The Last Scoundrels

William Inge, Anglican priest, Evening Standard columnist, and long-time dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral once remarked, “A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbors.”  Given that he wrote this during one of Europe’s more terrible periods, who can blame him for being something of a pessimist.  But given the rhetoric in China today, the gloomy priest has perhaps never seemed more prescient.

Many people in the United States and especially in China take for granted the nation-state, and are oblivious to its relatively recent provenance (The Peace of Westphalia, anyone?) and rather specific origin (Western Europe).  That this particular form of social organization has – for the most part and with notable exceptions – been internalized as the default form of socio-political organization in the last century is a rather remarkable process, one upon which better scholars than I (not the least William Inge) have written voluminously.

One of the divides in 20th century Chinese history, especially in the first decades after the 1911 Revolution, was that between nationalism and cosmopolitanism: those who sought to be part of a greater global movement or civilization versus those who thought first of the strength, power, and independence of their own nation and people.  During the New Culture Movement of the 1910s, the forces of cosmopolitan, tolerance, and innovation were in ascendance, but following the debacle of Versailles and the gradual realization by a generation of Chinese intellectuals that perhaps the world (in particular the West) didn’t have the solutions for China’s problems, nor much interest in helping China find its own solutions, there was a sea change and many former internationalists, Utopians, anarchists, socialists, and other cosmopolitan thinkers turned toward the more practical realities of building a Chinese nation capable of standing up for itself in the world.  Under the KMT and the CCP, patriotism, in its rawest, bloodiest form, was something to be celebrated, while internationalism and cosmopolitanism became synonymous with capitulation and collaboration.  To borrow a metaphor, to be patriotic was to be yang, virile, strong, facing the sun, all that was goodness and light, whereas to be cosmopolitan was to be yin, trading in the dark, yielding your moral character to outside forces, and surrendering your birthright.  Little wonder that in China, as much as anywhere in the world, patriotism became a highly-gendered concept.

In this past week, we have seen a reporter expelled from China amidst rumors that one reason she grated on the authorities was her ethnicity (a little too much “A & B”, not enough “C”), as well as a growing shit storm over some rocks in the South China Sea over which China claims historical sovereignty based on…well, Chinese maps showing there are, in fact, rocks in the South China Sea.  The Internet was also abuzz about an Englishman assaulting a young woman and paying a price with the video prominently displayed on Youku’s homepage and the comments section brimming with racial hatred and invective.[1]

You live here long enough, you get used to it.  I’m guessing it’s easier for Americans.  After all, we pretty much invented “Love it or Leave it” jingoism and exceptionalist moral grandstanding.  But after awhile, the infantile obsession with patriotic virtue and national purity in China gets a little tiresome.

There are, of course, reasons for hope.  The comment thread related to “French Fry Brother,” the young American college student who shared his fast food lunch with a beggar woman in Nanjing, showed a great deal of introspection and even a couple of head fakes in the direction of universal values – compassion being the most commonly cited – which could be shared by both East and West.  And for several days one of the most popular posts on Weibo has been an essay entitled “Confessions of a Former Patriot,” which was translated in its entirety by the good folks at Offbeat China. (Original Text here)

The essayist writes:

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