Imagining the Nation in Revolutionary and Postrevolutionary China

AHA Session 60
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Chelsea (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Joanna Waley-Cohen, NYU Shanghai
Edward A. McCord, George Washington University

Session Abstract

Since the revolution of 1911, the concept of the nation has played a key role in transforming China from an empire centered on a family-state to a self-styled nation-state focused on “national revival”. How could the nation, an abstract notion foreign to Chinese history and removed from everyday experience, come to dominate the political imagination of China’s 1.3 billion people? How was the imagining of the nation shaped by changing technology, geopolitics, and ideology from 1911 to the present? How was the imagined community of the Chinese nation communicated via political power, social networks, and the media? While historians of the Chinese nation have discussed the conceptual formation of Chinese nationalism in its historical and global contexts, the focus of scholarship has been the intellectual scaffoldings and elite-led nation-building in the first half of the twentieth century. From legal contentions on filial piety in Republican China to daily political gossip in contemporary Beijing, from martial arts in Cold War Hong Kong to state-guided tours for overseas Chinese in the early PRC, this panel seeks to challenge conventional narratives of Chinese nationalism as a top-down ideology by turning to unlikely but crucial sites of political interactions between the modern Chinese state, its citizens, and overseas Chinese networks.

Drawing on divergent sources and inter-disciplinary toolkits, the four papers in this panel explore how the nation was imagined, represented, and communicated in modern and contemporary China. Yue Du’s paper discusses how the family served as an axis around which constitutional restructuring was conceptualized in China’s empire-to-nation transformation, as the father-mother-emperor, who ruled indirectly through layered delegation of his parental authority, was replaced by a territorialized fatherland that demanded devotion and piety directly from its subjects or children. Through an examination of official reports on sightseeing tours organized for politically strategic Chinese diaspora tourists, Gavin Healy’s paper analyzes the organization and goals of this unique tour program and its contribution to nation-building efforts in the early People’s Republic. Focusing on the rebuilding of the Shaolin Monastery in imagined and concrete terms in the cultural industry centered on martial arts, Yanjie Huang’s paper explores how Hong Kong-based Chinese émigré cultural entrepreneurs harnessed Cold War political, cultural, and commercial dynamics to reinvent the Chinese martial arts tradition and herald Communist China into a post-colonial world of nation-states in the 1970s and early 1980s. By highlighting the critical roles played by place in political communication in contemporary China, Charles Chang examines the impact of information and communication technologies and the construction of places on the Chinese society’s political communication. Deploying spatial and textual analysis of large and variegated data, his paper implies that place, both as physical structure and media, plays a significant role in building the contemporary image of the Chinese nation.

Altogether, the four papers contribute to the literature on Chinese nationalism, political culture, and media studies by presenting the imagining of the Chinese nation as a multi-level dynamic process shaped by shifting forces of geopolitics, ideology, and technology.

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