Reading a pre-modern concept into the modern era rather than reading modern notions back into the past, “China: From a Nationless State to a Nation Defined by State” explores how China and Chinese nationalism have been shaped by the multifaceted concept “guo.” A word for dynastic state in classical Chinese, this term came to be used for the modern nation-state since the 19th century through translation of international law and introduction of nationalism to China as mediated by Chinese overseas and transnational intellectuals. But “guo’s” lingering meaning of “regime”—or political dynasty as broadly defined—continued to undermine both the ethnic and civic aspects of nation-building in China’s Qing-to-Republic transition. The strong connotation of the state over the people and the regime above institutions of governance within the triple-faced “guo” (nation-state-regime) fully revived after 1949, influencing class politics under Mao and rising state patriotism in contemporary China.
Mara Yue Du is Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History and Himan Brown Faculty Fellow at Cornell University. Her research centers on the history of modern China (17th century – present), particularly on law, gender, and state-building. Her first monograph, State and Family in China: Filial Piety and Its Modern Reform (Cambridge University Press, 2022), won the 2022 International Society for Chinese Law and History Biennial Book Prize. Mara is currently writing her second book, China: From a Nationless State to a Nation Defined by State, the framework of which is the topic of this talk. She is also conducting research on her third major project, Twice a Stranger: China, the United States, and Trans-Pacific Intellectuals, which tells the story of two countries through the life experiences of six transnational figures.