Peter Gries. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publications Ltd.
On 4 August 2003, construction workers in China’s north-eastern city of Qiqihar uncovered and mistakenly ruptured five drums of mustard gas left behind from the wartime Japanese occupation. Dozens were injured and one man died. Chinese newspapers carried gory photos of the injured and their chemical burns, and the popular reaction to the news was fast and furious. Chinese Internet chat-rooms were filled with anti-Japanese invective. A million signatures were rapidly gathered on an Internet petition demanding that the Japanese government thoroughly resolve the chemical weapons issue. The petition was hand-delivered to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on 4 September as Chinese and Japanese diplomats were negotiating compensation for the victims of the Qiqihar accident. Petition organizer and cyber-nationalist Lu Yunfei later said that he sought to ‘put pressure on the Japanese government.’
The popular Chinese reaction to the Qiqihar incident was no aberration; indeed, it stood in the middle of a long summer and fall of anti-Japanese activity in China (see Gries 2005). In June, Internet activists organized the first ever Mainland Chinese trip to the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands east of China. In July, nationalists organized a Web-based petition to deny Japan a Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link contract. In August, rather than celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1978 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Chinese and Japanese diplomats spent much of the month doing damage control after the Qiqihar mustard gas incident. In September, the disclosure of a sex party involving hundreds of Japanese businessmen and Chinese prostitutes in the southeast city of Zhu Hai sparked another flurry of anti-Japanese invective on the Internet. And in October, a risqué skit by three Japanese students and one of their teachers at Northwestern University in Xian led to a 7,000-strong demonstration on campus and nationwide condemnation. Anti-Japanese activity seemed to be everywhere: as Hong Kong’s Sing Pao Daily (2003) put it in December: ‘Chinese feelings of hatred for the Japanese are rising without interruption.’
The events of 2003 should be understood in the broader context of the swelling tide of popular nationalism that began in mid-1990s China. In 1996 came the publication of the best-selling book China Can Say No and a host of copycat anti-American and anti-Japanese diatribes. With Hong Kong’s ‘return to the motherland’ from Britain in 1997, Chinese eagerly anticipated the ‘erasing of the national humiliation.’ The furious popular reaction to the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, taken with the firebombing of the US consul’s residence in Chengdu and a near siege of the US Embassy in Beijing, revealed that feelings of humiliation persisted. And the two weeks of US-China ‘apology diplomacy’ following the 2001 plane collision between a US EP-3 and a Chinese F-8 demonstrated that nationalism remained a major determinant of Chinese (and US) foreign policy. As we have seen, 2003 witnessed a flurry of anti-Japanese activities that led some pundits to declare 2003 the year of ‘Internet nationalism’ (Guoji xianqu daobao 2003). At the turn of the twenty-first century, a new nationalism has emerged in China.
Nation and Nationalism in China
How should this new nationalism in China be understood? Is Chinese nationalism a threat to the West and to China’s neighbors? Or is it a natural product of China’s developmental experience?
The dominant Western view of Chinese nationalism today is that it is ‘party propaganda,’ constructed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to legitimize its rule. With the crisis of communism, the Party elite is seen as fomenting nationalism to maintain its grip on power. Thomas Christensen (1996: 37) expressed this dominant view succinctly in an influential Foreign Affairs article: ‘Since the Chinese Communist Party is no longer communist, it must be even more Chinese.’
This ‘party propaganda’ view of Chinese nationalism is not wrong—the CCP clearly seeks to use nationalism—but, as even the brief discussion above of the Qiqihar incident reveals, it is far from complete (see Gries 2004). By focusing exclusively on the CCP and its ‘state’ or ‘official’ nationalism, the orthodox view fails to capture the independent role that the Chinese people (like Lu Yunfei) are increasingly playing in nationalist politics. A genuinely bottom-up and popular nationalism has emerged in China—one that, as the 1999 Belgrade bombing and 2003 Qiqihar protests reveal, the CCP has its hands full just containing.
The view of Chinese nationalism as ‘propaganda’ is also rationalist and thus fails to explain the passions so clearly evident in Chinese nationalist politics today. Chinese nationalism is not just about the instrumental pursuit of China’s national interest; it is also about what it means to be ‘Chinese’ today. Indeed, sense and sensibility often conflict, as when the popular anti-Japanese protests of 2003 contributed to a deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations, jeopardizing China’s interest in maintaining stable relations with a vital trade partner.
In short, the ‘party propaganda’ view of Chinese nationalism today fails to capture the role of popular passions in Chinese nationalist politics.
Where do these Popular Passions Come From?
This chapter argues that to understand Chinese nationalism today, one must engage Chinese understandings of their identity, and that national identities are constituted in large part through stories told about the national past. Historian F. W Mote (1999: xv) has argued that ‘ignorance of China’s cultural tradition and historical experience is an absolute barrier to comprehending China today.’ I agree. To comprehend Chinese nationalism today, however, even more important than understanding the Chinese past itself is an understanding of how Chinese themselves narrate their national past. Narratives are the stories that we tell about our pasts. These stories, personality psychologists have argued, infuse our identities with unity, meaning and purpose (McAdams 1996; Singer and Salovey 1993). We cannot, therefore, radically change them at will. Sociologists Anthony Giddens and Margaret Somers maintain that narratives infuse identities with meaning. Giddens (1991: 5) argues that narratives provide the individual with ‘ontological security’: ‘The reflexive project of the self … consists in the sustaining of coherent, yet continually revised, biographical narratives.’ Somers (1994: 618) contrasts ‘representational narratives’ (selective descriptions of events) with more foundational ‘ontological narratives’: ‘the stories that social actors use to make sense of—indeed, to act in—their lives. [They] define who we are.’ The storied nature of social life, in short, infuses our identities with meaning. ‘Identities,’ Stuart Hall notes, ‘are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves in, the narratives of the past’ (see Olick and Robbins 1998: 122).
Following Elie Kedourie (1993 : 141), who noted that nationalism ‘is very much a matter of one’s self-view, of one’s estimation of oneself and one’s place in the world,’ this chapter takes a social psychological approach to nationalism. Specifically, it follows social identity theorists (SIT) in defining national identity as the aspect of an individual’s self-concept that derives from his or her perceived membership in a national group (see Tajfel 1981: 255). Nationalism is here understood as the commitment to protect and enhance national identity.
The chapter begins by exploring three ‘pasts’ central to constructions of Chinese nationalism today: the ‘5,000 Years,’ the ‘100 Years’ and the ‘Ten Years.’ These pasts together help constitute what it means to be ‘Chinese’ at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It then seeks to move beyond the elite instrumentalism of the party propaganda view by exploring the roles that the Chinese people and their passions play in Chinese nationalism today.
The 5,000 Years: The Burdens of ‘Civilization’
Pride in the superiority of China’s ‘5,000 years of Civilization’ is central to nationalism in China today. Xiao Gongqing (1994), an outspoken neo-conservative intellectual, advocated the use of a nationalism derived from Confucianism to fill the ideological void opened by the collapse of communism. The mid-1990s, indeed, witnessed a revival of interest in Confucianism. The CCP, which only 20 years earlier in 1974 had launched a campaign to ‘Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius,’ ironically became an active sponsor of Confucian studies. President Jaing Zemin himself attended the 1994 celebration of Confucius’s 2,545th birthday (Guo Yingjie 2004: 35).
Popular nationalist writings also frequently evince pride in China’s ‘Civilization.’ The cover of a 1997 Beijing Youth Weekly, for instance, has ‘Chinese Defeat Kasparov!’ splashed across a picture of the downcast Russian chess grand master. Two of the six members of the IBM research group that programmed Deep Blue, it turns out, were Chinese-Americans. ‘It was the genius of these two Chinese,’ one article asserts, ‘that allowed Deep Blue to defeat Mr. Kasparov.’ Entitled ‘We Have the Best Brains,’ the article concludes that ‘we should be proud of the legacy of “5,000 years of civilization” that our ancestors have left for us’ (Beijing qingnian zhoukan 1997: 30). Blood and culture are frequently fused in Chinese discourse of ‘Civilization.’
The 5,000 Years are more frequently deployed, however, to construct Chinese superiority over a threatening United States—not lowly Russia. For instance, in the 1996 diatribe Surpassing the USA, authors Xi Yongjun and Ma Zaizhun amuse themselves with ‘a few theatrical and rather comical juxtapositions.’ They begin with clichés. China is the world’s richest spiritual civilization, America the most advanced material civilization; China is the collectivist capital, America an individualist’s heaven. Xi and Ma then become playful and self-indulgent: America has but two hundred years of history, while China’s Tongrentang Pharmacy alone is 388 years old; the American Declaration of Independence was a handwritten document of but four thousand words, while China’s ‘great’ ‘Four Books’ was printed on the world’s first press and contains over three billion characters (Xi Yongjun and Ma Zaizhun 1996: 3-4). The authors clearly intend to establish Chinese superiority at America’s expense.
Just as many in the West use the ‘Orient’ to define themselves, many in the East clearly deploy the ‘Occident’ to the same ends. The text on the back cover of the ‘Sino-American Contest,’ a special 1996 issue of the provincial Chinese magazine Love Our China, for instance, begins with some contrasts: ‘China has 5,000 years of civilized history … while America has only 200 years of history.’ It then turns to insults: ‘Facing an ancient Eastern colossus, America is at most a child.’ ‘Emotion-cues,’ sociologist Candace Clark (1990: 314) reminds us, ‘can be used to manipulate, reminding and counter-reminding each other of judgments of the proper place.’ By ‘altercasting’ America as a child, China can play the superior elder (see Weinstein and Deutschberger 1963). Following Edward Said’s discussion of ‘Orientalism,’ such Chinese uses of the West have been labeled ‘Occidentalism,’ a ‘deeply rooted practice [in China] of alluding to the Occident as a contrasting Other in order to define whatever one believes to be distinctively “Chinese”’ (Chen Xiaomei 1995: 39).
The 5,000 Years are also central to the dream of a ‘prosperous country and a strong army,’ which still inspires Chinese nationalists over a century after it was first promoted by late Qing-dynasty reformers. People’s Liberation Army writer Jin Hui (1995: 186-7) writes that ‘For over one hundred years, generation after generation of Chinese have been dreaming that since we were once strong, although we are now backwards we will certainly become strong again.’ The ‘unlimited cherishing of past greatness,’ Jin laments, is tied to overconfi-dence that ‘in the future, we will certainly be “first under heaven”.’ Such ‘illusions,’ Jin Hui warns, are ‘even worse than spiritual opiates.’
The burdens of Civilization can certainly lead to self-delusions, as Jin argues; they can also lead to racism. In 1995, for example, Vice Chair of the National People’s Congress Tian Jiyun declared that ‘The IQs of the Chinese ethnicity, the descendants of the Yellow Emperor, are very high (Sautman 1997: 79). ‘Confucian nationalism’ is not an oxymoron: Confucianism allows for the reinforcement of cultural boundaries when barbarians do not accept Chinese values. The ‘universal’ ‘all under heaven’ can and often has become a closed political community (Duara 1995). Historian Lei Yi (1997: 49-50) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing has used the phrase ‘“Sinocentric” cultural nationalism’ to describe such views. The Confucian world was not ‘one big happy family,’ but extremely Sinocentric, involving a ‘fierce racism, rejection of other cultures … and cultural superiority.’ In China, cultural and ethnic nationalism are frequently intertwined.
The 100 Years: A ‘Century of Humiliation’
Narratives about the ‘Century of Humiliation’ frame the ways that Chinese interact with the West today. This period begins with China’s defeat in the First Opium War and the British acquisition of Hong Kong in 1842. The period was marked by major wars between China and the Western powers or Japan: the two Opium Wars of 1840-42 and 1856-60, the Sino-Japanese ‘Jiawu’ War of 1894-95, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the ‘War of Resistance against Japan’ of 1931/1937-1945. Many educated Chinese today are painfully aware of the ‘unequal treaties’ signed with the British at Nanjing in 1842 and the Japanese at Shimoneseki in 1895. Unilateral concessions forced on the Chinese in these treaties, such as indemnities, extraterritoriality and foreign settlements in the treaty ports, are still perceived as humiliating losses of sovereignty. Other symbols of the period still resonate with today’s nationalists. The stone ruins of the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing, looted and burned by Europeans in 1860, are a reminder of the ‘rape’ of China. Lin Zexu, a famous Chinese crusader against opium and British aggression, still stands for Chinese courage and virtue.
The Century of Humiliation is neither an objective past that works insidiously in the present nor a mere ‘invention’ of present-day nationalist entrepreneurs. Instead, the Century is a continuously reworked narrative about the national past central to the contested and evolving meaning of being ‘Chinese’ today.
Furthermore, the Century is a traumatic and foundational moment because it fundamentally challenged Chinese views of the world. In Chinese eyes, earlier invaders became Chinese, while barbarians beyond the border paid humble tribute to ‘Civilization.’ Both practices reinforced a view of Chinese civilization as universal and superior. Early encounters with ‘big noses,’ from Marco Polo to pre-nineteenth-century European and American traders and missionaries, did not challenge this view. ‘Our ancient neighbors,’ writes one young Chinese nationalist, ‘found glory in drawing close to Chinese civilization’ (Li Fang 1996: 23). The violent nineteenth-century encounter with the ‘West’ was different. The Central Kingdom was not only defeated militarily, but was also confronted by a civilization with universalist pretensions of its own. ‘The Western impact,’ writes Tu Weiming (1991: 2),‘fundamentally dislodged Chinese intellectuals from their Confucian haven … [creating a] sense of impotence, frustration, and humiliation.’ The ‘Western devils’ had a civilization of their own that challenged the universality and superiority of Confucian civilization. The traumatic confrontation between East and West fundamentally destabilized Chinese views of the world and their place within it. ‘Trauma brings about a lapse or rupture in memory that breaks continuity with the past,’ writes historian Dominick LaCapra (1998: 9) in a discussion of the Holocaust. ‘It unsettles narcissistic investments and desired self-images.’ Just as the trauma of the Holocaust led many in the postwar West to re-examine their tradition (see Horkheimer and Adorno 2002 ), the Century threatened a Chinese identity based upon the idea of a universal and superior civilization. ‘The Israelis’ vision of the Holocaust has shaped their idea of themselves,’ Tom Segev (1993: 11) writes, ‘just as their changing sense of self has altered their view of the Holocaust and their understanding of its meaning.’ Since stories about the past both limit and define our national identities in the present, the same is true of the Chinese and the Century of Humiliation; Chinese visions of the Century have shaped their sense of self, and these changes to Chinese identity have altered their views of the Century.
Today, Chinese struggles to come to terms with this period of trauma are reflected in the emergence of new narratives about the Century. Under Mao, China’s pre-‘Liberation’ (1949) sufferings were blamed on the feudalism of the Qing Dynasty and Western imperialism, and the anti-feudal, anti-imperialist masses were valorized for throwing off their chains and repelling foreign invaders. This ‘heroic’ or ‘victor’ national narrative first served the requirements of Communist revolutionaries seeking to mobilize popular support in the 1930s and 1940s, and later served the nation-building goals of the People’s Republic in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. One 1950s movie about the First Opium War, for instance, changed its title from The Opium War to Lin Zexu to glorify Chinese heroism. New China needed heroes.
During the 1990s, however, the official Maoist ‘victor narrative’ was joined by a new and popular ‘victimization narrative’ that blames ‘the West,’ including Japan, for China’s suffering. This ‘new’ storyline actually renews the focus on victimization in pre-Mao Republican-era writings on the Century (Cohen 2002: 17). Indeed, the trope of China as a raped woman, common in Republican China but unpopular during the Maoist period, has re-emerged. In Republican China, playwrights like Xiao Jun used rape in nationalist plays such as Village in August, in which Japanese soldiers rape a patriotic peasant woman (see Lydia Liu 1994). The return of the ‘rape of China’ theme may be seen in such bestsellers as Chinese-American Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (1997). This book helped transform the 1937 Nanjing massacre into a ‘rape.’
The contrast between ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ national narratives is nicely captured in two Chinese movies about the First Opium War of 1840-42. Lin Zexu (1959), mentioned above, is a story of the Chinese people’s heroic anti-imperialist struggle. Named Lin Zexu to highlight resistance, it does not focus solely on Commissioner Lin, but emphasizes his close relations with a peasant couple who seek vengeance against Eliot, the evil British trader who had killed the peasant woman’s father. Lin and the Chinese people are one in an upbeat tale of popular defiance. Opium War (1997), by contrast, is an unmitigatedly dark and depressing tragedy of the past (see Karl 2001). It is only at the very end of the movie, with the image of a stone lion and the message that ‘On July 1,1997 the Chinese government recovered sovereignty over Hong Kong,’ that China is redeemed. Director Xie Jin’s vision of the past is one of opium addicts and humiliation; his vision of the present and future is one of mighty lions awakening to exact their revenge. A victim in the past, China will be a victim no longer.
The year 1997 seems to have been a pivotal moment in the re-emergence of the victimization narrative in China. The countdown to Hong Kong’s ‘Return to the Motherland’ in the spring and summer of 1997 created a strong desire to ‘wipe away’ the ‘National Humiliation.’ And in the fall of 1997, 60th anniversary commemorations of the Nanjing massacre, as well as Iris Chang’s book about it, directed Chinese attention to their past suffering as never before. Anticipating closure on the ‘Humiliation,’ many Chinese paradoxically reopened a long-festering wound. For many Chinese nationalists, this painful encounter with past trauma was expressed in the language of victimization.
The China of 1997 may thus prove to be comparable to 1961 Israel, when Eichmann’s trial precipitated a dramatic shift in Israeli attitudes towards the Holocaust. The repression of Holocaust memories in the name of the nation-building (creating a ‘New Israel’) that prevailed in the late 1940s and 1950s gave way to a new identification with victimization in the 1960s. The early post-war Israeli rejection of victimhood is reflected in the evolution of Holocaust Day, which was established only in 1953 and did not become a mandatory national holiday until 1959 (see Zerubavel 1995). Early Holocaust Day commemorations emphasized the ‘martyrs and heroes’ of the ghetto resistance, not the victims of the concentration camps who were memorialized in later tributes. China is now undergoing a similar process, as long-suppressed memories of past suffering resurface. Chinese nationalism since the 1990s cannot be understood without taking note of this new encounter with the traumas of the past.
Despite the new focus on ‘victimization,’ heroic narratives about the Century of Humiliation have not disappeared. Narratives of ‘China as victor’ and ‘China as victim’ co-exist in Chinese nationalism today. The Century is arguably both what psychologist Vamik Volkan calls a ‘chosen glory’ and what he calls a ‘chosen trauma’ (Volkan and Itzkowitz 1994). The publisher’s preface to a series of books entitled ‘Do not forget the history of national humiliation’ is typical, describing the Century as both a ‘history of the struggle of the indomitable Chinese people against imperialism,’ and a ‘tragic history of suffering, beatings, and extraordinary humiliations.’ Many Chinese nationalists, it seems, are eager to capitalize on the moral authority of their past suffering. But there is a downside to the new ‘victimization narrative.’ It entails confronting vulnerability and weakness. The enduring need for heroism and a ‘victor narrative’ serves, it seems, to allay the fears of those who are not yet ready to directly confront the trauma of the 100 Years.
The Ten Years: Maoist Melancholy, Red Guard Envy
The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,’ later known as the ‘Ten Years of Chaos,’ engulfed China from 1966 to 1976, when Mao Zedong died. Mobilized by Mao to attack his enemies in the Party bureaucracy, young Red Guards both denounced and violently attacked their teachers, local Party officials, their parents, and each other.
The thirty-something ‘fourth generation’ of young Chinese nationalists today grew up after the Cultural Revolution in the relative prosperity of China under reform. The Ten Years of Chaos has nonetheless left an indelible imprint upon them. Ironically, the fourth generation appears to find the new victimization narrative of Chinese suffering at the hands of Western imperialists appealing precisely because they, unlike their elders, have never suffered. The first generation of revolutionaries endured the hardships of the anti-fascist and civil wars of the 1930s and 1940s. The second generation suffered during the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s. And the third generation of Red Guards was sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. The fourth generation of PRC youth, by contrast, grew up with relative material prosperity under Reform in the 1980s and 1990s. In their 1997 psycho-autobiography The Spirit of the Fourth Generation, Song Qiang and several of his co-authors of the 1996 nationalist diatribes China Can Say No and China Can Still Say No are envious of the third generation who, ‘proud of their hardships,’ can celebrate them at Cultural Revolution restaurants like Heitudi (The Black Earth) in Beijing, nostalgically eating fried corn bread, recalling the good old, bad old days. They then ask, ‘Are we an unimportant generation?’ In a section entitled ‘How Much Longer Must We be Silent?,’ they lament that ‘We in our thirties are without a shadow or a sound … it seems that we will perish in silence’ (Song Qiang et al. 1997: 206, 202). Many of this generation, it seems, have a strong desire to make their mark. And they seek to do so through nationalism.
In the 1990s, young conservatives compared Beijing Spring 1989 to the Cultural Revolution to justify the government clampdown on June 4th. The specter of chaos was brandished to assert the need for national unity and authoritarian CCP rule. More broadly, many fourth generation nationalists today have selfconsciously defined themselves against the ‘Liberal ‘80s.’ Sociologist Karl Mannheim (1952) long ago argued that the formative events of youth mark each generation (see also Halbwachs 1980). Late-1980s experiences like the pro-Western ‘River Elegy’ television sensation and Beijing Spring 1989 came at a pivotal time in the lives of Chinese nationalists now in their thirties. Today’s nationalists frequently dismiss the 1980s as a period of dangerous ‘romanticism’ and ‘radicalism’; they then depict themselves as ‘realistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ defenders of stability and order (see Xu Ben 2001).
Even as they condemn the Ten Years of Chaos, however, many Chinese nationalists are both nostalgic for Mao and have embraced the Red Guard style. The Mao craze of the mid-1990s was motivated in part by a pronounced nostalgia for Mao’s tough, stand-tall image (see Barmé 1996). Many young Chinese nationalists did not have the patience for Deng Xiaoping’s economics-first strategy of ‘biding one’s time.’ Instead, they were wistful for the days of Mao’s tough talk and violent confrontation with the US in Korea and Vietnam.
The Red Guard style of take-no-prisoners nationalism in China today is well exemplified by the popular reactions to the ‘Zhao Wei wears the Imperial Japanese flag’ and ‘Jiang Wen goes to Yasukuni’ affairs that occurred in late 2001 and the summer of 2002.
The September 2001 issue of the state-run Fashion magazine features a picture of Chinese model/actress Zhao Wei wearing a short dress with an Imperial Japanese flag imprinted upon it. On 3 December 2001 a Hunan newspaper ran an exposé on the photo, igniting widespread Internet condemnation and national coverage (Zhang Datian 2001). During the week of 3-10 December, over 6,000 mostly angry messages about the Zhao Wei affair were posted on the popular website http://sina.com (Japan Economic Newswire 2001). And words were linked with action: protestors used bricks and bottles to smash Zhao’s house in Wuhu City in Anhui Province (Straits Times 2001).
On 10 December Zhao Wei made a public apology, which was first circulated on the Internet, and later broadcast on national television. Zhao declared that she had learned ‘an excellent lesson’ about this period of history. ‘In the future, I will be more careful about what I say and do … and work hard to improve myself (Beijing qingnianbao 2001).
Some Chinese nationalists, however, refused to accept Zhao Wei’s apology. At a New Year’s Eve event held at Changsha on 28 December, an enraged man rushed up on stage, pushed Zhao over and smeared excrement on her dress.
During most of the controversy, Zhao Wei herself was in Xinjiang filming Warriors of Heaven and Earth. Coincidentally, the film’s male protagonist, played by actor/director Jiang Wen, became the subject of another Japan controversy the following summer. On 27 June 2002 a Tianjin newspaper ran an exposé that Jiang had been to Yasukuni Shrine several times (Beijing chenbao 2002). Yasukuni is a shrine in Tokyo where Japanese go to honor their war dead, including executed war criminals from World War II. When Japanese politicians go there to worship, Chinese nationalists view it as a sign of Japanese militarism and Japan’s continuing lack of repentance for wartime aggressions against China. Some Chinese thus took offense at Jiang’s Yasukuni trip. In the view of many Chinese nationalists, Jiang’s ‘nationalist integrity’ was now suspect (Shen Xiaoma 2002).
Many in China’s cultural elite, however, boldly and publicly defended Jiang. They argued that Jiang had gone to Yasukuni to do research for his film Devils on the Doorstep, and that ‘visiting’ Yasukuni was a far cry from ‘worshipping’ there. Author Shi Tiesheng declared that ‘a director trying to understand the crimes of militarism is not the same as standing on the side of militarism.’ Director Tian Zhuangzhuang similarly insisted that ‘Jiang Wen is an artist with a clear sense of right and wrong, and an extremely strong sense of racial responsibility’ (see Chen Yifei 2002). Director Feng Xiaogang, ‘indignant’ at the anti-Jiang media coverage, claimed that it was using Gang of Four (read: Cultural Revolution) style methods: ‘The shadow of the extreme “left” persists in the thinking and behavior of many people today’ (Yu Shaowen 2002).
I agree with Feng. A winner-takes-all, show-no-mercy style reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution is prevalent in Chinese nationalist discourse today. Many cyber-nationalists exhibit a ferocious, Red Guard style: words and deeds that seek to literally silence one’s opponents, from physically assaulting both Zhao Wei’s house and her body to accusations of treason against Jiang Wen to widespread death threats against Chinese liberals.
Popular Passions and the Fate of the Nation
Over the past quarter century, the constructivist and rational choice revolutions that have swept the social sciences have synergized in studies of nationalism. Nationalist elites, Benedict Anderson (1993 ) and Eric Hobsbawm (1983) have taught us, construct nations and their traditions.
By focusing on the writing of nationalist histories, this new approach has successfully combated the ‘pastism’ of earlier scholarship that held that deep-rooted animosities from the past predetermine present-day nationalist conflict. But the over-correction of the problem of ‘pastism’ has generated a new problem: ‘presentism,’ an extreme constructivism that leaves readers with the impression that the past is a blank slate that nationalists can rewrite at will. In ‘presentist’ scholarship, the weight of the past is lost.
In this chapter I have argued that the 5,000 Years, the 100 Years and the Ten Years do not predetermine present-day nationalist politics—and that they are not easily malleable tools in the hands of nationalist historians either. Instead, I have argued that because narratives about these national pasts infuse Chinese identity with unity, meaning and purpose, while they can and do change, they can only do so slowly through a process of contestation—such as the challenge that the new ‘victimization’ narrative about the Century of Humiliation poses to the Mao-era ‘victor’ narrative. These stories, in the end, both constrain and are constrained by current nationalist practice. Past and present are interdependent; neither completely dominates the other.
Today’s rationalist, constructivist nationalism theory has thus shifted attention from the past to the present; it has also shifted attention from the people and their passions up to the elites and their instrumental politics. Early Western approaches to nationalism emphasized its mass basis. At the turn of the nineteenth century, sociologist Emile Durkheim (1966 ) argued that uprooted and ‘anomic’ individuals are drawn to the feeling of community provided by nationalist movements. In the middle of the century, major nationalism theorists continued in Durkheim’s sociological tradition, arguing that nationalism fills the ‘unnatural’ religious void modernization creates in the hearts of the people (Kohn 1944; Hayes 1960). Today’s focus, however, is on elite uses of nationalism. To be sure, ‘subaltern studies’ approaches to nationalism have shifted attention from the colonizers to the colonized as the subjects of Third World history. But postcolonial scholarship has nonetheless remained largely elitist in its focus: Indian intellectuals, for example, producing alternatives to the British vision of ‘India’ (see Kaviraj 1992; Chatterjee 1993). G. C. Spivak’s (1988) lament that ‘the subaltern cannot speak’ is reflective of a general postmodern emphasis on the elite production and mass consumption of discourse.
To understand Chinese nationalism today, we must redirect our gaze back from the high politics of CCP propaganda to the messy realities of the lived experiences of the Chinese people and their emotions. The CCP is losing its control over nationalist discourse. Under Mao, the Party claimed that because it led the revolutionary masses, the Party and the nation were fused into an inseparable whole. Only communists, in other words, could be genuine Chinese nationalists. Under Deng and especially under Jiang, however, the CCP’s nationalist claims are increasingly falling on deaf ears. Popular nationalists now regularly speak of the ‘Motherland’ and the ‘Chinese race’ without reference to the Party. And this separation of the Party-state from the nation is not occurring only in marginal popular publications. PLA writer Jin Hui, mentioned above, published Wailing at the Heavens in 1995 as part of an official series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the War of Resistance. The book underwent rigorous editing at the People’s Liberation Army Literature and Arts Press, and General Zhang Zhen wrote the preface, further granting the book official status. General Zhang cites Deng Xiaoping on how ‘Only socialism can save China’ to make the standard official nationalism argument that ‘In modern China, patriotism is tied to socialism.’ In the book itself, however, Jin Hui (1995: 465) unties that knot, underscoring the ‘separation of the Chinese concepts of state and motherland,’ and arguing that ‘there are “two Chinas”: the Chinese people’s “motherland”, and the rulers’ “state”.’ Jin’s analysis radically undermines the idea that China is dominated by a monolithic ‘Party-state’ with complete control over nationalist discourse.
Because the anti-foreign tenor of popular nationalism is largely the same as that of state nationalism, Western analysts have too frequently dismissed popular nationalists as puppets in the hands of the Communist elite. This view is a grave mistake. In China today, popular networks are challenging the state’s hegemony over nationalism, threatening to rupture the Chinese nation-state. And this is occurring at a time when, given the bankruptcy of communist ideology, nationalism has become even more central to state legitimation. Both the Party and the people are recognizing that the people are playing a greater role in nationalist politics.
The ‘party propaganda’ view of Chinese nationalism not only excludes the Chinese people; it also excludes the emotions. Like all peoples, the Chinese are motivated by a complex interplay of both sense and sensibility. Despite compelling neurological evidence to the contrary, there is a strong tendency in the West to view emotion and reason as locked into a zero-sum relationship in which any gain for one is a loss for the other (see Unger 1975: 55; Damasio 1994). In other words, becoming more emotional entails becoming less rational, and vice versa. Studies of Chinese nationalism are no exception, pitting reason against the emotions. Optimistic pundits tend to downplay the role of the passions in Chinese nationalism. They acknowledge the role of Chinese national feelings, but then assert that the rational pursuit of China’s national interest will win the day. More pessimistic pundits, by contrast, lament that reason is impotent when confronted with the passions. Arguments over the nature and future direction of Chinese nationalism thus often tell us more about the optimism or pessimism of their Western proponents—whether they follow in the ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ liberal traditions—than they do about China.
Human motivation is complex, including elements of both reason and emotion. I therefore suggest that the newly emergent sub-fields of the sociology and psychology of emotion have much to teach us about nationalist practice. For instance, anger is an emotion that is (obviously) central to nationalist practice—yet rarely treated in the literature on nationalism. Anger seeks to restore status after it has been taken away unfairly. In Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, Barrington Moore (1978: 17) argues that ‘vengeance means retaliation. It also means a reassertion of human dignity or worth, after injury or damage. Both are basic sentiments behind moral anger and the sense of injustice.’ Where Moore highlights the emotional, J. M. Barbalet (1998: 136) stresses the instrumental: ‘Vengefulness is an emotion of power relations. It functions to correct imbalanced or disjointed power relationships. Vengefulness is concerned with restoring social actors to their rightful place in relationships.’ Anger expressed through vengeance can thus simultaneously have both emotional and instrumental dimensions.
Indeed, Chinese nationalists frequently speak of injustice. The Chinese who threw bricks at the US Embassy in Beijing after the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 were impelled by an ethical anger that sought to right a wrong. They were genuinely angry—not, as the Western pundits generally suggested, playthings in the hands of communist propagandists who manipulated them. Chinese protestors sought retributive justice: to restore China’s proper place in international society (see Gries 2001).
Popular passions, in sum, are a vital but understudied element in Chinese nationalism today. Indeed, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is well aware that popular nationalists now command a large following, and is actively seeking to appease them. For instance, during the protests about the 1999 Belgrade bombing and the 2001 spy plane collision, popular nationalists severely restricted the range of political options open to those who make decisions about the Party’s foreign policy. John Keefe (2001), who was special assistant to US Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher during the April 2001 spy plane incident, later related that, during the negotiations in Beijing, American diplomats ‘saw a Chinese government acutely sensitive to Chinese public opinion.’ Such sensitivities are only likely to increase. Western policymakers ignore how this new factor affects Chinese foreign policy at their own peril.