Chinese nationalism today is characterized by an uneasy relationship between popular feelings of pride, disappointment and hope for China as a nation, and the Communist Party's efforts to utilize such feelings as a tool for social management and Party control.
Was there nationalism in ancient China?
Nationalism is a relatively modern concept. It emerged in Europe in the 16th to 18th centuries as a way of expressing attachment to — and mobilizing support for — the nation-states that were then coming into being. It was characterized by a feeling of shared ethnic and linguistic identity, as well as shared difference from other groups.
In ancient China, by contrast, there was a strong sense of continuity based on the cycle of dynasties gaining and losing the "Mandate of Heaven" — the idea that each dynasty's legitimacy rested on, and was reflected in, the conduct of its rulers. But there was no notion of "nation" as we understand it today.
Chinese history is a story of a continual struggle for political unification. But unifying a territory as vast and diverse as China meant that dynasties had to base their authority on something broader than ethnicity. The lifespan of dynasties was therefore measured by their adherence to the tenets of Chinese civilization, regardless of whether they were ethnically Han, Mongol or Manchu. For most of China's history, national belonging was an as attachment to the political and moral structure of the dynasty, rather than to a narrowly "Chinese" ethnic identity.
What is modern Chinese nationalism?
Modern Chinese nationalism emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Western gunboats and ideas shook the foundation of Chinese civilization. China's humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars — and then by the Japanese in 1895 — shaped early nationalist efforts to save the country by "strengthening" it.
But there was also enormous antagonism toward the West. Anti-Western sentiment was central to movements like the Boxer Rebellion and, in many ways, the Communist Revolution.
Chinese nationalism emerged out of efforts to save the Chinese nation from disintegration. But it was characterized by a tension between opposing urges: looking outward and looking inward.
What is Party Nationalism?
In many ways, China's Communist Revolution was a nationalist revolution. But after the Communist Party came to power, it gradually suppressed nationalism in favor of adherence to the Party and Mao himself. It was not until the relative political, social and economic openness of the 1980s that reformers again sought to rebuild a more critical, outward-looking notion of Chinese nationalism.
The 1990s saw a resurgence of patriotic sentiment as China's unprecedented economic growth translated into the country's return to global prominence. Such sentiment was soon captured by the Party, which sought to regain public confidence by portraying itself as a vehicle for China's military and political rise. Under this new direction, the Party began to focus on the West as a key "constraint" on Chinese growth.
In recent years, despite Beijing's efforts to maintain the monopoly over Chinese nationalism, popular nationalist displays and protests have focused increasingly on internal political and social problems — with the implication that China's true constraint may not be the West at large, but the Party itself.
As we are starting to see, nationalism, especially in a country as complex and internally diverse as China, is a complex and combustible concept that can easily exceed the limits of Party management.