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William A. Callahan's China: The Pessoptimist Nation

January 28, 2010

Posted by Alice Xin Liu,
China Books
Danwei
January 26, 2010

William A. Callahan is Professor of International
Politics and China Studies at the University of
Manchester, and Co-Director of the British
Inter-University China Center at Oxford
University. His recent publications include
Cultural Governance and Resistance in Pacific
Asia (2006) and Contingent States: Greater China
and Transnational Relations (2004). Professor
Callahan gave permission for an extract from his
latest book, China: The Pessoptimist Nation, and
kindly wrote the introduction below. The book is available from OUP and Amazon.

China: The Pessoptimist Nation shows how the
heart of Chinese foreign policy is not a security
dilemma, but an identity dilemma. Through a
careful analysis of how Chinese people understand
their new place in the world, the book charts how
Chinese identity emerges through the interplay of
positive and negative feelings in a dynamic that
intertwines China’s domestic and international
politics. China thus is the pessoptimist nation
where national security is closely linked to nationalist insecurities.

China: The Pessoptimist Nation; extract from Chapter One
by William A. Callahan

Many credit (or blame) Samuel P. Huntington for
making us think about the international role of
civilizations in the post-Cold War era. But
civilization has been an enduring theme in
Chinese discussions of foreign policy and world
order for millenia. As we saw at the opening
ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, China’s concept of
civilization provides a national aesthetic that
unites elite and mass views of identity and
security in the PRC. This book will show how
China’s current structure of feeling that looks
to national pride and national humiliation is an
outgrowth of China’s "Civilization/barbarian
distinction" [Huayi zhi bian]. Both of these
structures of feeling work to integrate the
party-state’s propaganda policy with grassroots popular feelings.

China’s domestic policy of "harmonious society"
and its foreign policy of "peacefully rising" in
a "harmonious world" are both based on the
idealized view of Chinese civilization as open to
the world, and tolerant of outsiders. Hua, which
has come to mean both “civilization” and
“Chinese,” more literally means “magnificent” and
“flourishing,” and is a homonym for
“transformation.” Rather than seeking to conquer
those who violently challenged it, we are often
told how China’s magnanimous civilization
inclusively embraced difference1. Even when China
itself was conquered by outsiders, the
attractiveness of Chinese civilization was able
to assimilate non-Han groups: nomadic Mongolians
were transformed into the Yuan dynasty that built
Beijing’s Forbidden City. Pre-modern China thus
utilized the soft power of Confucian rituals to
unify All-under-Heaven [Tianxia] through
attraction rather than conquest. The PRC’s
current foreign policy, we are told, likewise is
based on the "Peaceful Orientation of Chinese Civilization."2

The story of Zheng He is presented as prime
example of how China’s peaceful rise will, to
quote Zheng Bijian, "transcend the traditional
ways for great powers to emerge.”3 While European
imperial fleets smuggled opium and established
colonies, Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He’s massive
fleet explored Asia and Africa on seven voyages
of peace and friendship. Beijing now promotes
this positive view of Chinese power both at home
and abroad: to celebrate the 600th anniversary of
Zheng He’s first voyage, in 2005 China’s State
Council designated the day Zheng began his first
voyage as a new national holiday: July 11th is
now "Navigation Day." China Central Television
celebrated the first Navigation Day with an
eight-episode documentary, and China’s post
office issued a special commemorative stamp.
Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui explains the
contemporary significance of Zheng He’s voyages
by stressing how they "promoted the peaceful
co-existence of various civilizations,
demonstrating China’s cultural tradition of
friendship in international relations."4

Southeast Asian countries actually remember Zheng
He’s voyages quite differently. These trips,
which typically included over 300 ships and
27,000 sailors, were seen as means of
reestablishing and then maintaining China’s
tributary empire. Rather than friendship
diplomacy, the voyages were an exercise of hard
power that employed shock and awe tactics for
gunboat diplomacy.5 China’s expansionist policies
reemerged in the Qing dynasty, which doubled
imperial territory through conquest; while China
complains about Western and Japanese imperialist
crimes in the Century of National Humiliation, in
the last decades of the nineteenth century
Beijing invaded, occupied and exploited Korea in
ways that should be described as national humiliations.6

But using counter-evidence to "falsify" this
interpretation of China’s modern history would
miss the point. Although textbooks use
"undeniable evidence” to empirically prove
foreign crimes, national humiliation is better
understood as a moral discourse that figures
China as a magnanimous civilization that was
uniquely threatened by immoral barbarians. While
Chinese history – like most countries’ histories
– has involved much violent expansion and
contraction, Chinese civilization is presented as
"inherently peaceful." China thus sees itself as
an innocent victim of immoral international
bullying in part because official history tells
people that China has never invaded any country -- and never will.

As we saw in the opening ceremony of the
Olympics, Beijing’s idealized view of imperial
China is constantly repeated as a way of
explaining how China’s peaceful rise is not a
threat, but an opportunity for all to prosper in
a harmonious world. These twin themes of
victimization and civilization have been quite
successful in shaping China’s image at home and
abroad: American military analysts not only
recognize the allure of this soft power strategy,
but even uncritically repeat China’s idealized history.7

China’s concept of civilization differs from the
inter-civilizational discourse that frames both
the UN’s "dialogue of civilizations" and
Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” In China
discussion of civilization always includes a
discussion of “barbarism.” This is not just a
debate about ancient history: many Chinese
writers now are employing the
“Civilization/barbarism distinction” as a model
for domestic politics and international affairs8.
It is common for Chinese authors to refer to
outsiders -- either historical neighbors or
modern Westerners -- as "barbarians."

These discussions of civilization and barbarism
show how Chinese politics is understood in terms
of cultural and moral categories. Here
civilization is more than the Confucian aphorisms
and Tang dynasty costumes that we saw in the
opening ceremony of the Olympics. Rather than a
set of “artifacts,” civilization is better
understood as a discourse that takes shape in
relation to its opposite: barbarism. Whenever we
declare something civilized, we are
simultaneously declaring something else barbaric.
Here I am building on the analysis of China’s
civilization/barbarism relation that I developed
in Contingent States: Greater China and
Transnational Relations.9 It is important to
highlight how civilization discourse involves
drawing distinctions that are not only cultural,
but also political and moral. As a structure of
feeling, the Civilization/barbarism distinction
governs how other important political
distinctions are made: inside/outside,
domestic/foreign, China/West and pride/humiliation.10

Domestic politics thus are tied to foreign
relations through this distinction: a positive,
civilized inside takes shape only when it is
distinguished from a negative barbaric outside.
Civilization can engage with barbarism in one of
two ways: conquest or conversion11. The title of
the first chapter of Jiang Tingfu’s popular
Modern History of China (2005), says it all:
“Exterminate the Barbarians or Assimilate the
Barbarians.”12 While the idealized view of
Chinese civilization stresses how barbarians were
transformed into civilized Chinese through
assimilation, it is also necessary to remember
that "exterminate the barbarians" was the other
option. Either way, different peoples were not
allowed to coexist with Chinese civilization on
their own terms. The analytical task, then, is
not to search for the core of Chinese
civilization, but to trace how power is produced
when such inside/outside distinctions are made in
sovereignty performances. Indeed, one of the
current objectives of this strategy is to limit
identity politics to stereotypes of "China" vs. "the West."

While the difference between civilization and
barbarism seems obvious, historian Arthur Waldron
points out that answering the questions "Who is
China?” and “Where is China?” has never been
easy. Foreign policy elites in imperial China
constantly debated where to draw the border
between inside and outside as they defined their
“civilization” with and against the barbarian:

At root [the debates] were about how culturally
exclusive China must be in order to remain
Chinese; about the nature and authority of the
Chinese ruler; about where – and whether – to
draw a line between the [barbarian] steppe and
China proper. They were, in other words,
arguments in which fundamentally different images
of the polity collided. ... [I]n fact the problem
facing successive dynasties has not been
conquering “China," or recovering it, or even
ruling it. The first problem has always been
defining it, and that is as true today as it ever was.13

Because these borders of identity and territory
are contingent, the "Civilization/barbarism
distinction" [Huayi zhi bian] developed to be a
central concept of imperial governance across
China’s many kingdoms and dynasties.14 Imperial
philosophers, historians and officials
continually employed this inside/outside
distinction to draw (and redraw) China’s
cultural, political and territorial boundaries.
The ultimate goal of the Civilization/barbarian
distinction was to support and promote China’s
"Great Unity" [da yitong], another key imperial
governance concept that still resonates today.

As the phrase suggests, Civilization/barbarian
relations involve a moral hierarchy that divides
the Chinese self from the barbaric Other, with
"China being internal, large, and high and
barbarians being external, small and low.”15
Imperial China thus employed a “very clear
ideology of Civilization/barbarism,
honor/dishonor, noble/ignoble” to define
political space.16 Barbarians here not only lack
culture – they lack humanity: “the Di and Rong
are wolves."17 Although there is now debate about
whether we should translate ancient terms like
"Yi" as "foreigner" rather than "barbarian,"18
this argument misses the point that in such a
hierarchical world order foreigners are by definition barbarians.

Since the division between Civilization and
barbarism was contingent, political power in
China has always involved making clear
distinctions between these unstable concepts.
While the idealized view of Chinese civilization
stresses how Han Chinese embraced their
neighbors, classical Chinese texts are also full
of passages that stress violent conflict: “honor
the king by expelling the barbarians” [zunwang
rangyi] was a popular classical idiom. A passage
from the Spring and Autumn Annals (656 BC)
elaborates how leadership in China is measured in
this negative way: "The Yi and Di barbarians
repeatedly harm China, and when the Yi in the
South cooperate with the Di in the North, then
China is left hanging by a thread. Duke Huan
expelled Yi and Di -- and thus saved China. These are the actions of a King."19

The notion that the task of leaders is to save
China by expelling barbarians is popular
throughout Chinese history. "Expel the Northern
Barbarians and Restore China” was a prominent Han
slogan protesting Mongolian rule during the Yuan
dynasty, and “Expel the Tartar Enemy and Restore
China” was the revolutionary slogan of Sun
Yatsen’s anti-Manchu nationalism.20 A military
banner used during the Boxer Uprising (1900)
shows how the classical notion of "barbarian" was
extended to include Europeans and Americans:
"Support the Qing, Exterminate the Westerners."21

My argument is that the Civilization/barbarism
distinction continues to be the structure of
feeling that frames Chinese understandings of
identity and security. In classical Chinese
texts, “humiliation” is commonly deployed for
building and guarding social boundaries:
male/female, proper/improper, inside/outside.22
Whereas before the twentieth century humiliation
marked the boundary between civilization and
barbarism, it is not surprising that the modern
discourse is involved in building and guarding
national identity through national
pride/humiliation. This book explores how current
Chinese texts employ a similar pessoptimistic
logic in order to assert the unity of the Chinese
nation: "Never Forget National Humiliation,
Rejuvenate China" thus resonates with "Expel the
Barbarian, Save China" as the latest form of
China’s "ideology of Civilization/barbarism, honor/dishonor, noble/ignoble."23

Other contemporary examples of the parallel
between Civilization/barbarism and national
pride/humiliation are not hard to find. In the
early 1990s, Deng Xiaoping told party members
that they needed to “seize with two hands” to
develop both the material civilization of
economic prosperity and the spiritual
civilization of political loyalty to the
party-state against foreign barbaric forces. In
the late 1990s Jiang Zemin’s spiritual
civilization campaign produced ethical guides for
teenagers such as Civilization and Barbarism, and
Honor and Shame. As part of his harmonious
society policy, Hu Jintao has promoted the "Eight
Honors and Eight Shames" campaign since 2006.
This campaign relies on moral distinctions to
separate a positive inside from a negative
outside for both national identity and foreign
policy; the first honor/shame pair is "the
highest honor is loving the motherland, worst
shame is harming the motherland."24

In a more negative light, political leaders and
anonymous netizens both continue to employ the
concept of Chinese civilization to see outsiders
not only as barbarians, but as fierce animals in
ways that echo the classical judgment: “The Di
and Rong are wolves.” During the Tibetan unrest
of 2008, the head of the CCP in Tibet called the
Dalai Lama a “wolf with a human face and the
heart of a beast;” when the value of China’s
sovereign wealth fund plummeted in 2007 as an
American IPO tanked, a prominent blogger warned
China’s leaders "not be fooled by these
sweet-talking wolves dressed in human skin."25

Although it appeals to history and culture, my
analysis is not culturalist in the sense of
positing an essential, exotic and unique Chinese
way that is totally different from the West.
Actually, in their heyday European empires
employed similar Civilization/barbarism
distinctions to govern both the colonies and the
homeland: the French had their mission
civilatrice and the British the “White Man’s
Burden.” European pundits commonly use the
language of civilization and barbarism to frame
their love/hate relationship with America, as
they have since the sixteenth century. During the
Cold War and again in the "war on terror," the US
has looked to this distinction to order
international relations. Political theorist
Walter Benjamin thus presciently concluded that,
"There is no document of civilization which is
not at the same time a document of barbarism."26

Hence the rise of pessoptimism in China is
important not because China is exotic or unique,
but because it is big -- and getting bigger all
the time economically, politically and
culturally. Because China is important to people
around the world, it behooves us to critically
understand how Chinese people see their country’s
recent rise to prominence, as well as its current
economic problems. The PRC demands scrutiny
because its policies and perspectives now have an
impact far beyond China’s shores.

This brings us back to recent analyses that
understand Chinese identity as either a top-down
state nationalism or a bottom-up grassroots
nationalism. On the one hand, the discussion of
the “Civilization/barbarism distinction” shows
how this form of identity politics precedes the
Chinese state, and thus is more than simply a
campaign of the CCP’s Central Propaganda
Department. On the other hand, this cultural
nationalism could be a continuation of previous
policies since the imperial state was strong in
pre-modern China, and it actively engaged in
cultural governance to civilize its subjects. But
Chinese nationalism is more than a simple
extension of either Chinese tradition or the
top-down civilizing policies of imperial
dynasties. I think that pessoptimism flourishes
in China because it grows out of a dynamic of
reciprocal influence that integrates official policy and popular culture.

China’s identity politics is neither the
party-state instrumentally brainwashing the
populace, nor the spontaneous actions of an
authentic grassroots community. While it is
popular to see the state as the actor and the
masses as the audience, here the actor is the
audience, and the audience is the actor,27 as
Chinese nationalism is produced and consumed in
an interactive and intersubjective process. The
party-state’s campaigns are so successful because
they draw on ideas that preceded the state --
civilization and barbarism, national pride and
national humiliation -- that resonate with
popular feelings. Although national humiliation
discourse was produced by the party-state after
1989, it actually gained popularity in the early
twentieth century in the nonstate arenas of
teachers’ organizations and the popular press.
The theme of national humiliation thus was taken
up by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920s and the PRC in
the 1990s as a response to address popular criticism.

Leaders are successful in China because they
become spokespeople for an ideology in ways that
should be familiar: as Daniel Bertrand Monk
argues, George W. Bush didn’t create the
religious right, but mobilized them by
representing their values. The legitimacy of the
Chinese party-state relies on much more than the
negative power of censorship and control; rather
than see the PRC as a police state, it is better
to understand China as a mobilization state that
both encourages and feeds off of the positive
productive power of popular feelings and mass action.28

Pessoptimist nationalism is thus continually
produced and consumed in a circular process that
knits together urban elites and rural peasants,
northerners and southerners, government officials
and the new middle class. In this way the
party-state gains legitimacy not only through
economic prosperity but through a form of
nationalism that unites these diverse groups as
“Chinese” – and often against "the West." State
policy thus both feeds into and grows out of the
pessoptimist feelings of ordinary Chinese.
Patriotic education and popular opinion are
intertwined, just as pride and humiliation are
interwoven. China’s domestic politics are
inseparable from its foreign relations in a way
that intimately binds together national security with nationalist insecurities.

Notes:
1. See Zhao, The Tianxia System; Chen Liankai,
"Zhongguo, huayi, fanhan, zhonghua, zhonghua
minzu: Yige neizai lianxi fazhan bei renshi de
guocheng [One method for recognizing the
developmental relations between the terms
Zhongguo, Huayi, Fanhan, Zhonghua, Zhonghua
minzu], in Zhonghua minzu de duoyuan yiti geju
[The pluralistic unity structure of Chinese
nationalism], edited by Fei Xiaotong, (Beijing:
Zhongyang minzu xueyuan chubanshe, 1989), 72-113;
Ma Rong, "Lijie minzu guanxi de xinselu: xiaoshu
zuqun wenti de ‘qu zhengzhihua’” [New
perspectives on nationalities relations: the
“depoliticization” of the ethnic minority
question], Beijing daxue xuebao 41:6 (Nov. 2004):
122-33; David C. Kang, China Rising: Peace, Power
and Order in East Asia, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
2. Li Shaojun, Guoji zhengzhixue gailun [An
Introduction to International Politics],
(Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe, 2002), 526-34; Yan
Xuetong "The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes,”
Journal of Contemporary China 10:26 (2001):
33-40; Zhang Tiejun, “Chinese Strategic Culture:
Traditional and Present Features,” Comparative
Strategy 21:2 (2002): 73-80; Liu Zhiguang,
Dongfang heping zhuyi: yuanqi, liubian ji
zouxiang [Oriental Pacificism: Its Origins,
Development and Future], (Changsha, Hunan: Hunan chubanshe, 1992).
3. Zheng Bijian, "China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to
Great-Power Status," Foreign Affairs, (Sept/Oct 2005), 22.
4. "Anniversary highlights China’s peaceful
growth," China Daily, 12 July 2005; also see
Sheldon H. Lu, Chinese Modernity and Global
Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual
Culture, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 191.
5. See Geoffrey Wade, "The Zheng He Voyages,"
Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal
Society of Asiatic Studies 78:1 (2005): 37-58 on 44-51.
6. See Kirk W. Larsen, Tradition, Treaties, and
Trade: Qing Imperialism and Choson Korea,
1850-1910, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1-22.
7. See James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, "Soft
Power Goes to Sea," The American Interest (March-April 2008): 69-70.
8. See Zhao, The Tianxia System; Ma, "New
Perspectives on Nationalities Relations."
9. William A. Callahan, Contingent States:
Greater China and Transnational Relations,
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 25-55.
10. See, for example, Emma Jinhua Teng, Taiwan’s
Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel
Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895, (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2004), 11-13; Li
Dalong, “Chuantong Yi-Xia guanyu Zhongguo jiangyu
de xingcheng” [The Traditional
Barbarian-Civilization View and the Formation of
China’s Territory], Zhongguo bianjiang shidi yanjiu 14:1 (2004): 5, 11-12.
11. See William Connolly, Identity\Difference:
Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox,
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991),
36-63; R.B.J. Walker, Inside/Outside:
International Relations as Political Theory,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993);
Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The
Question of the Other, (New York: Harper Collins, 1984).
12. Jiang Tingfu, Zhongguo jindai shi [Modern
History of China], (Beijing: Tuanjie chubanshe, 2005), 1.
13. Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From
History to Myth, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 190.
14. See Chen, "One Method"; Lien-sheng Yang,
"Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order," in
The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s
Foreign Relations, edited by John King Fairbank,
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968),
20-33; Li, “The Traditional
Barbarian-Civilization View and the Formation of China’s Territory.”
15. Yang, "Historical Notes," 20.
16. Chen, "One Method," 82.
17. Zuozhuan cited in Yang, "Historical Notes," 25.
18. See, for example, Lydia H. Liu, The Clash of
Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World
Making, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
19. Cited in Chen, "One Method," 80.
20. Cited in Leibold, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism, 30.
21. Fu Qing Mie Yang. A picture of a Boxer
holding this banner was part of "The Rise of
Modern China: A Century of Self-Determination"
exhibit, Hong Kong Museum of History, October 1999.
22. Jane Geaney, "Shame and Sensory Excess in
Chinese Thought," presented at the Eighth
East-West Philosophers’ Conference, (January 2000), Honolulu.
23. Chen, "One Method," 82.
24. See "A Significant and Urgent Strategic Task
-- First Commentary for Establishing Socialist
View of Honor and Shame," Renmin Ribao, 21 March
2006, trans. in FBIS 200603211477.1_6835016a6683d71f.
25. Cited in Keith Bradsher, "Feeling the Heat,
Not Breathing Fire,: New York Times, 3 August 2007.
26. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of
History, VII,: in Illuminations: Essays and
Reflections, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 256-57.
27. See Daniel Bertrand Monk, An Aesthetic
Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the
Palestine Conflict, (Durham, NC: Duke Press, 2002).
28. See Elizabeth J. Perry, "Challenging the
Mandate of Heaven: Popular Protest in Modern
China," Critical Asian Studies 33:2 (2001), 175,
178; Carma Hinton, Geremie R. Barmé, and Richard
Gordon, producers and directors, Morning Sun
[Bajiudian zhong de taiyang], (Brookline, MA: Longbow Group, 2005).
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