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Chinese nationalism

Chinese nationalism refers to cultural, historiographical, and political theories, movements and beliefs that assert the idea of a cohesive, unified Chinese people and culture under state(s) that are primarily Chinese. One difficulty in this definition is the wide variation and ambiguities in the definition of the term Chinese.

Chinese nationalism has drawn from extremely diverse ideological sources including traditional Chinese thinking, American progressivism, Marxism, and Russian ethnological thought. The ideology also presents itself in many different and often conflicting manifestations. These manifestations have included the three peoples principles, Chinese communism[?], the anti-government views of students in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Fascist blueshirts, and Japanese collaborationism under Wang Jingwei.

Although Chinese nationalists have agreed on the desirability of a centralized Chinese state, almost every other question has been the subject of intense and sometime bitter debate. Among the questions on which Chinese nationalists have disagreed is what policies would lead to a strong China, what is the structure of the state that is the goal, what should the be relationship between China and foreign powers, and what should be the relationships between the majority Han Chinese, minority groups, and overseas Chinese.

The vast variation in how Chinese nationalism has been expressed has been noted by many commentators including Lucian Pye[?] who argues that this reveals a lack of content in the Chinese identity. However, others have argued that the ability of Chinese nationalism to manifest itself in many forms is a positive trait in that it allows the ideology to transform itself in response to internal crises and external events.

Although the variations among conceptions of Chinese nationalism are great, Chinese nationalist groups maintain some similarities. Chinese nationalistic ideologies all regard Sun Yat-Sen very highly, and tend to claim to be ideological heirs of the three peoples principles. In addition, Chinese nationalistic ideologies tend to regard both democracy and science as positive forces, although they often have radically different notions of what democracy means.

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History of Chinese Nationalism

Although there has been a self-consciously Chinese state for several thousand years until the early 18th century, the Chinese concept of the world was largely a division between the civilized world and the barbarian world and there was little concept of China as a single nation-state among many.

This situation changed in the 19th century when contact with the West and internal crises created a self-concept of a Chinese state and the belief that Chinese interests were served by a powerful Chinese state. The conception of a modern "nation state" is fundamentally different from a traditional empire, although some have controversially argued that dynamics of the People's Republic share an essential similarity with the Ming and Qing Empires.

Chinese nationalism and ethnicity

Since the mid-1860s, Chinese nationalistic thought has asserted that the bulk of the population whose languages belong to the Sinitic linguistic family, despite their differences in terms of geography, customs and social organizations, should view themselves as a monolithic "Han" nationality. In the late 19th century, Chinese nationalism identified Han with Chinese and argued for the overthrow of the Manchus who were considered outside the realm of the Chinese nation.

After the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-Sen, the official definition of "Chinese" was expanded to include non-Han ethnicities, although many historians argue that this was due mainly to the realization that a narrow definition of "Chinese" would result in a loss of Chinese territory.

The official Chinese nationalistic view in the 1920s and 1930s was heavily influenced by modernism and social darwinism, and included advocacy of the cultural assimilation of ethnic groups dominated by the Han state into the "culturally advanced" Han state, to become in name as well as in fact members of the "Zhonghua Nationality".

Over the next decades Chinese nationalism was influenced strongly by Russian ethnographic thinking, and the official ideology of the PRC asserts that Han Chinese are one of many ethnic groups, each of whose culture and language should be respected. However, many critics argue that despite this official view, assimilationist attitudes remain deeply entrenched, and popular views and actual power relationships create a situation in which Chinese nationalism has in practice meant Han dominance of minority areas and peoples and assimilation of those groups.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese nationalism within Mainland China became mixed with the rhetoric of Marxism, and nationalistic rhetoric become in large part subsumed into internationalist rhetoric.

In the 1990s, rising economic standards, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the lack of any other legitimizing ideology has led to what most observers see as a resurgence of nationalism within China.

Chinese nationalism and overseas Chinese

Chinese nationalism has had mutable relationships with Chinese living outside of Mainland China and Taiwan. Overseas Chinese were strong supporters of the 1911 revolution.

After decolonalization[?], overseas Chinese were encouraged to regard themselves as citizens of their own nations rather than as part of a Chinese nationalistic project. As a result ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia have sharply divided the concept of "ethnic Chinese" from the concept of "political Chinese" and have explicitly rejected being part of the Chinese nationalist project.

During the 1960s the PRC and ROC maintained different attitudes toward overseas Chinese. In the eyes of the PRC government overseas Chinese were considered capitalist agents, and maintaining good relations with southeast Asian governments was more important than maintaining the support of overseas Chinese. By contrast, the ROC desired good relations with overseas Chinese as part of an overall strategy to avoid diplomatic isolation and maintain its claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.

With the reforms under Deng Xiaoping the attitude of the PRC toward overseas Chinese became much more favorable, and overseas Chinese were seen as a source of capital and expertise. In the 1990s, the PRC's efforts toward overseas Chinese became mostly focused on maintaining the loyalty of "newly departed overseas Chinese", which consisted of mostly graduate students having emigrated, mostly to the United States.

Chinese nationalism and Taiwan

One common goal of current Chinese nationalists is Chinese reunification of Mainland China and Taiwan. While this was the common stated goal of both the PRC and the ROC before 1991, both sides differed sharply on the form of the unification.

After 1991, the ROC unofficially moved away from supporting eventual unification to a much more ambiguous position. One reason for the ambiguity is the stated threat that the PRC will take military action if a "Republic of Taiwan" is declared. Another reason is that Taiwan itself remains split between supporters of Chinese nationalism, who support Chinese reunification, and supporters of Taiwan independence, who reject political reunification as an ultimate goal and believe Taiwan is and should be an independent republic out of the current Republic of China.

Much of the dispute both on Taiwan and between the ROC and the PRC has been muted because there is a consensus on all sides to at least temporarily support the status quo, that is, to continue the current situation. This consensus is based in large part on not defining what, exactly, the status quo is.

Counter-nationalism and opposition

In addition to the Taiwan independence movement, there are a number of ideologies which exist in opposition to Chinese nationalism.

Edward Friedman[?] has controversially argued that there is a northern governmental, political, bureaucratic Chinese nationalism that is at odds with a southern, commercial Chinese nationalism. This division is rejected by most Chinese and many non-Chinese scholars, who believe that Friedman has overstated the differences between the north and the south, and point out that the divisions within Chinese society do not fall neatly in north-south divisions.

Opponents of Chinese nationalism attack it on various grounds. Some have asserted that Chinese nationalism is inherently backward and dictatorial and incompatible with a modern state. Others have asserted that Chinese nationalism is fundamentally an imperialist and/or racist ideology which in practice has led to oppression of minority groups such as Tibetans and Uighurs.

See also: May Fourth Movement, Hui pan-nationalism, Han chauvinism



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