China’s celebration of humiliation

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 22 Comments

It worked for Hitler.

July 14, 2013 @ 11:30 am | Comment

You’d think China would make more of Mao and the 1949 Liberation as a way of marking the defeat of foreign aggression and the formation of a reformed, improved and independent China. Unfortunately there is the problem of how Mao steered post-1949 China through more than two decades of turmoil, famine and bloodshed. The Liberation narrative also suffers from the fact that the Japanese were the key players in ending western influence in China. Western control over Shanghai ended in 1941, not 1949. And unlike other wars of independence, the Liberation struggle was a Chinese vs Chinese civil war that ground on for years. Who wants to glorify a domestic power struggle that involved shifting alliances, betrayals and reigns of terror? It’s easier to switch all the attention to the foreigners and play on China’s long-standing anti-foreign sentiment. Countries like Britain and Australia have turned humiliating defeats such as Dunkirk and Gallipoli into national symbols of forebearance and sacrifice. They no longer hate or resent the Germans and Turks. China uses its defeat as a way of channeling resentment and anger against foreigners. It’s a very powerful tool for garnering the support of the population and distracting them from the awkward fact that many more Chinese died at the hands of Mao and Chiang than through the actions of the foreign devils.

July 14, 2013 @ 5:05 pm | Comment

A Suggestion For the Chinese Gov’t To Make A Documentary Called “A History of Western Imperialist Invasions”

This post wants to suggest the Central Gov’t of China make a documentary called “A History of Imperialist Invasions”, in order to comprehensively introduce the history of invasion, genocide, pillaging of other nations by imperialist powers, especially against China. Currently, no such documentary exists in China. This I feel is not right. Mao Zedong once famously said “Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend.” He meant that a society should encourage a wide range of opinions and ideas, and not suppress any particular thought. In this spirit, I think such a documentary should be made.
This documentary should be made totally in a engineering mindset. That is, it should contain as little emotion as possible. The script for the narrator should not be emotional and dramatic when describing Imperialist invasions, should not be full of hatred for them and full of love for China. Instead, the script and tone of the narration should be very cold, very emotionless. When it’s describing a massacre, it should feel like it’s describing an experiment on a lab rat, very calm and cool.
The intended effect is that the audience, while watching this documentary, will start to hate the narrator for his carefree attitude, for his calm tone and words. And furthermore, experts should be invited to “defend” the invasions and pillagings, and those experts should act very eloquently in their defense, and talk in a seemingly convincing way. But subtly and subconsciously, those experts would be made to appear very despicable, and their defense very shameless and outrageous. And if the documentary can invite Western experts to do these defenses, it’ll be even better.
That is, the whole documentary is emotionless, cold, and even presents large amount of defenses from the opposite side. Yet the effect is that most Chinese will feel extremely at the imperialist powers after watching it.
Why should such a documentary be made?
Most young people in China today no longer devote enough time to study, and instead to playing. And those who do study hard do so for very trivial reasons, such as they want to get a good test and make their parents feel proud, or go to good college or get a good job. They do not have any worthwhile or ultimate goals in life.
This of course is partly the fault of society and media too. Today the social message is that if you study hard, you’ll get a good job and earn a lot of money, and buy a large house, cars, marry pretty woman. This kind of message is very unhealthy, and deceptive. It’s impossible that everyone in society will be successful and rich. A society needs rich people as well as poor people, it needs people at different roles, positions and levels. If it’s for the strength and development of your country, then anything you do can be worthwhile and meaningful. But if it’s only for getting rich and successful, then young people later will feel cheated by this social message after they studied so hard and realize that they, like most people, will not become rich and successful.
If students, after watching this documentary, are overwhelmed with emotion, go through an awakening and deep self-reflection, and are then realize the importance of studying for the growth and development for their country, instead of for their own personal gains. Then I think this is definitely worth it.
Of course, some intellectuals and rightists in will say that this kind of documentary will sow the seeds of hatred, will negatively impact the relationship between China and other nations, will create nationalism, will make it harder to be a dog of imperialist nations, etc. If those people today are in charge of China’s educational system, then I will feel very sad.

July 14, 2013 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

Michael, well said.

Clock: Of course, some intellectuals and rightists in will say that this kind of documentary will sow the seeds of hatred, will negatively impact the relationship between China and other nations, will create nationalism….

Now why would anyone come to such a ridiculous conclusion? (Sarcasm.)

July 15, 2013 @ 1:56 am | Comment

And yet various countries paint the caricature, Yellow Peril, on China to mask their own failures either economy and national security. Just like Hitler did with non-Aryan race.

Why are they getting a free ride?

July 15, 2013 @ 4:40 am | Comment

You see this same victim syndrome with individuals. And with these individuals you also see that the one most posturing as a victim is victimizer. In China we see this happening, writ large, on a national scale.

I am ignorant about Chinese history, opium wars and all that. But about victimization, I’m fairly expert because it’s everywhere. We all come from a people who have been beaten down, made slaves, conquered, abused, and the like. And we all come from a people who have done all these same things to others. When we overly identify with one side of the scenario, as every run-of-the-mill tyrant does, it gives us free play to be oblivious of the other side in us and gives us free play to do what we will with those we can do what we will with. China is a perfect example of this. The tyrant playing victim.

China’s self image, which is offensive even in those old Hong Kong Bruce Lee movies where the foreign devil is always an ugly, evil usurper who doesn’t belong, is nothing if not a blatant lack of creativity, imagination, and self-invention. The real China, preserved intact and fully-functional here in Taiwan, and which I see nakedly week in and week out when I work with the dreams of Taiwanese students, is something quite wonderful and beautiful to see. Unfortunately it’s suffered the most egregious mis-education imaginable, even here in Taiwan, especially here in Taiwan. I’m now reading a most wonderful book, “Creating Innovators – The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” by Tony Wagner. I recommend this book for China, for Chinese, for Chinese teachers, for Chinese professors, and all the rest of us too, for all our other nationalities, for our teachers, and for our professors. It’s kaput, this whole business as we’ve been envisioning it. We have to re-invent it. We have to learn how to let your children re-invent it instead of imposing our wrong ideas on them. We have to learn to develop the creative part of us, the innovative part. I do this with dreams in Taiwan and have found that the core of China, the real root of China, is alive and well. It’s easily woken up. The result is beautiful. All the pathology we see now will inevitably fall away before human development that is real, true, and deep. In Taiwan I see, week in and week out, this development is happening in young people. In so many ways, not just China, but America too could learn from what some of us are doing here in Taiwan.

July 15, 2013 @ 7:01 am | Comment

Richard,

You really don’t know of any other great nation which hangs on to past humiliations? Well, you need to get out more. China only remembers her humiliations from 170 years ago, while another great nation seems to have difficulty getting over its past grievances about 3000 years ago. Are you familiar with the Jewish holiday of Passover? If not, Wikipedia is your friend. The reality is that attacking China is the favorite hobby of most Western journalists, but none of them dare to say “get over Passover” because that’s the easiest way to get themselves fired.

July 15, 2013 @ 9:48 am | Comment

This article reminds me of something similar when I lived for several years in Japan in the 1980′s. Maybe its changed now, but there was a huge upswell of nationalistic feeling during the anniversary marking the explosion of nuclear bombs, and the end of World War 2. The whole world, and any non-Japanese living in their midst were expected to feel deep sympathy. While agreeing that nuclear bombs are terrible things, it was the “expecting to feel sorry for” that I found hard to swallow. I was living in, and intensively studying the language as a young student of a country which was xenophobic, polite, yet basically unfriendly to outsiders. It was also at the height of its new wealth just before the crash of the early 1990′s at a time in Japan when US dollars were referred to sneeringly as “play money”. Also, my own country took part in the Pacific War and a whole generation of young men were killed in battle, or suffered in horrific ways in Japanese prison of war camps, or as slaves on the Japanese mainland. None of this of course could be discussed in Japan, yet I was expected to feel this natural, universal sorrow for the Japanese as a people and nation on the anniversary day. I guess its a blind spot for the Japanese, just as its a blind spot for the Chinese that the defeat of the Japanese in World War two was not a solo, Chinese-only effort, but took the collaboration and lives of many soldiers from other countries. Maybe this idea of celebrating victory and success with a defeat is a very old Asian, maybe Confucianist idea?

July 16, 2013 @ 3:31 pm | Comment

“Hmmm,” that is one appallingly ignorant comment you wrote:
Well, you need to get out more. China only remembers her humiliations from 170 years ago, while another great nation seems to have difficulty getting over its past grievances about 3000 years ago. Are you familiar with the Jewish holiday of Passover? If not, Wikipedia is your friend. The reality is that attacking China is the favorite hobby of most Western journalists, but none of them dare to say “get over Passover” because that’s the easiest way to get themselves fired.

Sorry to break this to you but I am a Jew and I can safely say, no Jews feel any sense of humiliation or failure over Passover — a celebration of the happiest kind in memory of the end of Jewish slavery, not of any defeat of any kind. It is a joyous occasion. And there’s no memorizing any crap about Egypt, as there is memorizing the propaganda about the imperial powers who exploited China. The comparison is so ludicrous, so incomprehensible I hardly no what to say. No idea where you are coming from. Up there with the dumbest comments I’ve seen yet.

July 17, 2013 @ 9:16 am | Comment

Does it occur to the Chinese to ask why China was so weak in view of the British and French? Remember, during the Ming dynasty, Chinese ships had sailed the oceans of the world. The Qing emperors forbade shipbuilding and firearms production and the nation followed. That is, their supreme power became their undoing. Now what, any more than gradual, is the difference between the rule of today’s CCP standing committee and the emperors back then?

July 18, 2013 @ 7:48 am | Comment

As usual, if you want to know what “the Chinese” think, ask a Chinese. If you want to know what people in the country think, ask individuals there. For all the hoopla about this article, it’s written by Orville Schell who’s not Chinese, thinking about the whole thing from the outside. How about interviewing a few Chinese about their mistaken beliefs so at least there can be some sort of communication?

July 18, 2013 @ 11:31 am | Comment

You need to read “Never Forget National Humiliation” by Zheng Wang, it gives a great account of how national humiliation forms part of the core of legitimacy of the CCP.

And as for the Jews, they’ve suffered 3,000 years of persecution. I think they’re entitled to kvetch a little.

July 19, 2013 @ 11:31 am | Comment

Saving Private Ryan
Pearl Harbor
Band of Brothers
The Pacific
The Patriot

July 22, 2013 @ 5:38 am | Comment

The only way for China and the chinese people to exorcise the ghosts of the opium wars and its dismemberment in the 19th century by foreign aggression is to send a “bill” to Britain and France as the principal protagonists and then figure out a way to get even with the japs (in this case not just the diaoyu islands!).

This was a nation in the throes of domestic difficulties only to have salt poured into its already open wounds because its would not open its country to trade in opium – an act that in our time seemed perfectly right and normal. And wars were forced down its throat for this singular reason and also as an excuse to further conquests and plunders. Only because it was weak militarily it was not able to defend itself and it has to carry the “humiliation baggage” to this day.

Contrast this to the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Revenge was swift and devastating. The jap war machine was almost single handedly crushed within a span of 4 years.

I for one would dearly love to see the day when these historical atrocities are brought to account!

July 24, 2013 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

“because its would not open its country to trade in opium” And trade in general. Foreign companies were limited to dealing with 12-13 government-sanctioned Chinese companies who exacted massive tariffs and sought bribes.

“I for one would dearly love to see the day when these historical atrocities are brought to account!”

1: China, with a numerical superiority of 10-1 over the invaders was beaten in war.

2: War itself is not an atrocity. Atrocities may be committed during a war, but war is not.

3: Nobody is alive today who was either a) Responsible for or b) involved in the Opium War. A “Bringing to account” will solve nothing. Conversely, people are alive who suffered the Cultural Revolution – do you similarly support an apology to its people by the Chinese government?

4: Should Italy apologise for the wars of the Roman Empire? Should Turkey for the Ottoman Empire? Should the Iranians apologise for Darius?

5: China has had numerous apologies from Japan regarding the invasion. None have been accepted. Apologising to China is like urinating into the wind: You just get it thrown back in your face.

6: China itself is an agglomeration of small kingdoms, nations and ethnicities that were at one time or another NOT part of todays’ China. Please show historical apologies for those invasions.

July 25, 2013 @ 11:23 am | Comment

“…1: China, with a numerical superiority of 10-1 over the invaders was beaten in war.
2: War itself is not an atrocity. Atrocities may be committed during a war, but war is not…”

So if the PLA now with its numerical superiority over the British army were to launch a war with Britain and march into 10 Downing street, it would be ok by your reasoning because “war is not an atrocity”, right? It is alright to launch wars to settle commercial disputes, right?

“…3: Nobody is alive today who was either a) Responsible for or b) involved in the Opium War. A “Bringing to account” will solve nothing. Conversely, people are alive who suffered the Cultural Revolution – do you similarly support an apology to its people by the Chinese government?…”

Good excuse. This war was started by the brits due to a commercial dispute. Was war a necessity? Did the imperial chinese government attack the brits? Was the war started by the chinese? Bringing this historical atrocity to account is all the more important because it will serve as an example to stop nations from attacking each other due to commercial reasons. This is to prevent episodes like the overthrow of the democratically elected government of mohammed mossadeqh of Iran in 1953 by the combined operation of the MI6 and CIA. Mossadeqh’s only crime was that he wanted a better deal for his country’s oil which at that time was under the control of the british owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. This was followed by the installation of the military dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi by the MI6/CIA regime. The Shah’s secret police – the SAVAK was used to quash dissenters and many died as a result of his rule which was supported from the start to finish by the evil axis of the MI6 and CIA. Ever wonder why the Iranians hate your guts till now?

“..Conversely, people are alive who suffered the Cultural Revolution – do you similarly support an apology to its people by the Chinese government?…”

Never once mistaken the outcomes of the cultural revolution (CR) with wars. The CR was social engineering gone awry. The chinese government did not set out with clear and deliberate intentions to kill and murder its own citizens. They did not go after their citizens with warships, warplanes that dropped countless tons of bombs on the innocents, practice bayonetting babies, raping pregnant and non-pregnant women and after that pushed iron rods into their rectums and vaginas, conduct chemical and biological experiments, perform surgery on people without anasthesia, using live humans for target practice, etc, etc, etc. Oh no, only beasts do these despicable acts. And these beasts are still alive and kicking today. They are desperately trying to revive their failed “East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”.

“…5: China has had numerous apologies from Japan regarding the invasion. None have been accepted. Apologising to China is like urinating into the wind: You just get it thrown back in your face…”

From estimates after WW2, china suffered 10 million deaths (combatants and non-combatants) with non-combatants casualties outnumbering combatants. The agressor suffered a total of only 4 million. If you count the total number of casualties in the entire east-asia and south-east asia, the number ran into millions more. Now, why is it that the victims always end up losing more? Why is it that the victims are never properly compensated? What is a chinese or korean or filipino or vietnamese or malaysian or singaporean life worth? To-date, my parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents had not received a single cent of compensation for their sufferings under jap occupation in my country. Conversely, the beasts of WWII which survived thru their offsprings are today beating the war drums again (Diaoyu islands nationalisation, plans are under way to change the pacifist constitution, revival of their military industrial complex, military upgrading…) DO you see why now “…Apologising to China is like urinating into the wind: You just get it thrown back in your face…”

Hope to hear from you soon…

July 25, 2013 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

Yes, by all means invade 10 Downing Street, get rid of that joke of a coalition. Although there would be a substantial decrease in the fodder available for BBC Radio 4 listeners and their famed comedy podcasts.

Yawn, yawn, yawn, “The West is worse because blah blah blah” Better try a new trick, running dog, that one’s getting old.

The Cultural Revolution wasn’t social engineering gone wrong, it was the paranoia of a madman determined to regain his faltering grip on power. If you don’t support an apology for that, then you deserve no apology for anything. Ever.

“To-date, my parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents had not received a single cent of compensation for their sufferings under jap occupation in my country”

I refer you to the agreement between China and Japan signed in the 1970s to waive demands for compensation as diplomatic ties were normalised. If you feel dissatissfied with this, and that your government has misrepresented your wishes, please feel free to vote them out. Or why not petition?

July 26, 2013 @ 9:21 am | Comment

Thank you, Narsf.

July 26, 2013 @ 10:23 am | Comment

My pleasure as always, Richard.

July 26, 2013 @ 11:20 am | Comment

I see something not entirely dissimilar here in the American South.

July 30, 2013 @ 9:24 am | Comment

Well said….the South and Japan. When I lived in Japan in the early 90′s there indeed was a great feeling of victimization. I remember it well. And this tragic nonsensical nostalgia of the South rings true as well….

July 31, 2013 @ 8:21 am | Comment

Please allow me to respond to the post above (#7) about Passover. The Jewish people do not view Passover as a remembrance of a humiliation. On the contrary, it was a great victory: the Jews were freed from slavery and their enemies were slaughtered (all the first-born of the Egyptians were killed by the Angel of Death and the Pharoah’s army was drowned in the Red Sea). I don’t see how that is comparable to the CCP’s fixation on Chinese humiliation in the Opium Wars.

August 5, 2013 @ 4:37 am | Comment

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