China Books

William A. Callahan's China: The Pessoptimist Nation

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William A. Callahan is Professor of International Politics and China Studies at the University of Manchester, and Co-Director of the British Inter-University China Center at Oxford University. His recent publications include Cultural Governance and Resistance in Pacific Asia (2006) and Contingent States: Greater China and Transnational Relations (2004). Professor Callahan gave permission for an extract from his latest book, China: The Pessoptimist Nation, and kindly wrote the introduction below. The book is available from OUP and Amazon.

China: The Pessoptimist Nation shows how the heart of Chinese foreign policy is not a security dilemma, but an identity dilemma. Through a careful analysis of how Chinese people understand their new place in the world, the book charts how Chinese identity emerges through the interplay of positive and negative feelings in a dynamic that intertwines China’s domestic and international politics. China thus is the pessoptimist nation where national security is closely linked to nationalist insecurities.

China: The Pessoptimist Nation; extract from Chapter One

by William A. Callahan

Many credit (or blame) Samuel P. Huntington for making us think about the international role of civilizations in the post-Cold War era. But civilization has been an enduring theme in Chinese discussions of foreign policy and world order for millenia. As we saw at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, China’s concept of civilization provides a national aesthetic that unites elite and mass views of identity and security in the PRC. This book will show how China’s current structure of feeling that looks to national pride and national humiliation is an outgrowth of China’s “Civilization/barbarian distinction” [Huayi zhi bian]. Both of these structures of feeling work to integrate the party-state’s propaganda policy with grassroots popular feelings.

China’s domestic policy of “harmonious society” and its foreign policy of “peacefully rising” in a “harmonious world” are both based on the idealized view of Chinese civilization as open to the world, and tolerant of outsiders. Hua, which has come to mean both “civilization” and “Chinese,” more literally means “magnificent” and “flourishing,” and is a homonym for “transformation.” Rather than seeking to conquer those who violently challenged it, we are often told how China’s magnanimous civilization inclusively embraced difference1. Even when China itself was conquered by outsiders, the attractiveness of Chinese civilization was able to assimilate non-Han groups: nomadic Mongolians were transformed into the Yuan dynasty that built Beijing’s Forbidden City. Pre-modern China thus utilized the soft power of Confucian rituals to unify All-under-Heaven [Tianxia] through attraction rather than conquest. The PRC’s current foreign policy, we are told, likewise is based on the “Peaceful Orientation of Chinese Civilization.”2

The story of Zheng He is presented as prime example of how China’s peaceful rise will, to quote Zheng Bijian, “transcend the traditional ways for great powers to emerge.”3 While European imperial fleets smuggled opium and established colonies, Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He’s massive fleet explored Asia and Africa on seven voyages of peace and friendship. Beijing now promotes this positive view of Chinese power both at home and abroad: to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage, in 2005 China’s State Council designated the day Zheng began his first voyage as a new national holiday: July 11th is now “Navigation Day.” China Central Television celebrated the first Navigation Day with an eight-episode documentary, and China’s post office issued a special commemorative stamp. Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui explains the contemporary significance of Zheng He’s voyages by stressing how they “promoted the peaceful co-existence of various civilizations, demonstrating China’s cultural tradition of friendship in international relations.”4


Southeast Asian countries actually remember Zheng He’s voyages quite differently. These trips, which typically included over 300 ships and 27,000 sailors, were seen as means of reestablishing and then maintaining China’s tributary empire. Rather than friendship diplomacy, the voyages were an exercise of hard power that employed shock and awe tactics for gunboat diplomacy.5 China’s expansionist policies reemerged in the Qing dynasty, which doubled imperial territory through conquest; while China complains about Western and Japanese imperialist crimes in the Century of National Humiliation, in the last decades of the nineteenth century Beijing invaded, occupied and exploited Korea in ways that should be described as national humiliations.6

But using counter-evidence to “falsify” this interpretation of China’s modern history would miss the point. Although textbooks use “undeniable evidence” to empirically prove foreign crimes, national humiliation is better understood as a moral discourse that figures China as a magnanimous civilization that was uniquely threatened by immoral barbarians. While Chinese history – like most countries’ histories – has involved much violent expansion and contraction, Chinese civilization is presented as “inherently peaceful.” China thus sees itself as an innocent victim of immoral international bullying in part because official history tells people that China has never invaded any country – and never will.

As we saw in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, Beijing’s idealized view of imperial China is constantly repeated as a way of explaining how China’s peaceful rise is not a threat, but an opportunity for all to prosper in a harmonious world. These twin themes of victimization and civilization have been quite successful in shaping China’s image at home and abroad: American military analysts not only recognize the allure of this soft power strategy, but even uncritically repeat China’s idealized history.7

China’s concept of civilization differs from the inter-civilizational discourse that frames both the UN’s “dialogue of civilizations” and Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” In China discussion of civilization always includes a discussion of “barbarism.” This is not just a debate about ancient history: many Chinese writers now are employing the “Civilization/barbarism distinction” as a model for domestic politics and international affairs8. It is common for Chinese authors to refer to outsiders – either historical neighbors or modern Westerners – as “barbarians.”

These discussions of civilization and barbarism show how Chinese politics is understood in terms of cultural and moral categories. Here civilization is more than the Confucian aphorisms and Tang dynasty costumes that we saw in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Rather than a set of “artifacts,” civilization is better understood as a discourse that takes shape in relation to its opposite: barbarism. Whenever we declare something civilized, we are simultaneously declaring something else barbaric. Here I am building on the analysis of China’s civilization/barbarism relation that I developed in Contingent States: Greater China and Transnational Relations.9 It is important to highlight how civilization discourse involves drawing distinctions that are not only cultural, but also political and moral. As a structure of feeling, the Civilization/barbarism distinction governs how other important political distinctions are made: inside/outside, domestic/foreign, China/West and pride/humiliation.10

Domestic politics thus are tied to foreign relations through this distinction: a positive, civilized inside takes shape only when it is distinguished from a negative barbaric outside. Civilization can engage with barbarism in one of two ways: conquest or conversion11. The title of the first chapter of Jiang Tingfu’s popular Modern History of China (2005), says it all: “Exterminate the Barbarians or Assimilate the Barbarians.”12 While the idealized view of Chinese civilization stresses how barbarians were transformed into civilized Chinese through assimilation, it is also necessary to remember that “exterminate the barbarians” was the other option. Either way, different peoples were not allowed to coexist with Chinese civilization on their own terms. The analytical task, then, is not to search for the core of Chinese civilization, but to trace how power is produced when such inside/outside distinctions are made in sovereignty performances. Indeed, one of the current objectives of this strategy is to limit identity politics to stereotypes of “China” vs. “the West.”

While the difference between civilization and barbarism seems obvious, historian Arthur Waldron points out that answering the questions “Who is China?” and “Where is China?” has never been easy. Foreign policy elites in imperial China constantly debated where to draw the border between inside and outside as they defined their “civilization” with and against the barbarian:

At root [the debates] were about how culturally exclusive China must be in order to remain Chinese; about the nature and authority of the Chinese ruler; about where – and whether – to draw a line between the [barbarian] steppe and China proper. They were, in other words, arguments in which fundamentally different images of the polity collided. ... [I]n fact the problem facing successive dynasties has not been conquering “China,” or recovering it, or even ruling it. The first problem has always been defining it, and that is as true today as it ever was.13

Because these borders of identity and territory are contingent, the “Civilization/ barbarism distinction” [Huayi zhi bian] developed to be a central concept of imperial governance across China’s many kingdoms and dynasties.14 Imperial philosophers, historians and officials continually employed this inside/outside distinction to draw (and redraw) China’s cultural, political and territorial boundaries. The ultimate goal of the Civilization/barbarian distinction was to support and promote China’s “Great Unity” [da yitong], another key imperial governance concept that still resonates today.

As the phrase suggests, Civilization/barbarian relations involve a moral hierarchy that divides the Chinese self from the barbaric Other, with “China being internal, large, and high and barbarians being external, small and low.”15 Imperial China thus employed a “very clear ideology of Civilization/barbarism, honor/dishonor, noble/ignoble” to define political space.16 Barbarians here not only lack culture – they lack humanity: “the Di and Rong are wolves.”17 Although there is now debate about whether we should translate ancient terms like “Yi” as “foreigner” rather than “barbarian,”18 this argument misses the point that in such a hierarchical world order foreigners are by definition barbarians.

Since the division between Civilization and barbarism was contingent, political power in China has always involved making clear distinctions between these unstable concepts. While the idealized view of Chinese civilization stresses how Han Chinese embraced their neighbors, classical Chinese texts are also full of passages that stress violent conflict: “honor the king by expelling the barbarians” [zunwang rangyi] was a popular classical idiom. A passage from the Spring and Autumn Annals (656 BC) elaborates how leadership in China is measured in this negative way: “The Yi and Di barbarians repeatedly harm China, and when the Yi in the South cooperate with the Di in the North, then China is left hanging by a thread. Duke Huan expelled Yi and Di … and thus saved China. These are the actions of a King.”19

The notion that the task of leaders is to save China by expelling barbarians is popular throughout Chinese history. “Expel the Northern Barbarians and Restore China” was a prominent Han slogan protesting Mongolian rule during the Yuan dynasty, and “Expel the Tartar Enemy and Restore China” was the revolutionary slogan of Sun Yatsen’s anti-Manchu nationalism.20 A military banner used during the Boxer Uprising (1900) shows how the classical notion of “barbarian” was extended to include Europeans and Americans: “Support the Qing, Exterminate the Westerners.”21

My argument is that the Civilization/barbarism distinction continues to be the structure of feeling that frames Chinese understandings of identity and security. In classical Chinese texts, “humiliation” is commonly deployed for building and guarding social boundaries: male/female, proper/improper, inside/outside.22 Whereas before the twentieth century humiliation marked the boundary between civilization and barbarism, it is not surprising that the modern discourse is involved in building and guarding national identity through national pride/humiliation. This book explores how current Chinese texts employ a similar pessoptimistic logic in order to assert the unity of the Chinese nation: “Never Forget National Humiliation, Rejuvenate China” thus resonates with “Expel the Barbarian, Save China” as the latest form of China’s “ideology of Civilization/barbarism, honor/dishonor, noble/ignoble.”23

Other contemporary examples of the parallel between Civilization/barbarism and national pride/humiliation are not hard to find. In the early 1990s, Deng Xiaoping told party members that they needed to “seize with two hands” to develop both the material civilization of economic prosperity and the spiritual civilization of political loyalty to the party-state against foreign barbaric forces. In the late 1990s Jiang Zemin’s spiritual civilization campaign produced ethical guides for teenagers such as Civilization and Barbarism, and Honor and Shame. As part of his harmonious society policy, Hu Jintao has promoted the “Eight Honors and Eight Shames” campaign since 2006. This campaign relies on moral distinctions to separate a positive inside from a negative outside for both national identity and foreign policy; the first honor/shame pair is “the highest honor is loving the motherland, worst shame is harming the motherland.”24

In a more negative light, political leaders and anonymous netizens both continue to employ the concept of Chinese civilization to see outsiders not only as barbarians, but as fierce animals in ways that echo the classical judgment: “The Di and Rong are wolves.” During the Tibetan unrest of 2008, the head of the CCP in Tibet called the Dalai Lama a “wolf with a human face and the heart of a beast;” when the value of China’s sovereign wealth fund plummeted in 2007 as an American IPO tanked, a prominent blogger warned China’s leaders “not be fooled by these sweet-talking wolves dressed in human skin.”25

Although it appeals to history and culture, my analysis is not culturalist in the sense of positing an essential, exotic and unique Chinese way that is totally different from the West. Actually, in their heyday European empires employed similar Civilization/barbarism distinctions to govern both the colonies and the homeland: the French had their mission civilatrice and the British the “White Man’s Burden.” European pundits commonly use the language of civilization and barbarism to frame their love/hate relationship with America, as they have since the sixteenth century. During the Cold War and again in the “war on terror,” the US has looked to this distinction to order international relations. Political theorist Walter Benjamin thus presciently concluded that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”26

Hence the rise of pessoptimism in China is important not because China is exotic or unique, but because it is big – and getting bigger all the time economically, politically and culturally. Because China is important to people around the world, it behooves us to critically understand how Chinese people see their country’s recent rise to prominence, as well as its current economic problems. The PRC demands scrutiny because its policies and perspectives now have an impact far beyond China’s shores.

This brings us back to recent analyses that understand Chinese identity as either a top-down state nationalism or a bottom-up grassroots nationalism. On the one hand, the discussion of the “Civilization/barbarism distinction” shows how this form of identity politics precedes the Chinese state, and thus is more than simply a campaign of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. On the other hand, this cultural nationalism could be a continuation of previous policies since the imperial state was strong in pre-modern China, and it actively engaged in cultural governance to civilize its subjects. But Chinese nationalism is more than a simple extension of either Chinese tradition or the top-down civilizing policies of imperial dynasties. I think that pessoptimism flourishes in China because it grows out of a dynamic of reciprocal influence that integrates official policy and popular culture.

China’s identity politics is neither the party-state instrumentally brainwashing the populace, nor the spontaneous actions of an authentic grassroots community. While it is popular to see the state as the actor and the masses as the audience, here the actor is the audience, and the audience is the actor,27 as Chinese nationalism is produced and consumed in an interactive and intersubjective process. The party-state’s campaigns are so successful because they draw on ideas that preceded the state – civilization and barbarism, national pride and national humiliation – that resonate with popular feelings. Although national humiliation discourse was produced by the party-state after 1989, it actually gained popularity in the early twentieth century in the nonstate arenas of teachers’ organizations and the popular press. The theme of national humiliation thus was taken up by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920s and the PRC in the 1990s as a response to address popular criticism.

Leaders are successful in China because they become spokespeople for an ideology in ways that should be familiar: as Daniel Bertrand Monk argues, George W. Bush didn’t create the religious right, but mobilized them by representing their values. The legitimacy of the Chinese party-state relies on much more than the negative power of censorship and control; rather than see the PRC as a police state, it is better to understand China as a mobilization state that both encourages and feeds off of the positive productive power of popular feelings and mass action.28

Pessoptimist nationalism is thus continually produced and consumed in a circular process that knits together urban elites and rural peasants, northerners and southerners, government officials and the new middle class. In this way the party-state gains legitimacy not only through economic prosperity but through a form of nationalism that unites these diverse groups as “Chinese” – and often against “the West.” State policy thus both feeds into and grows out of the pessoptimist feelings of ordinary Chinese. Patriotic education and popular opinion are intertwined, just as pride and humiliation are interwoven. China’s domestic politics are inseparable from its foreign relations in a way that intimately binds together national security with nationalist insecurities.


  1. See Zhao, The Tianxia System; Chen Liankai, “Zhongguo, huayi, fanhan, zhonghua, zhonghua minzu: Yige neizai lianxi fazhan bei renshi de guocheng [One method for recognizing the developmental relations between the terms Zhongguo, Huayi, Fanhan, Zhonghua, Zhonghua minzu], in Zhonghua minzu de duoyuan yiti geju [The pluralistic unity structure of Chinese nationalism], edited by Fei Xiaotong, (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu xueyuan chubanshe, 1989), 72-113; Ma Rong, “Lijie minzu guanxi de xinselu: xiaoshu zuqun wenti de ‘qu zhengzhihua’” [New perspectives on nationalities relations: the “depoliticization” of the ethnic minority question], Beijing daxue xuebao 41:6 (Nov. 2004): 122-33; David C. Kang, China Rising: Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
  2. Li Shaojun, Guoji zhengzhixue gailun [An Introduction to International Politics], (Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe, 2002), 526-34; Yan Xuetong “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes,” Journal of Contemporary China 10:26 (2001): 33-40; Zhang Tiejun, “Chinese Strategic Culture: Traditional and Present Features,” Comparative Strategy 21:2 (2002): 73-80; Liu Zhiguang, Dongfang heping zhuyi: yuanqi, liubian ji zouxiang [Oriental Pacificism: Its Origins, Development and Future], (Changsha, Hunan: Hunan chubanshe, 1992).
  3. Zheng Bijian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to Great-Power Status,” Foreign Affairs, (Sept/Oct 2005), 22.
  4. “Anniversary highlights China’s peaceful growth,” China Daily, 12 July 2005; also see Sheldon H. Lu, Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual Culture, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 191.
  5. See Geoffrey Wade, “The Zheng He Voyages,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society of Asiatic Studies 78:1 (2005): 37-58 on 44-51.
  6. See Kirk W. Larsen, Tradition, Treaties, and Trade: Qing Imperialism and Choson Korea, 1850-1910, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1-22.
  7. See James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “Soft Power Goes to Sea,” The American Interest (March-April 2008): 69-70.
  8. See Zhao, The Tianxia System; Ma, “New Perspectives on Nationalities Relations.”
  9. William A. Callahan, Contingent States: Greater China and Transnational Relations, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 25-55.
  10. See, for example, Emma Jinhua Teng, Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 11-13; Li Dalong, “Chuantong Yi-Xia guanyu Zhongguo jiangyu de xingcheng” [The Traditional Barbarian-Civilization View and the Formation of China’s Territory], Zhongguo bianjiang shidi yanjiu 14:1 (2004): 5, 11-12.
  11. See William Connolly, Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 36-63; R.B.J. Walker, Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, (New York: Harper Collins, 1984).
  12. Jiang Tingfu, Zhongguo jindai shi [Modern History of China], (Beijing: Tuanjie chubanshe, 2005), 1.
  13. Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 190.
  14. See Chen, “One Method”; Lien-sheng Yang, “Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order,” in The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, edited by John King Fairbank, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 20-33; Li, “The Traditional Barbarian-Civilization View and the Formation of China’s Territory.”
  15. Yang, “Historical Notes,” 20.
  16. Chen, “One Method,” 82.
  17. Zuozhuan cited in Yang, “Historical Notes,” 25.
  18. See, for example, Lydia H. Liu, The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  19. Cited in Chen, “One Method,” 80.
  20. Cited in Leibold, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism, 30.
  21. Fu Qing Mie Yang. A picture of a Boxer holding this banner was part of “The Rise of Modern China: A Century of Self-Determination” exhibit, Hong Kong Museum of History, October 1999.
  22. Jane Geaney, “Shame and Sensory Excess in Chinese Thought,” presented at the Eighth East-West Philosophers’ Conference, (January 2000), Honolulu.
  23. Chen, “One Method,” 82.
  24. See “A Significant and Urgent Strategic Task – First Commentary for Establishing Socialist View of Honor and Shame,” Renmin Ribao, 21 March 2006, trans. in FBIS 200603211477.1_6835016a6683d71f.
  25. Cited in Keith Bradsher, “Feeling the Heat, Not Breathing Fire,” New York Times, 3 August 2007.
  26. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 256-57.
  27. See Daniel Bertrand Monk, An Aesthetic Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict, (Durham, NC: Duke Press, 2002).
  28. See Elizabeth J. Perry, “Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Popular Protest in Modern China,” Critical Asian Studies 33:2 (2001), 175, 178; Carma Hinton, Geremie R. Barmé, and Richard Gordon, producers and directors, Morning Sun [Bajiudian zhong de taiyang], (Brookline, MA: Longbow Group, 2005).
There are currently 10 Comments for William A. Callahan's China: The Pessoptimist Nation.

Comments on William A. Callahan's China: The Pessoptimist Nation

Nice try! How about the Oversea Chinese who has been out of China for few hundred years...

Interesting, my family have not been away that long but am I Chinese or not?

Mainland Chinese responses seem to fall into a spectrum:
a)you are only Chinese if you were born and grew up in China and keep Chinese citizenship. Hence those in "Founding of the Republic" who switched to foreign citizenship are no longer Chinese.
b)you are if you were born and grew up in China e.g. Chinese born and bred in China living and working overseas with foreign citizenship. I met someone who defined herself as "real Chinese" because she was born and bred in the mainland although she is currently an American citizen as opposed to "fake Chinese" like those born overseas
c)you are if you are of Chinese blood and behave like a Chinese(speak Chinese, subscribe to Chinese worldview), patriotic etc.
d)you are Chinese as long as you have Chinese blood even if you were born abroad like me.

Also, who's more Chinese, a patriotic Han Chinese with foreign citizenship or a Tibetan/Uighur separatist in China?

Shan't say more except that this man knows some secret history of East Asia that many of us just don't get.
All Chinese are brainwashed and don't know about it. ``In the last decades of the 19th century invaded Korea....''
Stopped reading here.

momo: The argument Kirk W. Larsen makes in the text cited in the footnote is summarized here:

Furthermore, in the late 19th century, China certainly was the victim of Western imperialism, and this is what the Chinese remember: their country being carved up into spheres of influence. Nevertheless, stated Larsen, what the Qing Empire did to Korea in the 1880s and 1890s “looks like imperialism to me.”

Larsen noted that Li Hongzhang was the architect of China’s Korea policy. It was centered on aggressive activity, but not the annexation of territory. Thus, it was an informal empire. The Qing, observed Larsen, like the West, were masters of international law, and concluded their own treaty with Korea, which was unequal. The Qing was also mercantilist—Chinese merchants entered Korea by the thousands. Like Westerners, China used technology to advance its interests: the telegraph, railroad, and Maxim gun were all used to project Chinese power into Korea. Larsen concluded that all this matters because it significantly alters our view of the Qing dynasty. On the one hand, it was a victim of imperialism. But on the other, it was a practitioner of imperialism.

Momo, the author specifically said that it is simplistic to say that Chinese are brainwashed. And the First Sino-Japanese War was, essentially, a war between China and Japan over the control of Korea. Much of it was fought in Korea. This is well documented.

If histories are written by winners, let me ask you this. How would history have been written had the Chinese won? Today, Japan gets blame for successfully occupying Korea. If China had won the war, would we today be blaming China?


You have, therefore, missed the writer's point. The "humiliation" of China by "barbarians" is an old idea that is well-accepted by the population. The defeat of China at the hands of Japan is portrayed as a "humiliation", but the fact that the war was a struggle between TWO imperialist powers, one of which was China, is overlooked.

Foreign policymakers should understand better the way the CCP uses the old theme of humiliation as well as the cultural basis for this theme so that they don't structure their policies around an illusory, impending change in opinion on the part of the Chinese masses.

I was just being sarky about the all-Chinese-are-brainwashed bit. Thanks.

This looks like a fantastic bit of analysis and doesn't fall into most of the traps of taking "Chinese", "history" and "nationality" as objective givens.

Suppose I'll have to read it to see if it gets close to being a continuation of what Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm did on the question of "nationality" as a construct.

It looks like he's starting some valid points but when he talks about things that have always been, for example the civilised/barbarian distinction, I wonder if he reminds himself that when researching the past we only hear from the literati who were a tiny minority!

This is not bad reading, so far.

I have finally read through the whole article. The good professor that the narrative of humiliation is a leitmotif of China, from civilization-state (Martin Jacques) to nation-state.
The civilization-state (in Chinese mind) covered Korea and Japan. For instance, when Toyotomi invaded Korea, the Ming Emperor offered to settle the quarrel by making the shogun Emperor (according to Cotterell).
This view persisted even after Meiji Japan forced open Korea; like other countries, China had to ink a treaty. But the pact was like signing formal adoption papers.
China’s actions to modernize Korea were thus consonant with strengthening the Qing.
Taihan, the sino-Japanese war was a struggle between a civilisation-state to maintain the status quo and a rising nation-state breaking away to go down the modern imperialist path.
I venture to say that, to suppress any ambivalence about its old cultural indebtedness, Japan resorted to such extremism.
The notions of civilization-state and nation-state will overlap and shape the Chinese outlook.
The Chinese view of its own ``imperialism'' was the struggle for survival; the Western form was expansionary and rapacious.
This belief, imo, is the basis of China's modern relations with Africa: to bring the benefits of its civilisation (railroads,bridges, etc), buy their resources, and acculturate to the Chinese view.

Thanks for all your comments!

The book does, indeed, develop some of the arguments that Ben Anderson offered in ‘Imagined Communities’. But rather than focus on nationalism, which is characteristically limited to the territorial nation-state, I look to the broader idea of ‘identity’, which better describes national, local and transnational communities. Thus when I ask questions like ‘Who is China?’ or ‘Where is China?’, I can see how different groups of people – who are inside and outside of the PRC, and include Han and non-Han – understand their country and its role in the world.

Although Taihan withdrew his/her criticism that I was saying that ‘all-Chinese-are-brainwashed’, I have to say that I’ve gotten this reaction before. My point is that we need to get beyond the view that the PRC is a totalitarian state that can brainwash its people.

This raises a new set of questions, however. If various groups of Chinese people genuinely hold hypernationalist, xenophobic, etc. views, then don't we need to start having a critical analysis of these trends?

Right now a nuanced analysis is missing because most commentators employ a Bad State/Good People framework to understand Chinese politics: the focus of critical inquiry here is the party-state, while we celebrate the expression of popular opinion that is seen as ‘good’ primarily because it is separate from the state.

If brainwashing isn’t a major issue, and popular views are not by definition ‘good’, then perhaps it’s time to criticize rightwing hypernationalist views in China, the same as we criticize them in, say, the US.

Lastly, my book is a bit different from Martin Jacques’s ‘When China Rules the World’. Martin argues that China has a coherent political culture that is completely different from the west.

On the other hand, I think that we need to question such totalistic understandings of China. The goal of ‘China: The Pessoptimist Nation’ is to see how culture (and power) is constantly changing, mutating into new forms everyday. The current struggle in the PRC between two films – Avatar and Confucius – is a good example of how people are constantly reinterpreting what it means to be Chinese, and their relation with the world.

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