This paper takes modern China's dilemma of how to deal with the legacy of its imperial past as the starting point for a discussion of the drawn-out re-creation of China in the twentieth century. The particular focus is on the important role of non-Han ethnic minorities in this process. It is pointed out that the non-recognition and forced assimilation of all such minorities, in favour of a unified citizenship on an imagined European, American or Japanese model, was actually considered as a serious alternative and favoured by many Chinese nation-builders in the wake of the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. The article then proceeds to a discussion of why, on the contrary, ethnic minorities should instead have been formally identified and in some cases even actively organised as official minorities, recognised and incorporated into the state structure, as happened after 1949. Based on the formal and symbolic qualities of the constitution of these minorities, it is argued that new China is also a new formulation of the imperial Chinese model, which resurrects the corollary idea of civilisation as a transformative force that requires a primitive, backward periphery as its object.