China: The Pessoptimist Nation

June 24, 2010

As China is fast emerging as a major economic power and global strategic player with growing influence in international affairs, the question of how to understand China has become more urgent for academics and policymakers.

Much Western analysis focuses on the material dimensions of China's ascendancy, such as its economic strength and military capabilities. But to understand the transformation in China and its global implications, one cannot ignore the central role of identity in shaping the nation's domestic developments and foreign relations.

In China: The Pessoptimist Nation, William Callahan offers an in-depth analysis of how perceptions and narratives of Chinese identity have shaped intellectual and popular discourses on China's security and insecurity. He argues that China is both an optimistic and pessimistic nation in that its dream of gaining international respect and status is inextricably linked to its nightmare of its "national humiliation" in the 19th century.

To envisage where China is going, Callahan believes it is necessary to shift our analysis from its national interest to its "national aesthetic". A sound understanding of China's "structure of feeling" would help us make sense of the powerful forces of both optimism and pessimism in Chinese identity construction.

Through a critical examination of China's patriotic education, its National Humiliation Days, ethnic identity and overseas Chinese communities, and the role played by memories of national humiliation in Sino-Japanese relations, Callahan has shown how positive and negative images are utilised by the Chinese to understand China and its place in the world. In this sense, China is a "pessoptimist" nation, with an identity built on pessimistic as well as optimistic sentiments.

While the Chinese state has played an instrumental role in promoting patriotism, its success in constructing a pessoptimist identity for the nation is said to have derived from the interactive and intersubjective nature of China's identity construction. Ordinary citizens in China are closely involved in the production and consumption of Chinese nationalism, and concepts such as "civilisation and barbarism" and "national pride" are prevalent in popular discourse.

However, this "pessoptimist nationalism" is inherently unstable and unpredictable, and may not be easily controlled or manipulated by the Chinese government. The anti-Japanese protests in many Chinese cities in 2005 are a vivid reminder of the volatile character of China's nationalism and its potential to influence Beijing's foreign relations. Chinese foreign policy, in Callahan's view, should be understood in terms of an identity dilemma rather than a security dilemma.

Callahan's research underscores the significance of identity in China's foreign and security policy. Existing studies have examined links between identity formation and elite discourse on security issues; Callahan's work goes further by considering the dynamics of China's identity politics, showing the complex interaction between Chinese leaders and Chinese people in producing a "pessoptimist" identity. This identity, Callahan argues, will continue to influence China's domestic and international politics in future.

Using original sources, maps, photographs and other material, this study makes a significant contribution to the literature focusing on the ideational and societal dimensions of Chinese foreign policy. Callahan's findings clearly demonstrate the prominent role of history, culture and identity in underpinning the profound changes in China and its future trajectory.

China: The Pessoptimist Nation

By William A. Callahan
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780199549955
Published 19 November 2009

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