The power of history and the new Nationalism in China

In the early twentieth century, many Chinese nationalists preferred a re-invented monoethnic Han state that excluded non-Han territories in the northeast, west, and southwest. Thus many Chinese nationalists preferred a re-invented monoethnic Han state that excluded non-Han territories in the northeast, west, and southwest (on this see Yongnian Zheng, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity, and International Relations, 1999).

Already in an earlier study about racist discourse in communist China, I pointed out that Nationalism was the first principle of Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People, and both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have adopted it. Already in the wake of the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898, which ended when the empress dowager rescinded all the reform decrees and executed several reformer officials, a number of radical intellectuals started advocating the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty.

While the Han-centric narrative considers the Manchu to be the historical culprit, as pointed out before, other ethnic groups in the country today are also seen as threats to China’s reawakening, particularly those that challenge Han or Sinocentric traditions and resist acculturation.

And although Mao Zedong in March 1953 still referred to "Han chauvinism" to criticize his rival Kuomintang party, this drastically changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new nationalistic power.

To understand where this unique present-day re-invented Han nationalism in China comes from we have to understand that during the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Party utilized first communism and then patriotism to mobilize the population. Both times, the tremendous power of mobilization was seen and its implications shocked the whole world. In two different periods of time and in quite different international and domestic contexts, both communism and then patriotism were truly welcomed and accepted by many Chinese people. Thus Chinese academic historians routinely produce sophisticated works of “modern” critical history modeled on the evidential research tradition and Western historiography.

All this was obviously not just the evidence of the power of communist propaganda. In fact, behind the two massive ideological movements, we can see the power of history and memory.

The reasons behind the relative lack of attention to history and memory even in W. Europe and the USA, vary widely in different disciplines. In history, the long-standing tradition of seeking "scientific objectivity" until recently did not allow the examination of historical writing in relation to the articulation of collective memory. In Ideas and Foreign Policy: An Analytical Framework, Judith Goldstein, and Robert Keohane explained why ideas (including history and memory and other ideational factors) have been underestimated-if not ignored-in the field of international relations. In fact, Madeleine Albright recently mentioned some of this in an anecdotal way.(1)

History and memory are not something that stays only in people's minds, they can also be materialized. For example, there are a multitude of ways through which collective memory is standardized and reproduced from national holidays, books, articles in the popular press, documentaries, museums, monuments, films, and other media have played key roles in the formation of collective memory and identity, both nationally and globally. According to Anthony D. Smith (2), while these media allow for the exposition and description of a rich tapestry of details, they have to follow a particular logic inherent in nation-building. This logic is crystallized in a "national narrative"-the historical tale of the evolution of a particular people through the ages.

History textbooks have been regarded as the major component in the construction and reproduction of national narratives. Some scholars have conducted detailed studies about how different countries deal with the history and memory issues in their education systems and how conflicting national narratives of different sides have generated conflicts. For example, Chunghee Sarah Soh (2003) describes and interprets South Korean citizens' recent national furor over Japanese history textbooks. The author observes that Koreans harbor a deep sense of victimization in their collective memories of the checkered historical relationship with Japan, which, in turn, has generated a nationalist vehemence to vanquish Japan's ethnocentric representations of bilateral and regional events in history textbooks. (3)

In regards to China, a good example was presented earlier this year (2006), when The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese Government ordered the closure of Bingdian Weekly because the weekly argued that “official textbooks inaccurately depicted the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, a nationalist uprising” in which thousands of Chinese Christians and many foreigners were killed. Not surprising, in the same article, the WSJ also concluded,” Beijing’s anxiety over a news media that is increasingly driven by market forces and a burgeoning sense of professionalism, rather than official propaganda directives. Authorities have jailed several Chinese journalists in the past two years and moved to tone down feistier publications.” (4)

As for the historical subject mentioned in the WSJ, a hundred years following the 1840 Opium War, China was on the verge of subjugation and loss of its thousands-year-long national identity. The Eight-Power Allied Forces occupied Beijing in 1900. Japan annexed Taiwan and Manchuria and occupied more than 900 cities from China. Hong Kong, Macao, and numerous small areas became concession zones to foreign powers. The invasion by Western powers and Japan reduced China to the status of semi-colonial society. The Chinese nation was facing a grave threat to national survival.

"The peoples of China are in the most critical time, everybody must roar his defiance." As represented by China's national anthem, a very strong sense of crisis, or sense of insecurity, has always been an important theme of the national political discourse in China. But as seen from even Albright’s above-mentioned book, the narrative of national salvation depends upon national humiliation; the narrative of national security depends upon national insecurity.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the most serious challenge for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1980s was a crisis of faith in socialism, crisis of belief in Marxism, and crisis of trust in the party. When the official Communist ideology lost credibility, the Communist regime became incapable of enlisting mass support behind a socialist vision of the future. There was a spiritual vacuum resulting from decades of communist repression of both traditional and Western belief systems. Under these circumstances, some intellectuals, particularly the younger generation of intellectuals, turned to Western liberal ideas and called for Western style democratic reform. The belief and faith crises finally evolved into a pro-democracy movement and eventually led to the large-scale Tiananmen demonstration in the spring of 1989. These crises became even more evident following the international collapse of the communist ideology itself. China's communist rulers feared that, in the mind of ordinary Chinese, they had already lost the "mandate of heaven" to rule china.

And where during the 1980's, largely due to the relatively liberal political environment and the policies of reform-minded top leadership, Chinese nationalism had a moderate orientation, this changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new power.

China's post-1989 patriotic education campaign

The ''patriotic education campaign", launched shortly after the "Tiananmen Incident" was used to redefine the legitimacy of the post- Tiananmen leadership in a way that would permit the Communist Party' s rule to continue on the basis of a non-Communist ideology.

Thus, since 1991, the ruling party has successfully made the education available at all times and everywhere in people's daily lives. The content of history and memory has become institutionalized in China-embedded in political institutions and the Chinese Communist Party's new ideological tools. Although all nation-states, from Western democracies to non-democratic societies, have laid great emphasis on teaching their national history, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Campaign for Patriotic Education in China is one of the most massive attempts of using national history to conduct ideological re-education in human history.

In August 1991, the National Education Council issued the "General Outline on Strengthening Education on Chinese Modern and Contemporary History and National Conditions." The Outline asked the education administrations of different levels to organize all their officials and teachers and have them study the Outline and President Jiang's letter and use the Outline as the "guiding document" for history education.

Three years later, in August 1994, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council jointly issued another document "Outline on the Implementation of Education in Patriotism." This Outline set off an upsurge of patriotic education in the whole society. The education content of this Campaign is "about what China was like in the old days and what kind of a country it was to become.”

Beijing called upon the whole nation to study China's humiliating modem history and how much the country has been changed by the Chinese Communist revolution. The education focuses on China's "chosen trauma" ("a century of humiliation" starting from the Opium War in 1840) and "chosen glory"-its splendid ancient civilization and "revitalization" via the recent achievements.

In the Outline on the Implementation of Education in Patriotism. the CCP Central Committee states explicitly the mission of this nationwide political campaign:

The purpose of conducting patriotic education is to inspire the national spirit, strengthen the national cohesion, set up people's sense of self-respect and sense of pride. and to consolidate and develop the most widely united front. Our purpose is also to lead the people's patriotic enthusiasm to the great cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics and to unite our people striving for the realization of the four modernizations and the rejuvenation of Chinese nation.

As Suisheng Zhao observed, this Campaign is "a state-led nationalist movement," and "one of the most important maneuvers" that the Communist government launched to redefine the legitimacy of the post- Tiananmen leadership in a way that would "permit the Communist Party' s rule to continue on the basis of a non-Communist ideology.”(5)

As Geremie Barme already observed, "every policy shift in recent Chinese history has involved the rehabilitation, re-evaluation and revision of history and historical figures. "(6)

Under Mao the emphasis was on China as a victor-it was under the leadership of the CCP that Chinese people overcame the difficulties and won national independence. In the new textbooks, the old class struggle narrative was replaced by a patriotic narrative. Since 1994, the Chinese Modern and Contemporary History has become a required core course in high school and a subject of the nationwide university entrance examinations for all candidates. Beijing also constructed more than ten thousand "patriotic education bases"-museums, memorial halls, and monuments in memory of China's past wars with foreign countries, civil wars and the myths and national heroes in history. Visiting these memory sites has been a regular part of the school curriculum.

In October 2004, 10 government ministries and CCP departments issued a new document-‘‘Opinions on Strengthening and Improving the Work of Patriotic Education Bases.’’ This document asks government agencies and education institutions to ‘‘liberate thoughts’’ and to improve teaching methods, especially those that involve communication with the younger generation. It also mentions that officials should try to ‘‘make entertainment a medium of education.’’ That same month, Beijing put forward a new patriotic education project-‘‘Three One Hundred for Patriotic Education.’’ The ‘‘three one hundred’’ are 100 films, songs, and books with a common theme of patriotism. Seven PRC ministries and CCP departments, including the Ministry of Education and the Propaganda Department, jointly recommended 100 selected films, 100 selected songs, and 100 selected books to the whole society. Many of these films, songs, and books were about modern and contemporary Chinese history.(7)

In December 2004, the Chinese government formulated the General Plan for the Development of Red Tourism and defined 12 major red tourist areas. The Party also launched a special propaganda campaign to memorialize the 60th anniversary of the anti-fascist and anti-Japanese war.

Essentially, the CCP skillfully replaced the term ‘‘education’’ with ‘‘tourism.’’ But a national narrative in most cases is not an objective description of the past; it is rather an act of selection, appropriation, and proliferation of selected features from the people's past. The national narrative emerges out of forgetting of possible or alternative past and constructing a past that is meaningful in the present context.  Thus visualized items monuments, statues, hero figures in films and dramas-have provided people evidence of the existence of national history and state identity.

In their book Ideas and Foreign Policy, Judith Goldstein and Robert Keohane (1993) proposed an analytic framework to study how ideas (defined as ‘‘beliefs held by individuals’’) help to explain political outcomes. According to them, once ideas or beliefs become embedded in rules and norms—that is to say, once they become institutionalized-they constrain public policy. Furthermore, once a policy choice leads to the creation of reinforcing organizational and normative structures, the policy idea can affect the incentives of political entrepreneurs long after the interests of its initial proponents have changed.

Thus China's "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory" have been used by the Communist government, especially its top leaders, to construct the rules and norms of the ruling party. The discourse of national humiliation has become embedded in patterns of political discourse and the identity of the ruling party, and also, an integral part of the construction of Chinese nationalism. The CCP leaders are the educators or the manipulators of history and memory in China, but at the same time, they are also the believers of their own ideology.

The content of history and memory has provided a whole set of theories to define the identity and worldview of the Chinese Communist Party: The Party's responsibility and leadership role have been entrusted by the history of the past century the Party has made the biggest sacrifices and contribution in the struggle to "put an end to the past humiliation."(8) Therefore, the Party is "the firmest and most thoroughgoing patriot." The CCP has claimed legitimacy through a portrayal of itself as the history agency that restored national unity and independence. The central myth of the Party and also the "theory" that has been used to explain how the world works for the Chinese people is this statement: Only the Communist Party can save China; only the Party can develop and rejuvenate China. Since history tells us that "backwardness incurs beatings by others," the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation thus has become the unswerving goal and grand mission of the Party.

And although the national-humiliation discourse certainly is propaganda in today's China, it is more: it has a large and sympathetic audience. For the Chinese people, the foreign invasions, the military defeats, the unequal treaties and all the details of invaders' atrocities during the "100 years of national humiliation" are not merely a recounting of national history. They learn these sad stories from their parents or grandparents, from school textbooks and from media, films, novels and posters in their daily life. The discourse of national humiliation is the key to understand the contemporary Chinese psyche of nationalism.

With this, the current CCP leaders are the educators, the manipulators, but at the same time, are also the believers of their new ideology.

But there is also an inconsistency between the regime’s current foreign policy and its longstanding domestic propaganda. On one hand, a cooperative relationship with the Western countries and a professional, open and active diplomacy will serve China’s national interests; but on the other hand, artificially creating an enemy image and willful political usage of history and memory are still important strategies for the regime to increase internal cohesion. Along these lines, Gerrit Gong writes that China’s ‘‘overreliance on history to provide national legitimization could challenge the ability of any Chinese government to satisfy its own people or to engage easily internationally.’’(9)

In today’s school textbooks, the emphasis now is put on the international and ethnic conflict between China and for example Japan, rather than the internal and class conflict between the CCP and KMT as was the case with earlier school text books. This "China as victim" in nationalist discourse, with for example a focus on Japanese brutality and Chinese misery during the war, is not without results as can be seen on the anti-Japanese protests today.

Periodically, the official propaganda apparatus would go into overdrive whenever there were international incidents in which China was apparently disrespected or poorly treated. Example that we will analyze is the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the 1999 crisis after the NATO bombing of the P.R.C. Embassy in Yugoslavia, and the 2001 crisis after the collision of warplanes off the Chinese coast.(10)

Interviewing many Chinese military leaders in Beijing, a belief shared widely at all levels of military and political leadership- is that the United States during the three incidents was trying to divide China territorially, subvert it politically, contain it strategically, and frustrate it economically. And that from the standpoint of many Chinese people, the United States has a master plan against China.

Assesment of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Assesment of the 1999 crisis after the NATO bombing of the P.R.C. Embassy in Yugoslavia.

Assesment of the 2001 crisis after the collision of warplanes off the Chinese coast.


1. See Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, 2006.

2. Anthony D. Smith, Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, 2004

3. Chunghee Sarah Soh, interpreting South Korea's National Furor over Japanese History Textbooks." American Asian Review. Winter 2003. Vol.2l, Iss. 4; 145-179.

4. WSJ, China Shuts Down Outspoken Publication, January 25, 2006, 9:13 a.m.

5. Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism, 2004, 288.

6. Barme, "History for the Masses," in Jonathan Unger, ed., Using the Post to Serve the Present: Historiography in Contemporary China, 1993, P. 260.

7. Suisheng Zhao: "A State-led Nationalism: The Patriotic Education Campaign in Post-Tiananmen China", Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3. 1998. pp. 287-302.

8. Gries, Peter Hays. China's new nationalism: Pride, politics, and diplomacy. Univ of California Press, 2004.

9. Gerrit W. Gong, Memory and History in East and Southeast Asia: Issues of Identity in International Relations (Significant Issues Series), 2002.

10. On this see also Peter Hays Gries, China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.