Chinese nationalism

The  in 1919 marked the beginning of the upsurge of nationalist feeling in China.
The May Fourth Movement in 1919 marked the beginning of the upsurge of nationalist feeling in China.

Chinese nationalism refers to cultural, historiographical, and political theories, movements and beliefs that assert the idea of a cohesive, unified Chinese people and culture under state(s) that are primarily Chinese. One difficulty in this definition is the wide variation and ambiguities in the definition of the term Chinese.


Ideological basis

Chinese nationalism has drawn from extremely diverse ideological sources including traditional Chinese thinking, American progressivism, Marxism, and Russian ethnological thought. The ideology also presents itself in many different and often conflicting manifestations. These manifestations have included the Three Principles of the People, Chinese communism, the anti-government views of students in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Fascist blueshirts, and Japanese collaborationism under Wang Jingwei.

Although Chinese nationalists have agreed on the desirability of a centralized Chinese state, almost every other question has been the subject of intense and sometime bitter debate. Among the questions on which Chinese nationalists have disagreed is what policies would lead to a strong China, what is the structure of the state and it's goal, what the relationship should be between China and foreign powers, and what should be the relationships between the majority Han Chinese, minority groups, and overseas Chinese.

The vast variation in how Chinese nationalism has been expressed has been noted by many commentators including Lucian Pye who argues that this reveals a lack of content in the Chinese identity. However, others have argued that the ability of Chinese nationalism to manifest itself in many forms is a positive trait in that it allows the ideology to transform itself in response to internal crises and external events.

Although the variations among conceptions of Chinese nationalism are great, Chinese nationalist groups maintain some similarities. Chinese nationalistic ideologies all regard Sun Yat-Sen very highly, and tend to claim to be ideological heirs of the three peoples principles. In addition, Chinese nationalistic ideologies tend to regard both democracy and science as positive forces, although they often have radically different notions of what democracy means.

Chinese self-consciousness

Although there has been a self-consciously Chinese state for several thousand years, the Chinese concept of the world was largely a division between the civilized world and the barbarian world and there was little concept of China as a single nation-state among many.

This situation changed in the 19th century when contact with the West and internal crises created a self-concept of a Chinese state and the belief that Chinese interests were served by a powerful Chinese state. Some authors such as Lucian Pye have argued that the modern "nation state" is fundamentally different from a traditional empire, although some have controversially argued that dynamics of the current People's Republic of China (PRC) share an essential similarity with the Ming and Qing Empires.

Chinese nationalism and ethnicity

Defining the relationship between ethnicity and the Chinese identity has been a very complex issue throughout Chinese history. In the 17th century, the Manchus invaded the Chinese heartland (see China proper) and set up the Qing dynasty. Over the next centuries they would incorporate groups such as the Tibetans, the Mongols, and the Uighur into territories which they controlled. The Manchus were faced with the issue of maintaining loyalty among the people they ruled while at the same time maintaining a distinctive identity. The main method by which they accomplished this was by portraying themselves as enlightened Confucian sages part of whose goal was to preserve and maintain Chinese civilization. Over the course of centuries the Manchus were gradually assimilated into the Chinese culture and eventually many Manchus identified themselves as Chinese.

The complexity of the relationship between ethnicity and the Chinese identity can be seen during the Taiping rebellion in which the rebels fought fiercely against the Manchus on the ground that they were barbarian foreigners while at the same time people fought just as fierce on behalf of the Manchus on the grounds that they were the preservers of traditional Chinese values. It was during this time that the concept of Han Chinese came into existence as a means of describing the majority Chinese.

In the late 19th century, Chinese nationalism identified Han with Chinese and argued for the overthrow of the Manchus who were considered outside the realm of the Chinese nation.

After the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, the official definition of "Chinese" was expanded to include non-Han ethnicities, although many historians argue that this was due mainly to the realization that a narrow definition of "Chinese" would result in a loss of Chinese territory, and that the Manchus were too sinicized to be considered an outside group.

The official Chinese nationalistic view in the 1920s and 1930s was heavily influenced by modernism and social darwinism, and included advocacy of the cultural assimilation of ethnic groups dominated by the Han state into the "culturally advanced" Han state, to become in name as well as in fact members of the "Zhonghua Nationality". Furthermore, it was also influenced by the fate of multi-ethnic states such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire versus officially monocultural states such as Germany.

Over the next decades Chinese nationalism was influenced strongly by Russian ethnographic thinking, and the official ideology of the PRC asserts that Han Chinese are one of many ethnic groups, each of whose culture and language should be respected. However, many critics argue that despite this official view, assimilationist attitudes remain deeply entrenched, and popular views and actual power relationships create a situation in which Chinese nationalism has in practice meant Han dominance of minority areas and peoples and assimilation of those groups.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese nationalism within Mainland China became mixed with the rhetoric of Marxism, and nationalistic rhetoric become in large part subsumed into internationalist rhetoric.

In the 1990s, rising economic standards, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the lack of any other legitimizing ideology has led to what most observers see as a resurgence of nationalism within China.

Chinese nationalism and overseas Chinese

Chinese nationalism has had mutable relationships with Chinese living outside of Mainland China and Taiwan. Overseas Chinese were strong supporters of the 1911 revolution.

After decolonization, overseas Chinese were encouraged to regard themselves as citizens of their own nations rather than as part of a Chinese nationalistic project. As a result ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia have sharply divided the concept of "ethnic Chinese" from the concept of "political Chinese" and have explicitly rejected being part of the Chinese nationalist project.

During the 1960s the People's Republic of China and Republic of China (ROC) maintained different attitudes toward overseas Chinese. In the eyes of the PRC government overseas Chinese were considered capitalist agents, and maintaining good relations with southeast Asian governments was more important than maintaining the support of overseas Chinese. By contrast, the ROC desired good relations with overseas Chinese as part of an overall strategy to avoid diplomatic isolation and maintain its claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.

With the reforms under Deng Xiaoping the attitude of the PRC toward overseas Chinese became much more favorable, and overseas Chinese were seen as a source of capital and expertise. In the 1990s, the PRC's efforts toward overseas Chinese became mostly focused on maintaining the loyalty of "newly departed overseas Chinese", which consisted of mostly graduate students having emigrated, mostly to the United States.

Chinese nationalism and Taiwan

One common goal of current Chinese nationalists is Chinese reunification of Mainland China and Taiwan. While this was the common stated goal of both the PRC and the ROC before 1991, both sides differed sharply on the form of the unification.

After 1991, the ROC unofficially moved away from supporting eventual unification to a much more ambiguous position. One reason for the ambiguity is the stated threat that the PRC will take military action if a "Republic of Taiwan" is declared. Another reason is that the ROC itself remains split between supporters of Chinese nationalism, who support eventual Chinese reunification, and supporters of Taiwan independence, who reject political reunification as an ultimate goal and believe Taiwan is and should be an independent republic out of the current PRC.

Much of the dispute in Taiwan on whether or how to reunify Taiwan and Mainland China has been muted because there is a consensus on both sides in Taiwan to at least temporarily support the status quo, that is, to continue the current situation. However despite a consensus on status quo, the relationship between Chinese nationalism and Taiwan remains very controversial, with much of the controversy focused on symbolic issues such as the use of the Republic of China for the official name of the government on Taiwan. Broadly speaking, there is almost no support on Taiwan for immediate unification and the argument is over issues of culture and how Taiwanese should see themselves. Supporters of the pan-blue coalition tend to see mainland China as a economic and cultural opportunity and believe in greater links between Taiwan and the Mainland, while supporters of the pan-green coalition see Taiwan as already an independent nation whose independence must be preserved.

Counter-nationalism and opposition

In addition to the Taiwan independence movement, there are a number of ideologies which exist in opposition to Chinese nationalism.

Opponents of Chinese nationalism attack it on various grounds. Some have asserted that Chinese nationalism is inherently backward and dictatorial and incompatible with a modern state. Others have asserted that Chinese nationalism is fundamentally an imperialist and/or racist ideology which in practice has led to oppression of minority groups such as Tibetans and Uighurs.

Controversial division in northern and southern Chinese nationalism

Edward Friedman has controversially argued that there is a northern governmental, political, bureaucratic Chinese nationalism that is at odds with a southern, commercial Chinese nationalism. This division is rejected by most Chinese and many non-Chinese scholars, who believe that Friedman has overstated the differences between the north and the south, and point out that the divisions within Chinese society do not fall neatly in north-south divisions.

See also: North China and South China.

Chinese populist nationalism

During the 1990s, Chinese intellectuals have vigorously debated the political meaning and significance of the rising nationalism in China. From their debates has emerged a multifarious populist nationalism which argues that anti-imperialist nationalism in China has provided a valuable public space for popular participation outside the country's political institutions and that nationalist sentiments under the postcolonial condition represent a democratic form of civic activity. Advocates of this theory promote nationalism as an ideal of populist politics and as an embodiment of the democratic legitimacy that resides in the will of the people.

Populist nationalism is a comparatively late development in Chinese nationalism of the 1990s. It began to take recognizable shape after 1996, as a joint result of the evolving nationalist thinking of the early 1990s and the ongoing debates on modernity, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and their political implications -- debates that have engaged many Chinese intellectuals since early 1995.

Chinese recent nationalism and the China that can say NO

The end of the Cold War has seen the revival throughout the world of nationalist sentiments and aspirations. In China, the rapid decay of Communist ideology had led the CCP to emphasize its role as the paramount patriotic force and the guardian of the national pride in order to find a new basis of legitimacy to sustain its role. However, nationalist sentiment is not the sole province of the CCP and its propagandists. One truly remarkable phenomenon in the post-Cold War upsurge of Chinese nationalism is that Chinese intellectuals became one of the driving forces. Many well-educated people--social scientists, humanities scholars, writers and other professionals -- have given voice to and even become articulators for rising nationalistic discourse in the 1990s.

As an indication of the popular, or market origins of recent Chinese nationalist sentiment, all coauthors of the China that can say No, the first in a string of defiant rebuttals to "American imperialism," are college educated, and most are self-employed (a freelancer, a fruit-stand owner, a poet, and two journalists working in the partly market-driven field of Chinese newspapers, periodicals, and television stations).

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