Published on May 13, 2014.
UNOFFICIALLY FROM 1915 to 1926, and then officially from 1927 to 1940, the fledgling republic of China observed National Humiliation Day. “During the Republican period,” writes the scholar William Callahan, “the holiday commemorated May 9th, the day when the Chinese government succumbed to Japan’s twenty-one demands in 1915, which seriously compromised China’s national sovereignty.”
In 2001, the communist government revived the tradition, instituting the third Saturday of September as National Defense Education Day, a holiday Callahan said is informally referred to also as National Humiliation Day. “In this way,” he writes in “History, Identity, and Security: Producing and Consuming Nationalism in China” (2006), the holiday “is one manifestation of the discourse of national humiliation, which recounts how at the hands of foreign invaders and corrupt Chinese regimes, sovereignty was lost, territory dismembered, and the Chinese people thus humiliated.”
I was led to Callahan’s work by BBC journalist Bill Hayton, whose two lectures at the University of the Philippines last April have been like gifts that keep on giving. The first one, on Chinese maps of the South China Sea, owes a debt to Callahan’s scholarship, especially “China: The Pessoptimist Nation.” I have not yet read that book, published in 2010, but I did find three scholarly papers of Callahan’s which advance the same argument Hayton referenced in his lecture.
Like many, I suppose, I was aware that present-day Chinese nationalism was partly a reaction to China’s so-called “century of national humiliation” (Bainian guochi)—that period commonly thought of as beginning in the 1840s, with the first Opium War, and ending in 1949, with the triumph of the communist revolution. (Controversial Harvard professor Niall Ferguson begins his popular class on the ascent of the West with graphic images showing China’s humiliating status, a moribund empire ruled in all but name by Western and Japanese powers.) I did not realize, however, just how deep this cultural wound was, until I read Callahan. He notes in “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism” (2004): “It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the master narrative of modern Chinese history is the discourse of the century of national humiliation.”
In “The Cartography of National Humiliation and the Emergence of China’s Geobody (2009),” we read the same idea, but with a few caveats thrown into the mix. “Although it is not necessarily the dominant view, it is necessary to understand how the cartography of national humiliation still animates official, scholarly, and popular misunderstandings of national territoriality in China.”
To be clear, the idea of humiliation as a national project is not peculiarly Chinese; we can make the argument that Filipinos commemorate the fall of Bataan in a similar way too. The conversion of April 9 into Araw ng Kagitingan, or Day of Courage, follows a pattern similar to China’s commemoration of national humiliation; the day of shame becomes the occasion for celebrating national rehabilitation.
Also, Callahan takes pains to emphasize the dual nature at the heart of this curious project: “national humiliation is not deployed just in a predictably xenophobic way but also in a self-critical examination of Chineseness,” he writes in “National Insecurities.” In other words, and from the earliest use, national humiliation in China denotes foreign subjugation but also connotes Chinese corruption, the cause of the weakening of the once great empire. (It corresponds to the communist practice of criticism-self-criticism.)
This second half of the humiliation narrative does not often figure in news reports about an increasingly assertive China. When the “century of national humiliation” is referenced in news reports or opinion columns these days, China’s historical injury is often understood in the context of the proverbial danger posed by a wounded tiger.
To be sure, there is cause to worry. The Chinese-made maps of the South China Sea which Hayton presented are inconsistent about Chinese territory. As Callahan writes: “Hence the struggle about the proper size and shape of China is not only with foreign countries along frontier zones but within China in debates about different groups, which each draw different ‘national maps’ to support their preferred geobodies.”
But they are consistent about one thing: the sense of loss. “These national humiliation maps help us understand the emergence of China’s geobody because they are produced for mass education to chart how China ‘lost territories’ to imperialist aggressors …”
Remarkably, there is one “Map of China’s National Humiliation,” produced in 1927, whose outer ring, labeled the “old national boundary,” does not include Scarborough Shoal—but includes the Sulu islands!
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In “History, Identity, and Security,” there is an intriguing discussion, all too short, on Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s classification of political protests in China into either subversive “political theater” or establishment-oriented “political ritual.” What would that make of the May 12, 2012 protest in Beijing against the Philippines at the height of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, when, according to Hayton, only five people showed up? The “mass nationalist anger” Philippine effrontery was supposed to have stirred up seems merely ritualistic.