A few weeks ago a Chinese friend told me what worries him the most: a form of Nationalism that asserts China’s natural position is “glorious” and that the country only falls from this status when “outside forces” limit its growth. Equally concerning to him was that these ideas were predicated on a kind of racial superiority, sometimes referred to as Han nationalism (大汉族 DaHanzu Greater Han Ethnic group).
This small group of people maintain that not only was China weakened in the 19th century by western influence, but was susceptible to these forces specifically because they were being led by Manchurians. The ultra-nationalists take this misreading of history to illustrate that China can only be strong when Chinese (Han) culture is purified of foreign influences and resists all outside forces (not a surprising ideology from a country whose symbol is a wall).
Given my friend’s fear as he described this small movement, I read this quote from China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, with great trepidation;
“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration. We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.” (link)
Ironically, the time in the past that this DaHanzu group sees as the apex of China’s/Chinese potential is the Tang Dynasty, which was China’s greatest period of openness.
The Tang Dynasty boasted the largest population in the world at the time, with over 90 million citizens. It’s culture spread throughout Asia, with influences in Korea, Japan and Vietnam that are still visible today. Poetry, art, and literature flourished, as the Chinese created works that are still considered to be among the finest ever made in the Middle Kingdom.
Central to China’s ascendance were a few key factors: the re-opening of the Silk Road (which allowed trade with distant countries on a scale that China hadn’t enjoyed in four centuries), and a tolerance for the ideas and customs of the people that came with that. Foreign populations swelled in many of China’s cities.
Chinese cultural products like silk, porcelain and other products became highly sought in foreign countries. Meanwhile the new foreign goods lead to a cosmopolitan lifestyle that has rarely been matched in China since then.
Perhaps the best example of the Tang Dynasty’s attitudes can be seen in religion. At this time, Buddhism flourished as a result of expanded contact with the Indian sub-continent (the tale of one journey is captured in the Chinese epic Journey to the West). Instead of seeing it as an external force undermining China’s traditions of Confucianism and Daoism, the then confident superpower engaged with these beliefs, leading to the founding of Chan Buddhism (known in the West as Zen). This form of Buddhism is now the only form practiced by Han Chinese, and spread to many neighboring countries as well. In this same period, the first Mosque was constructed in Guangzhou, and Christian missionaries established a congregation in Xi’an under the auspices of the Emperor.
Note: Shortly before the downfall of the Tang, the gov’t tried to suppress religion, the motivation for this seems to be that many temples had amassed great wealth from pilgrims and the gov’t’s own treasuries were failing.
Somehow China seems to have forgotten that the key to greatness is not how strongly they command artists to create great works and guard against foreign influences. The last time China shut itself off from the outside world, it suffered Mao’s reign for over 25 years. Before that the Qing Dynasty shut themselves off from foreign powers, missing the benefits of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Prior to that the Ming Dynasty destroyed their own fleet of treasure ships and reinforced the Great Wall in an unsuccessful attempt to keep out foreign influence. At no point in Chinese history has the country benefited from isolation, cultural or otherwise.
The key, according to China’s own history, is to confidently embrace foreign ideas in a way that gives space for artists to create works that shine for millenia. It seems only natural that if the Tang Dynasty’s cultural power is the aspiration, Tang Dynasty cosmopolitan openness is the blueprint for how to achieve it.