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'Soft' nationalism is good for China

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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.

The KMT derived legitimacy at least partly from its promotion of Confucian values, and Confucianism is what lies at the heart of soft nationalism. The Confucius temple is one of Nanjing’s leading tourist attractions, and Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum is inscribed with a famous saying – tianxia wei gong (the world belongs to the public) – from an ancient Confucian classic, the Book of Rituals.

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