Ying-kit Chan

Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore
Faculty Adviser: Benjamin Elman

Provincial Identity in China: Thinking Central-Local Relations in Guangdong, 1870-1910


This dissertation investigates Chinese impressions of Guangdong, the southernmost province of the Qing Empire (1644-1912), as an administrative or territorial unit, as a political concept, and—most importantly—as a source of identity. It interprets autobiographies, biographies, poems, literary letters, and political treatises as expressions of a new provincial identity informed by imperial decline, foreign ideas, and transcultural exchanges. By the beginning of the twentieth century, long before Guangdong would experiment with capitalism and economic decentralization in the 1980s and 1990s, its literati were already grappling with the issues of local autonomy, state control, and self-representation. By examining the writings of five literati who experienced China’s tumultuous transition from empire to nation—He Ruzhang 何如璋 (1838-1891), Deng Chengxiu 鄧承修 (1841-1892), Qiu Fengjia 丘逢甲 (1864-1912), Ou Jujia 歐榘甲 (1870-1911), and Liang Jushi 梁居實 (1843-1911)—this dissertation explores the historical context of the autonomy of contemporary Chinese provinces. It suggests that narrating a history of provincial identity and central-local relations outside the purview of statist and nation-centric perspectives can infuse fresh insights into tired historiographical and political credos about reform and revolution as well as provide an example that would supplement studies of nationalism of other parts of the world. Created in its current form during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, Guangdong has developed a life of its own. It represents a locus for identity that is simultaneously cultural, ethnic, political, and personal. This dissertation thus focuses less on textual representations than on the personal inventions of provincial identity by selected Guangdong literati. Although marginal to the dominant discourses on state-oriented reform and revolution of their day, the vision of Chinese provincialism articulated by these literati accompanied the rise of ethnic Han nationalism. Through them, this dissertation explores the provincial roots of China’s national identity. It demonstrates how provincialism was fused with nationalist ideas in the late Qing Empire and has continued to influence debates on culture, history, and statecraft in contemporary China.