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Orville Schell on Chinese nationalism
August 7, 2008 11:11 AM   Subscribe

China: Humiliation and the Olympics. Orville Schell discusses China's angry reaction to foreign criticism, the film Dark Matter (based on the 1991 Lu Gang shooting in Iowa), and the Beijing Olympics. ... what gives Dark Matter wider significance is the filmmakers' use of the Iowa incident to explore—indirectly—some important psychological dynamics between China and the West: China's deeply felt sense of historic injury by foreign nations, and the ways its often thwarted efforts to gain acceptance among leading world powers have exacerbated such sentiments. In the past, feelings of injury have arisen from such events as the Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation; and most recently after the Tibetan demonstrations this spring and during the run-up to this summer's Beijing Olympic Games. From the New York Review of Books.
posted by russilwvong (41 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
I call bullshit on Orville Schell, the makers of "Dark Matter" and writer of the NYP article in link 3. I'm sitting in my office here at the U of Iowa, not far from where Lu Gang murdered those fine folks. I've been a grad student, and I've been a grad student adviser. Nothing in any of these "representations" jives with my experience, either here at Iowa or any of the other places I've studied or taught. I did have an advisor fall a sleep in front of me during a "consultation" while in grad school. but I digress...

Lu Gang was a nutter, pure and simple. He happened to be Chinese nutter, but that is really beside the point. He is not a metaphor for grad student exploitation, Chinese nationalism, the Wests abuse of China, or anything else. To use his story as such is at the very least misleading and at worst harmful, as it takes the focus off the real problem, which is mental illness.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:38 AM on August 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


The problem, of course, is that China has perfectly legitimate reasons to think that it has, historically anyway, been maltreated (eg: the Opium Wars, treaty ports, etc), but China since it became the PRC has, IMO anyway, produced perfectly legitimate reasons for criticism. Its behavior in Tibet, for example, or its continued and increasing reliance on Fascist style one party stateism.

Separating the old slights from the modern legitimate concerns is not easy.

That said, China's draconian approach to criticism, regardless of the legitimacy of that criticism, is not helping its cause.
posted by sotonohito at 11:39 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


China is still going through its awkward emo stage. A mix CD with some Motorhead and the Stooges may help.
posted by malocchio at 11:40 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


If anyone is "still going through" any stages, I doubt it's the civilization that's like 4000 years old.
posted by DU at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2008 [5 favorites]


I read this fpp and my first thought was "what rubbish"

when i feel like it I'll support my thoughts
posted by infini at 11:49 AM on August 7, 2008


I should also mention that the only real difference I see between the outpouring of rage from China re: the Olympics and the outpouring of rage from the US re: the Bush's War is that the government of the PRC seems to be taking a more active role in encouraging the general public to participate in its little temper tantrum. Remember the "Freedom Fries" change to the menu at the US capitol?

China has as many ignorant rednecks as the US does, and ignorant rednecks (whatever their national origin, religion, etc) act like assholes when the fact that their government has misbehaved is pointed out.

DU I'm not at all sure that its correct to link the current PRC to the ancient government of China. Yes, people have been living in China for a very long time, but the culture of modern China is as different from ancient China as the culture of modern Rome is from its ancient past. Still, the "going through a stage" bit is rather obnoxious.
posted by sotonohito at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2008


...the culture of modern China is as different from ancient China as the culture of modern Rome is from its ancient past...

I've only just started reading about the history of China so I can't argue this too far, but I disagree. Modern China at the least shares a (written) language and general geography with it's past. (I realize Rome hasn't moved--I mean the empire is gone and it's just a city now, whereas China is still a big place.)
posted by DU at 11:59 AM on August 7, 2008


Still, the "going through a stage" bit is rather obnoxious.

Yeah, I was being needlessly flippant. My apologies.
posted by malocchio at 12:11 PM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


China has as many ignorant rednecks as the US does, and ignorant rednecks (whatever their national origin, religion, etc) act like assholes when the fact that their government has misbehaved is pointed out.

"Ignorant rednecks", my ass. The Chinese protestors who show up in response to every perceived geopolitical slight are urban students, not peasants. Look at the counterdemonstrations in Seoul this spring: those were émigré Chinese students--the country's intellectual elite, really. Nationalism--even virulent nationalism--is mainstream in the Chinese middle class.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:13 PM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Newsweek on the Olympics and Chinese national humiliation.

so this is what it's like to be homunculus.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:20 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Maybe China secretly gets off on humiliation.
posted by Falconetti at 12:26 PM on August 7, 2008


Angry Youth: The new generation’s neocon nationalists.
posted by homunculus at 12:36 PM on August 7, 2008


The Olympics: Unveiling Police State 2.0
posted by homunculus at 12:37 PM on August 7, 2008


so this is what it's like to be homunculus.

You have learned well, my young Padawan.

posted by homunculus at 12:38 PM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't think you can really look as something like "Well, sure the Historical China was slighted, but the most recent government. . ." if you're wanting to understand the Chinese perspective on such things - which is to essentially view Chinese culture as continuous from Zhou times. A simple change in government is small potatoes compared to that.
posted by absalom at 12:53 PM on August 7, 2008


mr_roboto You can't go to college and still be an ignorant redneck? I once spoke with a Ph.D. who told me that Katrina was God's judgment on homosexuals. Most of the assholes in the US government who foisted off that asinine "Freedom Fries" bit were college educated, as are a depressing number of the France hater types here in America.

absalom Yeah, but that's more a product of propaganda and nationalist fervor than actual fact. "China" in the sense the Chinese nationalists think of it was pretty much exclusively limited to areas where the ethnic Han were in the majority, and the myth of Chinese unity has always been a myth. China was only a unified polity occasionally, and was much more often split between various warlords.

The right wing Japanese choads like to pretend that Japan has been *JAPAN* since the reign of Emperor Jimmu in 710 BCE too. The Chinese myth of glorious China is just as made up.

Not to deny that the ethnic Han parts of China don't have a culture that extends back a long way, anymore than I can deny that the Kyoto region has a culture that goes back a long way, or that city on the Tiber has a culture that goes back a long way. But that's different from the myth the nationalist choads are trying (successfully, more's the pity) to perpetuate.

Hell, a lot of what they're currently pushing as the glorious Chinese culture is stuff the Manchu invaders brought in during the Qing dynasty.

So, yeah, if I buy their false premise that China is contiguous since Zhou times, their position makes sense. But what have you said? If I buy the nonsensical starting premise of any group of twits their position makes sense. If I accept the position of Limbaugh that France is a bunch of evil surrender monkeys who want America's glorious, fully justified, and astonishingly successful liberation of Iraq to fail for no reason but that they hate us then his position also makes sense. Right wing choads are essentially the same regardless of their ethnicity or the nation they worship like an idol.
posted by sotonohito at 1:29 PM on August 7, 2008


You can't go to college and still be an ignorant redneck?

It's not worth debating the subtleties of meaning in the charming little sobriquet that is "ignorant redneck". My point was that the nationalist protesters in China are not uneducated peasants, but educated urbanites: people at the center of the rising Chinese middle class.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:20 PM on August 7, 2008


I disagree, sotonohito. Yes, in some sense nationalism is always constructed, or, if you like, "mythical," but there are myths and myths. To compare China's sense of unity and continuity with "the position of Limbaugh that France is a bunch of evil surrender monkeys" is silly and reductive. You can call it what you like, but the sense that modern Chinese are continuing an ancient history is real and pervasive, not some bit of recent propaganda accepted by only a few. When I was teaching college in Taiwan and discussing politics (very cautiously) with my students, one of them said "It's like when..." and it took me a while to realize that he was talking about the Three Kingdoms period almost two millennia ago. And he wasn't showing off or being recondite; all the other students nodded and accepted it as relevant. You may find it odd or off-putting that Chinese feel that way (personally, I wish my own fellow citizens had that kind of awareness of history), and you can mock it if that's how you roll, but there's no point trying to wish it away or minimize it.
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on August 7, 2008 [7 favorites]


Just gonna throw out my thoughts on the "historical continuity" argument: it doesn't really matter how old your culture is, because industrialization and secular government deriving its legitimacy from the people change the whole ball game, no? I don't mean to be Anglo/America/West/white/anything else-centric when I say this, but I think the oldest "contiguous" modern cultures in the world are in Western Europe and northern North America. That's just because we got the machines first. They completely redefined our economic relationships to one another and turned our agrarian legacy into bumper cake. Whatever you think about what's come in its wake, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who'll agree the US is anything like the country it was 150 years ago.

I don't want to add to the broken record player that a lot of China coverage in the Western media has become, so I won't spam the threads with my appraisal of why China is a "young society". Rest assured, though, that it is. Most counts have the current iteration of China at about 20-30 years. There are many things about this culture that are distinct, but they're things that didn't exist 50 or 100 years ago.

Don't buy the 4000/5000 years of history crap. They're still n00bs as modern society goes. Successful in many respects, yes, but still new.
posted by saysthis at 2:56 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


languagehat I'm not trying to do any of the above, though I can see how it may come off that way.

My point in comparing the outrage of right wing choads in China to that of right wing choads in the USA was not, particularly, to mock them but to observe that similar behavior exists everywhere. There's nothing particularly unique about outrage and anger as a result of a slight to one's overblown sense of national pride. Whether that overblown sense of national pride is based on recent history and strutting about WWII or whether its based on ancient history and strutting about the Three Kingdoms period is really irrelevant from my POV.

In both cases any legitimate associations, sense of pride, or awareness of history is being horribly abused by right wing idiots with a vendetta against anyone who dares to do other than bow down in wonder at their god/nation. I do not, particularly, wish to mock those who have been mislead by their right wing choads, but simply to observe that they're being mislead.

I'm of the opinion that all the pieces about China's anger are, more or less, just Orientalism in yet another guise. No one writes astonished, look at the angry Occidentals, type stories about right wing choads in America, yet we're inundated with astonished, look at the angry Orientals, type stories about the right wing choads in China. I argue that this is not due to anything special or noteworthy about Chinese choadery, but rather due to Western media's astonishment that those Inscrutable Chinese are still there and, gasp, still Chinese.

tl;dr Right wing choads in China act like assholes, and this is news why?
posted by sotonohito at 3:03 PM on August 7, 2008


I hate the fact that the current Chinese government represents all of China to Western media. It's like saying, "Boy, America sure is full of shoot from the hip cowboys." I mean, come on... let me know when writers distinguish the variety of subcultures and idealogies in China from the fascist government that subverts any sort of free thought.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:36 PM on August 7, 2008


Thanks for the links. I read the first link in full, and I find the history of incorporating humiliation into the national identity intriguing (although I agree with MarchallPoe that too much is being read into the actions of Lu Gang).

Here in Australia, politicians and news and current affairs frequently tell us what it is to be Australian. The picture painted is usually some variation around the qualities of our Gallipoli soldiers (loyalty, mateship) or the stereotypical Australian bushman (tenacity, anti-authoritarianism, "enjoys the occasional drink"). Of course
in such a multicultural society as ours it's not a good fit. But that doesn't stop the media from spewing it out, and that doesn't stop a not-insignificant amount of individuals here from using it as a basis for nationalistic pride.

It's interesting to see the parallels, with the National People's Congress going so far as to pass a law proclaiming an official "National Humiliation Day" to further substantiate the idea in the minds of the Chinse people, and the nationalistic fervor that inevitably arises as a consequence to it. I don't think for a second this reflects the beliefs of its people as a whole. How could it? There are 1.3 billion people there. But every country has it's nationalism, and the basis for it drawn off of different ideals. For China one of them is humiliation. Go Figure.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:46 PM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'd be kind of interested in hearing what the detractors to the article think is up with China, because it's certainly something.
posted by Artw at 5:07 PM on August 7, 2008


It's all the internet's fault.
posted by amuseDetachment at 5:54 PM on August 7, 2008


sotonohito: tl;dr Right wing choads in China act like assholes, and this is news why?

Nationalism is an extremely powerful political force in our times. It's especially attractive in times of great social change and upheaval, which has certainly been the case in China for at least the last 150 years. When individuals feel themselves to be powerless, insignificant, and threatened, there's great psychological comfort in regarding oneself as being a part of a mighty nation with a glorious history and a great destiny. (See also: the Arab and Muslim world.) Eric Hoffer discusses similar political phenomena in The True Believer.

Given China's rapid ascent to great power status, a key question for the future is: will it follow a policy of the status quo, or will it seek to overturn the status quo? If the latter, there could be serious trouble ahead. See Taiwan.

Be careful not to dismiss powerful political forces as unworthy of your notice just because they're irrational and unattractive. You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.
posted by russilwvong at 10:30 PM on August 7, 2008


I'd be kind of interested in hearing what the detractors to the article think is up with China, because it's certainly something.

If you intend to learn anything of use from this thread, I recommend languagehat's reply.

Disclaimer: I grew up in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada as a teen. I'm in no way objective about Chinese culture.

Nationalism has never appealed to me, but I take for granted the continuity of Chinese culture. The idea is so ingrained, so fundamental, that I don't feel any need to debate the point with outsiders. Every day I live with its implications, positive and negative. As a math major with little interest in arts & humanities , I can recite from memory dozens of Tang poems, largely due to extensive use of (lines from) Tang poetry in media, entertainment, and even daily conversations. I know my Chinese history, the official and the tabloid/fictional versions; I can always relate the past to the present and say "nothing new under the sun" to just about any political development.

The Three Kingdoms example languagehat gave is particularly illuminating. We know the stories by heart. And yes, by "we" I'm speaking on behalf of the Chinese. The literate ones, anyway. The other Sino expert on this thread would tell you the three kingdoms were ran by warring warlords and there was no such thing as Chinese unity. I'm telling you that one kingdom's warlord held the emperor hostage, another claimed to be of the royal bloodline, the third one was the son of a general who swore to protect the royal court. They all claimed to be the legitimate heir to the Han Dynasty. No one believed that crap of course, but there truly weren't significant cultural differences between the three kingdoms. Nothing greater than the differences between California and... between the Bay Area and SoCal, really.

The Chinese take one line from Romance of the Three Kingdoms to heart: "separation after a long period of unity, unity after a long period of separation." That's the gist of/idea behind Chinese unity, or political alliances, or business partnerships. Every great Dynasty intended to last forever; none ever did or ever will. The Mongols conquered Han Chinese and then got driven out. The Manchus conquered Han Chinese and then became assimilated. The Chinese culture absorbs new elements and evolves, as every culture does.

The food on offer at Panda Express is American, with Chinese roots.

To answer your question: I don't think anything is up with China, except in the sense that something is always up with every nation at any point in history. It's evolving. Mongolia was a part of China; then it wasn't. Tibet is under Chinese rule; one day it may not be. Taiwan may or may not return to the motherland and then it may or may not run screaming away in a century or two. Things change. Things change back.

One thing remains the same: People protect their interests the best they can.
posted by fatehunter at 10:57 PM on August 7, 2008 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, in Burma:

One of Burma's most popular comedians has been charged with several offences, after he defied the military by giving aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

The Beijing Olympics puts China’s support of Burma, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, in the spotlight.
posted by homunculus at 11:24 PM on August 7, 2008


Bush's War is that the government of the PRC seems to be taking a more active role in encouraging the general public to participate in its little temper tantrum. Remember the "Freedom Fries" change to the menu at the US capitol?

No, the difference is that the U.S. government (Specifically the bush administration) has lost all credibility with the public. But think back to 2003. It wasn't bush directly, but Karl Rove, Fox News and their cronies in the media were doing all they could to fan the flames. Remember the idiotic boycotts of french wine? It wasn't (publicly) being run by the government but it was being run by the political arm of the republican party.

It's funny how France is always getting crapped on in these nationalist outbursts (Lots of anger was directed at France specifically)
posted by delmoi at 12:26 AM on August 8, 2008


Whatever you think about what's come in its wake, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who'll agree the US is anything like the country it was 150 years ago.

Well, the U.S. is an unusual case. 150 years ago the country was heading into a defining civil war. There have been all kinds of upheavals and really geographically the board is still being filled in. The U.S. is still defining itself and really the country would be almost completely untenable without 'modernity' (meaning both technology and political sophistication)

But if you look at places where people have lived for years and years without much mobility, you see cultures that are actually pretty similar to how they've always been, albeit with lots of technology. Look at Saudi Arabia, for example. Or Britain.

In fact, I would argue that cultural flux itself is a part of American culture. We expect things to change and we (at least liberals) encourage it.

On the other hand, you're not going to see the same thing in China. There are lots of changes, but that doesn’t mean people's fundamental outlook is going to change too much.

I hate the fact that the current Chinese government represents all of China to Western media.

But the problem is, who else is going to 'represent' China? Without a free press and free expression, there is no way to get knowledge out of the country. Look at India; from the outside it appears to be a place of immense diversity of culture, of religion, of politics, of everything. Yet China seems almost like a monoculture. I bet that if China was an open society as India is, it would probably yield just as much diversity of thought. But since everything is controlled, we don't see it.
posted by delmoi at 12:46 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


To compare China's sense of unity and continuity with "the position of Limbaugh that France is a bunch of evil surrender monkeys" is silly and reductive. You can call it what you like, but the sense that modern Chinese are continuing an ancient history is real and pervasive, not some bit of recent propaganda accepted by only a few.

But if we are talking about the Chinese sense of National Humiliation it really is a relatively new thing, only about starting with the opium wars. Before that, the Chinese sense towards foreigners was basically either contempt or indifference. Chinese Nationalism is very much a mordern phenomena, just like nationalism everywhere. And just like everywhere else it is scary shit. Those students in that article linked by homunculus are straight fascists.
posted by afu at 1:38 AM on August 8, 2008


"This long historical relationship has created a still rather unyielding psychological tension that is ever present as each country interacts with the other. And so, despite the fact that China has recently gotten closer than ever to creating conditions that will allow it to escape from our unequal past, it is important to understand that its leaders and people are still susceptible to older ways of responding to the world around them."

While the psychological effects are important, he is ignoring the fact that the ruling class in China explicitly promotes these feelings because it helps them politically. If the people are pissed at foreigners they don't have time to concentrate at the active repression that their leaders are engaging in. It shouldn't be surprising that the people with the most Nationalistic feelings are the young educated elite. They are the ones who have gained the most from the current Chinese system and are therefor implicated in it's injustice. It's natural that they would embrace something which deflects consideration of injustice in modern China.

Seen in a political way, this seems a little bizarre, "many Chinese dared hope that China, resplendent with Olympic medals and with new respect, would come closer to attaining their long-denied dream of greatness." Why would the rulers of China abandon a strategy that has worked simply because they gained a little respect in the international community. More likely they would combine a theme of national greatness, without abandoning the constant mantra of national humiliation.
posted by afu at 3:01 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


But if we are talking about the Chinese sense of National Humiliation it really is a relatively new thing, only about starting with the opium wars. Before that, the Chinese sense towards foreigners was basically either contempt or indifference.

Huh. See: Man Jiang Hong, another piece of poetry most Chinese know by heart. The (supposed) author Yue Fei has been a hero in popular imagination for centuries.

"The Humiliation of Jing Kang still lingers,
When will the pain of his subjects ever end?"

"There we shall feast and drink barbarian flesh and blood."

Whether the poem was written in the Song Dynasty or Ming, it predates the Opium Wars. The culture of humiliation was in full force during Southern Song. Animosity toward these "barbarians" kicked into overdrive during the Wu Hu period long before Song, when nomadic tribes conquered Northern China. Quite humiliating, that. The fear and loathing of those nomads can be traced all the way to before Qin Shi Huang - the tyrant started building the Great Wall to keep them out.

Chinese Nationalism is very much a modern phenomena, just like nationalism everywhere.

Nationalism is a modern phenomena? I suppose it's true if we define nationalism based on modern concepts of the nation state. By its broader definition though, nationalism has been a major force in Chinese history since the Han Dynasty. Most Han Chinese warlords wanted to conquer and rule the whole China (as they knew it).
posted by fatehunter at 5:49 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I will agree, as far as the protesters go, that yes the risk of another uprising in the style of the Cultural Revolution is worrisome. However given the rather obvious and blatant government instigation and manipulation of the Olympic related protests [1] I don't think we're there yet. The growing gap in male and female population is a dangerous sign; there's a good case to be made that a significant factor in the Cultural Revolution was the fact that so many young men had no realistic chance of marrying.

That said, the honorable gentlemen who rule the PRC with an iron fist have doubtless made an extensive study of the Cultural Revolution and are working to avoid a repeat. Whether or not they'll succeed is an interesting question. I don't think we're near the boiling point in China yet, but yeah my earlier "who cares" comment was stupid.

fatehunter Except that until contact with the various western powers China did not really act like a modern nation/state. When defining what "China" was cultural affiliation was vastly more important than fixed geographic borders [2]. That's why interaction with foreigners was both sharply limited and always expressed as "barbarian tribute bearers" to the Son of Heaven. There was no equivalent to a foreign ministry, you may recall that it was the ministry of religion that handled all foreign contact.

Which, I think, explains the various laws regulating clothing, hair style, etc throughout China's history. Since the borders were defined more by "where people are Chinese", it was therefore extremely important to both clearly define what "being Chinese" meant, and to avoid any deviations from that.

You are, of course, correct that the humiliation culture was an aspect of Chinese culture from longer ago than the Opium Wars, but I think it came to greater prominence (vastly greater prominence) during that time. More important I think that both the fact of continued Western contempt for China, coupled with reaping political benefits of constant reference to the national humiliations by the political elite have kept the humiliation culture elevated for vastly longer than it ever previously was.

However, I think that your certainty in the idea of the continuity of Chinese culture is more a product of national mythology and careful government propaganda than any reality in fact. Most Americans, for example, are equally certain about American exceptionalism, especially WRT liberty, justice, and freedom, and no amount of evidence will get them to admit otherwise.

National mythology is important, but at the same time it can be a dangerous force, and a force that can be used by political manipulators to cover over abuses. Bush's administration has undeniably used the belief in American exceptionalism to its great advantage during its pursuit of anti-freedom, anti-democratic, and generally quite evil foreign and domestic policy. But by making good use of the myth that America, by definition, is the good guys Bush has managed to keep the Democrats cowed, and kept a significant minority of Americans supportive of his policies.

I'm argue that, regardless of the reality of Chinese cultural continuity that belief is central to the elites of the PRC maintaining their ironclad grip on power, and that therefore the belief (like the belief in American exceptionalism) is dangerous regardless of its reality.

[1] And let's not fool ourselves, there's only two kinds of public demonstration in a fascist state: those planned by the state and those which are brutally suppressed. The demonstrations are planned and executed by the fascist bastards. QED.

[2] Not that fixed borders weren't important, just not as important.
posted by sotonohito at 7:43 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nationalism is a modern phenomena? I suppose it's true if we define nationalism based on modern concepts of the nation state. By its broader definition though, nationalism has been a major force in Chinese history since the Han Dynasty. Most Han Chinese warlords wanted to conquer and rule the whole China (as they knew it).

If we define nationalism as any sense of patriotism at all it becomes a pretty useless concept. China is run by a government that uses nationalism in it modern sense to keep support for its rule. Much in the same way that Bush uses nationalism in America. Like bush, the CCP often invokes the nation's past, but this doesn't mean that it's not a thoroughly modern phenomenon.

And even now when talking about their humiliations, what is usually brought up is western imperialism, the opium war, treaty ports that kind of thing (along with Japanese aggression of course). I've never heard anyone bring up the Qing as an example, even though to Yue Fei it certainly would have been one. Most of the humiliations they do bring up actaully happened to the Qing, even though they weren't even technically Chinese.
posted by afu at 7:56 AM on August 8, 2008


Except that until contact with the various western powers China did not really act like a modern nation/state. When defining what "China" was cultural affiliation was vastly more important than fixed geographic borders [2].

True, and that's why I agree with afu "if we define nationalism based on modern concepts of the nation state." To be more precise, I agree that Chinese Nationalism in its current form (obsession with geographic borders, etc) is a modern phenomena. I disagree that it's the only valid definition of nationalism.

However, I think that your certainty in the idea of the continuity of Chinese culture is more a product of national mythology and careful government propaganda than any reality in fact.

I'll concede that much of history passed down is just mythology. Mythology itself is an integral part of any culture though, so I don't know why its presence negates a culture's continuity.

I'm curious to know why, without knowing me personally, you're so certain that governmet propaganda has brainwashed me. I strongly disagree with that assertion. When I grew up in Taiwan, no one in my life bought the government's bullshit. That's why my family decided to leave. We did not need the government (of Taiwan, not China) to tell us our Chinese history. We own "ancestors' treasure" antiques and can access our zupu, dating back to Han. I learned my history mostly by reading the original texts and scholarly annotations. One can argue that the texts and annotations were driven by propaganda when they were written, but by that metric all of human history is propaganda and myth.

Please feel free to give me evidence that disproves the continuity of Chinese culture. Preferably in Chinese, since the academic study of a culture is best done in the native language. I can read either traditional or simplified.
posted by fatehunter at 9:43 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


If we define nationalism as any sense of patriotism at all it becomes a pretty useless concept.

Does anyone confuse nationalism with patriotism? I find them obviously distinct concepts.

The broader definition of the term "nationalism" applies to a "nation" based on a shared history and culture, which is why I spent the majority of my replies articulating my perception on those. Your definition refers to the nation state, and I agree China has only acquired that type of nationalism in modern times.

Most of the humiliations they do bring up actaully happened to the Qing, even though they weren't even technically Chinese.

But they are now, which is why the Chinese rarely bring it up as an example of their humiliation. Who would they rage against if they did? The Manchus are thoroughly assimilated.

The point is that the Chinese at the time were humiliated by the invasion at the time. The "perpetrators" change; the culture of humiliation persists. Though, I do agree with you and sotonohito that they've really played it up in recent times.
posted by fatehunter at 10:04 AM on August 8, 2008


fatehunter I didn't say that government propaganda brainwashed you, and if I implied that I apologize for that was not my intention. I meant only that, as with the persistent belief in American exceptionalism found over here, that Chinese people grow up surrounded and inundated with the belief in Chinese cultural continuity. Its no more brainwashing than any other process of acculturation that a child experiences is.

My only real point is that it isn't particularly more true than American exceptionalism. Both have roots in fact, but both go well beyond actual fact and into the territory of national mythology. FWIW I think the belief in American exceptionalism is potentially vastly more dangerous than the belief in Chinese cultural continuity. The former explicitly states that the US can take actions that would be bad if taken by other nations while somehow retaining its innate goodness; the latter only encourages a certain vague sense of smug superiority along with a sort of political apathy. But that doesn't make either attitude particularly laudable, or the mythology that promotes the attitude factual.

I am unable to give you the evidence you request, especially in Chinese, as a) I don't speak Chinese and can only read it to the extent that a very rough knowledge of the Japanese written language will allow me to puzzle through a few very simple meanings for a limited number of characters, and b) since I'm a Japan specialist the study of China was not central to me.

Certainly Chinese culture today bears a vague resemblance to Chinese culture of long ago. But Italian culture of today bears a vague resemblance to Italian culture of long ago as well, likewise French culture, Russian culture, etc. That is beyond dispute. But the argument that its essentially the same, with only a few minor and unimportant outward symbols altered is total nonsense. If you really think that a modern, citified, industrialized, nation is, at root, exactly the same as a peasant based agrarian culture ruled by absolute monarchs and various warlords you are, of course, welcome to believe that; but it doesn't make it true.
posted by sotonohito at 10:14 AM on August 8, 2008


However, I think that your certainty in the idea of the continuity of Chinese culture is more a product of national mythology and careful government propaganda than any reality in fact. ...

I'm argue that, regardless of the reality of Chinese cultural continuity that belief is central to the elites of the PRC maintaining their ironclad grip on power, and that therefore the belief (like the belief in American exceptionalism) is dangerous regardless of its reality.


I find your line of argument bizarre. Do you go around telling people that their belief in their religions, or the fact that their spouse loves them, or their memories of their own pasts are more a product of brainwashing/propaganda/wishful thinking than "any reality in fact"? It seems to me insulting and irrelevant. Yes, much or all of what any of us calls reality is constructed, and perhaps an omniscient intelligence would laugh heartily at all of us for our foolish beliefs, but so what? We have to go with the reality we know/believe, and it doesn't help a discussion to keep banging on the "your beliefs are wrong and harmful" drum.

Governments will use any tool at hand to maintain their ironclad grip on power; to therefore conclude that the tools they hit upon are of their very nature dangerous is to make a basic error in logic. Someone could use my OED to bash me over the head: the OED is dangerous! Eliminate it!

The Chinese have believed in their unity and continuity for thousands of years now (I presume you're aware that each dynasty when it came to power commissioned a history of the previous dynasty), and they will certainly continue to do so, whether you consider their belief an illusion or not. So I suggest you get off that hobbyhorse and discuss the world as it is and not the world you wish existed, in which everyone was rational and scientific and believed nothing except what they could feel when they kicked it.
posted by languagehat at 10:35 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Sorry, that last comment was unnecessarily harsh. But I truly don't understand this stubborn insistence on tying the perfectly natural and normal cultural cohesiveness of the Chinese to their evil leaders and implying that if the Chinese people would all just forget the past and be deracinated modernists, their government would... what? Wither away? Become kind and gentle? I don't get it.
posted by languagehat at 1:14 PM on August 8, 2008


I have a tendency to latch onto what I consider to be interesting academic discussions and argue until everyone is sick of it, especially when others consider the topic to be something other than an academic discussion. So its possible, maybe even likely, that I was being a total jerk here. If so, and fatehunter if I have given offense, I apologize and will immediately back down.

languagehat To answer your last question, I honestly don't know. Thinking about the PRC is an incredibly depressing thing for me because I simply cannot see an end to the problems of its fascist type rule that doesn't involve a lot of dead people. I hope that we'll all be surprised and that the Chinese will manage to pull off a bloodless revolution of the type that ended the USSR, but it seems unlikely.

As I said initially, my tenacity in this thread was not born from any deep ideological commitment but simply from my own argumentative nature, I saw it as a fun topic to kick around and talk about and I tend to forget that others often don't see things that way.
posted by sotonohito at 2:19 PM on August 8, 2008


No, that's cool, I love kicking around such topics too and occasionally wind up offending others. I just was hoping for some clarification, so thanks for providing it.
posted by languagehat at 3:38 PM on August 8, 2008


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