Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 5:50 PM
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 Oneby 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
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
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:
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.
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.
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+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!