The Nature of Modern Chinese Nationalism

The word nationalism has a very complex nature, and it can be discussed from various standpoints. In terms of sociology, it is the policy, which attaches primary importance to the interests of some particular nation. The nation, itself is viewed as a unifying factor, the cornerstone of the state. In turn a nation is defined as a set of people who share a common language, origin, system of values, behavioral code and most importantly history, in other words culture. The term “nation’ is often mistakenly associated with state, however, it is not always so. People of the same cultural origin may not be necessarily united by the structure of the State.

As regards, modern Chinese, we can say that its growth was stimulated by the following factors: the resistance to imperialism, the opposition to the Manchu rule (this regime was held responsible for the decline of China, the demand for the organization of the modern centralized nation state and the rejection of warlordism. However, Chinese nationalism did not exist until the Opium War that was fought between the British and the Chinese between the years of 1840 and 1842. In the war, China was defeated. The result was that the Chinese Empire disintegrated and the sovereignty was lost to the British imperialists. (Gladney, 2008) It should be mentioned that at the end of the nineteenth century, China was virtually divided by four superpowers: Great Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan.

Speaking about the so-called warlord era in China, we should mention that at the beginning of the twentieth century the country was practically torn apart by various military cliques. The main problem was that the government could hardly put these cliques under control; moreover they tried to influence the decisions of the government.

Chinese nationalism is then exemplified in political nationalism, ethnic nationalism and even cultural nationalism. Therefore, the Chinese nationalism idea can be described as a multi faceted concept. This is because throughout different periods in history it has meant different things. In China ethnic nationalism was the first early form of nationalism to be introduced. In this type of nationalism there were calls for the formation of a single ethnic nation. It was on this basis that the Han majority sought to rise to power in 1911 against the Manchu minority in the Qing Dynasty. It should be taken into account that Han Chinese represent the ethnic group, which is native in China, whereas Manchus were often considered colonizers. After the revolution, Manchus were also “inicized” or in other words made Chinese. However, they belong to the minority groups. Moreover, minority groups in China are assimilated by Han Chinese, though it is officially declared that the cultural identity of every ethnic group should be preserved. It is believed that the present day concept of “Chinese people” officially includes the representatives of minority groups; however, it is only de jure but not de facto. Though it may seem a little bit far-fetched, we can say that Chinese nationalism is mostly based on the interests of one particular ethnic group, although such notions as ethnic group and state are not interchangeable.

According to Gladney, contemporary/modern Chinese nationalism can only be understood in the context of China’s ethnicity. Similarly, nationalism and Han chauvinism are the instruments used by the CCP in its ideological wars. (2008) Culture has been said to be an important factor in Chinese nationalism. Before nationalism, China could be considered to have been more of an empire than a nation state. It was in more ways than one a civilization and a culture that was dominated by the Han race. For this reason it could not be judged to be a society that had been brought together by some national mission. Thus, what is referred to as Chinese nationalism is in most cases just powerful racial sentiments as well as cultural identity rather than feelings of the Chinese nation as a state. It is for this reason that for the most part Chinese nationalism is confused with the historical attitudes of Hans Chauvinism.

Growth of Chinese nationalism

According to Harrison, political rituals ceremonies and symbols were invented by the Chinese state for the simple purpose of transforming the daily lives of the Chinese people. In order that the Chinese become modern citizens there was need for them to first of all adopt new political symbols in the form of the national flag, the national anthem and even the solar calendar. This would cut then off from the traditional queues. This resulted in the resistance of imperialism. More over, it was responsible for the development of in the sense of national identity (2001).

Following the 1911 revolution, certain symbols as the solar calendar were introduced. Also, western etiquette was introduced which signified the foundation of a new modern state. According to Harrison, these new symbols and the western style customs represented a new type of identity that was different from the old and traditional. Thus Chinese nationalism is related to prior forms of cultural identity in that it represents the modern. It can be described as a response to modernity and therefore a part of modernity which is distinct from the traditional (Harrison, 2001).

Modern Chinese nationalism was caused by the end of the cold war. This was because the end of the war resulted in the revival of the nationalistic sentiments and aspirations. In China especially, the end of the war was responsible for the disintegration of the communist ideology. Consequently, the CCP rose to power as the dominant patriotic force using the guise of the guard of Chinese national pride to gain legitimacy (Harrison, 2001).

Promotion of nationalistic sentiments

The year 1929, argues Harrison, was a period of particular importance in Chinese nationalism. It was when Sun Yat-sen was buried and the nationalist party rose to power. This was after the Northern Expedition. The nationalist party rose to power by way of manipulating the image of the Sun to gain political legitimacy. While Sun, the leader, had a powerful image in China, it was nonetheless controversial. Harrison posits that the party rose to power despite its many internal wrangles under the leadership of Chiang Kai Shek. However, the party later replaced the earlier symbols with its own in order to gain legitimacy. On the one hand, the party established itself as the ideological heir of the Sun. On the other hand, through the use of propaganda, it distinguished its success with the failures of the aftermath of the 1911 revolution. For instance, it used its party’s shining sun flag to overshadow the five color national flag that had existed prior to their rise to the top. This was for the simple reason of expressing their dominance over the republic while also serving to create a new sense of identity among the Chinese people (2001). Thus, to Harrison, Chinese nationalism is in most cases a new construct with mostly ill defined and questionable historical links. In this argument, Harrison is then in criticism of the of the top-down model of nationalism where only a small group of elite and politicians with western influence are able to impose nationalism to a not so welcoming public. Thus to her, modern Chinese nationalism is part of the cultural change that occurs among the people. Accordingly, it is a process in which the designers, distributors and beneficiaries of the new culture are all involved in its shaping. (2001) To Harrison, nationalism in China was established through a set of complex interactions between the state and the people. Nonetheless the state and the intellectual elite were crucial in the promotion of the national sentiments. Well educated scholars and professionals were involved in the promotion of nationalism. They were involved in the articulation of the nationalism discussions in China. To this end the law and the political institutions were used as ways of consolidating nationalism. This stance was adopted by successive leaders. Case in point, nationalism still forms part of the talks of the China’s Communist Party (CCP). (2001).

Critics use the national sentiment to attack the state in circumstances that involve the stability of the regime and in foreign policy. That is to say that a government that espouses nationalism is only legitimate it is able to defend the national interests of the country. For the most part, the party in power, CCP, has been using nationalism to legitimize its dictatorship in addition to stifling and suppressing call for political reforms. The state has been using nationalism for the purposes of reinforcing its public support while at the same time misusing it to focus the attention of the public away from domestic setbacks (Taiwanese independence issue case in point). This is not in order with the interests of the country (Cabestan, 2005). Thus, we can see that the concept of national unity has often been used as an expedient means to manipulate the public opinion.

Chinese nationalism can be traced as far back as 1911 when the Han Majority defeated the Manchu minority. It can be related to the establishment of modernity and with the rejection of warlordism and imperialism, which represented the old and the traditional. The nationalist party and later the CCP can be attributed with the promotion of nationalism. This then brings into close focus the role of the elite who are indispensable in the propagation of the nationalist ideology.


  1. Cabestan, Jean Pierre. ‘The many facets of Chinese nationalism’. China Perspectives, 2005.
  2. Gladney, Dru C. Internal colonialism and the Uyghur nationality: Chinese nationality and its subaltern subjects. 2008.
  3. Harrison, Henrietta. China (inventing the nation). 2001. New York: Hodder Arnold publications.
  4. Hauss, Charles. ‘Nationalism’. Beyond Intractability. 2003. Web.