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Review by Paul Levine

Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations by Zheng Wang, NY: Columbia University Press, ISDN 13:978-0231148700, 2012, 312 pp., $32.50, Kindle $16.99.

With the installation of the new CCP regime under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the next five years may be turbulent. Xi has pledged to pursue policies that will reform the society and achieve the goal of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” So we may see a more aggressive foreign policy, a more assertive military, a more confident national posture and a more unadulterated appeal to Chinese nationalism. As Bette Davis warns in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Thus Zheng Wang’s new book, Never Forget National Humiliation, appears at the right moment. Born in Kunming and educated in the US, Zheng teaches international relations at Seton Hall University and is a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR). His book focuses on the new turn to nationalism in Chinese policy formation.

Zheng begins with a conundrum. In 1989 Chinese students protested against their government in Tiananmen Square. But today a new generation of students supports their government and protests against foreign policies in Tokyo, Washington and even Oslo. During the protests that marred the torch relays before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many overseas Chinese students actively defended their government’s human rights policies. A New York Times reporter observed that now educated young Chinese “rank among the most patriotic, establishment-supporting people you’ll meet.” How did this transformation take place in merely one generation?

Zheng Wang explains the transformation by analyzing the CCP’s manipulation of China’s “historical memory” and its creation of a new Chinese “master narrative.” China claims a civilization that can be traced back five millennia. When Marco Polo arrived at the fabled empire ruled by Kublai Khan in the late thirteenth century, Europe was still mired in the Middle Ages.  But as Europe entered the Enlightenment, the Chinese began the long decline culminating in the last Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1912). Thus Chinese history can be read as a story of the fall from a great height. “Chinese humiliation begins with the Opium Wars (1840-2) and ends with Japan’s expulsion from China in 1945 at the end of WW2,” Zheng writes. “The Chinese master narrative of the century of humiliation defines the national trauma China uses to identify itself.”

In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinese nationalists exploited the “historical memory” of national humiliation to overthrow the Ch’ing Dynasty and create the Chinese Republic. But the failure of the Republic and the subsequent Japanese invasion re-enforced the sense of national failure. With the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the “master narrative” of national humiliation was rewritten. Zheng says, “‘During Mao’s time, however, China’s national history and especially the national-humiliation narrative were not used by the CCP leaders as a major ideological tool or source of legitimacy.” Instead Mao emphasized the class-based origin of the triumphant Chinese Revolution. The PRC represented the victory of a mass movement of peasants and workers.

Mao fell from grace in the beginning of the 1960s after his policies during the disastrous Great Leap Forward disrupted economic progress and created widespread famine. When Mao sought to regain political power through his Cultural Revolution he fomented a decade of turmoil, which nearly destroyed the country and the Party. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaopeng reversed Maoist policies and set China on the path of capitalistic economic reform. But Deng’s pragmatic policy unleashed a popular movement for more political freedom and economic equality. When the protests led by students and workers grew into the famous demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the leadership under Deng unleashed the army on the protesters. The result was the horrendous Tiananmen Massacre on June 4, 1989. Months later, growing protests in Eastern Europe led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Empire.

The Party leaders were shocked by the sudden disappearance of European communism. They set about to ensure that it would not happen in China. Recently, the newly elected president, Xi Jinping, reiterated the Party’s analysis of the reasons for the Soviet collapse. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” Xi said. “Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” He concluded: “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”

After 1989 and the crisis of the CCP, the regime made a conscious effort to turn from the triumphalist ideology of the Mao era to the reiteration of national humiliation and regeneration. This was achieved, in part, by the deliberate manipulation of Chinese history. In his authoritative anatomy of the CCP, The Party, Richard McGregor explains, “The Party treats history as an issue of political management, in which the preservation of the Party’s prestige and power is paramount. Just as personnel decisions and corruption investigations are decided upon in-house, so too are sensitive historical debates all settled within the Party itself. The debates over history are invariably held in secret and often conducted in code.” The Party leadership absorbed the lesson of George Orwell’s 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

One vehicle for this transformation was the revision of “historical memory” through the construction of historical monuments. “In March 1995, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that, after a careful nomination and selection process, 100 sites had been selected as the national-level “demonstration bases” for patriotic education,” writes Zheng. “Among the 100 bases, forty are memory sites of China’s past conflicts or wars with foreign countries–including battlefields, museums, memorial halls, and monuments in memory of fallen soldiers–half of them in remembrance of the Anti-Japanese War (1931-1945). Twenty-four other sites represent a memory of the civil wars between the CCP and the KMT (1927-1949). Thus, altogether nearly two-thirds of the demonstration bases were actually memory sites of past wars and conflicts.”

A decade later, the government initiated a more ambitious project of “patriotic education.” In February 2004, the Central Committee proposed new programs for “Further Strengthening and Improving Ideological and Moral Education of Minors.” In October ten government ministries and CCP departments proposed improving the political education of the young by exploiting “entertainment as a medium of education.” The Ministry of Education and the Propaganda Department jointly proposed a program to recommend 100 films, 100 songs and 100 books that would promote the common theme of patriotism. One of the recommended history books was entitled Never Forget Our National Humiliation.

The CCP could produce ample evidence of “National Humiliation,” especially at the hands of the Japanese during World War 2. Zheng points out that during the war the Japanese invaders occupied more than 900 Chinese cities. Perhaps the most horrendous occupation occurred in in 1937 in Nanjing when perhaps 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered in an orgy of killing, pillage and rape.  “One of the most debated historical issues between China and Japan is the Nanjing Massacre. For Chinese people, the “Rape of Nanjing” is a national trauma they will never forget,” Zheng notes. “Numerous films, novels, historical books, and newspaper articles about the Rape of Nanjing have been produced in China, especially in the 1990s after the patriotic education campaign began.”*

In 2005, the issue of Japanese culpability came to a head when the Japanese Education Ministry approved a new textbook, which minimized Japanese atrocities, and there were protests in South Korea and China. On April 9, 2005, close to 20,000 demonstrators marched on the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. In the next weeks, anti-Japanese protests broke out in ten cities where Japanese flags were burned and slogans urged a boycott of Japanese goods. Zheng says, “The protests were the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations in China since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1972”.

We were living in Shanghai at the time and my students warned me to avoid a sushi restaurant on the edge of campus where I often ate lunch. Over dinner, I asked them about the shrill demonstrations. One young woman spoke for them all when she said she hated the Japanese and wished them ill. I was taken aback by her vehemence and asked why she felt so strongly. She said the Japanese had refused to officially apologize for their actions in World War 2 while they pursued a territorial dispute with the Chinese government over some uninhabited islands. I asked her how she would feel if the Japanese tendered an official apology and settled the island dispute amicably. Would she still hate them? She insisted she would and everybody at the table agreed. They felt the Japanese looked down on the Chinese and this loss of “face” transcended any rational debate. I thought, this was rich soil for cultivating a rabid nationalism.

In 2012 a new wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations became shriller, leading to a more belligerent posture in both countries. Both adhered rigidly to their version of “historical memory.” Zheng notes, “Indeed, there is a feedback loop in China and Japan whereby the nationalistic history education stimulates the rise of nationalism, and the rise of nationalism provides a bigger market for nationalistic messages. At the same time, top-level leaders not only locked into their individual positions but also frequently use historical grievances as resources for political mobilization.”

To outside observers, this conflict about “historical memory” is not without its ironies. To be sure, the Japanese have failed to honestly acknowledge their terrible aggressions in Asia. But the Chinese leaders have also been adept at rewriting their own history. “However, we should not forget the brutal internal conflicts the Chinese have experienced during the recent centuries, including civil wars, revolutions, mass violence, and famines,” says Zheng. “In today’s China, the master narrative of national history is still based on official statements rather than public consensus. Despite the fact that party leaders have made an effort to teach Chinese people to ‘never forget national humiliation,’ they have always avoided discussing the tremendous failures and catastrophes that have been caused by the party.”

Instead the Party has been adept at revising “historical memory” to justify its own power. The leaders have absorbed the lesson of George Orwell’s 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” In the process, they have rewritten modern Chinese history in wondrous ways. Zheng says, “the leaders of the CCP have creatively used the content of historical memory to generate new theories and explanations to redefine the party’s membership and mission in the post-Tiananmen era. No longer is the CCP the “vanguard of the Chinese working class”; it is now “the firmest, most thoroughgoing” patriot, the newest categorization the party has found for itself. After deleting the words “realization of a communist society” from its mission statement, the CCP has made “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” its grand mission.”

In Never Forget National Humiliation, Zheng Wang illuminates the ways the CCP has monopolized political discourse since the Chinese Revolution to revive a latent Chinese nationalism. But is this the whole story? I think not. Certainly the tremendous success of the Chinese economy has created a burgeoning middle class with a vested interest in preserving the stability of Party control. But there is another aspect that should not be forgotten. The social bargain the Party offers–continual economic improvement in exchange for total political control–has its costs.

On June 4, 2010, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, I was teaching in southern China. While that date is memorialized in Hong Kong and elsewhere with massive demonstrations, on the mainland any mention of Tiananmen is prohibited. So I decided to show an English documentary on the events leading up to the massive demonstrations and their tragic aftermath. My young students, most born after 1989, were stunned. Most had never seen the iconic images so familiar in the West. Afterwards, I asked them what they thought of the students they saw marching in great numbers to the cheers of older Beijing residents lining the sidewalks. There was a silence at first. Then a bright young woman from a conservative PLA family spoke up. She said the students of 1989 were very different from her generation. “They were romantic. They had hope,” she said. “But today we are realists.” I asked her to finish the thought. She was puzzled. I said, if the generation of 1989 were “romantics” who had “hope” what did they make her generation who were “realists”? Did they lack hope for political reform? She brightened when she saw the connection. Yes, she said. Though I knew that a few in the large class felt differently, nobody said a word.End.

* The current focus on the Nanjing Massacre has intensified. Some readers may recall two recent major movies. products of the Party’s propaganda campaign. Lu Chuan’s critically acclaimed film, City of Life and Death, appeared in 2009. Two years later, The Flowers of War, a Chinese-American co-production starring Christian Bale (aka Batman) and directed by Zhang Yimou (a party favorite), was less kindly reviewed. Critics said, “it was too long, too melodramatic, too lightweight.”  The film cost $100 million to make but failed miserably in the West, earning a mere $311,000 in the USA. But it was a great hit in China. In the same year, a different account of the tragedy appeared in fiction: the expatriate novelist, Ha Jin, published Nanjing Requiem in English. Though Ha Jin cannot get a Chinese visa on political grounds, his novel has been recently translated into Chinese and published in the mainland.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Paul Levine is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Copenhagen University. He was born in Brooklyn, attended Wesleyan and Princeton and received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. Levine taught at Wesleyan, Rochester and York (Toronto) Universities before becoming the first Professor of American Literature in Copenhagen (1975-2006). He also held the Salgo Chair in American Studies at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest (1986-9) and directed the annual Athens American Studies Seminar for fifteen years (1994-2009). He publishes widely on literature, art, film and culture. He collaborated with E. L. Doctorow on a volume of the novelist’s Screenplays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and a new edition of America Since 1945: The American Moment, (with Harry Papasotiriou) was published by Palgrave in 2010. He has twice received royal honors in Denmark and holds the title of Ridder af Dannebrogorden, 1st Kl. (2000).
Levine first went to China in 2001 at the invitation of the State Department to help create a graduate program in American Studies at ECNU (East China Normal University, Shanghai). In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship at ECNU for three semesters. After retiring from Copenhagen in 2006, he served as director of regional studies and the new Center for International Studies (2007-11) at Shantou University in Guangdong Province. He and his wife, Lily Varidaki-Levine, now live in Copenhagen and Athens.

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