An interesting article by Orville Schell and John Delury looks at China’s obsession with its past humiliations, noting that their equivalent of the US’ Fourth of July is China’s defeat in the first Opium War.
Every July, amid festivities and fireworks, the U.S. and France mark their birth as nations. Accustomed as we are in the West to histories that begin with triumph—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the storming of the Bastille—it may seem strange that China, the fast-rising dynamo of the East, marks the beginning of its journey to modern nationhood in a very different way: with the shock of unexpected defeat and the loss of national greatness.
Many Chinese date the start of their modern history to Aug. 11, 1842, when the Qing Dynasty, by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, capitulated to Great Britain in order to end the disastrous First Opium War (1839-42). It was from this and many other subsequent defeats that China’s political elites—including the most progressive 20th-century reformers and revolutionaries—wove an entire national narrative of foreign exploitation and victimization. Even today, this fabric of ideas continues to hold powerful sway over China’s relations with the rest of the world.
This is a subject that always fascinates me, the dialogue of China as victim of exploitation and oppression. Obviously there really was a lot of exploitation and oppression, but there comes a time to get over it and make your national dialogue one that is less self-martyring and more constructive. A lot of people throughout history have been the victims of appalling suppression and brutality. I don’t know of any other great nation, however, that hangs on to these humiliations and brings them up at every possible opportunity to stoke the flames of nationalism. It is, of course, no accident that the government focuses on China’s most dismal periods, and why, as the article notes, “In this authorized version of modern Chinese history, 1842 is Year One. Every Chinese high-school student is expected to know the official narrative dividing Chinese history neatly into pre-Opium War and post-Opium War periods. It is China’s counterpart to the familiar American exercise of learning the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.”
China’s branding itself today as a victim of humiliation may suit the CCP’s goals of keeping its people nationalistic, a strategy that has helped it maintain power. It makes for outstanding propaganda. But on the international stage, this obsession with past failures and humiliation does little to advance China’s image, and leaves the world wondering why China can’t get over events of 150 years ago. Those events should never be forgotten. They were unjust and inexcusable. But they should not define what China is in the 21st century.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.