The rise of nationalism in China in recent decades, following the reform-era decline of Maoism as a source of legitimization for the Party-state, is a commonly cited narrative in both academic studies and media reports. Yet references to nationalism as a causal factor in Chinese politics and society leave unanswered the question of precisely what this concept of “nationalism” means. Examining the Chinese phrase for nationalism, minzu-zhuyi, composed of the concept minzu (nation, nationality, ethnicity) and the characters zhuyi or “-ism,” sheds light on the meaning of nationalism in this cultural and political context. We can see here four primary aspects of nationalism: (i) the national project, composed of delineating a geographical space labeled as China and building a Chinese state to rule over this geo-body; (ii) national identity, referring to the cultivation and contestation of a particular vision of the Chinese nation and a corresponding sense of “Chineseness”; (iii) nationalist sentiment, composed of antagonistic and even xenophobic and racist emotions toward other groups or nations and the corresponding affective investment in the idea of China; and (iv) relations between nationalities (i.e., ethnicities) and the place of minority nationalities within the Chinese nation-state. Yet these reflections on the multiple levels and meanings of nationalism in China open up as many questions as they answer. Is national identity a new or ancient phenomenon in China? Where does contemporary nationalist sentiment come from—the state, the public, intellectuals, globalization, or external provocations? Is nationalism inculcated in a top–down manner by the state, or is it growing from the bottom–up as a popular movement potentially opposed to the state, or both? How is nationalism manifested in thought and practice—a cornerstone of contemporary Chinese politics, a fleeting set of emotions activated occasionally by media incitement, or just one factor among many for understanding the dynamics of contemporary Chinese politics and society? What are its effects, and what are its implications for the future—hindering political change or integrating public opinion into state policy? and Leading toward more confident engagement with the world or toward growing conflict in East Asia? To begin to provide answers to these questions, the studies cited below view Chinese nationalism from a variety of historical, political, cultural, and ethnological perspectives, extending from the transition from empire to nation-state at the end of the Qing Dynasty to reform-era issues of identity, political contestation, popular culture, international relations, and ethnic relations within the Chinese nation-state.
Prior to the mid-1990s, there were few systemic studies of nationalism in China. But over the past two decades, scholarship in this field has grown rapidly. Dittmer and Kim 1993 provides an overview of Chinese identity from the pre-modern era through the reform era. The collection Chinese Nationalism (edited by Jonathan Unger. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996) remains a useful introduction to this day, having further opened this area of scholarship with innovative essays examining Chinese nationalism from a number of angles: Duara 1996 and Townsend 1996 compare pre-modern and contemporary identities; Fitzgerald 1996 examines Chinese nationalism’s relationship with the state; Pye 1996 examines nationalism’s relationship with the world; Crane 1996 discusses reform-era national economic identity; and Wang 1996 analyzes Chinese identity abroad. A series of studies since 2000 have further enriched our understanding of histories and manifestations of nationalism in China. Harrison 2001 examines the historical process of national identity construction in China in the late Qing and Republican eras; Gries 2004 provides an in-depth look at the popular nationalism of the 1990s and its implications for international relations and domestic politics; Zhao 2004 discusses competing forms of nationalism that have emerged over the past century; Hughes 2006 examines elite nationalism and the question of economic versus political liberalization in a globalized world; and Liu 2006 characterizes nationalism as the ultimate form of political correctness in China, arguing that its misrepresentations of the United States, Japan, and Taiwan have deep implications for the country’s future. While developing often divergent viewpoints on precisely what “Chinese nationalism” is and what it means for China and the world, all of these scholars agree that this phenomenon is important not only for intellectual reflection but also for thinking through the future of China and its relationship with both the world and itself.
Crane, George T. “‘Special Things in Special Ways’: National Economic Identity and China’s Special Economic Zones.” In Chinese Nationalism. Edited by Jonathan Unger, 148–168. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
This chapter examines reform-era national identity via economic identity. A sense of economic failure following Mao’s death led to the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which brought market operations and foreign investment to China. The exceptionalist view of initial SEZs as “special,” however, greatly enhanced their appeal and led to their rapid proliferation. The unexpected result was that these exceptional zones then came to change China as a whole.
Dittmer, Lowell, and Samuel S. Kim, eds. China’s Quest for National Identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
This volume examines the construction and reconstruction of national identity in China across regions and historical periods. The introduction provides a thoughtful reconceptualization of national identity as an object of scholarly study. Individual chapters look at national identity in pre-modern China, the relationship between Chinese identity and the state, various attempts to create a unified culture and identity, and regional identities that complicate the vision of a single, unified national identity.
Duara, Prasenjit. “De-Constructing the Chinese Nation.” In Chinese Nationalism. Edited by Jonathan Unger, 31–55. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Duara’s chapter deconstructs a number of often taken-for-granted assumptions in the study of nationalism. Duara contests the idea of the modern nation-state as realizing a radical disjuncture from previous modes of identification, arguing that nationalism contradictorily portrays nations as uniquely modern as well as ancient. Duara defines nation-formation as the attempted imposition of a singular historical narrative on diverse cultural practices, some related and others not.
Fitzgerald, John. “The Nationless State: The Search for a Nation in Modern Chinese Nationalism.” In Chinese Nationalism. Edited by Jonathan Unger, 56–85. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Fitzgerald argues that the boundaries and thus meaning of the Chinese nation itself have been the object of debate and intervention by the state throughout the 20th century. As a result, rather than naturalizing the state as representing an already present nation, Fitzgerald sees the state as leading nation formation. Different eras have produced different focus points (citizens, race, the people), with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally envisioning a “class-nation” that incorporated class struggle into nationalist thought.
Gries, Peter Hays. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
An innovative study of popular nationalism in China in the 1990s. Focusing on the Chinese relationship with the United States and Japan, Gries argues that Chinese national identity evolves in a dynamic relationship with other nations and China’s past. Furthermore, he draws attention to the growing disconnect between official nationalism and an increasingly unruly popular nationalism, a phenomenon that has accelerated since this volume’s publication.
Harrison, Henrietta. China. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2001.
Criticizing an exceptionalist narrative that portrays China as a uniquely long-standing national community, Harrison’s study presents China as a modern, invented nation built from an expansive empire. Reexamining the ways in which China was constructed as a nation-state in the 20th century with a particular focus on the Republican era, Harrison highlights the central role of the state in the creation of a self-declared modern and civilized national culture.
Hughes, Christopher. Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era. London: Routledge, 2006.
Hughes argues that an elitist techno-nationalism presents the CCP as the sole force able to oversee the rise of China and deliver the nation from humiliation. This narrative has blocked political reform while rationalizing economic opening under “Communist” rule, with the result that China’s integration with the globalized world economy has not brought about corresponding change in the political field.
Liu, Xiaobo. Dan ren du jian: Zhongguo minzu zhuyi pipan. Taipei: Broad Press International, 2006.
English title: A Dagger and a Poisonous Sword: A Critique of Chinese Nationalism. A critical overview of the discourse of nationalism by the controversial, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Liu analyzes state nationalism and the Chinese relationship to the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, arguing that a narrow nationalism that distorts citizens’ relationship to the party-state and the wider world has become the ultimate form of political correctness in China today.
Pye, Lucian. “How China’s Nationalism Was Shanghaied.” In Chinese Nationalism. Edited by Jonathan Unger, 86–112. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Viewing nationalist identity from the unexpected angle of China’s treaty ports, Pye argues that while dynamic modernization has happened along the coasts in modern history, political power has remained based in the more conservative interior. This has resulted in a tendency to question the “Chineseness” and loyalty of the often well-educated and globally engaged citizens of the treaty ports, producing a nationalism largely devoid of substantive content.
Townsend, James. “Chinese Nationalism.” In Chinese Nationalism. Edited by Jonathan Unger, 1–30. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
This chapter is mainly composed of a critique of the culturalism to nationalism thesis as articulated by Levenson 1958 (cited under the Qing Dynasty and Nationalism (1644–1911)). Reinterpreting culturalism as a mode of ethnicity, Townsend finds that the culturalism to nationalism thesis underestimates aspects of pre-modern nationalism in imperial times and overestimates the downfall of culturalist thinking in modern times.
Wang Gungwu. “Openness and Nationalism: Outside the Chinese Revolution.” In Chinese nationalism. Edited by Jonathan Unger, 113–125. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Looking at the history of revolution in 20th-century China, Wang finds the revolution repeatedly leaning toward a traditionalist, anti-revolutionary vision. Moving beyond the national revolutionary framework, Wang instead proposes that the real Chinese revolution has happened among people of Chinese descent living abroad, free from traditional social and political norms. Wang further proposes that this revolution outside could eventually have revolutionary implications inside China.
Zhao Suisheng. A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
In this comprehensive historical review of the rise of Chinese nationalism, Zhao traces the ways in which elites have deployed varying types of nationalism (elite, mass, liberal, ethnic) in competition with one another over the past century, highlighting the complexity of the seemingly singular concept of nationalism. Zhao concludes by arguing that the Chinese state deploys a pragmatic nationalism over which leaders continually strive to maintain effective control.
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