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'Soft' nationalism is good for China

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The problem, of course, is that China is now a major economic power with relatively secure territorial boundaries. Hence, hard nationalism is harder to justify now. It seems designed not just to remind China of its humiliation at the hands of outside powers, but also to make people forget about China’s more recent humiliation at the hands of its own rulers.

Since few believe in Marxism anymore, the Chinese “Communist” Party seeks legitimacy by invoking a form of nationalism that assumes an antagonistic and competitive relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, hard nationalism is often put to use to make people serve the government, not the other way around.

But there is another form of nationalism – let’s call it “soft” nationalism – that makes moral sense in contemporary China. Soft nationalism is centered in China’s ancient capital of Nanjing. On a recent Sino-American media exchange in Nanjing co-organized by Jiaotong University and Emory University, a Nanjing-based scholar told us that Nanjing has been the meeting point between the “Confucian” north and the more commercially minded south, and more recently between Confucian and Western culture.

Nanjing was a dynastic capital 10 times during its 2,500-year history. It last served as China’s capital under the KMT (Kuomindang), the Chinese Nationalist Party, founded in 1912. What was once viewed as a “feudal” and reactionary period is now depicted more favorably. The ceiling of founding father Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum is painted with the KMT emblem, and the nearby museum depicts KMT history in a more balanced way.

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