History, Patriotism, and the Tangled Web They Weave

History has always been a subject with particular potency in China. Confucius used rituals and sage-king exemplars from a bygone age as models for proper behavior. Emperors traced their family lines back into mythology to justify their place at the center of the universe. Today, common people proudly tout China’s “five thousand years of history”. And of course the government, for its part, tries to shape the discourse in a Party-friendly way, especially when the topic is modern history. A recent post on the China Beat quotes a Beijing University textbook thusly explaining the purpose of studying modern history:

What are the aims of studying our modern history? To gain deep insights into how the invasion of foreign capitalism and imperialism combined with Chinese feudal authority to bring terrible suffering to the Chinese nation and people…and how history and the people came to choose the Chinese Communist Party.

Indeed, the China Beat piece is a fascinating study of modern Patriotic Education in China. The education itself has been wildly effective in painting China’s post-opium war problems as largely the result of foreign countries, and many have credited it with the creation of fenqing, angry youth with a particular distaste for all things foreign that may well stem from their understanding of modern Chinese history. The China Beat didn’t find that to be particularly true in their visits to various “national shame” museums, concluding that China’s patriotic education is “a little like white noise.”

Of more interest to me, though, is the shifting understandings of the term “patriotism” itself. Having written a 150 page thesis just on patriotism in May Fourth literature, I could go on about this for days. I won’t, but the China Beat piece reminded me how interesting the topic really is.

Starting with May Fourth we might define patriotism as something different than what it was in imperial China. Loyalty to a ruler or dynasty was falling out of fashion (late Qing incompetence and the general craziness of Express Dowager Cixi made being a loyalist pretty tough), and loyalty to the “nation” — a relatively new concept in China — was in. May Fourth writers may even have been a step ahead of that; they were (arguably) not loyal to the nation of China as it currently existed, but in fact harshly critical out of love for a potential future “China” they were hoping to help create. It was this critical spirit, that, among other things, led to the first study groups on Communism. Most intellectuals agreed there was plenty wrong with society; it was a matter of time before people started looking for practical solutions.

But Patriotic Education in the post-CCP era seems to have shifted the definition of patriotism back in the direction of loyalism, as stability and harmony are promoted as core Chinese values. It’s no coincidence that these values can be easily used to support maintaining the status quo. At least as long as the status quo remains a strengthening China, the CCP can point to the days of national humiliation as a reminder of what happens when China isn’t strong, i.e., when the CCP isn’t in power, and shake its mighty patriotism stick.

The eternally unanswerable question, though, is what Chinese people really think. As the China Beat report makes abundantly clear, there’s a big difference between what people are taught in classrooms and what they actually feel, or even what they actually consider patriotic. Unfortunately, a Chinese opinion poll is beyond the means of this humble blog. We’ll go into much more detail on this at a later date, but right now if you’re reading this and you’re Chinese, how do you understand the concept of patriotism, as well as its relationship with history? And if you’re not Chinese, well, I still want to know: what do you think?

0 thoughts on “History, Patriotism, and the Tangled Web They Weave”

  1. Without hearing a 150 page thesis, I’d really like to know more about what you think since you’re so well-read on the subject. You’re just sort of touching the surface with this and that’s easy to see. However, I agree with what you’ve stated so far about the attitudes of the fenqing, their creation, and the victim attitude that is so prevalent in modern Chinese society. I remember growing up and my parents taught me not to act like a victim. Imagine my surprise in coming to China and seeing that people are specifically taught to do exactly that.

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  2. The thing is, with or without the commies, when anyone, any nation is weak, bad things do happen and have happened over and over again throughout human history. At the risk of sounding like a cynic and a social Darwinist, I don’t believe in the benevolence of other countries. If China was a small, tiny nation, we could just do that like what Andorra has been doing, but it’s not.

    China has to get stronger – whether we will attack somebody else if we do get stronger is another story. If the commies can achieve that goal, I’m willing to let them do it. If they can’t (corruption, economic recession, environmental problems, you name it), they should move over and let somebody else take the wheel, and if it’s a democratic government then wouldn’t it be great.

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