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.