Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Contentious Histories and the Perception of Threat: China, the United States, and the Korean War-An Experimental Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Contentious Histories and the Perception of Threat: China, the United States, and the Korean War-An Experimental Analysis

Article excerpt

Chinese and Korean protests over "revisionist" Japanese histories of World War II are well known. The impact of contested Chinese and US histories of the Korean War on US-China relations today has received less attention. More broadly, there has been little research seeking to systematically explore just how history textbook controversies matter for international relations. This article experimentally manipulates the impact of nation (US/China), of source (in-group/out-group textbooks), and of valence (positive/negative historical narratives) on measures of beliefs about the past, emotions, collective self-esteem, and threat perception in present-day US-China relations. A 2 x 2 x 2 design exposed randomized groups of Chinese and US university students to fictional high school history textbook accounts of the Korean War. Findings reveal significant effects of nation, source, and valence and suggest that the "historical relevance" of a shared past to national identities in the present has a dramatic impact on how historical controversies affect threat perception.

KEYWORDS: Korean War, US-China relations, historical relevance, history textbooks, threat perception, anxiety, anger, pride


It is well known that historical disputes underlie much of the mutual suspicion and hostility that plagues northeast Asian international relations today. Whether it is Chinese and Koreans protesting "revisionist" Japanese histories of World War II (e.g., Rose 1998), or Koreans protesting Chinese claims that the Goguryo Kingdom was Chinese (e.g., Gries 2005), history appears to be an endless source of friction in the region. As Gerrit W. Gong (2001, 26) notes, "The Cold War's thaw brought not an end of history [a la Frances Fukuyama] but its resurgence. Conflicts about the past now shape the future. In East Asia ... the battleground will be issues of 'remembering and forgetting.'" Indeed, Gong (2001, 32) goes so far as to argue that "strategic alignments" in East Asia "will increasingly turn on history."

Less attention, however, has been given to the role that historical conflicts play in US-China relations, arguably the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century. A number of scholars have argued that Chinese nationalism today is closely tied up with narratives of China's past victimization at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism, and that nationalism has an impact on China's foreign policies in general and US policy in particular (e.g., Fitzgerald 1999; Giles 2004; Callahan 2004). The circumstantial evidence is compelling. For instance, following the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), published an editorial titled, "This is not 1899 China." It passionately declared,

   This is 1999, not 1899. This is not ... the age when the Western
   powers plundered the Imperial Palace at will, destroyed the Old
   Summer Palace, and seized Hong Kong and Macao.... China is a China
   that has stood up; it is a China that defeated the Japanese
   fascists; it is a China that had a trial of strength and won
   victory over the United States on the Korean battleground....
   U.S.-led NATO had better remember this.

The Belgrade bombing, in this Chinese view, was not an isolated event; it was, rather, the latest in a long series of Western, and especially US, aggressions against China.

The People's Daily's reference to the "Korean battleground" is noteworthy. The CCP has long staked claim to nationalist legitimacy in part on the basis of a nationalist narrative in which the CCP led a righteous effort to aid the Korean people and expel the invading US forces from Chinese and Korean soil. Indeed, it has been argued (Giles 2004, 56-61) that in Chinese nationalist narratives, "victory" in Korea over the United States marks the end of the "Century of Humiliation" and thus remains central to both the collective self-esteem of many Chinese nationalists as well as the legitimacy of the CCP today. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.