Culture, "race" and nation: the formation of national identity in twentieth century China.

Author:Dikotter, Frank
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

Nationalism in the post-Tiananmen era is a worrying phenomenon that may be better understood when seen from a historical perspective. Before we examine the formation of national identity in twentieth century China, however, it may be instructive to clarify what is understood by the term nationalism. Nationalism, in its broadest sense, endows the members of a national population, variously referred to as nation, people, nationality or even "race," with an identity which is thought to be unique and distinct from other population groups. A nation, however defined, is thus thought to be a relatively homogeneous entity with shared characteristics which transcend internal divisions of class, status and region. The criteria of membership of the nation, however, can vary enormously, and the very elusive nature of nationalism is perhaps one of its greatest appeals, as it can be adapted to a great variety of different circumstances. Given the multifarious nature of nationalism, it would be futile to try to define it by way of one or another objective factor. As Liah Greenfeld underlines, there are as many different forms of nationalism as there are definitions of what constitutes a nation: territory, language, culture, religion, history or "race," all are possible but not necessary factors in the creation of national identity.(1)

Rather than attempting to find a definition of the nation on the basis of its constitutive elements, the different organizing strategies of nationalism can be more usefully distinguished. The sociologist John Hutchinson has highlighted two types of nationalism.(2) Political nationalism, or civic nationalism, explicitly concerned with the individual rights of equal citizens, is based on a cosmopolitan and rationalist conception of the nation in which educated individuals are united by common laws and mores. Civic nationalism anticipates a common humanity which transcends cultural differences, but in the meantime accepts the division of the world in different political communities. Its objective is the construction of a representative state for the community in order to participate as an equal nation in a developing cosmopolitan civilization based on reason. Cultural nationalism, in contrast, imagines the nation to have a distinctive civilization based on a unique history, culture and territory. Nations, according to cultural nationalists, are not merely rational political units, but organic beings that have been endowed with a unique individuality which should be treasured by all its members: Nature and history, rather than mere consent or law, are the passions which bind the individual to the nation. Cultural nationalism rejects the ideal of universal citizenship rights and insists that the presumed natural divisions between nations and within the nation be respected. As such, cultural nationalists see the nation as an organic entity only in a metaphoric sense.

In addition to these two typologies of nationalism, I would add a third one which can be called racial nationalism. Although racial nationalists also represent the nation as a unique entity endowed by cosmology with a particular history and culture, they portray it above all as a pseudo-biological entity united by ties of blood.(3) In their conflation of race and culture, racial nationalists represent cultural features as secondary to and derivative of an imagined biological specificity. The individual is first ascribed a membership to the community by virtue of a real or imagined congenital endowment, and only secondly on the basis of cultural features: National culture is perceived to be the product of a racial essence. Cultural nationalists seek to integrate and harmonize notions of tradition and modernity in an evolutionary vision of the community. In contrast, the positing of an immutable biological essence, based on a patrilineal line of descent, allows racial nationalists to explicitly reject tradition and culture and embrace a vision of modernity in an iconoclastic attack on the past while preserving a sense of national uniqueness.

These three different organizing strategies of nationalism can overlap considerably and even alternate from one into the other. Since its inception in the late nineteenth century to its more recent manifestations in the post-Tiananmen era, however, cultural and racial nationalism have very much dominated the cultural and political domains in China. This article argues that a discourse of patrilineal descent has emerged as a very powerful and cohesive form of national identity in China which has been capable of transcending the extreme diversity of religious practices, family structures, spoken languages and regional cultures of population groups that all define themselves as "Chinese." "Chineseness," in Taiwan, Singapore or mainland China, is primarily defined as a matter of blood and descent. One does not become Chinese like one becomes Swiss or Dutch, since cultural integration (language) or political adoption (passport) are both excluded as means of becoming "Chinese."(4) Racial nationalism, of course, has undergone numerous permutations, reorientations and rearticulations since the end of the nineteenth century Its flexibility and variability is part of its enduring appeal, as it constantly adapts to different political and social contexts, from the racial ideology of an economically successful city-state like Singapore to the eugenic policies of the Communist party in mainland China. It is not suggested here that racialized senses of belonging were the only significant forms of national identity available in China: It should be emphasized, however, that notions of culture, race and nation have consistently been conflated throughout the twentieth century in efforts to portray cultural features as secondary to an imagined biological specificity. Far from being a mere copy or a "derivative discourse" of a more "authentic" form of nationalism in the West, narratives of blood and descent in China have always been based on the active reconfiguration of indigenous modes of representation. National identity has been actively reconstructed and endowed with indigenous meanings that are specific to China. Modernizing intellectuals in China drew inspiration from foreign cultural repertoires, appropriated the language of nationalism, invested new ideas with native meanings and nuances, reinterpreted modern political ideologies, reconstructed their cultural heritage, and finally, actively invented their own versions of identity and modernity. Finally, this article contends that racial nationalism thrived largely thanks to, and not in spite of, folk models of identity, based on patrilineal descent and common stock. Instead of crude generalizations about the role of the state in the spread of nationalism, which would have been disseminated from top to bottom, or the popular "cloud to dust" theory of cultural change, a degree of circularity, or reciprocal interaction, between popular culture and officially sponsored discourses of the nation is posited. More stable folk notions of patrilineal descent, which were widespread in late imperial China, were reconfigured from the late nineteenth century onwards. Indigenous notions of identity were reinforced and enriched by the use of new vocabularies, as nationalist intellectuals selectively appropriated elements from the language of science. Lineage discourse was perhaps one of the most prominent elements in the construction of symbolic boundaries between population groups defined as nations.(5)

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