Chinese Territorial Expansion during the Ming and Qing Dynasties Should not be Considered Imperial or Colonial: East Asian Imperialisms Essay, SOAS, UK

University SOAS University of London (SOAS)
Subject East Asian Imperialisms

Overlapping Histories, Co-produced Concepts: Imperialism in Chinese Eyes

Many historians of China, particularly those based in North America, insist that the Qing dynasty’s territorial expansion was imperial and comparable to the imperial expansions of other global empires. Other historians, particularly but not only those based in The people’s Republic of China, continues to resist this interpretation. They argue that dynastic expansion in the Ming and Qing periods was simply a form of nation-state building, akin to similar processes in Europe.  Rather than rejecting their claims as a product of Chinese nationalism, we argue that the term “empire” should be (re)understood as a global coproduction, emerging from multiple intersecting histories and scholarly debates about those histories.

Doing so challenges influential definitions of an empire that rely on a distinction between empires and nation-states, highlighting their dual presence in both Euro-American and Chinese pasts (and presents). This move demands a rejection of periodizations that suggest that empires ceased to exist following the period of decolonization from 1945 to the 1970s. This opens up new avenues of historical and normative inquiry to acknowledge the modern continuity between empires and nation-states.


HISTORIANS HAVE LONG GRAPPLED with the questions of what an empire is, what constitutes imperialism, and whether these terms can be meaningfully divided into temporal categories such as “modern” and “premodern” (Morrison 2012a, 1–17; Stoler 2006, 127). For the imperial historian Frederick Cooper (2005, 23, 170), empires—which he defines as political units that are “large, expansionist” and “reproduce the differentiation and inequality among people [they] incorporate”—have been consigned to history: they disappeared when Britain and France gave up their insistence on the immutable distinctiveness of colonial subjects, rendering their empires unsustainable and ushering in a
world of nation-states somewhere around 1960. In contrast to empires, this argument goes, nation-states emphasize an imagined commonality among their citizens who are members of a single national community (Burbank and Cooper 2010, 8; Gellner [1983] 2008).

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