In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chinese Nationalism

  • Introduction
  • Essential Starting Points
  • Competing Terms for the Nation
  • Nationalist Tracts
  • Nationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy
  • Cybernationalism
  • Gendering the Nation
  • Health of the Nation
  • Art of the Nation
  • Learning How to be Chinese
  • Sporting the Nation
  • Digital Resources

Chinese Studies Chinese Nationalism
James Leibold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0146


Nationalism is an analytical chameleon that belies a range of communal cleavages (spatial, class, ethnic, kinship, and other competing identities) that have long disrupted an enduring sense of “Chineseness.” As a result, scholarship on this protean phenomenon is both diverse and extensive. Generally speaking, we can identify five reasonably distinct approaches to the study of Chinese nationalism: first, there is the statist narrative of national becoming that is taught in Chinese schools today. This is a linear, progressive story of national unfolding, with the Chinese nation enduring the “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West before reemerging under the Chinese Communist Party. Second, following the development of Chinese studies as a distinct, multidisciplinary field of study in the West, scholars started to question China’s “failure to response to the West” and how the “Chinese worldview” prevented the timely development of nationalism in China. The influential “culturalism-to-nationalism” paradigm led scholars to chart the vicissitudes and tardy development of Chinese nationalism well into the 1980s. Third, during the post-Mao “reform and opening up” period, scholars informed by postmodern and cultural studies theory questioned the narrative of a single, linear path of Chinese national development; instead, they sought to “deconstruct the nation” by exploring alternative national forms while offering critical perspectives on the statist narrative. Today scholars are increasingly interested in the “fragments of the nation” and the processes of writing and performing the nation. Fourth, beginning in the early 2000s, international relations theory developed alongside the conservative turn of “new nationalism” in post-1989 China. Here scholars probe nationalist ideologies and sentiments to understand China’s actions on the global stage. Finally, building on these previous works, scholars continue to explore different shades of the nationalist palette in China, uncovering the complex ways nationalism (as a fluid basket of ideas, ideologies, and sentiments) becomes intertwined with a range of diverse issues in contemporary Chinese society, from gender inequality to prehistoric archeology. In what follows, I adopt an intentionally broad purview of the study of nationalism in China, one that transcends the orthodox analysis of an undifferentiated “Chinese nation” or “Chinese people” to reveal the unstable national forms and identities that frequently complicate our understanding of “Chinese nationalism.” My focus is chiefly on the English language literature, with the inclusion of some major Chinese language works. In sum, this entry introduces both the more orthodox scholarship on Chinese nationalism as well as the multiple nationalisms that intersect with other identities and subject positions in modern China.

Essential Starting Points

The dynamic nature of Chinese nationalism requires diverse points of entry. The following works are excellent points of departure, yet mere launching pads for penetrating the different lines of inquiry that scholars of modern Chinese nationalism have pursued. The three best book-lengthen studies of the emergence of nationalism in modern China are Harrison 2001, Zhao 2004, and Zheng 1999, with Harrison exploring the early history of Chinese nation-building while Zhao and Zheng probe Chinese nationalism from the perspective of political science and international studies respectively. Li 1981 contains a wonderful collection of Chinese language essays on turn-of-the-century nationalist figures, such as Sun Yat-sen and Liang Qichao, whose ideas continue to inform nationalist thought today. The diverse approaches of the Dittmer and Kim 1993 and Unger 1996 edited volumes underscore some of the divergent approaches to the study of modern Chinese nationalism. Most of the essays in Dittmer and Kim, particularly the introduction and conclusion, take the existence and singularity of the Chinese nation for granted and focus on state-defined nationalism while the essays in the Unger volume seek to “deconstruct the nation” by uncovering its narrativization in daily politics and how this process forecloses alternative formations. The collection of essays in Carlson, et al. 2016 pushes the study of Chinese nationalism even further afield, calling for less focus on high-level nationalist politics and more on the processes and categories of national identity formation. Finally, Liu 2006 offers a sharp critique of “hyper-nationalism” on the Chinese mainland today, and how the Party-state manipulates nationalist sentiment to stay in power.

  • Carlson, Allen, Anna Costa, Prasenjit Duara, et al. “Nations and Nationalism roundtable discussion on Chinese nationalism and national identity.” Nations and Nationalism 22.3 (2016): 415–446.

    DOI: 10.1111/nana.12232

    An excellent collection of short essays that emerged out of a debate between Allen Carlson and Anna Costa over whether collective political identities in China are best studied under the conceptual framework of “nationalism” or “national identity,” with contributions and original insight by some of the leading scholars of Chinese nationalism today.

  • Dittmer, Lowell, and Samuel S. Kim. China’s Quest for National Identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

    This disparate collection of essays by political scientists marks the reemergence of nationalism as a key topic of study in the post-Mao period. Yet the chiefly functionalist approach adopted by its authors, where Chinese identity is depicted as both unitary and linear, contrasts sharply with the deconstructivists approach adopted by Duara 1996 (cited under Competing Terms for the Nation) and many of the authors in Unger 1996.

  • Harrison, Henrietta. China: Inventing the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    An essential staring points for the study of modern Chinese nationalism. Building on Harrison 2000 (cited under Republican Period), this book argues (à la Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” thesis) that the nation was “invented” through various state- and nation-building processes in early 20th century China, and in a fashion that was not too dissimilar to European nations.

  • Li Guoqi 李國祁, ed. Jindai Zhongguo sixiang renwu lun minzuzhuyi (近代中國思想人物論: 民族主義). Taibei: Shibao wenhua chuban shiye youxian gongsi, 1981.

    Arguably the single best collection of Chinese language essays on the history of nationalist thought and the emergence of modern Chinese nationalism.

  • Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波. Dan ren du jian: Zhongguo minzuzhuyi pipan (单刃毒剑—中国民族主义批判). Taibei: Boda chubanshe, 2006.

    A biting critique of the link between hyper-nationalism and political authoritarianism in the People’s Republic of China today from the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who recently passed away in prison while servicing a sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

  • Unger, Jonathan, ed. Chinese Nationalism. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

    One of the best collections of essays on Chinese nationalism, which covers a diverse range of topics from a multidisciplinary set of perspectives. Most of these articles first appeared in the China Journal (formerly the Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs).

  • Zhao, Suisheng. A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

    Excellent overview of the dynamics of Chinese nationalism across the full sweep of the 20th century, with a useful (albeit overly rigid) typology of four distinct forms of Chinese nationalism—ethnic nationalism, liberal nationalism, state nationalism, and pragmatic nationalism—which leaves out what other authors identify as “popular” or “grassroots” nationalism.

  • Zheng, Yongnian. Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity, and International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    A pioneering study of post-Mao Chinese nationalism that explores the tension between official and popular expressions of nationalism in an era when national dignity replaced revolution and class struggle as the raison d’être of the Party-state.

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