Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: The Search for National Identity under Reform

By Harris, Peter | The China Journal, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: The Search for National Identity under Reform


Harris, Peter, The China Journal


Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: The Search for National Identity Under Reform, by Yingjie Guo. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. xvi +192 pp. £65.00 (hardcover).

In this thought-provoking work Yingjie Guo analyzes the nationalist ideas and intellectual currents prevalent in élite circles in China during the last twenty years or so, and particularly in the 1990s. Making good use of theoretical discussions of nationalism by Anthony Smith, Ernest Gellner, Prasenjit Duara and others, Guo makes a distinction between his primary interest, which he describes as cultural nationalism, and the state nationalism with which-as he argues-Chinese nationalism is too often identified.

Guo defines cultural nationalism as an ideological movement concerned not just with political autonomy but also with the creation of a self-aware, morally innovative national community with shared ethnic values, myths and memories. This sounds quite like the ethnic or popular nationalism that other writers (Anthony Smith, James Townsend and others) have identified as an element of nationalism distinct from, though overlapping with, state or civic nationalism. In any event the distinction between these two broad forms of nationalism, whatever they are called, is a valuable one to make, and one that is too frequently neglected with respect not only to China but also to nationalist trends elsewhere as well.

Guo says he wants to avoid taking an unremittingly negative view of nationalism, and to distance himself from earlier writers such as Isaiah Berlin who gave nationalism a bad reputation by treating it as pathological and destructive (p. xiii). In this respect he somewhat misrepresents these writers' views. Berlin in particular was always careful to distinguish between more benign, Herderian forms of nationalism and the more negative forms of nationalism associated with ethnic exclusivity and intolerance. Guo is surely right, though, in characterizing much of the recent discussion about nationalism in China as negative in outlook and intent.

Guo's principal argument is that in China today cultural nationalism overlaps with state nationalism, but is in conflict with it to the extent that state nationalism reflects the ideology of the Communist Party. He concedes, however, that this conflict is lessening as the Party gradually abandons its classbased ideology in favour of being a national party. He concludes the book by predicting that the Party is likely to go on shifting its ground so as to take on board some of the ideas and elements of cultural nationalism, so that in the end "China will look more Chinese than in the greater part of the last century" (p. 143).

Guo also argues that, for the time being anyway, the potential for a more civic-minded form of state nationalism remains limited. He takes the view that, despite the collapse of its Marxist-Maoist legitimacy and its abandonment of class politics, the state or rather the Party finds it difficult to nurture a new kind of civic or constitutional patriotism (p. 46). This is because in China civic identity, laws and political institutions are all still too weak to be depended on, and also because Party leaders are reluctant to face up to the full implications of nurturing citizenship, which would involve observing the rights as well as the duties of citizens (a line of discussion which needs further exploration). The nationalist high ground is thus left to cultural nationalists seeking to rebuild a sense of history, tradition, shared language and identity, something state nationalists also find themselves driven to doing, but much more hesitantly. …

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