Li Yinhe and The Limits of Nationalism

[This piece is a translation of a post on Li Yinhe’s blog. Li Yinhe is a sociologist, sexologist, and is the widow of the famous writer Wang Xiaobo. The original post is called “My Two Comments on Unhappy China“. Links inserted by ChinaGeeks for historical context.]

I saw a report online about Unhappy China. I still haven’t seen the book, nor do I want to read it, I’ll just sweep an eye over it and comment; I’ve heard that inside it attacks liberal intellectuals, including Wang Xiaobo and me.

I only have two comments on the kind of books that stir up nationalism like this:

First, In 1840 China was being taken advantage of by foreigners, nationalism was necessary. We could not become a defeated people, China is our homeland and no one can come and take advantage of us. Our fathers’ generation were all solemn and ardent youths in the opposing the Japanese Invasion in WWII, what they did was not nearly so boring, absurd, and argumentative as attacking Lust, Caution as treasonous. They were fighting with their bodies, losing their heads and sprinkling [the ground] with their warm blood. If today foreign powers invade, we mist all follow the banner of nationalism and forcefully resist. But there is a limit to nationalism, and if one crosses this limit and wants to go taking advantage of other countries, that is wrong. I’ve heard that in the book it says since China is now powerful we should take more natural resources and move to lead the world. If this “take more natural resources” is indicating [we should] invade other countries, then the line has been crossed.

Second, nationalism is a banner and democracy is another banner, we should raise both of them high . If we raise only the banner of nationalism and don’t raise the banner of democracy, then we can only reach the level of the Boxer Rebellion. The relationship between such advocates and power can only be like the relationship between the Boxers and the Express Dowager Cixi [i.e., all the control still rests in the hands of others and not the people]. Especially in times when there is clearly no enemy invading, there is [the phenomenon of] ignoring major issues to deal with the trivial and even ingratiating ourselves with power. Nationalism is the value of an ethnic group, democracy is a universally suitable value. Especially in a country that lacks the democratic tradition such as this one, at present the duty of intellectuals and patriots is to push forward the progress of democratization, and not to incite nationalist feelings.

Recently, I’ve often heard people say “soft power”, I don’t know specifically what they’re referring to. Probably it’s that since China’s economy has come up, they want to show the world the idea [behind] our superstructure. I hold that the only “soft power” China should show the world is the degree of advancement of our democracy. Perhaps it has Chinese characteristics: they call it “parliament”, we call it “People’s Congress”, but these “special characteristics” should not make [our democracy] worse than other nations’ democracy; they should make it even more democratic [than the democracy of others]. On freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc., we should do better than others, on human rights we should do better than others. That should be the kind of “soft power” we show the world, not this Boxer-like culture of nationalism and even more not the culture of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Also of Interest:
-A Tokyo court rejects a lawsuit filed by Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s system of “comfort women” during WWII. (Xinhua)
-Everyone in China is building subways, but is anyone going to want to ride them? (NY Times)

0 thoughts on “Li Yinhe and The Limits of Nationalism”

  1. I can’t disagree with Wang Xiaobo’s sentiments but I’ve gotta say I am in principle against writing about a book one hasn’t read. Even if Unhappy China is trash that isn’t work the paper its printed on but it seems only fair to criticize the book after having read for yourself.


  2. I agree, although I think she’s really just commenting on the phenomenon it represents. Also, the book has several previous editions under the name 中国可以说不, 中国不高兴 is just a more recently updated version, so it’s possible she has read the book in its previous iterations, I have no idea.


  3. Oh I didn’t realize that it was the same as 中国可以说不. I was going to say, there are a lot of these books that seem to come out from time to time (and honestly they are probably all the same; reminds me of all the books Ann Coulter writes).


  4. In fairness to Li Yinhe, at least one of the writers didn’t do much reading of Wang Xiaobo either.

    I translated (very roughly) an article from the book that might have piqued her interest:

    Nice to know that both sides are so passionate that they can’t be bothered to read the other side. The book can be found online, illegally. And I’m sure unauthorized translations are being done as we speak. It is not the same as 中国可以说不.

    As for the content of the book, I think the issues being dealt with in this book (and often ignored in much of popular culture, media, society, governance, etc.) are incredibly important. Dealing with issues of nationalism, post-colonialism, identity, democracy, etc, is important. They sell books because this is the other side of ‘modern china’ that you often miss, or get in little nytimes puff pieces about chinese people liking KFC or some shit like that. This kind of book is about as much exposition and serious thought as you get from one side of the debate (outside of the blogs and foreign press) on identity formation, the 80s, democracy, etc, etc. Sure, both sides of the debate hardly speak in their most cordial tones, or use the most reasoned arguments, but, you go to war with the army you have.

    I think it is very dangerous to just write off ‘nationalism’ or ‘fenqing’, like that. This are real powerful forces in society and they have real roots and they aren’t going away, in fact, these questions will only come more to the forefront as more people have to deal a complex and modern china.


  5. @ hsk notes: Do you, perchance, have a link for where I can find the book online? I was looking for it right when it came out but couldn’t find it then, and have been too busy/lazy to go to a bookstore. (To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing I really want to spend money on anyway).

    Also, the chapter you translated is interesting, and things like that are why I’d like to read the book further (I don’t disagree that it’s interesting and relevant either way, but I suspect — and that chapter seems to indicate I’m right — that there’s a lot of fundamental misunderstanding of America going on there.


  6. @hsknotes
    What bothers me about it is that he is basically appealing to emotion, which might be good for whipping up people that already agree with him but doesn’t do anything to further his cause. When he riddles his writing with meaningless and provocative phrases like “Wang Xiaobo’s little brother was killed by Americans and his body was left on the side of the road,” what kind of reaction does he expect from people that might not hate America as much as he (seems) to? I am talking about Chinese people here.

    You state that the book is important as a window into modern China and maybe that is true. But we didn’t really need to read a book to know that these people exist.


  7. A couple things.

    One, I don’t mean to be an apologist or supporter of the 中国不高兴 cause. I see the misunderstanding of culture and identity in the ‘dinner example’ he cites, but I also think he may be onto something there as well. It’s hard to know.

    Using emotion might not get people to his side that fundamentally disagree with him, but it might get many others. In fact, in china, or in other places, not resorting to reason, or being provocative may be the the most effective way of furthering your cause. Only if people are forced to look, or something becomes so big, will they start to look at the reasons and reasoned arguments on both sides. Also, resorting to emotion is certainly not something unique to his side, or any side in most debates.

    And even if people don’t agree with them, many still want to hear what they have to say.

    Two, I don’t see that anecdote as uselessly provocative or meaningless. He is pointing to a case which was and is ridiculously common in China: the intellectual or foreign traveler who returns and who feels ashamed, or is much more comfortable dealing with the ‘failings of one’s own society in relation to another society.’ Needless to say, the issue here is not necessarily ‘hatred of america’, but rather what is perceived as a slight to the ‘dignity of china.’ This isn’t hard to understand, the returned traveler coming back to tell the people from his hometown that they are backwards and have to pick up the foreign ways. Who wouldn’t hate that? But, what Wang Xiaodong is getting at is exposing something much worse in his opinion, this guy who really didn’t want to come to grips with, or really understand the society and ideals he was espousing, or in fact hide that reality from view to some extent.

    So, no, we don’t really need to read a book to know these people exist, but what’s your point? Do you really know what they believe in or why it draws such broad support? What about the democracy activists, do we really need to read a book or blog to know they exist? Do we really know what they believe and why they believe it and why it draws such narrow support?

    If I was teaching students about modern american culture (or maybe political culture) I can’t think of anything better to recommend than maybe an ann coulter book paired with maybe a book from the left, or maybe a particularly self-righteous and ‘special comment’ from keith olbermann. I think it’s more than important to know ‘people like this exist’, it’s important to actually go a little deeper. Making it through one ann coutler book, or whoever else you want to pick, is truly an interesting ride and certainly better than just knowing she is out there from a few sound bites or anecdotes.


  8. @ hsknotes: really? I think making someone read a whole book by Ann Coulter in a class on American culture would be hugely misleading. Sure, those people (read: her, rednecks) are out there, but I don’t really understand exactly what good you think would come from “going deeper”? It’s interesting stuff, but there’s so much more out there, and at the end of the day, it isn’t actually a real perspective at all, it’s just shocking invective designed to provoke people into listening so that she can sell books. I think it would be more useful in a business class than in a class where you’re trying to understand how Americans really think…

    any word on that link? Or alternatively, just a good site to download Chinese books generally?


  9. A link was posted, it went into ‘waiting moderation’ and then disappeared.

    Really. Maybe not the whole book, but at least part of it. It is good to go deeper because people who hold her view and buy her books (or are at least sympathetic to her cause) occupy a not unsubstantial portion of the electorate. I think it’s crucial to understanding american culture and politics that at this moment, 2009, you have two very different cultures going two very different ways. Barack Obama and the next rep nominee (Romney, Palin, Jindal, whatever) share incredibly little in common on huge issues. I think it’s wrong to write off one part of the country that holds certain views.

    Coulter does not reflect a real perspective at all? I beg to differ. I think we sometimes forget that a landslide in american politics is 51 percent and that a permanent 30 percent of the either party essentially hate everything the other side has to offer. That’s tens of millions of people. Coulter doesn’t write out of nowhere, she writes from there.

    Sure a lot of what anyone write in politics is nonsense. America has a particularly non-sense filled political system, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to know about it, be up on it, read some of it, if someone is going to feel qualified to understand and comment on it. So, maybe you can write off Ann coulter without reading it, because you ‘get it’ without reading it, but foreign learners I think would be much better off dealing with it head on. The same goes for the 中国不高兴 crowd. It’s one thing to read Hecaitou, or even know about him, but look how much more you get after having to deal with him.

    If Foxnews and Ann Coulter weren’t a real perspective when they started (they were), they certainly are now. Some of their observations aren’t totally off-mark, like the lack of true conservative (and often embarrassing voices) that make it onto the tv airwaves. (I mean, like the bigots don’t get on air that often, though they represent a large part of the population. I still find it so odd to hear people with actual southern or countryside accents that make it onto networks like foxnews or foxbusiness.)

    People actually point to this ignoring of the actual republican base as one of the reasons for the republican losses in 2008. At some point people got fed up after feeling used without getting what they were promised. McCain tried to through a bone out with Palin but it wasn’t enough.

    I think teachers can give a skewed perspective of america, or china, if they don’t teach both sides of a nation/culture. I think a lot of chinese students who end up in alabama (not knocking alabama) doing graduate research are maybe a little surprised to find the culture and political values around there don’t bear much resemblance to the coasts.


  10. @ hsknotes: Sorry, I didn’t see it in moderation, it’s approved now.

    As for Coulter, she represents a viewpoint so extreme that there is virtually no one in America who actually holds it. Sure, there are people who will say they agree with her books, but even ultra-conservatives, when pressed, will admit that they actually don’t agree with a lot of what she says. They often agree with the base conservative principle, but wouldn’t be willing to carry it to the extreme as she does (I learned this in my younger days as a troll on conservative message-boards).

    Reading her (or a liberal equivalent) gives the impression that one side (or the other) is completely batshit crazy, when actually, the differences aren’t that extreme. Sure, there’s a split, but if you just read coulter and some liberal demagogue you’d get the impression that a liberal and a conservative couldn’t be within 50 yards of each other without exchanging blows.

    She caters to a real audience, but what she does is entertainment, albeit political entertainment. I would compare her, and her ilk, to the “pro wrestlers” of politics–as interesting and bizarre as they are fake. Just as the people who watch pro wrestling know that it isn’t real, so too I think the readers of Ann Coulter know that what she does is very similar…In real life, I doubt that even she really believes all the crazy stuff she says, so to show that to a class and suggest that half of the US was like that…

    I agree teaching both sides is fine, but if you go to Alabama, or wherever else, you’re not actually going to find many people whose beliefs are as crazy as Ann Coulter’s. I spent a large part of my childhood in a very isolated rural town surrounded by conservatives, and while I occasionally heard some crazy stuff, I don’t think Ann Coulter would help Chinese people understand those neighbors of mine any better than Olbermann (or liberal English teachers in China) would.


  11. Hi there,

    This is a great blog of yours, Your site is very informative and I can relate to your posts. My husband and I are also EXPATs in China. I have just started my own blog: TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know what you think for a link exchange.



  12. I don’t agree with a lot of what the book advocates, but I do agree with one thing: the so-called “self-racism” by some intellectuals agasint their own race.

    I don’t have the experience of living overseas for more than 3 weeks, so I’m not sure how intellectuals in other country usually talk. I know some conversatives in the US call liberals America-hating elite, but personally I guess none of the liberals has ever said the Americans are the lowest race in the world that deserve to be annihilated or be colonized by another race? Because that’s what a few Chinese intellectuals have said about the Chinese nation, publicly.

    I’ve seen countless attacks on everything from China’s history, politics, religion, and (surprise!) music, painting and even Chinese characters for being inferior to their western or Japanese counterparts.

    Criticism of the emperors, political institutions and the tradtional emphasis on the collective good at the expense of individuality is justified and deserves frank dialogue, but I really fail to see why say Chinese music (classical, royal, folk, ethnic) and traditional instruments were signs of barbarism. I’m not kidding. I’ve heard scholars talk down on Chinese music as inferior. I’ve also heard scholars criticize traditional Chinese architecture as a symbol of backwardness. A professor I once had moved, within one class, from admiring the US for having a “free and equal” family culture where children were treated as human beings unlike the “backward” China where they were like what he called properties of their parents to lauding a South Korean family in his building for one day punishing their teenage son’s wrongdoing by forcing him to kneel down in front of the building for the passengers to see in the bitter cold weather, something he blasted China for not doing any more because we “didn’t respect our culture” (I wanted to slap him out of his insecurity-induced inconsistency but I was a student, so I just rolled my eyes).

    There should be a movement in China that keeps in check the trend of the crippling insecurity wrapped in an time-honored (ever since 1919), self-destructive inferiority complex.

    There’s some gems in the book other than the consipicuous resentment against western dominance, and if you pay attention to on domestic issues you’ll find out that it has a lot of good ideas. And I think that what the book is all about.


  13. @ woodoo: Interesting stuff. I’m curious as to why you’d say this movement started in 1919. I assume you’re referring to the May 4th movement, but I think calling that part of a “self-destructive inferiority complex” isn’t really accurate. Yes, people were looking to the West for ways to improve China and criticizing Chinese traditions, but I’d argue at that time it was sort of necessary.

    Plus, you could make a strong case that if it weren’t for the May 4th movement, the modern powerful China of today wouldn’t exist because the CCP sprung out of the May 4th interest in Western literature and thought (before there was “communism with Chinese characteristics”, it was just “communism”).


  14. I fundamentally disagree with the contention that there is not a large segment of the american populace that is batshit crazy. Polls mean something. Surverys mean something. Results mean something. We have a segment of the population that in the past and now still believe that iraq had a role in 9-11. We had and still have a large segment that believes the current president is a (secret) Muslim. We have a much larger percent of the population that believes the bible literally and assets that the earth is 6,000 years old. You can write a lot of this off as ignorance, but you can’t write all of it off that way. We did just turn into a country that condemns torture to one that openly admits that it does it and won’t take an legal action to stop it. We’ve come up with bizarre legal no-man-zone locations to circrumvent american and international law (Guantanamo bay) and we have people like Coulter and Limbaugh talking about the Abu Gharib abuses being the ‘pranks’ of some college kids. No, this is not some extreme view only in the mind of provocateurs, I’ve talked to many, many people, they are batshit crazy. The Obama campaign knew this too and went batshit nuts to combat the secret muslim rumor in addition to others.

    I’m not saying one side is completely batshit, I’m saying a significant portion 20, 30, 40 percent is to one degree or another, on any given day, pretty much batshit.

    As for the ‘would never put into action’ argument. Of course. It’s often when you know there is almost no chance of bringing about reform that you can speak most aggressively about something.

    I think self-destructive inferiority complex is an excellent description for the post 1911 China. perhaps inferiority/superiority complex might work as well.

    As for the need to ‘criticize traditions’. Well, this seems to be getting into a discussion that is far too complex. I will say that the ‘criticism’ and ‘destruction’ often seemed, to say the least, scattershot. Things that might seem ‘logical’ on face, in reality may be caused by not the tradition, but something else. Ex:

    The move to simplify characters and eventually move to an alphabetic system. People like Mao and others wanted to get rid of characters (apparently one of the old things they wanted to get rid of). I think, as time has borne out, the real problem was not characters being too hard, but rather that there was no educational system, or if there was, everyone was poor and might not be able to go to school. This wasn’t a ‘bad’ tradition, it was a result of poorness. The west didn’t necessarily have lower level of illiteracy because they had an alphabet, but because they had a higher standard of living.


  15. @ Custer

    I don’t mean the 5/4 movement was all about cultural and racial insecurity, but in the midst of waves of “new” cultural movements it’s hard to deny there was a significant portion of self-hate involved that stemmed from the harsh reality of western imperialism and Japanese encroachment. The mentality of “Why are we being bullied? It must be our own fault!” is palpable in literature from that era.

    Of course every culture needs a healthy dose of self-doubt, and I believe the 5/4 movement overall was patriotic and postive, but something in there went overboard. Lu Xin advocated for abolishing the Chinese characters, calling them one of the reasons the Chinese civilization was so backward and barbaric and “man-eating.” As for his sympathy-turned contempt for his fellow countrymen, I personally just cannot stand it. And his famous phrase “lie gen xing” reeks self-racism. If Chinese bloggers started drawing cartoons about what they perceived as Africans’ “lie gen xing” you’d write another blog about racism in China alright. (Yes, I’m one of the few people in China who doesn’t like Lu Xun.)

    Like I said, some criticism of traditions is justified. But I really can’t understand criticism of, again, music as inferior. As far as music is concerned, the Chinese should learn something from western music and help grow our own, and vice versa, which is the point of cultural exchange. But a major problem is many people just want to get rid of traditions, which I think is one of the reasons the Japanese have been so successful in showcasing their tradtional music and instruments to the world but the Chinese haven’t. And the communists aren’t particularly fond of traditions either.

    Interestingly, you know, I think this kind of self-hate that makes some Chinese always feel smaller before westerners partially is responsible for the racial insensitivities in China. If someone believes that they’re naturally and genetically inferior to the westerners (such topics are often seen on online forums), then it’s natual that they believe there must be someone else who’s even lower than they are.


  16. I think saying that Lu Xun was contemptuous towards “his countrymen” isn’t really accurate. Yes, he was harshly critical of Chinese traditions and culture, but there was always a purpose behind the criticism which, I’d argue, was improving China and, at least in his fiction, even the darkest pieces offer a glimmer of hope for a better day (something that’s evident in a lot of the most critical May 4th fiction).

    I’ll stop here before I go on a rant about it. I actually wrote a 150 page thesis on patriotism and hope in May Fourth fiction.


  17. It doesn’t really matter with the example of Lu Xun. The fact that I said I’m one of the very few who don’t like him is evidence enough that I expected counter-argument. You see patriotism and hope in 5/4 fiction, and I agree, but I also see self-hate and an inferiority complex that refuses to die even till the 21st century, and it’s my intention to shed light on it.

    I’ve already made my main argument clear: there’s a phenomenon of self-hate in Chinese society, especially among intellectuals, the kind of self-hate that borderlines racism as evidenced in a few scholars’ call for the colonization of China by other races (presumably westerners) and widespread criticism of tradtions and cultural elements not for the sake of improvement but out of total denial.

    For the third time: some criticism, especially on historical, political and religious issues, is justified. Society evolves only when people criticize themselves, with good intentions. But I don’t see good intentions in criticisms by some academics with a public voice, and that’s one thing worth discussion in this book.


  18. I personally believe the whole book is worth your while. The point is even if one doesn’t agree with a lot of the things the authors say – for example, many arguments concerning the US are not my cup of tea, and I don’t like the implications of outright military development – one gets a very clear picture of this sort of thinking that’s popular especially among the urban young (by young I mean 20- and 30-somethings).

    Then again, some of those authors have really bad writing styles for my taste (so do many many Chinese writers).


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