History, Identity, and Security

Producing and Consuming Nationalism in China

Author: William A. Callahan


Chinese nationalism has ignited much debate among academics and the general public in both China and the West. Rather than search for the true core of Chinese nationalism, this essay will examine the curious custom of National Humiliation Day as an oblique entry into the politics of identity. The nation is not simply a question of people or territory, the author contends, but of time: the national time scripted by events such as National Humiliation Day. By comparing the differing practices of the holiday as it was celebrated in the early twentieth century and is observed in the early twenty-first century, the author argues that in the early twentieth century the political performances aimed to produce a proper Chinese nation out of the clashes between the Qing dynasty, northern warlords, and foreign empires. The goal was to construct a “China” worthy of being saved. When National Humiliation Day was revived in China at the turn of the twenty-first century, the political performances were more focused on containing the nation through a commemoration of the various crises of the early twentieth century. Thus the essay will argue that the nation does not arise from the ideology of its leaders, as much as through popular performances such as National Humiliation Day. Hence it shows how politics is best analyzed as a series of performances, not just by state actors in official sites like the Foreign Ministry, but also through the cultural governance of less official sites in art, film, literature — and public holidays. In this way, National Humiliation Day activities go beyond producing and containing nationalism; Chinese people are also consuming nationalism as part of a symbolic economy that generates identity.
Regions: East Asia
Countries: China

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© 2005 ILO/Falise T.