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The Rise of the Dragon Nation: A Roadmap of the Development of Chinese Nationalism

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

Via R. Rajesh


In September of 1794, Lord Macartney returned to Britain from China; his reports of the mission disappointed British expectations that the Chinese would recognize the two empires as equals and instead exuded an impression of Chinese arrogance (Shakir, 3). He had set out to establish formal diplomatic relations between his native Britain and the Qing empire. However, upon arriving at the imperial court, the request to kowtow before the emperor and the Chinese refusal to submit to western norms of the equality of nations left the British delegation feeling humiliated. The Chinese, on their part, emerged from their meeting, further convinced that the West was lacking in cultural sophistication and that its influence in China needed to be curtailed (Shakir, 10). The West would return to the country determined to humble it and impose its definition of civilized practices onto China. Through a string of defeats starting with the First Opium War in 1839, Chinese confidence in their place in the world would be challenged as Western notions of the nation-state began to seep into China during the 19th and 20th centuries. In China’s fallen state, the Chinese identity would be re-contextualized to fit the new world that the West introduced to China.


Imperial Universalism

In the wake of these defeats, Chinese assumptions of their preeminence needed to be reconciled with the West’s ideas that appeared to be proven dominant through their military victories and robust economic growth. The ideas of supremacy were embedded in Chinese culture: The Chinese thought of themselves as a superior culture that adhered to the universal standards of material, aesthetical, and moral perfection (Cranmer-Byng, 68). Throughout history, China did not assert its primacy through military strength but through the durability of its cultural institutions because it believed foreigners would recognize their inherent excellence (Chang, 109). Even when China failed to defend its kingdom during the Mongol conquest, the Mongols adopted the Chinese social, political, and cultural models on their own accord. This notion of cultural dominance was united with the political right to rule under the concept of “All-under-Heaven.” Under this construction, the ruler would model his behavior on the universal standard of heaven and thus was worthy of emulation by the Chinese people. This invitation for emulation also extended to the foreign “barbarians.” Confident that China held this universal standard, Chinese elites initially resisted the Western world order because they prioritized national interests over any universal morality (Cranmer-Byng, 69). As unconvinced as the Chinese were of Western ideas when presented by diplomats, they would find more trouble refuting them when presented by arms.


However, this universalism of Chinese culture was not unquestioned even before western gunboats sailed up the Pearl River Delta. In the wake of a Jin invasion in the 12th century, some scholars would ditch universalism in favor of characterizing the Han Chinese as the heirs of China (Duara, 5-6). These sentiments would lie mostly dormant until the Han majority would find itself under the rule of the ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty. Wang Fuzhi, an intellectual who oversaw the transition from the Ming to Qing, would publish vehemently anti-Manchu works that put Chinese civilization in the hands of the Han alone and call for the annihilation of the Manchu “barbarians.” Wang’s works and the writings of other scholars like Huang Zongxi and Gu Yanwu would formulate the first stirrings of a Han ethnonationalism that would manifest in points of high tension between Han and non-Han in the empire during the mid-18th century (Duara, 5-6). Despite these developments, the Qing dynasty held firm its control by resting their sovereignty on the previously mentioned universalist Chinese cultural superiority.


The Crisis of Modernity

Starting in the first half of the 19th century, the Opium Wars and successive Western military incursions would leave cracks in Qing control. The certainty of “All-under-heaven” was shattered and the notion of Chinese cultural exceptionalism was put into question by the repeated advances of western armies, industry, and missionaries. Desperate to hold together the Chinese identity, Chinese thinkers began to experiment with the Western idea of the nation-state. This would form into two main streams of thought: one that rejected nationalism and embraced China’s unique tradition of Confucianism and another that adopted nationalism as China’s path to salvation. K’ang Yu-Wei, a late 19th century Chinese thinker, was of the former stream; he rebuked nationalist thought, instead advocating for his “world community” theory, which posited that the states should move towards the creation of a world government that was guided by Confucian values (Palmer, 90). This theory was an effort to preserve the ancient concept of “All-under-heaven” through a philosophy of moral supremacy. K'ang emphasized that Chinese moral supremacy lay in Confucianism and particularly in his new interpretation of the teaching. He sought to “modernize” Confucianism into a “national religion” that would unite the Chinese nation state, as other national religions had in the West (Dessein, 210). The unity of the Chinese nation under the universal values of Confucianism was a step towards his world community.


Conversely Sun Yat-sen, influenced by anti-Manchu intellectuals, would reject this position and instead advocated that China ought to reform itself in the style of the secular Western nation-state, defined by the Chinese ethnicity. He believed that the Chinese race was doomed to destruction should they not embrace nationalism (Chang & Gregor, 24-28). Accordingly, he saw the Manchu ruling class, even with their adoption of Chinese culture, as unacceptable and argued that imperial cosmopolitan attitudes were a threat to the Chinese identity. He believed that China’s ideas of universalism to be a relic of an age where China was unchallenged and that this universalism was not only unfit for modernity but was a road to China’s destruction. Nationalists like Sun saw the defeat of the Qing as a lesson of the hubris of Confucian universalism. To separate themselves from K'ang’s new universalist Confucian thought, the Kuomintang, Sun’s Nationalist Party, distanced itself from Confucianism and all religions that would discourage the Chinese people from putting their nation first.


Despite his push against Confucianism, he did subscribe to a distinct Chinese mission to civilize the world, which is likely a holdover from Confucianian tradition. Through nationalism, China would strengthen herself and take up a special leadership role in the world to spread the virtues of Chinese culture. Moreover, he did not totally reject Confucianism, as China’s future world leadership would be based on “the foundation of [their] ancient morality” (Cranmer-Byng, 72). Sun and K'ang converge on the idea of Chinese exceptionalism that professes the ultimate end of a world order led by Chinese virtue. Thus, both movements exhibited a level of confidence in the universality of Chinese traditions (Cranmer-Byng, 73).


Communist Development of Nationalism

These two thinkers would influence the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) further development of Chinese nationalism even to the point of the CCP contradicting Marxist principles. Although Mao’s CCP rejected Confucianism and religion as a whole, K'ang’s modern version of “All-under-heaven” was adapted into the CCP’s rhetoric. In an essay written in 1949, Mao defined the goal of the CCP as the creation of “the conditions in which classes, state power and political parties will die out and mankind will enter the era of Great Harmony” (Cranmer-Byng, 75). The theory of Great Harmony found in K'ang’s Da-t’ung Shu (Book of Great Harmony) posits that harmony is achieved through human action that aligns with moral principles intrinsic to human nature; this view of morality and human nature is contrary to Marxist criticism of any natural order and emphasis on materialism.


Zhou Enlai also interpreted Chinese nationalism in a manner that borrowed elements of both thinkers’ thoughts. He proclaimed “socialist patriotism is not a narrow nationalism, but a patriotism aimed to strengthen national pride under the guidance of internationalism” (Dessein, 213). Socialist patriotism, similar to Sun’s nationalism, is understood as a role to strengthen the nation; meanwhile the aim of socialist patriotism is a China that will bring about a communist but distinctly Chinese world order, resembling K'ang’s world community.


Apart from the contributions of K'ang and Sun, modern Chinese nationalism is also built on the development of the “century of humiliation” narrative. This narrative frames China as a nation exploited by foreign powers and sold out by corrupt officials for a century, starting from the First Opium War in 1839 and ending with the rise of the CCP in 1949. The narrative’s inculpation of foreigners and corrupt Chinese officials is the fundamental foundation for its long-term aspiration of redeeming China. To save China from foreign subjugation, the CCP must cleanse China of embarrassment by defeating foreign imperialism and re-uniting the country To bring salvation from the wickedness of domestic corruption, the CCP must also prove itself better than previous regimes through economic, social, and cultural development (Callahan, 207).


This narrative has persisted in the Chinese national consciousness since China’s defeat in the Opium Wars (Callahan, 203-204 & 208). The term “national humiliation” was coined in response to China’s submission to Japan’s twenty-one demands in 1915 and, from 1927 to 1940, the Republic of China held a day of national humiliation. This obsession with humiliation traces its roots to ancient Chinese conceptions of embarrassment and revitalization. The ancient work Liji (the Book of Rites) comments: “the humiliation of a thing is sufficient to stimulate it; the humiliation of a country is sufficient to rejuvenate it” (Callahan, 203). In the Chinese mind, embarrassment is not just something that needs to be redeemed but is itself a tool to carry out redemption.


This language of rejuvenation and humiliation is also something characteristic of the more recent nationalism under Xi with his narrative of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. In Xi’s thought, national rejuvenation strives for something closer to the period of supremacy of imperial China rather than the utopia found in the pages of Das Kapital. Xi was not reversing decades of CCP narratives that characterized the imperial era as backwards and feudal but was encouraging China to accept the possibility of the restoration of Chinese preeminence. With imperial Chinese supremacy as the goal, the century of humiliation fits into Xi’s theory comfortably, as it illustrates the event from which China must be redeemed. In 2012, while positioned in front of an imperial China exhibition at the National Museum of China, Xi delivered a speech that reiterated the dream of national rejuvenation. The exhibition acting as his backdrop made clear his view of communist China as the successor state of imperial China (Economy, 3).


In keeping with the narrative of national humiliation, Xi’s policies have moved to prove his government can materially provide for its citizens and cast off foreign domination. The rapid economic growth over his tenure is used to validate that the CCP is a more than capable regime to govern the Chinese nation. The 19th CCP Central Committee Report contextualizes economic breakthroughs as a demonstration of the regime's relative competence in the context of Chinese history (Full Text of Resolution on 19th CPC Central Committee Report). However, slowing growth in recent years threatens the party’s image as a competent regime. To distract from this, Xi is shifting the nation’s focus to the second mission of national rejuvenation, casting off Western domination. On March 13th of this year, Xi declared “the unification of the motherland,” referring to Taiwan’s return, as the “essence” of national rejuvenation (Pomfret & Pottinger). Despite Taiwan being an entity of its own in all but official legal status, China interprets its separation from historically Chinese territory as a symptom of Western domination during the century of humiliation and thus as an embarrassment that necessitates correction (Cranmer-Byng, 76-77).


In addition to the redemption of the century of humiliation, Xi also espouses rhetoric of Chinese exceptionalism in global leadership analogous to K'ang and Sun. Xi’s narrative of “A Community of Common Destiny” traces some of its influence to K'ang’s “World Community” in their common promotion of multilateral cooperation and resolving conflict under Chinese leadership. However, the “Community of Common Destiny” relies more on the common goal of economic development than an international appreciation of Chinese virtues. In Xi’s order, economic development according to the Chinese model replaces Chinese moral philosophy as the guiding principle of Chinese global leadership. Chinese organizations like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS New Development Bank, and the Contingency Reserve Agreement are created as a “parallel order” to Western institutions that is more in line with Chinese principles of development (Smith, 454). Furthermore, following the financial crisis of 2008 and more recently the advent of increased populism in Western democracies that manifested in the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, the current Western international order is as illegitimate and inferior in the eyes of current Chinese party bosses as it was in the eyes of the elites of imperial China (Smith, 455). Accordingly, Xi recognizes that China can offer distinctive contributions to global governance that liberalism is failing to provide. His report to the 19th Party Congress outlined that “China will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country, take an active part in reforming and developing the global governance system, and keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance” (2008).


Conclusion

The story of the development of Chinese nationalism recounts the scramble to understand the essence of Chinese civilization and adapt it into a nation-state that can secure Chinese interests in the modern world. In the wake of the turbulence of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese thinkers have devised theories of the Chinese nation that maintained the idea of Chinese exceptionalism in the realities of modernity. Today, Xi’s China draws upon this nearly 200 year-long development to formulate a narrative of past humiliation, present development, and future glory. The goal of his China is not to return to the China of the Macartney mission, arrogant and isolated from the world, but one that will truly be strong and able to fashion a more Chinese world.



Works Cited

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Pottinger, Matt and John Pomfret. “Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War: The World Should Take Him Seriously.” Foreign Affairs, 30 Mar. 2023, www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/xi-jinping-says-he-preparing-china-war.

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