With this brand of ‘state nationalism’ being the accepted norm, Chinese intellectuals of recent times have fostered the formation of national identity. And the idea of ‘national humiliation’ is an integral part of this process. In other words, influential Chinese thinkers “have delimited national culture, redefined group membership, recreated social hierarchy and rewritten history” (Gries, 2004). In this interpretive framework, the history of China is seen as a series of humiliating events that should be compensated for in the present. As early as 1840, Chinese scholar Fend Guifen referred to the intrusion of European powers in the affairs of the nation: “We are shamefully humiliated by the four [Western] nations, not because our climate, soil, or products are inferior, but actually because our people are inferior … Our inferiority is not due to nature, it is inferiority due to ourselves. If it were inborn, it would be a shame, but a shame we could not do anything about. Since the inferiority is due to ourselves, it is still a greater shame, but a shame we can do something about.” (Gries, 2004)
Although Guifen’s assessment might come across as being self-deprecating, it is not unusual for the time. Another important official of Imperial China, Kang Youwei, poignantly noted in his June 1898 memorandum to the throne that the subordinate role of women in Chinese society is a constant source of humiliation for him. Liang Qichao, a progressive scholar of the same era had written in his Travel Notes on the New Continent, that he “could only sigh and weep when I compare our nation with theirs [America]” (Terrill, et. al, 2005). Some intellectuals even lamented that their people’s fate is worser than that of blacks in America, who were liberated at the end of the Civil War. Hence,
“The theme of humiliation, still pervasive in China today, emerged as a consciously constructed emotion during the second half of the nineteenth century, and was given an emotional content through a long and complex process of internalization and habituation. Humiliation implied a sense of collective responsibility. The causes of failure could be attributed to the nation’s lack of effort or ability, not to external factors independent of human will. It promoted voluntarist strategies of national revenge. Self-accusation completed the idea of causal attribution. The nation-race exacerbated the feeling of humiliation by accusing itself of failure” (Brook & Frolic, 1997)
At times though, the basis for fostering the feeling of humiliation is rather far-fetched. Renowned social thinker and translator of Western philosophical works Yan Fu has a rather paranoid vision of insecurity for the Chinese people. During the late nineteenth century when he lived, he was alerting his readership to the possibility of the Chinese race being destroyed by black, brown and white races. Following Yan Fu’s assessment of threat to the race, subsequent generations of Chinese intellectuals have played upon it and magnified it so that nationalist and patriotic feelings are consolidated in the collective Chinese psyche and totalitarian excesses are tolerated for this cause. For example, a contemporary legal scholar Yuan Hongbing from Beijing University had recently called for “a new heroism in order to save the fate of the race and for a totalitarian regime which would fuse the weak, ignorant and selfish individuals of the race into a powerful whole…only purification through blood and fire would provide a solution to China’s problems” (Yang, 2007).