Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations by Zheng Wang, NY: Columbia University Press, ISDN 13:978-0231148700, 2012, 312 pp., $32.50, Kindle $16.99.
With the installation of the new CCP regime under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the next five years may be turbulent. Xi has pledged to pursue policies that will reform the society and achieve the goal of "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." So we may see a more aggressive foreign policy, a more assertive military, a more confident national posture and a more unadulterated appeal to Chinese nationalism. As Bette Davis warns in All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."
Thus Zheng Wang's new book, Never Forget National Humiliation, appears at the right moment. Born in Kunming and educated in the US, Zheng teaches international relations at Seton Hall University and is a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR). His book focuses on the new turn to nationalism in Chinese policy formation.
Zheng begins with a conundrum. In 1989 Chinese students protested against their government in Tiananmen Square. But today a new generation of students supports their government and protests against foreign policies in Tokyo, Washington and even Oslo. During the protests that marred the torch relays before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many overseas Chinese students actively defended their government's human rights policies. A New York Times reporter observed that now educated young Chinese "rank among the most patriotic, establishment-supporting people you'll meet." How did this transformation take place in merely one generation?
Zheng Wang explains the transformation by analyzing the CCP's manipulation of China's "historical memory" and its creation of a new Chinese "master narrative." China claims a civilization that can be traced back five millennia. When Marco Polo arrived at the fabled empire ruled by Kublai Khan in the late thirteenth century, Europe was still mired in the Middle Ages. But as Europe entered the Enlightenment, the Chinese began the long decline culminating in the last Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912). Thus Chinese history can be read as a story of the fall from a great height. "Chinese humiliation begins with the Opium Wars (1840-2) and ends with Japan's expulsion from China in 1945 at the end of WW2," Zheng writes. "The Chinese master narrative of the century of humiliation defines the national trauma China uses to identify itself."
In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinese nationalists exploited the "historical memory" of national humiliation to overthrow the Ch'ing Dynasty and create the Chinese Republic. But the failure of the Republic and the subsequent Japanese invasion reenforced the sense of national failure. With the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the "master narrative" of national humiliation was rewritten. Zheng says, "'During Mao's time, however, China's...