‘But we are the most backward’: Hierarchical categorization of modernity in contemporary Chinese national identity

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This article examines how the classification of specific territories in China as backward constructs contemporary Chinese national identity. Recent scholarship has examined the role that regions within nations play as repositories of undesirable traits of national identity. This article examines how spaces at scales other than the region within a national territory are classified on a continuum of backwardness and modernity through an examination of four forms of classification of political spaces within China: minzu (ethnicity), westness, poverty, rural/urban. Drawing on ethnographic field work in Western China, alongside the writings of noted anthropologist Fei Xiaotong and others Chinese intellectuals, this article shows that spaces were discursively categorized as backward. This classification of backwardness is not a case of binary othering, but rather exists as a graduated teleological hierarchy in which all spaces classified as backward have the theoretical ability to move out of their backwardness through state-led development. With the goal of helping backward spaces advance towards modernity, the state has enacted de jure forms of territorial classification target specific spaces for development and modernization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102260
JournalPolitical Geography
StatePublished - Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was financially supported by: the U.S. Department of Education's Fulbright Hays program (Award Number P022A090013 ), from the Geography and Regional Sciences program of the National Science Foundation (award number 0927391 ), the Political Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers, and the University of Colorado's Beverly Sears program.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd


  • China
  • Development
  • Internal differentiation
  • Modernity
  • Nationalism


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