Why is this concept of a civiliation masquerading as a nation important? Because for centuries, even before the advent of Western imperialism, the Chinese have had a profound awareness of, and pride in, the Chinese nation, or at least the concept thereof. This tendency to view the world through the prism of the centralized state, with the attendant enforcement of a singular identity, has perverted the very sense of "Chineseness".
If an Anglophone were to ask a person, Are you Chinese?, it would seem a fairly straightforward question. And for much of recent history, it would be a fair question. However, over the past two or three centuries, the notion of "Chineseness" has been diluted as the introspection of the Ming Dynasty was finally reversed, somewhat inadvertently, by the Qing. (That is to say, the Chinese Diapsora in its modern form was triggered by the Manchurian conquest.)
It was not always thus. Soon after the beginning of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Yongle (??) Emperor dispatched the Muslim eunuch Zheng He (??) on voyages of discovery. The voyages are covered at length by Louise Levathes in When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433. To summarize, this was a period in which official Chinese curiosity about the outside world was perhaps at its zenith. But in 1433, under the Xuande (??) Emperor, the voyages were recalled. From then on, official China turned inward.
But with the advent of the Manchurian conquest, many Chinese fled China proper. The greatest number fled to Southeast Asia, which by then had become familiar thanks to the voyages. A large contingent fled to Taiwan under the banner of Zheng Chenggong (???), also known as Koxinga (???). In the 19th Century, toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese emigrants even found themselves in foreign nation-states.
Because of the nature of their emigration, the members of the Chinese Diaspora tended to see themselves as sojourners. Like all good followers of filial piety (?), they aspired to return to their ancestral villages, once they've made the fortune that would render their lives in China much more bearable.
But the political upheavals of the 20th Century have slowly begun to change these attitudes. Three political developments warrant the most scrutiny. The first, of course, is the outcome of the Chinese Civil War, which was unofficially finished in 1949 with the proclamation of the People's Republic. This singular event would send ripples forward, not only through the irresolution of the Taiwan question; but it would also bring Communist adventurism, which would antagonize Southeast Asia, making the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam convenient scapegoats when those nations underwent their own crises.
Another development is the independence of Singapore. This independence was achieved in 1965 as a result of tensions between the ethnic Chinese and native Malay populations of the Malay States. Its formulation was somewhat similar to the Partition between India and Pakistan 28 years before that, in that many ethnic Chinese fled to Singapore to avoid perceived threats of persecution. However, in the four decades since, Singaporeans, including ethnic Chinese, have developed a sense of identity as Singaporeans first, ethnics last.
The most recent development stems from the history of Taiwan over the past century. Passed from China to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 (before China realized the strategic value of Taiwan), to Japanese imperialism, to the atrocities committed by Chiang Kai-shek's troops in 1947, to the crossing of over 2 million mainlanders in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War, to the land reforms under the Republic of China that shuffled the existing social order, and finally to the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the gradual introduction of political pluralism, Taiwan has slowly been drifting away from the notion of being Chinese in a political sense, to a trend in the past decade or so to assert cultural differences, including extremists who would make the obviously unsupportable claim that Taiwanese should now be considered a different ethnic group from Chinese.
Nonetheless, the political differences are stark. Few Singaporeans, and fewer Taiwanese still, would prefer to live under the regime of the People's Republic of China. Singaporeans have their quality of life and their relationship with Malaysia to consider. Taiwan has its quality of life and open society to defend. In fact, according to a recent post by David at Jujuflop, 45% of Taiwanese citizens considered themselves Taiwanese only, and 44% considered themselves both Chinese and Taiwanese (presumably since the formal name of the state is "the Republic of China"). As David notes:
Of course, the word ‘Chinese’ has many different connurtations (ethnic, cultural, historical, political) which aren’t brought out in this survey (note that the term used in the survey ‘zhongguoren’ has more political overtones than other possible words like ‘huaren’), but the basic conclusion is quite clear:
If you call someone from Taiwan ‘Taiwanese’ then you’re pretty safe, but if you call them ‘Chinese’ you’ve got a 50-50 chance of causing offense.
Looked at from this perspective, it’s fairly clear why (a large part of) Taiwan has such a problem with China’s one-China principle.
The phenomenon is not unique to Southeast Asia. Even in the United States, growing numbers of ethnic Chinese will distinguish between Chinese nationals (zhongguoren or ???), the Chinese language and culture (zhongwen or ??), and ethnic Chinese (huaren or ??), except in cases where the context is clear.
If you think on it, this shouldn't be such a big deal. After all, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and US Americans speak "English", but you'd be hard pressed to find an Angeleno, a Vancouverite, an Aucklander, or a Canberran refer to himself as "English". (For that matter, most Scots will be quick to point out that they are, in fact, Scotch -- even Lowlanders whose ancestry includes plenty of English blood.)
Why then is there no such confusion in the Anglosphere?
Going back to Terrill's point about China's strange identity, it is past time for China to drop classical imperial aspirations. The People's Republic must stop pretending to speak for all ethnic Chinese, as that frightens foreign nations that have large numbers of high-profile ethnic Chinese citizens (largely in Southeast Asia), and as it has never come to the aid of any of those ethnic Chinese at any rate. The People's Repbulic was decided on by a large band of revolutionaries, not true delegates of the people. Nor has it ever extended the franchise beyond the Party, so its claims to speak on behalf of its subjects, much less its claims to the affections of the Chinese Diaspora, are thoroughly risible.
When China can stop making equivalence between the notions of ethnic and political "Chineseness", it will be better able to move forward, not just in its relations with Taiwan, but with all other nations.
[Cross-posted at Between Worlds and Naruwan Formosa]