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How Many Minzu in a Nation? Modern Travellers Meet China’s Frontier Peoples

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image of Inner Asia

Through the writings of three modern travellers, this essay examines the role of domestic non-Chinese, on the northwestern frontiers of Chinese culture, in the imagining of a new nation-state. Ma Hetian, Fan Changjiang, and Gu Jiegang went to the same places in the mid-1930s and observed very similar phenomena, but because they travelled to the northwest for very different purposes and with very different theories in mind, their conclusions differed radically. Ma Hetian saw a Guomindang vision, a single and united Chinese people (in potential), divided only by religion and language. Fan Changjiang, a leftist journalist, saw various peoples competing and conflicting for scarce resources in an exploited, impoverished frontier region. Gu Jiegang, an antiquarian scholar, concluded that the northwest could be a reservoir of virile, martial strength of a new China. All three of them relied on the notion of Minzu, which was then a much more flexible and less centrally determined concept than it is today, to understand what they saw.


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