China’s Nationalist Narrative

China’s Nationalist Narrative

China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics and Diplomacy by Peter Hays Gries

China’s New Nationalism
Pride, Politics and Diplomacy
by Peter Hays Gries
University of California Press, 2004 215 pp
$40 cloth $19.95 paper

The vengeful nationalism that pervades China under Communist Party rule is explored in Peter Gries’s study, China’s New Nationalism. The discourse of this nationalism identifies the forces threatening China’s return to glory and describes what must be done to defeat that threat and restore the nation’s dignity.

Having learned back in the Mao era that a century of humiliations by imperialists lost China its central place in Asia and the world, Chinese are now learning to demand that their government act to reclaim its rightful place—against Japan, which, above all, is considered an unrepentant militaristic nation. Chinese “know” that ever since an incursion into Taiwan in the 1870s, a cruel Japan has been trying to rise in Asia at the expense of China. In 1894–1895, China lost a war to this murderous Japan. In 1919, at the Versailles Peace Conference, Japan obtained German holdings in China, sparking a nationwide, patriotic May 4 anti-imperialist movement that gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the start of the 1930s, this expansionist Japan savagely bombed Shanghai. Patriotic Chinese responded by boycotting Japanese goods.

A long history reveals the immoral, anti-China actions of an inhuman Japanese nation. How, given this hateful adversary, dare one call for moderation in stopping it? In 2004, the CCP silenced Chinese who sought reconciliation with Japan.

Actually, there is no truth in the anti-Japan narrative just sketched. None. Nationalism is a very late development. China, in the nineteenth century, was ruled by the Manchus, who did not put much value on a distant Taiwan full of cannibals, whose troublesome Austronesian first settlers autonomously ruled much of the rugged island. The 1894–1895 war was not seen by Sun Yat-sen, leader of the major Han Chinese movement to overthrow the Manchu empire, as a struggle between us (China) and them (Japan). Instead, it was a fight between a progressive Meiji empire in Japan and a reactionary Manchu empire that had conquered Ming dynasty China in the seventeenth century, massacring Sinicized resisters. Identifying with the defeated Ming, Sun supported the dynamic Meiji and celebrated the defeat of the decadent Manchus, imagined as slaughterers of the Han.

Sun, of course, was anti-imperialist. But the major power threatening Chinese territory was Britain, not Japan. Sun saw Japan as a Pan-Asian ally of yellow races ridding Asia of invading whites. That is also how Japan’s defeat of Russia was celebrated in 1905, all the way to Muslim West Asia. The first nationwide anti-imperialist movement was not the May 4 movement of 1919. It was the May 30 movement of 1925, which targeted Britain. The political party leading the stru...