The purpose of this paper is to explore how Chinese people perceive and understand the geographic location of China, which was once considered to be at the centre of the world. At least this is what their cultural framework led them to believe. But as Western countries penetrated into China, the concept of being at the centre of the Earth gradually disappeared, and Chinese people accepted the fact that the country is in the East. Due to the historical humiliation by Western imperialism, the meaning of “East” is embodied into China’s political ideology and propaganda in order to create new forms of nationalism and patriotism against the Western cultural influences. Meanwhile, the “West” has its symbolic meaning as democratic, modernised and at a higher level of living standard. Today, Chinese people are facing a cultural dilemma because, on one hand, tragic failure throughout history taught them to fight against Western imperialism but, on the other, they are pursuing Western lifestyle and commodities as it associated with social status and living standard. [Are you asking the question “Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]This paper will first examine Sino-centrism – which explains the concept of Chinese people thinking they live in the centre of the world – and how this belief was altered as Western imperialism invaded China in the mid-19th Century. As the result, the meaning of the East and the orient not only exist as a way to strengthen and represent Chinese cultural identity and national pride, but also as a contradictory ideology to the west. The West, in Chinese culture, has derived two meanings; one is connected to imperialism, and the other is the desirable living standard in contemporary Chinese society.
China is called “Zhongguo” in Chinese, and it is separated into two words that have their own meaning: Zhong (?) means centre or middle, and Guo (?) refers to country or nation. Its literal meaning is also known as “Middle Kingdom” or “Central Kingdom” (Chung, 1973). Studies have suggested that the idea of being at the centre of the world in ancient China was mainly adapted from the idea of Sino-centrism. The Chinese culture is highly ethnocentric because they believed China was not only the centre of the world, but also the centre of civilisation ruled by dynasties that held the “Mandate of Heaven” since ancient times (Hamilton, 1977; The British Museum, 2008). As Mungello (2009) explains, ancient China was a monarchical state that believed the emperor of China was born with superior power to govern everything under the sun, which was also referred to as the “Son of Heaven.” The hierarchical order in this monarchy system was created under this ideology, and it extended this highly idealized systematic concept in terms of seeing other countries in a hierarchical and unequal manner. In addition to the natural geographic isolation from the rest of the world, Sino-centrism categorised the world into three zones: in the Sinitic zone, there are the countries that were the closet geographically and that had borrowed extensively from Chinese culture; the Inner Asian zone referred to the people who were not ethnically Chinese; and the outer zone was the outmost countries, such as Southeast Asia, South Asia and Europe, which were considered uncivilized, barbarian states.
It was an ex-nomination idea for the ancient Chinese to see themselves as being in the centre of the world, because China had never been thoroughly confronted by a foreign nation that has equal power or is stronger, until the saturation of the West in the mid-19th Century (Tu, 2005). Lackoff (2000) explained ex-nomination as people seeing things as being normal when instituting common sense into a culture. However, this ex-nomination was changed by the dominants who were at the rhetorical centre and who had the power to influence others because they were the centre, the moderate, and others were defined as extremists (p. 69). The Sino-centrism was ended with psychological difficulties as Western authoritative forced the Chinese leadership to abandon its sense of superiority as the centre, and it reframed the East as contradictory to the West.
After Encounter with Western Imperialism
The rise of the Western domination was the outer force that shifted the Middle Kingdom concept from the centre to the East. As Lakoff explains, those who are able to create meaning have power and control over the future of their society; and having the ability to create markedness excludes the norm. Anything that’s marked is challenging to accept because it is not natural. Maybe one of the most significant markedness here is the understanding of the geographic location of China, but Western lifestyle and ideology such as democracy and consumption pattern also inspired China.
As the consequences, there were several effects taking place in China after a series of devastating defeats by the Western countries in the mid-19th Century. First, according to Zhao (2009), the idea of nationalism has launched into Chinese society, which did not exist in China before Western invasion, as China was an empire, not a nation-state. Second, liberal ideas that called for Western-style modernization and democracy was introduced to China, which influenced the educated elite to put forward primary goals for China’s modernization and democratization (Kluver & Banerjee, 2005). For instance, the famous May 4 Movement of 1919 and the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989. Lastly, Western lifestyle and consumption patterns were also introduced to China, as the world is heading towards the process of globalization. [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
These complex factors have created a cultural dilemma because, on one hand, the party-state constructs of Chinese nationalism that were based on the historical humiliation by the Western imperialism; on the other hand, the activists and average citizens want to pursue democratic political environment and Western lifestyle. The following sections will explain how the Chinese Communist Party buildt up nationalism at the citizenry level, and how the Western values influenced the political agenda and ordinary consumer consumption style in China.
Nationalism and the Communist State
A number of scholars argue that Chinese past encounter with Western imperialism is related to nationalism and patriotism today (Gries et al, 2011; Zhao, 2009; Wang, 2008). Zhao defines nationalism as “a set of modern ideas that centers people’s loyalty upon the nation-state, either existing or desired.” She further argues that nationalism and Chinese identity is fortified by humiliation in the past and it’s also the driving force for China’s modernization. Gries, Zhang, Crowson, and Cai (2011) also point out, “China’s early modern encounter with Western imperial powers was a history of humiliation in which the motherland was subjected to the insult of being beaten because we were backwards.” Gries cited similar arguments raised by other scholars like John Fitzgerald and William Callahan. John Fitzgerald argued that “the desire of many Chinese express for dignity has its origins in feelings of humiliation stemming from China’s early modern encounter with Western and Japanese imperialisms,” (pg. 3). William Callahan also shows his similar view by arguing that “humiliation has been an integral part of the construction of Chinese nationalism,” (pg. 3). Therefore, nationalism has become an effective instrument to enhance the legitimacy of the Communist State.
According to Zhao, communist states have launched an extensive propaganda campaign of education in patriotism since the 1990s to ensure loyalty in a population that was otherwise subject to domestic discontent. In addition, the communist state has exploited nationalism to help restore the legitimacy of the Communist regime and to build a broad base of national support during the transition towards a post-Communist society. The study has shown the effectiveness of this campaign as the historical sense of failure is now deeply rooted in citizens’ minds. For instance, the recent Diaoyu Island conflict between Japan and China has raised military, economic and diplomatic tensions in these countries. It also evoked Chinese people’s nationalist credentials at citizen level by rejecting the Japanese brand or making products and joining protests on this issue. In addition, the nationalism has also been implemented into government regulations in terms of cultural industry and foreign policy in order to protect national identity (Zhao, 2009).
Wang’s (2008) research has shown the nationalist propaganda starts from school age, and it is also known as “Patriotic Education Campaign,” which was developed in 1991. This campaign uses tragic historical memory to create nationalist values by implementing a new “victimization narrative” to condemn the West for China’s suffering. It is effective because, as Wang suggests, “All nation-states, whether Western democracies or nondemocratic societies, have placed great emphasis on teaching their national history with the aim of consolidating the bond between the individual citizen and the homeland,” (pg. 784).
This national identity is created under the framework of modernity, as cited by Malpas (2005). Habermas argues that “modernity is a social and a political discourse as well as a philosophical one. If changes in culture and society can change human experience, then there is a point in challenging existing structures in order to liberate those who are oppressed or marginalized, and this struggle is a practical social one rather than just an intellectual exercise…” Malpas also explains that human nature can be changed through different social contexts and it is historically mutable. The “victimization narrative” is put into this context, allowing the party-state to further create strong national identity and patriotism by associating it with the feeling of history humiliation brought on by Western imperialism.
In contrast to the West, the party-state uses “oriental” to represent the characteristics of Chinese community. For example, as Yuezhi Zhao (2008) notes,
China has become a promoter of Orientalist notions of China, which have now been appropriated as the characteristics of Chinese society, often in the very language of Orientalism (including the term “Oriental” itself). For example, the television and radio stations in Shanghai, named “Dongfang” in Chinese, which means “Oriental” as the official English translation (pg. 143).
There are a few more examples of Orient or East that are used as a metaphor to represent China. The famous Shanghai landmark, Oriental Pearl Tower, is one of the largest airline companies in China. The Eastern Airline is another, and Hong Kong is also known as the Pearl of Orient. As we can see, the Western forces penetrating not only strengthen and reinforce Chinese national identity but also embody the orient with its country image.
While Chinese patriotism and nationalism is constructed based on the humiliation by Western imperialism, Western’s liberal thought also affects Chinese elites who craves for Western-style freedom. This led to substantial anti-government actions, such as the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989. Western ideology also serves as enlightenment to Chinese modern society. However, within the strict censorship on the information that threatens the party-state interests, it might take a while for China to step towards a fully democratic society.
East vs. West in Everyday Life
The influences brought by the Western part of the world not only effect people virtually but also practically and physically. Even though the Chinese government has opened its market to foreign investors during the reform era, it still remains as a “socialism market economy” and has created exception of neoliberalism (Zhao, 2008). This means the party-state won’t let the market operate completely under a capitalist framework, but instead maintain its political regime in the market.
However, when examining Chinese cultural practice in terms of consumption patterns in everyday life, it is interesting to find out that the Chinese market and consumer behaviour is actually under the force of capitalism. Western living style is also desirable to Chinese society because “consumers in developing or transitional economies, foreign products are associated not only with images of high quality but also with social and symbolic value,” (Zhou & Hui, 2003, pg. 42). Consumers in China associated foreign products with their social status, which represents modern materialistic lifestyle in their consumption behavior. In addition to the conspicuous consumption in terms of the luxury goods, luxury products imitate to social norms and convey meanings connected to social status and wealth. Likewise, Hamilton (1977) suggests that, “commodities having a Western symbolic content did not belong to those items which revealed a person’s success. Thus, to consume Western products was to put into question one’s social standing, including one’s influence in local affairs,” (pg. 887). He further compares the attitude of Western economic expansion with Chinese and other non-Western countries, and he concludes that Chinese people responded more aggressively and positively than other individuals in non-Western countries such as China, which is more willing to import the Western products and export the raw materials to the West than people in other regions. In general, the nationalism and patriotism ideology doesn’t work alone with consumer society in China. However, when certain countries offend national interest and well-being, the national pride that is embedded in Chinese belief will be awoken and expressed in their dissatisfactions and anger towards particular issues.
With the expansion of Western economics, Chinese traditional lifestyle is influenced by westernised values and culture. This one-way flow of Westernization threats Chinese traditional culture value. I would argue that the historical humiliation, on one hand, reinforces Chinese national identity. But on the other hand, Chinese people distorted their traditional values because they kept outdated traditions. I think both the government and citizens have to find a way out to balance unequal process, by preserving Chinese traditional values and continuing with economic growth. Japan would be a good example to illustrate the country that is modernised while remaining respectful to their cultural traditions.
To sum up these complex processes, the conclusion in Hamilton’s article gives a snap shot”
…if these suggestions have some validity, then the expansion of Western civilization is by no means an unambiguous process. Its analysis requires more than that which an economic, political or sociological perspective can alone provide. But, in combining these perspectives, one must strive for an analytic framework that facilitates the use of differential comparisons, for only by making systematic contrasts can one begin to disentangle the complexity of civilizational encounters (pg. 890).
The Chinese knowledge framework has changed from very ethnocentric ideology, which regards China as central and others as barbarians. However, under the Western hegemonies, the framework which is the structure of expectations of shared culture, knowledge and experience has changed into what is considered normal by the Western framework. Moreover, Chinese government needs to construct a national and patriotic ideology based on the historical humiliation of Western encounters, and use Orient as the metaphor to create a contrary position to the West. Even though the Communist party’s political agenda is basically set against Western hegemony and creates nationalism and patriotism as reserved values, in Western-style thought, democracy is still what the people really want. The current consumption pattern is operating under capitalism, as the Chinese market has changed to craft production to mass production, and therefore the consumer lifestyle is changed. Moreover, Western commodities symbolise higher social status, which is favourable in Chinese culture. It forms an extreme distinction between their nationalists’ belief and pro-Western lifestyle.
In summary, although China still sees the Western invasion and imperialism as historical trauma, this experience has turned into a driving force that reinforces the Chinese military, as well as it helps speed up the development into modernization. However, what Chinese people don’t notice is that they are losing their cultural identity by only focusing on economic development, while not paying attention to preserving cultural identity. Westernization is a dangerous proposition, and it is one that can completely destroy a society’s identity. In order to preserve traditional Chinese thought, the country needs to emphasize the importance of museums and officials in the country need to find other ways to celebrate its past. Due to an increase in the number of fast food restaurants and other Western lifestyle traits in China, the people are completely changing the way in which they live. China has an opportunity to learn from the failures of Western countries and their fast progression in a capitalist culture. The Eastern nation has an opportunity, unlike North America did, to observe the cultural results of decisions that were made in the name of modernization. For example, the number of obese people in the United States has risen to a ridiculous level, and that can indicate to China that opening fast food restaurants on nearly every block isn’t a good idea. On the other hand, China can embrace beneficial factors that come out of the West, such as democracy. It is exceedingly difficult to get the Chinese government to move forward from their totalitarian regime and into one that benefits everyone in the country. China is in real danger of stubbornly rejecting democracy because it wants to keep its identity. But that identity is no good if it isn’t looking out for the best interests of everyone who lives in China. A cultural framework needs to be identified in China that provides a blueprint about how to move ahead with modernization without necessarily falling into the pattern of Westernization. Moving forward from the past and becoming a democratic country doesn’t mean that China is waving the white flag in surrender to a Western way of living. China has an opportunity to make capitalism work in a way that is more efficient than the way the West has chosen to move forward with both democracy and capitalism.
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