China Imagined

From European Fantasy to Spectacular Power

December 2018 9781787380165 232pp


How did China become China? And where is it leading us? We talk as if it had always existed: eternal China with its 5,000 years of uninterrupted history. But the name ‘China’ was first used by sixteenth-century Europeans, and its Chinese equivalent, Zhongguo, only gained currency in the mid-1800s.

China Imagined is a thoughtful exploration of the idea of China, from the naming and mapping of its territory and peoples to the creation and rise of the modern nation-state. China’s early history describes a multilingual space, ruled by a homogeneous elite with its own minority culture—a far cry from Maoism’s national mass culture, or Xi Jinping’s state-controlled digital society today.

Gregory Lee traces this complex, diverse entity’s evolution since the Opium Wars into a China made in ‘our’ image. Today, it is a great power integral to the global system, whether it comes to climate change, security or inequality. Given this rapid convergence with the West, Xi’s China holds up a mirror to our own nations. Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia and post-Brexit Europe all betray echoes of ’the Chinese Dream’. If China is a product of Westernisation, is it now the West’s turn to become China?


‘As Gregory Lee shows, this debate has gripped the world’s most populous country for more than a century.’ — Financial Times

‘What is China? Where has it come from? What is the relationship between a founding myth and national identity? Does it matter how old China is? What is the relationship between national narrative, authoritarianism and totalitarianism? Lee provides possible answers in a Chinese context, but also elegantly stimulates questions relevant to many other nations past and present.’ — Asian Affairs Journal

‘This richly provocative text, written with verve and urgency, has something to say to all scholars of China, past and present. Its broad reach and moral grasp enable penetrating questions about exactly what it is we think we are studying when we study China.’ — Craig Clunas, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, University of Oxford, and author of Art in China

‘If there’s one word to describe Gregory Lee’s book, it’s iconoclastic. Bristling with ideas and insights leavened by his vast knowledge and understanding of ‘things Chinese’, this sweeping account lays the ground for a new reading of both China and the Western imagination of it.’ — Michael Dutton, Professor of Politics, Goldsmiths University of London and author of Beijing Time

‘A powerfully stimulating book exploring China from an impressively diverse array of angles and disciplines. Lee shows that, far from an ancient relic, China is a young, modern nation racing headlong into the future. The chapters on language alone are worth their weight in gold.’ — Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania

‘An erudite and trenchant analysis of a political, cultural, social, ethnic, and linguistic world that has taken many shapes under several different historical pressures. Each chapter contains a wealth of information, presented clearly and vividly.  One could not wish for a better guide and interpreter than Gregory Lee.’ — David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of Comparative Literature, Stanford University

‘This fascinating work questions conventional thinking with a complex analysis of modern and premodern Chinese history. Lee situates contemporary China in its historical context of dispersed and localised premodern empires, reconstituted as today’s nation through European perspectives and globalisation.’ — Lu Tonglin, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Montreal


Gregory B. Lee is Professor of Chinese and Transcultural Studies at the University of Lyon. He has previously taught at SOAS, Cambridge, Chicago and Hong Kong universities and also worked as a China analyst at the BBC, broadcasting on Chinese and Hong Kong affairs. He is a fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities.

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