Book Review: China: The Pessoptimist Nation

Copyright The China Beat

You can supposedly tell a lot about a country’s psychology from the individuals it chooses to commemorate. The Scots celebrate the persevering Robert the Bruce who—on the run from English armies—drew inspiration from watching a spider try repeatedly, and eventually manage, to spin its web around a beam. The English are keen on the absent-mindedly cake-burning King Alfred. The Russians fete Ivan Susanin, a salt-of-the-earth peasant who in 1613 misled an army of marauding Poles away from the tsar and into a freezing bog, and Dmitry Pozharsky, the prince who organised the 1612 defence of Moscow to expel—you guessed it—the Poles.

China lionises a number of straightforwardly positive heroes: generals, emperors, and ministers lauded for their courage, doggedness, incorruptibility, and so on. Slightly more ambivalent, perhaps, is its fondness for one Goujian, a fifth-century BC king of the state of Yue. Having been captured by a rival ruler, the king of Wu, Goujian devoted himself to maintaining a duplicitous show of submissiveness: kowtowing before his conqueror, living amid piles of royal horse manure, even eating his captor’s excrement. Moved by Goujian’s capitulation, the king of Wu allowed him to return, a free man, to Yue. For the next twenty years, Goujian subjected himself to endless unpleasantnesses—spending his winters standing in cold water, hugging hot braziers in deep summer—in order to keep alive the memory of his humiliating discomforts in Wu and to feed his desire for revenge. He is renowned for sleeping on a bed of brushwood over which was suspended a bile-filled gallbladder which he would lick whenever he was in danger of forgetting his past bitterness. For some twenty years, he schemed and plotted until, finally, he succeeded in destroying Wu. The story of Goujian—much repeated through Chinese history but commemorated with particular intensity during the twentieth century—seems to highlight a Chinese interest in heroic attributes that are less than wholly wholesome: that are obsessed with humiliation, self-loathing, and vengefulness. [1]

This preoccupation with humiliation, William Callahan argues in his excellent book China: The Pessoptimist Nation, is a key part of the story of modern China. Since China’s modern nationalists began earnestly trying to manufacture a strong, cohesive nation out of a messy, failing empire, they have relied heavily on the discourse of “national humiliation”: on regularly reminding the Chinese people of their modern history of defeats at the hands of the imperialist powers (Britain, France, the U.S.A., Japan), to spur them to better things. On the one hand, China’s modern elites have believed confidently in China’s right to regain its traditional place in the sun; on the other, this quest to forge a vigorous nation-state has betrayed a powerfully self-critical strain in the modern Chinese psyche—what Geremie Barmé has termed the pull between “self-hate and self-approbation.” Thanks to the highly successful “patriotic education” campaign introduced by the Communist state after 1989—which has dwelled on China’s “century of humiliation” inflicted by foreign imperialism, from the Opium War to the Second World War—the Chinese humiliation complex shows little sign of abating.

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