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China's History of Humiliation

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Zheng Wang explores China's historical memory and how it impacts present day attitudes:

The English translation of the Chinese phrase "Wuwang Guochi" is "Never forget national humiliation." It is the title of the book that I have just published. In this book, I refer to it as the "national phrase" of China. The Chinese characters associated with this motto are engraved on monuments and painted on walls all over China. For the Chinese, historical consciousness has been powerfully influenced by the so-called "century of humiliation" from the First Opium War (1839-1842) through the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945. The Chinese remember this period as a time when their nation was attacked, bullied, and torn asunder by imperialists.

As the research in this book has identified, China's unique national experiences, most significantly pride over its civilization as well as a collective memory resulting from the "century of humiliation" vis-à-vis Western powers, have played a crucial role in shaping the Chinese national identity.

Wang notes that China's educational system was revamped in the 1990's away from the class struggle narrative and toward a "victimization narrative" with the West as the principle architect of said victimization. If China were to move to a a multi-party democracy, Wang writes, these narratives could easily be seized on by nationalist leaders to mobilize support.

This is something many policymakers in the U.S. need to be mindful of. There's a thread that runs through some hawkish commentary on China that until the country democratizes to Western standards, the U.S. can never have a good relationship with Beijing. This stance not only overlooks the nationalist dangers that democratization could provoke, it also reinforces the idea in China that the West is intent on dominating their domestic politics. And as Wang notes, that is a potent historical grievance -- one the U.S. should be mindful of.

(AP Photo)