An opinion piece in today's People's Daily is chock full of material for my purposes. It is titled, "To Dissolve Cultural Conflict with Oriental Wisdom," and it starts like this:
History tells us that cultural conflict can't be solved by taking over or wiping out the other culture. Culture is rooted in people's heart. Conquering or wiping out a culture is only temporary, but will sow the seeds of hatred and create new hatred. Chinese culture emphasizes dissolution of hatred which means to communicate and have dialogues between different cultures in order to reach understanding. Chinese culture has never sought to 'rescue' or conquer another culture, but to realize co-existence of many different ones, protect the natural development of different cultures.
This is, of course, a patently obvious nationalist distortion of a complex and multifaceted history. Suffice it to say that the Chinese state, in its imperial and modern forms, like any other state, is based upon coercive military and police power. When we think of the expansion of the borders of the Chinese state, and with it the expansion of "Chinese culture," we must always remember that it was accomplished with military power. The territorial growth of the Han and Tang and Qing dynasties (we'll leave the Mongols out of it for now) was not accomplished by "dialogue;" land was taken by force and incorporated into the empire.
The notion that Chinese culture (as problematic a term as it is) "never sought to rescue or conquer another culture," is also dubious. While "sinocentrism" may have its conceptual pitfalls, it is certainly true that a strain of traditional thinking understood China as culturally superior to others, and that sense of superiority was institutionalized in the tribute system of foreign relations and the expectation of assimilation of "barbarians" who came to China. There can be, and is, debate about the extent to which sinocentrism might be seen as an ancient form of "soft power" or how much it was backed by the hard power of military force. But what cannot be debated, it seems to me, is that a sense of cultural superiority existed among the elite of imperial China and, for whatever motivations, military force was used to expand the boundaries of the imperial state.
The People's Daily piece, then, is really just an exercise in what Ernest Renan called historical forgetting: all nationalisms seek to create a usable past, a historical narrative that serves contemporary political purposes. This is not about an open and critical engagement with China's past; it is a public relations exercise to reassure the world that the PRC's growing power will not produce a new imperialism.
The piece also quotes Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi by their transliteration), who does not make it into the papers that often, certainly not as often as that new CCP favorite, Confucius. More below the jump....