Uses and Abuses of Sentimental Nationalism:
Mnemonic Disquiet in Heshang and Shuobu

By Toming Jun Liu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 13, no. 1, pp.169-209

Two events/texts–the airing of the TV series River Elegy (Heshang) in 1988 and the publication of a book titled China Can Say No (Shuobu) in 1996–have become indexes of the trends in 1980s and 1990s, respectively, especially as related to Chinese nationalism. Reading these two texts in tandem, Liu investigates the complex politics of Chinese nationalism in the last two decades, questioning especially the assumption that trends in the 1990s–as exemplified by Shuobu–are more nationalist or patriotic than the cultural trends in the 1980s, as symbolized by Heshang.

Liu takes a Chinese diasporic position which, he says, is both intimate with the problems of Chinese nationalism and critically distanced from them. From this position, Liu borrows the insights from Nietzsche’s The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874) and theorizes that nationalism can be usefully read as dynamism of mnemonic disquiets. Specifically, Liu’s theory has two parts. One, such mnemonic disquiets can be understood as constant interactions between sentimental nationalism and state nationalism. The former functions as the unconscious reservoir of a nation (or Volk) which, depending on the needs of a nation state (or state nationalism), is then selectively remembered and constructed as a specific narrative. Two, nationalist narratives are often justifications of a nation’s attitude towards the “foreign;” a certain nationalist disquiet indicates a certain attitude towards the “foreign.”

The narrative strategies of Heshang and Shuobu are analyzed in the light of this theory so that their respective pattern of disquiet can be understood. In the case of Heshang, the mnemonic disquiet–bordering on the bruise of the Chinese Volk–can be better understood as the restlessness of the reformers within CCP towards the “ultrastability” of feudalistic bureaucracy. Such restlessness finds a subject-authority of Gramsci’s Prince (representing an emerging Civil Society) that partakes in the Chinese patriotic tradition of youhuan (ethos of crisis). Since its motivating force is self-renewal, the nationalism of Heshang shows a confidence towards the “foreign.” In contrast, the nationalism of Shuobu is based on the emotions to fear and negate the “foreign.” While the authors of Shuobu do include certain resentments in Chinese society as resulting from global capitalism, the real subject-authority of the book is not so popularist as claimed because the book is not innocent of a political association with the conservative forces within CCP. Liu’s analysis includes the kinds of materials from China’s past that Heshang and Shuobu each selects and makes use, as appropriate to their own disquiet. While engaging the complexity of each case, Liu notes two ironies. First, it is Shuobu‘s nationalism–lacking self-criticism, clinging to a static version of national culture, and reacting to the “foreign” with excessive emotions–that is readily recognized as being nationalist and patriotic. Second, although Shuobu seems to be the ideological opposite of Samule Huntington who insists the future conflicts in the world be understood along civilizational lines, the two theories have one thing in common: a deeply felt fear of the “foreign.” Such ironies related to nationalism will continue in a world of increasing globalization.