Lu Xun once criticized the Chinese people for having no sense of nationalism or duty for their country. He called his own people cowards who would stand with the enemy as long as it meant they could profit for themselves even amidst the suffering of their countrymen. The Chinese only talked about their own old history, he stated in one of his many critical essays, living in their past glories instead of focusing on the present humiliations and indignation. He wanted to save his people by using the force of nationalism even when it seemed hopeless. Waking up sleeping men stuck within an iron box, as he called it, letting them know that they will die instead of allowing them a painless end.
I guess it worked. The Chinese people, from babies waving Chinese flags to the elderly who still have Mao’s picture plastered on their walls are now instilled with an extreme sense of nationalism. So why does it exist now? Here are a few reasons:
1. China has now risen after three decades of rapid economic growth so the people are proud of their achievements. The Olympics in Beijing is proof that China has achieved greatness on the world stage.
2. China’s past humiliations have caused them to feel extremely protective of any foreign accusations and demands. The threat of Tibet breaking off and an independent Taiwan leads to fears that China will break apart and return to the dark days of warlordism. Weakness will lead to a repeat of foreign imperialism and discrimination against the Chinese people.
3. China has a long five thousand years of glorious history that originated along the Yellow River and has spread from the northeastern reaches of Manchuria to the beaches of Hainan, the deserts of Xinjiang, and the mountains of Tibet. The integrity of the Chinese nation is necessary for the integrity of the Chinese identity. Only as a whole country can the originator of Asian culture once again rise to the top.
4. The Chinese people is not one homogeneous people, but made up of not only different ethnicity, but also speak thousands of different dialects, have different customs and beliefs, and various religious affiliations. Without a strong sense of nationalism, the country would splinter into various factions. As a result, the government has taken up the role of using nationalism, which began with the Confucian Revival by the Nationalist Party and evolved into a Maoism as a religion that reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution. The government is now creating nationalism using all those reasons listed above to control the people.
Whatever the reasons for the rise of ultra nationalism in China, the important thing to know is that it currently exists. The Chinese people are fiercely nationalistic, especially those who are more inward looking while those on the fringes of Chinese society, such as ethnic minorities, left wing dissidents, and punk rockers, tend to have either their own local identities or have more cosmopolitan beliefs. So is it good to be nationalistic? Well…
Nationalism blinds people from acknowledgement of the humanity of those outside their nationality and because of this, it can be seen as a negative force. However, at the same time, it empowers a nation with by uniting its people towards a singular goal, preventing social conflicts, and encourages the people to do great and terrible things to further the glory of their country.
Now the term ‘brain washed’ comes up pretty often. I don’t like that term too much, though I must admit I used it fairly often when I first came to China. However, my ideas have changed a bit. Almost all forms of nationalism are at least in some way imposed from the top down. The state gives the people a part of their identity, which is why people call themselves German or French or Chinese, or Somalian. Actually, I don’t think most people in Somalia call themselves Somalian because of a lack of top down nationalism, which is mostly due to the fact that there is no effective government there these days. Anyways. Because identity is at least partially given by the state, all people who claim some kind of nationality are ‘brain washed’.
The distinction comes from what makes up the rest of ones identity. This can come from family, ethnicity, religion, or even such things as hobbies (I’m sure at least a few people have the majority of their identity shaped by their World of Warcraft character). The more interaction that exists with things not related to the state, the more diverse one’s identity becomes. For example, someone who is of Indian ethnicity but born in South Africa in a predominantly black community might have a fairly diverse mindset.
Now lets look at China. The government has their hands in almost everything. The media is state controlled, the internet is filtered, and cultural works require approval. Even the country’s language of ‘putonghua’ and simplified characters are state created or manipulated. Contact with the outside world was non-existent for thirty years and in many parts of the country, the people have not even left their village, let alone meet someone from another country.
It’s not whether or not the Chinese people are ‘brain washed’ into being nationalistic or not that matters. Nationalism is strongest when the people are isolated. What’s that cliche again… there is no fear greater than the fear of the unknown? The west fears China and the Chinese fear the west. If only there was some big international event that can bring the brainwashed people from all over the world to meet and enlighten each other on their own humanity… if only…