China Proper? Fair or False?

Here is some more from my professor from Beijing University teaching my 20th Century Chinese History class. He brought up the topic of false western notions about Chinese history in class.

He stated that the western interpretation of “barbarian” (yi-fan) as “foreign” and “foreign” is wrong because “barbarian” in Chinese originally means uncivilized people or tribes. He then said that the Chinese never used this word to describe the civilized peoples who were foreign, like India and Rome, thus this western translation/notion is a wrong one.

Now here’s the second thing he said, it had to do with the Western notion of “China Proper”:

He stated that: Westerners used this term to refer to Central China, but the Chinese consider their current territory as a whole. The Chinese perceived that everywhere in the world is the Emperor’s (“All under heaven”). The Chinese dislike the term “China Proper” because it may be used to justify separation on foreign conquest”. Thus in these Chinese mindsets there is no “China proper”, but only a single “One China” that encompasses all of its current modern day territories, including Taiwan.

He also compared how the US has the original 13 colonies, yet no one calls this place the “US proper”. I didn’t think that was such a good example to explain why the notion of China proper was wrong, but I won’t get into that.

I don’t understand where the controversy is? The area outlined as China proper is roughly the traditional cultural area of China and also encompass the original territories united under the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang. I suppose it’s the word “proper” which some Chinese, particularly the PRC, may find as insulting or divisive since it sort of implies that this is what the China’s “proper” boundaries should be.

Once again though, I think it all has to do with how people are perceiving the use of this word “China proper”. The Westerners imply it on a cultural basis and the angered Chinese may perceive it on a political basis or with a divisive motive. Which is a possible fair assessment, in reference to uses of the word in the past, since the term originated from Western scholars at a time when China was being divided up by Western powers. What I don’t agree with is how some Chinese still believe that it is being used to justify separatism in the present day.


6 thoughts on “China Proper? Fair or False?

  1. Jeremiah

    I’ve enjoyed your recent posts. I’ve also read some about the barbarian/foreign transliteration problem. Lydia Liu has published on this.

    As for China proper, it’s a tough question, isn’t it? We wouldn’t refer to the 13 original colonies as “US proper” but neither would we refer to California in the 18th century as a part of the United States.

    At the beginning of my own Chinese history class each semester, I ask my students to “define China.” It’s a trickier question than it looks, especially as it relates to history.

    Your professor’s American analogy isn’t far off, though he probably wouldn’t agree with why: Both the American empire and the Qing had a profound sense of manifest destiny–a civilizing/colonizing mission that extended west overland.

    It’s here that history and politics seem to collide. I translated an article by a Chinese professor last year on the subject, he argued that trying to expand China’s borders through the rewriting of history isn’t really patriotic, and I would agree. But since many Chinese use history (the weakest argument) to legitimize territories such as Xinjiang and Tibet, it’s history that suffers. I think the stronger argument is simply: “We invaded it, it’s ours. We’ll give it back just as soon as y’all give California back to Mexico.” I’m not saying that’s a strong argument either, but it’s a lot sounder than the current resort to specious historical claims.

    Anyway, great posts. Keep them up.

  2. Jigme32

    Yea I never understand “they did it why can’t we” argument. Two wrongs don’t make a right. The Chinese don’t like a foreign power dictating to them what’s right and wrong in any case.

  3. 28481k

    well, back in the start of the Republican revolution, a plan was devised to just take China proper as the country, but some revolutionaries thought that it was a bad idea because they were the sucessors of Qing Empire and so that they are “entitled” to take all the land.

    Personally, I think China proper is an important cultural concept. But that also entails that anything outside being less China, and as Jeremiah said, that won’t bode well with the manifest destiny mentality of Chinese in general.

    Consider this: Early Chinese history also got that expansion thing, what Guangdong today were inhabited perhaps by speakers of Tai-Kadai or Austronesian languages (considering what’s left now), but it’s now mainly Chinese, and in fact part of China proper in any sense.

    So, the reason why some Chinese rejected the notion of China proper is that not only it is fluid, they also believed that one day those “out-lying” areas would be like the North East/Manchuria or indeed Guangdong. They would be totally sinicised and can be seen as part of China proper.

  4. Sorry for late coming discussion.

    “China Proper” is not a terms coined by the West, but by Qing dynasty. Qing restricted Han Chinese into 18 provinces. It is originally an administrative measure, but later on it becomes a cultural boundary and identity. Its geographic area becomes “18 provinces” in Chinese, 十八省, or as “China proper”

  5. Ken


    While there were the 18-province administrative system, the Qing government did not specifically used the term “China Proper”. In fact, there is no such direct Chinese translation.

  6. Otto Kerner

    Ken, the term “China proper” does not derive from a Chinese language term, but the social and administrative region that it refers to was recognised by the Qing, viz the provinces as opposed to other imperial possessions.

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