China’s Identity Crisis: The “People’s Republic” may soon buckle under the weight of its own contradictions
July 15, 2012
Ever since Thucydides’ “manual for statecraft” portrayed the starkly divergent strategic cultures of Athens and Sparta, the need to comprehend one’s own and other nations’ identities has been indispensible. But in recent decades, discussions of national character have been scorned as politically incorrect and non-quantifiable. Yet a national identity crisis can be seen in one place after another, like in the Arab world, the European Union, and Russia. Of all the identity problems today, China’s is the most severe. The Bo Xilai scandal that has riled the leadership succession, the Chen Guangcheng human rights standoff, and tense situations from Xinjiang to Tibet to the South China Sea all contain manifestations of this underlying phenomenon.
China seems always to have been fully formed. The Chinese tell the world, and scholars in the West reinforce the idea, that the People’s Republic today is serene, self-assured, the product of thousands of years of Confucian calm and virtue, the practitioner of a patient, nuanced, subtle statecraft designed to succeed without confrontation or warfare.
Yet China’s history from remotest antiquity to modern times has been as turbulent, unpredictable, and violent as any other major civilization on earth. And through the most recent centuries, the question of “Chineseness” itself has come to the fore. The Beijing regime, led by the Communist Party, seems preoccupied with the matter of Chinese identity as it launches one campaign after another to try to explain to the Chinese people who they are and what China’s meaning to the world should be.
The incongruity between the eternal cultural image and its currently contested reality suggests that modern China’s long “search for a political form” has not yet ended, and the status of traditional Chinese thought and practice remains uncertain.
The Manchu military conquest of China in 1644, which would become the Qing dynasty, has been portrayed as an example of China’s supposedly unique power to coopt, absorb, and soon incorporate every foreign influence, making invading elements compatible with, or even contributors to, Confucianism.
But the Manchu court was regarded by the Chinese as “interlopers from beyond the pale of civilization.” The shock to the Chinese psyche was deep and lasting and dramatically displayed by the Manchu edict that all Chinese men must shave their foreheads and braid their remaining hair into a Manchu tribal-like queue, a humiliating act of degradation, for long, carefully-attended hair was part of the Confucian scholar-official’s dignified bearing. Throughout the Qing dynasty’s long rule, the image of “the pigtailed Chinaman” became the cartoonist’s badge of Chinese identity to the world.
Manchu supremacy marshaled China’s resources into ambitious military campaigns that brought all of Buddhist Mongolia and Muslim Xinjiang into their empire and would come to dominate Tibet, thus establishing Qing imperial borders far beyond traditional Chinese culture and history. Today’s People’s Republic of China, as a result, is an empire compelled to declare itself a state, and to seek ways to assimilate huge areas with non-Han Chinese populations.
China and the International System
Nineteenth century Qing China felt the heavy impact of two additional foreign-origin assaults. China’s mercantilist economic system was disrupted by Britain’s use of the opium trade to siphon silver out of Qing coffers and carry the un-Chinese thoughts of Adam Smith to Asia. China’s status as the center of a system of world order and recipient of “tribute” from lesser nations was challenged by the British and other outside powers’ military-diplomatic forays aimed at forcing the Qing court to accept resident foreign embassies under the Westphalian doctrine of “the equality of states”—which could not have been further from China’s sense of world order.
As the British-led “opening” had its way in Peking and the “treaty ports” on the coast, yet another form of alien power arose in China. Just at the time when “Chineseness” seemed to be absorbing and transcending Manchu Qing rule, the foreign faith of Christianity was adopted and distorted by an ambitious youth who failed to pass the Confucian examination, which would have placed him among China’s official elite. He transformed the message of missionary tracts into an uprising to drive foreign demons from China and establish a Taiping Tien Kuo—Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. The foreign demons were not the British or other westerners, but China’s Manchu rulers. A foreign faith thus would be employed in a war to rid the land of foreign rule and regain China for the Chinese.
The Taiping Rebellion of 1851–1865 was the most violent upheaval, worldwide, of the nineteenth century, causing an estimated twenty to thirty million deaths as its armies ravaged south and east-central China, burning the Confucian classics as it went, all in the name of Christianity. A combination of Imperial Qing soldiery, Shanghai-based Western irregulars, and internal Taiping rivalries brought an end to the Heavenly Kingdom.
Of all the world’s imperial powers, the Qing court most bitterly struggled against efforts to integrate China into the international state system. But after British Lord Elgin invaded the capital, and burned the Summer Palace, an incipient foreign ministry was set up in Peking in grudging recognition that China had no choice but to accept and participate in the system of state-to-state diplomacy then being imposed or adopted around the world.
The Boxer Rebellion of 1900, starting as a violent protest against Christian missionaries, led to the storming of the new foreign Legation Quarter of Peking. Manchu imperial rule was ending. The Nationalist Revolution came in 1911, inaugurating the Republic of China, and the first president of the Republic, Sun Yat-sen, went to the Ming Tombs to declare that foreign Qing rulers had been overthrown; China at last was again under Chinese rule…