The Invention of China


Image credit: Yale University Press


"The Invention of China"
by Bill Hayton
Yale University Press/November 2020

Reviewed by Michael Cleland

It is a truism in international relations that any country is well advised to try to understand the motivations of other countries, whether friends, or more importantly, adversaries. And yet rarely has a truism been more frequently honoured in the breach than in the observance. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is only the most recent illustration of that point. Close behind comes the Western world’s seeming surprise at the course that China has taken in recent years.

In The Invention of China, Bill Hayton sets out to offer an understanding of China and what motivates its leadership, particularly in international relations. It is puzzling to consider how a country whose recent decades of enormous economic success have been built on globalization and the norms and institutions of the liberal international order (or at least formal acknowledgment thereof), should today be quite so relentlessly sawing the supports from under the ladder on which it appears to stand.

Hayton builds on the idea that modern China is an “invention.” He explores this idea through several meticulously researched and highly readable chapters with titles headed by “the invention”: of the Han race, of Chinese history, of the Chinese nation, of the Chinese language and of a national territory (among others). He makes a convincing case that modern China, far from reflecting an unbroken history of several thousand years, is in fact a very recent invention of little more than 100 years duration. But that recent invention, what I term “national reality,” is subsumed in Chinese official thinking, most likely in the thinking of many Chinese people and even in the thinking of many Western commentators under a myth of many millennia confected from the topics the book explores.

Hayton’s construct of “invention” or national myth should not be seen as unique to China. Many modern nations are relatively recent inventions – think of modern Germany, for example, which came into existence only in 1871. And national myths can well have a constructive place alongside national reality in forging the bonds that hold countries together.

National mythology becomes dangerous when it is compounded with the myths (or occasionally realties) of a fondly recollected time of glory and superiority or of national grievance or both. Hayton explores this phenomenon in China, including the 300 years of the Qing Great State – the “ruler of all under heaven” – and more recently, the national grievance aimed at the West, notably Britain and France from the 19th century and, of course, the United States. It may be ironic that what we think of as the traditional core of the modern Chinese nation spent several hundred years under the rule of Asian foreigners such as the Mongols in the 13th century, later the Manchu (the Qing Great State) and a much briefer but more brutal time under the Japanese in the mid-20th century. But Manchuria has been absorbed in modern China and the Japanese apparently make a less tempting target for grievance than does the West, and the United States in particular.

The book abounds in ironies but perhaps the most ironic, as Hayton tells the story, is that modern China (the national reality) is not only very recent but is constructed on many Western ideas, by no means all of them technological and economic. To underscore the point, Hayton is at pains to explain that for centuries “China” was founded on a common allegiance to dynasties, not to territory or to nationality. Nationality, he says, is a Western idea.

In any event, what do Western policy-makers make of all this? It is tempting to reflect on yet another irony: that China until the time of modernization in the late 19th century was assiduous in its efforts to not understand the world around it, and that deliberate ignorance appears to have been revived in recent years. Yet, if it behooves the West to better understand China, does not the opposite apply? After all, if China’s present power and prosperity are rooted partly in Western ideas of globalization and liberal internationalism, why would China not wish to better understand and build on those ideas – even while giving them Chinese characteristics? For Hayton, this phenomenon is best understood as a consequence of the Chinese leadership’s insistence on the myth of many millennia – some of it based in some measure of reality, albeit far from the whole reality of a modern unified state, which combines with an ongoing sense of grievance, some of it justified, some misplaced and some misdirected.

So, are we surprised that China’s attachment to the post-Second World War world order has proved illusory? Not if we understand that the Chinese leadership subscribes to the proposition that China was once the centre of the universe, not if China nurses a sense of unresolved grievance, not if ongoing societal cohesion rests on such beliefs and not if China’s leadership believes it has a much better idea whose time has come.

Hayton offers little in the way of answers as to what Western policy-makers should do in the face of this enormous force but he does give us a much better understanding of its origins, its power and its vulnerabilities. Much of this may be nothing new to expert China watchers but it has hardly been reflected in much Western government or investor policy until very recently. That understanding should shape not only the statecraft but the economic and business thinking of other countries as we look to the coming decades. This is a book definitely worth reading.


Michael Cleland is a private consultant with extensive experience in energy and environment policy. He is an Executive in Residence at  the University of Ottawa and a member of uOttawa’s Positive Energy research team, Past Chair of the Board of Directors at the Canadian Energy Research Institute, Chair  of the Board of Directors of QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow) and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. In 2015, Mr. Cleland was named Canadian Energy Person of the Year by the Energy Council of Canada. He is formerly President and CEO of the Canadian Gas Association, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs for the Canadian Electricity Association, Assistant Deputy Minister, Energy Sector at Natural Resources Canada, and Director General of the Energy Policy Branch at NRCan. From 1987 to January 1990, he was Assistant Director, Resource Policy Division in the Department of Finance. Before joining the federal government, Mr. Cleland was a private consultant who also lectured in business – government relations at Dalhousie University. Prior to that he worked in various capacities with the Nova Scotia Departments of Development and Municipal Affairs. Mr. Cleland was educated at the University of British Columbia (BA in political science 1972) and Queens (MPL urban and regional planning 1974).


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  • Cgai Staff
    published this page in Book Reviews 2022-10-04 18:25:01 -0400

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