiple times. This is something most people learn from their mothers and fathers at home before hitting age seven, but alas.
Bill used to work for the BBC, used to be their Vietnam correspondent until he was kicked out from the country due to circumstances that are dubious even today. I’m sure he’ll chalk it up to some “hard-hitting journalism criticizing the government”, but if it was on the level of his China reporting, there must be something else behind him getting removed from Vietnam. Especially considering how hasty and sudden it was.
The premise of Hayton’s book is that a lot of things we know about China as ancient are on the contrary: recent and of nationalistic cultural invention. Now, right off the bat when someone comes with such a thesis regarding Chinese civilization which is accepted even by its most rabid Washington DC Warhawks to be one of the oldest on Earth – otherwise how could they tout their moronic „oh I love Chinese culture, just not the CPC” clownery – you know you’re in for a ride.
The first snippet I caught from his thesis was in a book review in the Sydney Morning Herald about the name ‘China’ being a European invention of recent times. Now, for people who actually are aware of China’s history, this is such an astonishingly ignorant and revisionist take that it’s literally hard to put into words. Hayton’s thesis is that much of Chinese history was invented backwards by 19th-century nationalists like Liang Qichao and that it is a classical case of 19th-century nation-building. While that movement may be a nation-building project, there is an unimaginable wealth of history in China debunking this nonsensical claim. Let’s see some of the details.
First off, the name ‘China’ comes from the name of the first unified Chinese dynasty, the Qin which lasted from 221 to 206 BC. The name Qin was transferred in various Sanskrit and middle eastern languages as ‘Cin’ and ‘Cina’ (both of these are transliterations here of course), which later became what we today know as China. The point here is that the name China was around way before Hayton claims and it is far from being a European invention. When I mentioned this to him on Twitter, he replied that there are references to the Qin even before that. Let’s set aside how that’s supposed to counter my argument, but if one actually knows Chinese history, one knows that there are prior references because before there was the Qin dynasty – or 秦朝 (qín cháo) – there was the Qin state – or 秦国 (qín guó) – one of the seven warring states in the Warring States (战国时代, [zhànguó shídài], ca. 475-221 BC) period of China. Even before being declared a dynasty and an empire after successfully conquering the other warring states during the 3rd century BC, Qin has a history going back as far as the 9th century BC. So of course there are bound to be references to Qin before it being a dynasty and an empire, as anyone with a basic understanding of Chinese history would know.
One of the most idiotic claims Hayton made in his debate with Carl Zha was how the Chinese language didn’t even have a word for ‘territory’ before those pesky nationalists in the 19th century translated a Japanese word that was itself translated from an English word. According to Bill, that word is 领土 (lǐngtǔ). I really don’t have any serious space to go into the finer details of the Chinese language, even more so because I myself am still learning it, but Bill at least could’ve done an online search. If we look up the word in Baidu, we can learn the following: one of the many Chinese words for ‘territory’ – Carl Zha mentioned at least two others during their debate – is 疆土 (jiāng tǔ). 疆土 is the classical Chinese (文言文, wényánwén) form of 领土. We can also learn that one of the first mentions of this word is in the 诗经 (shījīng), or: the Book of Odes.
The Book of Odes according to tradition was compiled during the Spring and Autumn period and Confucianism generally regards Confucius as the compiler of the poems, but the content itself is much older. The collected poems date back to the 11th century all the way down to the 7th century BC. So it is not only false to claim that the Chinese language did not have a word for ‘territory’ before the 19th century, it is an outright lie. Other classical Chinese sources that contain the unbelievably everyday word ‘territory’ are the Records of the Grand Historian of Sima Qian, the Book of Historical Documents, or even literary works like General Yue Fei. All of these sources are well before the 19th century by literal hundreds of years, sometimes thousands. Yet Hayton won’t let up and keeps trying to push this narrative. Imagine saying an entire language, let alone a complex one as Chinese, didn’t have the concept of ‘territory’ for most of its more than three-thousand-years of history.
He tried to weasel himself out of the argument by saying that the 领土 word has its origins in Spencerian social-Darwinism, which is again nonsense. 领土 is just the contemporary word of the classical 疆土. Bill can look into the relationship between Classical and contemporary Chinese if he wishes to ground his argument better. His narrative aim is clear from this though: he wants to push the same old China-watchers narrative of a fascist China by ignoring its history and creating a new false one. To speak in contemporary terms, Hayton is fake news if there ever was such a thing.
He tried to cop out again by saying that 领土 is special because it has political undertones in its modern usage that earlier forms supposedly didn’t have. Yet, history is once more not on his side. If we go back to the Book of Odes and see the exact passage where it is mentioned, we see the following: 江汉之浒，王命召虎：式辟四方，彻我疆土. 匪疚匪棘，王国来极。于疆于理，至于南海。(《大雅·江汉》) [Jiānghàn zhī hǔ, wángmìng zhào hǔ: Shì pì sìfāng, chè wǒ jiāngtǔ. Fěi jiù fěi jí, wángguó lái jí. Yú jiāng yú lǐ, zhìyú nánhǎi.(“Dàyǎ·jiānghàn”)] In Arthur Waley’s translation: “On the banks of Jiang and Han (Such was the king’s command to the Lord of Shao): ‘You are to make new fields on every side; You are to tithe my lands, then without delay, without haste, the king’s domains were marked out, They were divided and duly ordered all the way to the southern seas.'” The poem itself is about calling the legendary Duke Hu, Lord of Shao, to pacify Huaiyi after which he receives a gift from King Xuan of Zhou. So, not only is the word ‘territory’, albeit Waley rendered it as ‘domain’, found in one of the oldest classical texts of China, it explicitly conveys a political sense about pacifying a region through the means of overwhelming political and military force. At this point, I’ll just leave this question up to Hayton to decide if he’s lying or simply ignorant of basic facts. Especially that Waley’s rendering of the word as ‘domain’ has an even heavier political undertone than simply ‘territory’.
Let me show you a similar example from my native Hungarian on how this works. One of the earliest extant Hungarian poems, that is Hungarian proper, is the Funeral Sermon and Prayer („Halotti beszéd és siralom”) from 1192-1195. Let’s see one of its most famous lines, I will bolden a word and we’ll see how it evolved: “Latiatuc feleym zumtuchel mic vogmuc. yſa pur eſ chomuv uogmuc.” This in contemporary Hungarian would be: “Látjátok feleim szemeitekkel mik vagyunk, csak por és hamu vagyunk” and in English: “Behold with your eyes, ye who belong to me, what we are, we are but dust and ash.” So the contemporary form of “we are” in Hungarian is “vagyunk” and the middle form of that is “uogmuc”. Same way how the contemporary form of ‘territory’ in Chinese is 领土 and the ancient form of it is 疆土. The difference between the Chinese example and my Hungarian example is that “uogmuc”, the middle form in Hungarian is not in use anymore, while 疆土 is still in use in Chinese for instance in the composite word 新疆: Xinjiang, or “New frontier” (which of course by definition refers to a territory). For Hayton to claim that there was no word for „territory” in Chinese for thousands of years speaks of such staggering ignorance – or staggering ideological mendacity – that it literally nauseates anyone who has even a minute understanding of how languages work. Not just the Chinese language specifically, but languages in general.
A similarly nonsensical claim made by him is how “no state called 中华 or 中国 existed until the 1910s”, which is really strange because some of the oldest extant Chinese historical sources are literally riddled with references to China in the sense of 中国 as an overarching civilization and political body of the Zhou dynasty – for example – made up of various vassal states. The ever first written form of 中国 can be seen on the so-called He zun (何尊) ritual bronze vessel dating from the early Western Zhou period (1046-771 BC). It can be specifically dated to the fifth year of the reign of King Cheng of Zhou (Li Feng, 2006, pp. 63). You know, the 1910s.
Here is another from the Spring and Autumn Annals, from the life of Duke Zhuang (757–701 BC) and the thirty-first year of his rulership: “三十一年，夏，六月，齐侯来献戎捷，非礼也，凡诸侯有四夷之功，则献于王，王以警于夷，中国则否，诸侯不相遗俘。” [Sānshíyī nián, xià, liù yuè, qí hóuláixiàn róng jié, fēilǐ yě, fán zhūhóu yǒu sì yí zhī gōng, zé xiàn yú wáng, wáng yǐ jǐng yú yí, zhōngguó zé fǒu, zhūhóu bù xiāng yí fú.] or in the translation of Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li and David Schaberg: „In the thirty-first year, in summer, in the sixth month, the Prince of Qi came here to present spoils from the Rong: this was not in accordance with ritual propriety. In all cases when the princes achieve some merit against the Yi of the four directions, they present these spoils to the king, and the king thereby issues a warning to the Yi. This was not done in the central domains. The princes do not present captives to one another.„ Central domains or middle kingdom as it is more well known is the classical name of China and the literal translation of 中国. The wording and the context make it abundantly clear yet again that term is used in both a political and overarching civilizational sense where the officials of two separate states met that both considered themselves to be of the overarching 中国 existing above their own respective states.
The irritating thing about all this is that it is all online: Chinese Text Project lets you search and read almost all classical texts in Chinese and sometimes English too with just two clicks, but of course, you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese to do that, as well as to know where to look in the first place.
Yet another frivolous claim of his was how the focus on the Yellow Emperor (黄帝 [Huángdì], personal name: 公孙轩辕 [gōngsūn xuānyuán]) as the founding father of the Chinese civilization was a recent concoction by Liang Qichao. Again, had he meaningfully researched what he was writing an entire book on, he would’ve known that the cult of the Yellow Emperor, specifically as a civilizational founding father, dates back at the very least to the Warring States period and the early Han dynasty (Wu, Kuo-cheng, 1982). The most ancient extant mention of the Yellow Emperor is an inscription on a bronze vessel used for ritual purposes by a powerful and influential family of the mighty Qi state from the Warring States era. The family was surnamed 田 or Tian (LeBlanc, Charles (1985–1986), “A Re-examination of the Myth of Huang-ti”, Journal of Chinese Religions, 13–14: 45–63). Various stories of the Yellow Emperor show up in various Warring States era philosophical and historical books and it was the Grand Historian Sima Qian (司马迁) who collected these into a semi-biography in his Records of the Grand Historian (史记, shǐjì) around 95 BC.
One more ridiculous claim of his was that “nobody called themselves Han until the Manchus showed up”. I even made fun of this on Twitter using a screengrab from the 2010 version of the Three Kingdoms TV series having Liu Bei (magnificently played by Yu Hewei) tell him he’ll surely recover by next spring. I mean, this is such a ridiculous claim that there is hardly any scientific way of actually engaging it. The ENTIRETY of the Three Kingdoms period (三国时代, [sānguó shídài], 220-280 BC) was pivoted on who is Han, who is the legitimate heir to the Han and how to restore the Han, which in all these permutations meant a people, a culture, and a dynasty, i.e. a political formation. The entire essence of that era can be summed up in the wish to restore the „Great Han”. Even warlords like Cao Cao – one of my personal heroes – who later went on his own separate way initially aimed to restore the Han political body and cultural sphere.