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100 Years of Humiliation, One Shining Moment

100 Years of Humiliation.” It’s a phrase so common I think most people have unfortunately stopped listening.   An essay by author Lijia Zhang in The Guardian quotes 67-year old Beijing resident Xie Fengzhi: “I want foreigners to see what China has achieved. We were called the ‘sick man of Asia’. Now we are strong and rich enough to hold such a major international event.”  The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Mr. Li, also of Beijing: “The history of the last 100 years has been a history of humiliation for the Chinese. Finally we are standing up, so this is a big moment for all Chinese.”

Indeed it is. Though the CCP would probably like to amend part of Mr. Li’s statement because — officially at least — the 100 years of humiliation ended in 1949 with the founding of the PRC.  The violence and avarice of foreign imperialist powers in China gets full play in the educational system and in popular culture.  The dark periods of the post-liberation era…not so much.  After all, the CCP’s legacy as ‘liberators’ of China from the yoke of feudalism and imperialism is an integral part of the Party’s legitimizing ideology down to the present day, a legacy which has enabled the Party to survive despite the enormous suffering wrought during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

China’s educational and information environment emphasizes China’s humiliation at the hands of the foreign powers.  The standard line is that the ‘decline’ of the Qing Empire was the direct result of foreign aggression and the exploitation of the people by the forces of feudalism in league with the imperialist powers.  China’s subsequent ‘weakness’ in the world is thus not the fault of the Chinese people, who until recently lacked the suitable revolutionary leadership to organize and mobilize the masses in throwing off their oppressors and standing up to the world.

It hardly needs restating, but this memory of impotence and suffering at the hands of foreign aggression remains a powerful force.  It is part of the reason for the bitter reaction in China to foreign criticism and international condemnation of Chinese government policies.

In the PRC — to an extent perhaps greater than in many other places — history and politics are nearly inseparable.  Problems during the Great Leap Forward? Blame it on lingering feudal elements, bad weather, and subterfuge by China’s historical enemies.  Problems in the Western Provinces? Blame it on meddlesome former colonizers and their traitorous lackeys seeking a way in through the backdoor.

But when history is used for the Party’s gain, it loses the nuance and complexity which make history so fascinating.  Like much in China’s educational system, there is little room for counter-narratives, alternative perspectives, or theoretical complexity.  My own research focuses on the destructiveness of colonialism in certain cities along the coastline of the Qing Empire.  It was a a violent process by which whole societies were destabilized over time leading to resentment and, in many cases, armed resistance.  I am hardly an apologist for foreign imperialism, at the same time there is much to the China’s long 19th century that cannot be easily shoehorned into the ‘standard’ narrative.  History is complex.  History is messy.  That’s why it is such a capricious friend to those who seek to enlist it in the service of contemporary politics.

Moreover, what are the unintended consequences when history paints the world in stark Manichean terms of Inner/Outer and Good/Evil?

In Peter Hessler’s first book, Rivertown, there’s a vignette from the time of the Hong Kong handover where the author asks a young student, “Who are China’s enemies?”  The student rattles off a list of names: England for the Opium Wars, Japan for the Nanjing Massacre, Portugal for Macau.  One supposes had the query been a few years later, the student would have likely added the United States for the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.  It’s an unsurprising list, but Hessler than stumps the lad by asking simply: “Who are China’s friends?” For that, the student had no answer.

12 Comments on 100 Years of Humiliation, One Shining Moment

  1. That account by Hessler is telling. Sometimes I get the unpleasant feeling that Chinese nationalists are much more interested in winning respect than friends. I often hear the happy opinion that Western countries, especially the United States, are “concerned” about or “afraid” of China’s rising power. I also hear wistful reminiscing of the days in which foreigners payed tribute to the imperial Chinese government. This yearning to return to some past status of greatness, cast in the modern framework of nationalism, can lead to some startling pronouncements.

  2. Better to be feared, than loved?

  3. DavidofSanGabriel // August 7, 2008 at 12:53 am //

    Who are China’s friends?

    Burma and The Sudan, for starters.

  4. DavidofSanGabriel // August 7, 2008 at 1:40 am //

    And how could I forget North Korea?

  5. your parallel with the old american revolutionary war pluckiness mythology, and how both superpowers love to think of themselves as besieged underdogs, is quite good. a lot of what irritates americans about china are qualities we see there that we tend to dislike in our own national self.

  6. David,

    Right. But would your average Laobaixing think of them as ‘friends’? It’s a brutal list to be sure.

  7. Wu Ming,

    I do a little riff sometimes in class on the surface similarities between the PRC and the USA: Both are revolutionary governments, steeped in exceptionalism, utterly convinced of their superiority. The man-eat-man individualism and rampant consumerism in China’s cities seems to parody the US model of consumption. Our policies put economic development first and the environment second, neither country has any qualms about cozying up to bad regimes as long as the leader is “Our kind of SOB,” Urbanites idealize farming, but rural areas suffer. Both countries suffer an excess of jingoistic yahoos ready to waive a flag and bleat like lobotomized sheep at the slightest perceived ‘insult’ to national dignity, etc., etc.

    I also suspect that this riff may have been inspired by a prof our ours whose initials are DcP.

  8. “The violence and avarice of foreign imperialist powers in China gets full play in the educational system and in popular culture. The dark periods of the post-liberation era…not so much.”

    This needs addressing, otherwise China is nurturing the idea of ‘settling old scores’ in the minds of a billion people. The country’s growing wealth and power make it more likely that they will act on this sense of injustice. For this reason, I feel China will go to war with one of its neighbours in the next decade.

    It’s also the reason I get asked about the Opium Wars and the Summer Palace so often when students learn that I’m British. In all seriousness, I think they expect an apology from me.

    ““Who are China’s friends?” For that, the student had no answer.”

    Interesting, but not surprising. If I show students a picture of Hu Jintao with a foreign leader with whom a deal has been struck or talks have been held, and then ask them if the foreign leader can be trusted, the answer is overwhelmingly in the negative. This is true no matter which country the leader comes from, be it Japan, Russia, or India.

    While peddling the platitudes about our ‘African brothers’ or making big noises about ‘one world, one dream’, the Chinese remain deeply suspicious of other nations. Or perhaps they’re just ingratiating themselves with a view to satisfying their own colonial inclinations in the future.

  9. Stuart,

    I agree nurturing a grudge doesn’t seem like a good recipe for improving long term relations with other countries, on the other hand I have a hard time telling any group to just get over historical grievances. Imperialism was a violent and destructive act that shouldn’t be forgotten and deserves the light to be shone on all of its dark corners. I do wish, however, that the same light might also be allowed to shine on some even darker places in the 20th century. But I see little chance of that happening in the PRC educational system for quite some time.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  10. There’s always an ugly side to nationalism, especially when it’s propelled by governments, whatever ideological colour they’re draped in.

    It’s also undeniable that a sense of humiliation is what has driven the Chinese to develop as rapidly as they have done over the past two decades or so.

    But it should also be noted that nationalism is akin to opening a genie in a bottle, since it’s not always easy to control raw emotions — and in certain instances can go into all sorts of different directions in ways governments could not have intended, and the Chinese regime is no exception in this regard.

    For example, what if the crowd at the US v China basketball match were to boo the former’s national anthem, hurl abuse and decend into general nastiness?

    This kind of thing happened when Japan played China a few years ago in a soccer match, and I recall the Chinese authorities clamped down rather heavily on those who overstepped the line, concerned as they were about the kind of image that would project to the world in the run-up to the Olympics.

  11. The “weak man of Asia” thing is an interesting phenomenon. According to Susan Brownell, no one has ever actually been able to to turn up the original citation for that.

  12. Leah,

    I’m trying to recall if Rebecca E. Karl’s 2002 book Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century discusses that subject, I think it does.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy here, but if you find yourself convenient to a library (and like your history with a heavy dash of theory and jargon) be sure to check it out.

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