AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 371

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 371: The New Chinese Political and Cultural Identity: Harmonious in the Nation or the Globe?

Organizer: Martin Woesler, , Germany

Chair: Yinan He, Lehigh University, USA

Discussant: Daniel Dooghan, University of Tampa, USA

Chinese identity and China’s role in the world is being redefined by contemporary post-socialist discourse. China with its economic strength and technologically modernized society perceives itself as matching up with America as a superpower. Domestically, “guoxue” (national studies) has become a popular subject to study. A mostly unreflective nationalism is spreading among Chinese youths. Globally, the Chinese government promotes Chinese culture through hundreds of recently opened Confucius Institutes. The leadership defines “harmony” as the main goal for inner stability and as a new Chinese concept of world order. Many of the seemingly new discourses are actually revivals of past discourses: the concept of the “harmonious society” roots in the concept of “tianxia”. Today’s discourses recall the projects of Kang Youwei and others in Late Qing, when “Chineseness” was redefined through the encounter with the “West”, but its cultural superiority went unquestioned. After more than 100 years of Western impact, Chinese language today is “purified” again by writers like Mo Yan. Today’s discourses also resemble those of early Republican China, especially in regard to the political discontent despite economical prosperity. Regarding the public sphere, opinion leader Lu Xun may be compared with his contemporary counterpart, the social critic, talented writer, high school dropout Han Han. Despite the similarities of the discourses, the master narrative of the CCP seems to have successfully rewritten the collective memory of the Chinese - participants in today’s discourses often are unaware that their quest for a modern identity was undertaken by their ancestors only 100 years ago.

Foreign Policy: Harmony under Heaven? China’s View and Discourse of a Globalized, Multipolarized World
Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, University of Gottingen, Germany

The concepts of “tianxia” 天下and “harmonious society” 和諧社會, which both have their roots in early Chinese conceptions of world order, are being reactivated in recent times. These world conceptions have, since antiquity, been combined with binary distinctions like inner-outer (nei/wai 内外), root-branch (ben-mo 本末), near-far (jin/yuan 近遠). Whereas on the one hand China seems to conceive its foreign policy along the concept of a multipolarized world there are on the other side indications that it attempts to conceive the future world system as an extended “tianxia”. This is certainly not meant in the sense of Kang Youwei’s famous “Datongshu“ 大同書, but the question remains how harmony under heaven may be realized without having an international clearing house.

Inner Policy: Economic Forgetting and Self-Contradictory Nationalism in Contemporary China
Guoguang Wu, University of Victoria, Canada

Nationalism is on the rise among Chinese youths. This nationalist pride is primarily based on China’s economic achievements and on the Chinese perception of the international recognition of these achievements, such as the Beijing Olympics of 2008. This paper finds, however, that the same Chinese youths do not appreciate the prosperity China previously achieved and China’s rising international status at earlier historical stages, as during the Nanjing decade with the nationalist government. Why this inconsistency? What are the implications of this economic and historical forgetting? This paper investigates how China’s current nationalist pedagogy ignores the nation’s previous successes in search of modernization, and argues that China’s nationalism is self-contradictory in terms of reading China’s own histories.

Identity and Literature: What is Chineseness, Again: Old Myths and New Insights Drawn from Contemporary Chinese Literature
Karin Betz, Independent Scholar, Germany

When we are talking about the contemporary features of Chineseness, we are not talking about a Chinese world inside a territorially defined “China”, but a definition of particularities of a cultural sphere that is being refashioned by its global reach and interaction. The continuing obsession of Chinese intellectuals in their effort to emphasize the Chinese distinction of every dimension of cultural production goes back to the time of discourses on “national essence“ in the Late Qing. Chineseness was then defined as opposed to an imaginary construct like “the West“, which is still seen as a global domination against which a non-Western cultural and historical identity is constructed. In this paper I want to examine efforts of contemporary Chinese literary writers in- and outside the geographical boundaries of China, in exploring a unique “Chineseness” in their writings. This starts with the use of a language that differs from the standard 'putonghua', the sometimes called “white man’s Chinese” (cf. Rey Chow in “Chineseness as a theoretical problem”), and develops further into matters of an “authentic Chinese narration style”, references to folk tales and myths, and the uniqueness of the Chinese character as a literary topic. I will mainly focus on the literature of Mo Yan, who has for his novel “The Sandalwood Torture” (2001) emphatically stated that he was trying to write in an authentically Chinese style “that does not intend to please admirers of Western literature.”

Civil Society: The Public Sphere in China of 1917-1937 and Today, Stimulated by Lu Xun and Han Han in their Role as the National Critical Conscience
Martin Woesler, , Germany

Reading contemporary Chinese discourses of the emerging critical public sphere, one experiences many déja-vus regarding the nation-building discourses of the 1910s until 1937. Separated by a loss of collective historical memory, history has been rewritten by a CCP narrative. This new discourse is undertaken with almost no reminiscences of the past. In both discourses, China tries to define its identity, its relation to the foreign “other”, its role in the world, and to pave the way to modernity through enlightenment and professionalization. In these discourses, a few outstanding writers become opinion leaders, stimulating the public sphere by their respective means of media – Lu Xun with newspaper-‘zawen’, and the high school dropout Han Han with blogs. Both in their literary work use fictional metaphors: Lu Xun cannibalism in “A Madman’s Diary”, Han Han the mute choir in “His Land”. These metaphors are placed in a realistic narrative and call on readers to take action to change society. Both authors engage in civil society: Lu Xun formed the League of Human Rights and protested against book burning in Nazi Germany; Han Han works to reveal the “state secret” of the number of children killed in schoolhouses during the Sichuan earthquake. Today’s discourses take place in a more censored environment, reach more people, are faster, are mostly on a far lower intellectual level, written in a much more simple language despite the higher average education level, and rely less on opinion leaders - readers can easily interact, start own discussions and become writers themselves.