The name “China” straddles two different entities, Zhongguo (中國), the Chinese state, and Zhonghua (中華), the Chinese nation. The state, i.e., the Chinese Mainland, consists of one dominant ethnic group, the Han, and 55 or so officially designated non-Han ethnicities or “Minority Nationalities.” The nation refers solely to the Han Nationality. A huge diaspora of Han Chinese live outside the borders of the Mainland, with some 50 million in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and perhaps another 50 million in other countries around the world. The Mainland government secures the most legitimacy when these two concepts of “China” are confused and conflated in the public mind. To most Mainland Han Chinese, the terms Zhongguo and Zhonghua together constitute a “Greater China.” Not all in the diaspora identify with the Mainland government, of course; many are hostile to it. Within the Mainland itself, not to mention Hong Kong and Macao, there are divisive fault lines: nationalists who support the government, nationalists who don’t, and people who are averse to nationalism and jingoism altogether, who while they may love their country don’t much care about politics.
But what most Chinese of whatever political persuasion agree upon is the figure used to mark the extent of their lineage: “5,000 years of civilization” and “5,000 years of history.” It’s the most repeated phrase you’ll hear the Chinese use to describe their country. The notion of ancient civilization in the Chinese mind is inseparable from China itself. Thus a statement once leaped out at me from a Mainland publication in an otherwise informative article on recent archeological finds: