Interview with a Cambridge Scholar: China, Chinese and the Nation

Interview with a Cambridge Scholar: China, Chinese and the Nation

Editor’s note: China Current Beijing Station’s reporter Muge Niu interviewed Professor Hans van de Ven, who is an authority on the history of 19th and 20th century China. He holds several positions at the University of Cambridge, where he is Professor of Modern Chinese History, Chairman of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Management Committee member of the East Asia Institute, and Director of Oriental Studies at St Catharine’s College.

China Current:

When do you think Chinese people began to think of themselves as a nation? What role did warfare play in this process?

Hans van de Ven:

It began in the second half of the 19th century, around the time of the Taiping Rebellion. viagra for sale The idea of China as a nation grew first among officials, elites. Then among two sets of people. The first set of people is Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and their group, who read a lot of translated work. Another group was the young China group, which emerged in the late 19th century. They are the first generation of people who studied abroad. They did not study for kekao, but to join the foreign office. They organised clubs and societies.

Modern warfare had a huge impact. The view of China as a legal nation state was more widespread after the First World War. Gu Weijun went to the Paris Peace Conference and made a very strong argument against foreign privilege in China. There was negotiation with Britain of Chinese rights over Tibet. The view of China as a modern nation state with sovereignty became powerful then during the Paris Peace Conference. From then on, it became powerful among the masses. The May 4th Movement was of course essential for China, and after that the war against Japan. There is also a cultural aspect to it.

China Current:

Did the definition of nation state apply to China before 1949? How did the definition generic viagra of Chinese nationalities form?

Hans van de Ven:

China was a state with many nationalities like Great Britain, but others would argue that China at the time was a majority Han nation without much of a state. When we talk about nation, there is a difference between cultural and bureaucratic. Before then, there was Wang Jingwei, the Nationalist government, and the Communists, but there was not much of a central state from the 1900 revolution until 1949. So China existed, and Chinese-ness was in place, but the state was weak and fragmented.

China Current:

The Three Principles of the People are Nationalism, Democracy and People’s Livelihood. What does nationalism mean in this context?

Hans van de Ven:

For Sun Yatsen, it meant two things: he talked about Chinese people as yi pan sansha (一盘散沙) – a sheet of loose sand, incoherent and uncooperative –, and he called for a sense of common identity, to become patriotic, as he didn’t believe Chinese people would make a sacrifice for their country. And secondly, it meant that the people should be in charge of the government and that the state should be run by all people, in other words tianxia weigong (天下为公). This is what he meant by nationalism.

China Current:

How did the idea of ‘Chinese Nation’s Revival’ affect the war against Japan? What role did it play in forming Chinese people’s sense of nationalism?

Hans van de Ven:

It is very important. The Revival of China is a result of the widespread idea that China had fallen away, lost to the US. The idea could be traced back to the first Opium War, imperialism, poverty, landlordism, flooding in the 1930s, terrible natural disasters, and ideas that Chinese culture had become a block to reaching modernity. China’s Revival is the idea of China regaining control over its own fate and territory, also not as a dynasty run by a monarchy, but as a modern nation state. It played a very significant role in the War of Resistance against Japan. The word ‘resistance’ is key. It was seen as an opportunity to improve China’s modernity, to recover vigor, manliness on battle by defeating Japan. In March 1938, at the National Convention in Wuhan, a new Constitution was adopted by the Nationalists: the ‘Outline for Resistance Against Japan and Reconstruction of China’ (抗日建国大纲). Its goal was to achieve nationalism and also to do away with all the problems of the past.

China Current:

China today is still a nation with multiple ethnicities. Yet under the idea of zhonghua minzu (中华民族) there are still many incidents and conflicts. How should we understand this?

Hans van de Ven:

I am in no place to comment on what it means to be zhonghua minzu (中华民族). But there is a bigger question, what is China? It is hard to define. You can say, and it is true, that there is a lot of debate about Chinese identity. The debate got especially difficult in the late 80s, since people like Du Weimin raised this issue of what it meant to be Chinese. For him, there was a Confucian answer. But I do not agree with that. Although I speak Chinese and sometimes get called ‘Chinese’, in a flattering way, I do not think I am Chinese. The debate of course is intense in Taiwan, people debate about what is Chinese and what is Taiwanese. But that debate is more and more prominent in China now. Tibetans have very powerful ideas of not being Chinese at all. There is another definition, Greater China, which includes Hong Kong, Singapore and other Chinese-speaking regions. And there is the idea of the Sinosphere. This is a cultural definition. So there is really no one definition of China, it changes under different contexts.

China Current:

Right now, there are a group of people called wu mao (五毛), who usually have a narrow sense of nationalistic sentiment. They can be seen as patriotic or irrational. What do you think of the phenomenon? Can nationalism be rational?

Hans van de Ven:

Patriotism is not the same as nationalism. Patriotism sometimes is very mundane, like standing for cheap viagra the national anthem, or putting little flags in your yard. It is not radical, just part of civilised social life. I think it is absolutely possible to be rational and patriotic. But nationalism can be very powerful and irrational. The government encourages nationalism to an extent, but it also has to be very careful about it. Students going on the street to burn Japanese cars, looting Japanese stores, that kind of behavior is certainly troublesome for the government. On the other hand, the people certainly need a way to express their sentiments. The history between China and Japan is a very sensitive and highly emotional one. This also happens in Europe. Many people hold an emotional grudge against Germans till this day for what happened in history.

China Current:

What can we learn from China’s history before 1949?

Hans van de Ven:

We can only learn from the past and there is no reason not to do that. But in fact, right now, as a historian studying China, I face many challenges. A lot of the archives, especially the regional ones are closed. Even materials that are not considered sensitive, even the ones from a long time ago, are not available for study. So in fact, it is not that we do not want to learn from the past, but that we cannot.

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