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Intellectual Antecedents

November 18, 2009

If we can see anything at all about the world around us, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.  I am grateful for the interest “The Nine Nations of China” has generated, and for the people who have told me they learned something from reading it.  But I think it is also important for me to recognize those whose insights and ideas have preceded mine.

In my submission to The Atlantic, and the drafts I shared with friends and colleagues, I noted that in the Chinese language, there is a rich and varied academic literature on regional variations and groupings within China — so much so that it is virtually an area of study unto itself.  I cannot even count the number of Chinese researchers who have written in this field.  In the English language, a number of scholars have formulated frameworks for China ranging from five to twelve “macroregions,” “zones,” “market segments,” or “nations,” including William Skinner in 1977, Lauren Swanson in 1989, Geng Cui and Qiming Liu in 2000, and Mark Elvin in 2004.  Anyone who has a copy of Jonathan Spence’s “The Search for Modern China” — a standard textbook — will have run across one version of Skinner’s macroregions on page 77.  Regretfully, none of these frameworks have been widely disseminated or adopted outside of an academic context, and are simply not part of the popular discussion about China. 

The “Nine Nations” framework presented in my article was conceived and developed independently of these sources.  It is the product of 24 years of travel and approximately three years of active research.  It concurs with my predecessors in certain respects, and differs substantially with them in others.  Had I been writing an academic paper, I would of course have cited each of these intellectual antecedents and delineated precisely how I agreed or disagree with them in turn.  This was not an academic paper (although I teach at Tsinghua University, I am a business practitioner, not a career academic).  It was an attempt to introduce an important way of thinking about China into popular discourse, in business and public policy, where it has until now been absent.  For those whose interest has been piqued by my article, I would definitely urge them to look up the academic literature that preceded me and compare and contrast it with my own conclusions.

I realize that the map is what grabs most people’s attention, but if there is any real originality in my proposal — and I believe there is — it lies not in the map per se but in the regional descriptions that support it.  This is the meat of the matter.  I was taken to task by a fellow China blogger who observed that my map looks similar to Skinner’s macroregions, implying that I merely copied it.  I did not copy it, but I am gratified and reassured that Skinner, a pioneer in this field, reached similar conclusions to the ones I did.  More importantly, in the areas where my findings diverge from Skinner’s — Shaanxi, Shanxi, Guangxi, Anhui, Taiwan, Wenzhou and Shantou, the entire northwest half of China including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Qinghai — they do so because of what I see as the animating force or character that defines each region.  And my understanding of that aspect comes from my personal experience traveling, living, and doing business in those places.  I have tried to capture the sense of this defining spirit in the names I’ve given each “nation,” and to offer some flavor of it in the short descriptions such an article allowed.

The other thing I’ve been taken to task over, by some, is my use of China’s present-day provincial boundaries as the basis for my own.  I made this decision consciously, for one very simple reason.  Most of the contemporary data available on China — such as GDP, industry figures, or detailed demographics — is broken down by province.  Once you start to drill down below that it gets very patchy and inconsistent, and starts to obscure and confuse as much as it reveals.  As a private equity investor, I have learned that there is such a thing as illusory precision in finely-chopped data — it is better to see the forest than every single tree.  For people in business, in particular, who want to use the Nine Nations framework as a source of insight, most of the data they will have on hand will be provincial.  Does a breakdown by province miss certain nuances?  Yes.  But it more than makes up for it in sheer functionality, and the ability to formulate useful, empirical comparisons. 

For those who have concerns regarding originality and attribution, and The Atlantic’s editorial perspective on these issues and how they were handled, I would urge you to read Jim Fallows’ comments on his blog at The Atlantic here.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2009 10:30 am


    I enjoyed your map and the regional descriptions, and they are clearly the product of independent thinking.

    But here are my thoughts on attribution:

    One thing the Internet does very well, is make it easy to connect different bits of data. Bloggers are particularly sensitive about sourcing and attribution, for two reasons:

    1. Particularly in the early days of the blogosphere but even now in the Twitterized world, links from popular blogs to new or unknown blogs can multiply traffic exponentially. A blogger linking to the source of an idea, or even a subject related to an idea is part of the evolving etiquette of personal publishing.

    2. It’s a lot better now, but when blog were first starting to make an impact on the media between 2001 and 2004, many journalists made a habit of using ideas and even sometimes whole sentences verbatim from blogs without attribution.

    At my website, we often used to find a phrase or sentence copied verbatim from our own original translations used by journalists at big American and British newspapers without attribution. Now I think we are high profile enough that journalists would rather call us for a direct quote, and newspapers have got much better at linking and attribution, so it does not happen any more.

    As you say, we are always standing on the shoulders of giants. At Danwei, our answer to this is make “Links and sources” a standard part of our posts and articles, which gives us space to acknowledge direct sources and possible influences or antecedents, as well as give curious readers additional materials to read elsewhere on the Internet.

    Anyhow, thanks for an interesting take on China’s geography, and thanks to the graduate student Jeremiah Jenne for bringing up Skinner’s fascinating map.

  2. keith woolcock permalink
    November 19, 2009 11:44 pm

    Loved the map and have recently started following your blog. If you were to recommend a modern history of China, what would it be.
    re the revaluation of the RMB, is one of the reasons that the chinese would be opposed their fear that they might be swamped by cheap US farm produce?

    • prchovanec permalink*
      November 22, 2009 9:20 am

      Jonathan Spence’s “The Search for Modern China” (2nd Edition, 1999) and Maurice Meisner’s “Mao’s China and After” (3rd Edition, 1999) are two standard texts that I refer to often. Both are very thorough, although they can be a bit dry. Spence covers China from the late Ming Dynasty (1600 AD) on, while Meisner focuses exclusively on post-1949.

      For the casual reader, I would still highly recommend Harrison Salisbury’s “The New Emperors” (1993). It may be starting to show its age a little bit, but it’s a highly readable account of both Mao and Deng, whose story offers the essential backdrop for the China we know today.


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