Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937

By Edwards, Louise | The China Journal, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937


Edwards, Louise, The China Journal


Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937, by Jing Tsu. PaIo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005. xiv + 329 pp. US$55.00 (hardcover).

This is an important book which should be of considerable interest to all scholars and students of modern Chinese history, literature, diaspora studies, contemporary politics and culture. Its central focus is on exploring the creation of a national identity of victimhood in China since 1895. Tsu has analyzed the manner in which China has claimed the position of victim in the international arena and has fashioned victimhood into a moral position. Being a victim, we learn, is not merely a response to injury or humiliation, but also a modality of cultural identity. From this underlying premise Tsu examines the ways that victimhood functions as a cultural experience, ranging from the benign to the dangerous-including nationalism and racism. Victimhood is an immensely flexible identity since it need not relate to actual humiliation or victimization. The narration of victimhood has been a consistent theme in both Chinese political thought and popular culture for over a century, yet until now no scholars have explored the impact and consequences of this persistent identity on China's evolution. While nationalism has been the focus of many studies, Tsu shows that a key ingredient in Chinese nationalism has been the mobilization and articulation of China's position as an international victim.

Tsu's wide-ranging and meticulously researched volume includes discussion of phenomena such as the recent anti-Japanese riots, the bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade and overseas Chinese experiences of racism, as well as key historical events such as the Boxer Wars, the New Culture Movement and the anti-Japanese War. Evidence for its arguments is drawn from such diverse sources as science fiction, Utopian and dystopian fiction, political treatises, philosophical texts, internet debates and movies. Tsu provides new insights into the ideological significance of many familiar materials by exploring them in the context of earlier and later texts. For example, we learn that, while Zou Rong's Gemingjun calls for the murder and rape of Manchus in order to wash away the humiliation of the Han race, it emerged from a context in which moderates like Kang Youwei were writing extensively about racial hierarchies. Kang, for example, espoused the view that Chinese and whites should aim to purify the world of lesser races-such as Indians and Africans-by intermarriage.

The volume helps explain many apparently contradictory trends within Chinese political history. For example, Chinese intellectuals often express the desire for democracy without equally endorsing the conditions required for freedom. If one premises nation-building upon a discourse of failure and victimhood, one then removes the burden of agency within any of the espoused ideals. …

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