China and Inner Asia
Abstract: Histories of China often follow a familiar narrative, one that quietly slips from civilizational to political. The story is one of collective longevity: a politically and culturally unified “China” that has existed for five thousand years, defined by a fundamental cohesion left unbroken by a range of challengers, invasions, and upheavals. Although scholars have levied powerful critiques of this so-called “Yao to Mao” history, the assumptions that frame it remain stubbornly ubiquitous in public discourse, resulting in the narrowing of the analytical space for a multivalent image of what China is and the essentialization of the histories and cultures of peoples who live and have lived there. For instance, this narrative downplays the historical significance of cultural plurality, porous borders, and transnational migration on both Sinitic and world histories. It discounts the profound diversity among national and cultural Chinese identities. And it refuses the very existence of independent histories in spaces like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. This focus on singularity, unity and continuity has, we contend, a colonizing effect—it aggrandizes the power of the PRC state and hegemonic expressions of its ethnonationalist majority population while silencing the histories and lived experiences of oppressed peoples within and outside the PRC’s current borders.
This roundtable will discuss how we, as scholars, can decolonize histories of China in our research, teaching, and public outreach. With experts on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, Sinophone Southeast Asia, and world history, our panel will center on several questions: How and to what extent is the decolonization paradigm useful for critiquing "Yao to Mao" historical narratives, and how might China studies benefit from drawing on global scholarship on decolonization? What is the relationship between hegemonic histories of China and ongoing colonial violence, and how might we mitigate the harm these historical narratives cause? And finally, how do we grapple with the reality of colonialist leveraging of the categories “China” and “Chinese-ness” against diverse groups of people, while recognizing the emotional and material potency these terms have for people who identify with them? Each panelist will prepare short remarks, leaving ample time for audience discussion.