15 February, 2010Issue 11.3Asia & Australia

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China’s Identity Crisis

Matt Wills

foerWilliam A. Callahan
China: The Pessoptimist Nation
Oxford University Press, 2009
248 Pages
ISBN 978-0199549955

As portmanteaus go, “pessoptimist” is a simple one. In China: The Pessoptimist Nation, William A. Callahan’s latest analysis of modern China, the University of Manchester professor uses this amalgamation of pessimism and optimism to underscore “how Chinese identity emerges through the interplay of positive and negative feelings.” In charting these contemporary cultural trends, the book’s strength lies in its nuanced exploration of China’s continuing struggle to reconcile its “Century of National Humiliation” ethic with its desire to assume a place of greater prominence in the modern world.

The period in Chinese history from 1839 (the start of the First Opium War) to 1949 (the foundation of the People’s Republic of China) is commonly referred to in Chinese historical discourse as the “Century of National Humiliation”. During this time, China suffered severely at the hands of the imperial powers, with Britain, America, France, and Russia all occupying significant parts of its territory at different points. This 110-year period also saw China’s shock defeat by the Imperial Japanese Army in the First Sino-Japanese war (1894-95). This marked the start of major Japanese territorial expansion into parts of China’s traditional Asian empire, culminating in Japan’s full-scale invasion in the 1930s, which pushed as far as Nanking, the former capital of the Republic of China.

Official narratives portray these events as incursions into China’s sovereign territory and examples of unacceptable imperial aggression toward a peaceful China. And indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rightfully continues to trumpet China’s past suffering.

Yet, as Callahan points out, in trying to come to terms with its emerging superpower status, the CCP faces a problem: how to commemorate events in China’s history while simultaneously shaking off the country’s inferiority/victim complex. This is not an easy issue to resolve, of course, but Callahan documents some of the more salient examples of the state’s attempts to do so. The Communist Party’s system of national humiliation days, for example, attempts to contain Chinese nationalist feelings within set parameters, aiming to confine the commemoration of national humiliation to isolated moments in the year rather than allowing pessimistic feelings to grow unchecked amongst the citizenry.

Interestingly, China’s citizens have become increasingly adept at finding ways of expressing the national humiliation ethic outside of official channels. By interweaving nationalist symbols into everyday life, they undermine the CCP’s restrictive and controlled approach to national humiliation commemoration. Pessoptimist Nation’s dust jacket illustrates this phenomenon, displaying extracts from a set of playing cards with pictures of the ruins of Beijing’s Garden of Perfect Brilliance (also known as the Yuanmingyuan Park). Built as a network of grand imperial palaces for Qing dynasty emperors, much of the garden complex was burnt to the ground by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. Seen as the site of one of China’s greatest humiliations, the area is today, in Callahan’s words, a “national humiliation icon”, where the Chinese can walk amongst the ruins and visually relive the “Century of National Humiliation”. By putting these images of national humiliation on such common items as playing cards, the market has stepped outside the purview of the CCP to promote nationalist and patriotic feelings in a new and unofficial way.

Beyond issues of malingering cultural mores, Callahan treats another pressing subject: China’s attempt to change its world image through the use of soft power techniques. The nature of these techniques is aptly summarized by a young Beijing woman, mentioned in the first chapter, speaking on the subject of the Olympic Games: “For a lot of foreigners, the only image of China comes from old movies that make us look poor and pathetic…The Olympics will redefine the way people see us.” Beneath the subtext of sport, Beijing 2008 marked for the CCP the point of China’s full re-entry into the world community as a major power.

Accordingly, the government was heavily involved in the proceedings, with Zhang Yimou (the ceremony’s director) working within a set of strict political guidelines regarding the ceremony’s messages and themes. The long visual narration of China’s 5,000-year history, the perfectly synchronised drummers, and the controversial miming of “Ode to the Motherland” by a young girl (Lin Miaoke) all aimed to convey the integrity and subtle superiority of 21st-century China. The symbolic importance that the CCP placed on the world-televised opening ceremony was reflected in the regular attendance of Central Committee politicians at rehearsals, the hours of rehearsing by performers each day, and the incessant litany of changes made to the proceedings right down to the wire (Callahan cites the interesting example of the 2008 synchronised drummers suddenly being told to smile in the very final rehearsal to “take the edge off”).

Although the controversy over Lin Miaoke’s miming exposed the political nature of the Olympics, “Beijing 2008” was decisively a Chinese success story. The world has not forgotten China’s rocky human rights record, but the Olympic Games showed a China celebrating its history rather than mourning it. These apparent shifts in Chinese identity are encouraging signs for the international community. But even so, Callahan wants us to remember that the CCP still largely controls the attitudes on display. To understand the nature of Chinese identity today, Callahan emphasises the “need to get out of Beijing more, to explore what the rest of China is thinking and feeling”. Perhaps only then can we really begin to understand the Dragon.

Matthew Wills is reading for a BA in History at Trinity College, Oxford. He is a managing editor of the Oxonian Review.