The “Old Days” as “Reference Object”: The Tension Between Humiliation and Greatness

The history of China’s semicolonial status in the eighteenth century had severely damaged its spiritual life and its ability to tap into indigenous symbolic resources before the 1980s. As Hu observes, although alien rulers had ruled part or all of China in the past, the Chinese agrarian civilization had always triumphed over the nomadic civilizations, whereas in the face of Western imperialism, China felt a sense of inferiority for the first time (2000: 70). The Western impact fundamentally dislodged the Chinese intellectuals from their Confucian haven. As a consequence, an emotional register, associated with a sense of humiliation and shame, has been a significant component of the Chinese modernization process (Pye 1968: 68). As a result, their sense of impotence, frustration and humiliation, prompted by a curious mixture of political nationalism and cultural icono- clasm, framed the context of their quest for identifying Chinese culture, and for thinking and reflecting on the role Chinese culture could play in the context of an increasingly alienating and dehumanizing world (Wei- Ming 2005: 146). As Wei-Ming argues:

For China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture, the image of the twentieth century as an atrocious collective experience of destructiveness and violence emerges with fulgent salience as we approach the fin de siecle rumination. Stability has often meant a delicate balance for a few years; even a decade of peaceful coexistence evokes memories of permanence. The fluctuating Chinese political landscape, precipitated by external events unprecedented in Chinese history since the mid-nineteenth century, has become so restless in the last decades that not only the players but the rulers of the game have constantly changed. (145)

As the discourse of modernization and the discourse of nationalism have always run parallel courses in China (Barabantseva 2012: 64), the rise of nationalism can be readily seen to revolve around a sense of national shame associated with the performance of their society and polity in the past (Pye 1968: 62). China’s record in modernization and their expectation of superior potentialities have produced further frustrations and an exaggerated sense of humiliation (61). In this context, the discourse of the China Dream is also mixed with this discourse of nation building (Holbig 2009: 52). As a result, there remains an unchallengeable belief that China should progress from a state of backwardness and weakness to one of strength and modernity.

Paradoxically, even when people acknowledge the failings of modern China, a feeling for its greatness was still sustained by its mere size and its numberless people (Pye 1968: 53). Especially, as the revolutionary ideologies have gradually lost their appeals, the Party began to revitalize the glorious period of traditional civilization, thus attempting to provide the Party with some useful instruments to sustain its nation-building process (Cong 2013: 913). This discourse of historical greatness provided practicable standards for contemporary Chinese culture and politics (Wei- Ming 2005: 147). The Party simultaneously blended “culturalist” and “nationalist” claims (Perry 2013: 4), and employed them in complex mobilizations (Holbig and Gilley 2010: 408). From this perspective, we can see that the China Dream is not only a struggle associated with modern history, but also a struggle for all Chinese history (Fewsmith 2013: 3).

This is also why the seemingly paradoxical discourse of historical humiliation and greatness are merged together. Thus, merely to be Chinese is to be part of the greatest phenomenon of history (Pye 1968: 50). The fundamental dilemma thus becomes how to be modern and Chinese (Tyfield and Urry 2010: 280). The sense of identity in China is derived less from the content of culture, which is always somewhat vague and ambiguous, and more from a certain presentation of the greatness of the “Chinese race” (Pye 1968: 55). In this sense, the notion of Chineseness is a combination of race and culture (57). This is probably why the modernization discourse in China always entails a racial discourse, as many Chinese consider modern national-statehood as being racially based (Horesh 2013: 101-102).

The uniqueness of Chinese nationalism is that many of its signifiers of nationalism derive from pre-nationalistic culturalism that defines community membership (Yang 2014: 173). Thus, the discourse of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was brought to the surface, facilitating a combination of “revolutionary” and “traditional” sources of cultural authority to foster a powerful collective identity for the nationalist end (Perry 2013: 8). In other words, the new Chinese political elite seems to willingly accept Western neoliberalism’s privileging of the market, but, at the same time, they endeavour to preserve their own political discourse and hence China’s “uniqueness.” The result is that the Party theorizes and engages in political discourse at the superstructural level, based on an ideology of “Chinese characteristics” in both their internal and external relations (Fan 2002: 73).

What we can observe is that the shift of the construction of significance, that is from governing people in the process of learning from the West to the learning from the Chinese past, involves a transition from space being the referent object to time becoming the referent object (Cong 2013: 922). In so doing, the discourse of the China Dream, which is rooted in the mysteries of the past, has become a mechanism for informing China’s future. Moreover, the lack of strong attachments to specific institutions or articulated values has given the Chinese the capacity to accept a remarkable degree of change without compromising their identity and their association with greatness (Pye 1968: 55). As a result, in the China Dream discourse, by manipulating the “chosen trauma,” namely China’s history of humiliation and the “chosen glory,” that is, China’s ancient civilization and achievements, the Party attempts to bolster its legitimacy, encourage nationalism, mobilize mass support for social change and shore-up China’s national identity (Wang 2014: 11). It is through this process (and other processes, e.g., the anti-corruption campaign) that the Party is attempting to legitimize itself as the rightful custodian of China’s future.

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