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.