School children in China learn from their earliest classes that their country was a victim of wars and natural calamities for a long period of time. Known as “the century of humiliation,” the list of adverse events is taught not only for historic value, but to build nationalistic pride as the Chinese overcame extreme hardship and turmoil.
Zheng Wang is the Director for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. In excerpts of his conversation with VOA’s Jim Stevenson, he talks about his new book, Never Forget National Humiliation, and how this teaching, combined with a glaring omission from 25 years ago, has aided the government in Beijing.
WANG: When people talked about China, very often people focused only on the economic statistics, military statistics – what I’m trying to do in this book is trying to – because I think it’s more important than, it’s more challenging for people to understand China’s intention, because their intentions determine their strength. And I believe to understand the people, this group of people, they understand the history, their historic memory is very important for people outside to understand this group of people, their motivation, their intention and their objectives.
One of the key elements, I think, not sufficiently discussed, is about the period of history in China, the people call it “The Century of Humiliation,” from the first Opium War in 1840 through the end of the China-Japan war in 1945.
STEVENSON: We in the West tend to talk about China’s rise, whereas in China it’s not so much a rise as it is a return.
WANG: Yeah, exactly. Chinese, they prefer to use another term, [that] if we translate it into English, it should be “rejuvenation” or “rejuvenating.”
They are emphasizing [that] China is not rising up from nothing, China is returning to its old glory, it has returned to its central position in the world.
STEVENSON: How is this so-called “Century of Humiliation” taught to Chinese students in today’s classes?
WANG: You will find actually it’s very interesting - the different period of time that the students - they are being taught the different interpretation or different content about their country’s national experience. Many of today’s students, they probably know very little about what happened 25 years ago, the [Tiananmen] student’s movement, but they know very well about what happened 100 years ago.
So that is actually, I think, because the education they receive so their memory becomes selective.
STEVENSON: The events in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago obviously were something that the Beijing government did not wish to acknowledge. Was the increased emphasis on history before Tiananmen the way that the government was able to recapture a national identity?
WANG: Yes, the reason history is important is it plays an important role in constructing a nation’s identity and perceptions. So at that time, the government, they were facing a major crisis of legitimacy, and a major crisis of people no longer believing socialism, communism and the Party.
So they want to use these educations, partially the humiliation education, to try to, especially [for] the younger generation, reshape people’s identity and perception, and trying to use this to strengthen the Party’s legitimacy.
STEVENSON: You mention natural disasters as part of national humiliation. Many of the world’s largest national disasters happened in China.
WANG: China is one of the few countries in the world that suffers a lot of major earthquakes or major natural disasters because of the geography situation - very frequently [China experiences] flooding and earthquakes.
So indeed in my book I discussed that. If we used the 2008 earthquake as an example you can say that this kind of nationalism also played some positive role for this group of people to [fight] and to conduct some reconstruction.
STEVENSON: We have so many Chinese students studying here in the United States, and as they possibly do get the other sides of the story and take that home, that could present a dilemma.
WANG: You are exactly right. Because I’m a university professor, I know that in recent years there is a rapid, unthinkably rapid increase of the Chinese students coming to the U.S. and to other countries in the world. Now they have the access of information they couldn’t access in the past. But what I’m trying to do in this book is that I’m trying to argue that Chinese nationalism, Chinese understanding of history is very complicated. Oversimplification has been a major reason for many misunderstandings between China and Japan and China and the United States.