'Soft' nationalism is good for China
Chinese-style soft nationalism takes pride in Confucian values and should be the way of the future. But can it spread from Nanjing to the rest of China? There are reasons to be optimistic.
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The KMT derived legitimacy at least partly from its promotion of Confucian values, and Confucianism is what lies at the heart of soft nationalism. The Confucius temple is one of Nanjing’s leading tourist attractions, and Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum is inscribed with a famous saying – tianxia wei gong (the world belongs to the public) – from an ancient Confucian classic, the Book of Rituals.Skip to next paragraph
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Chinese-style soft nationalism takes pride in Confucian values – a humanitarian outlook and self-improvement by learning from others – and both values are highlighted in Nanjing.
Nanjing is the site of the darkest moment in China’s “century of humiliation” – the massacre of 300,000 civilians at the hands of Japanese troops in 1937. The newly redone Nanjing Massacre Museum portrays the massacre not just as a national tragedy, but as a human tragedy. Emotional anti-foreign propaganda has been replaced with well-documented accounts of individual victims. Symbolic exhibits pay tribute to the people murdered, similar to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Tribute is also paid to the foreigners who rescued Chinese civilians, as well as to foreigners beaten by Japanese troops.
Another museum is dedicated to the memory of John Rabe, who saved hundreds of Chinese lives during the Nanjing Massacre by opening his home to civilians. Rabe’s humanitarian spirit somehow transcended his Nazi affiliations. The nearby museum is dedicated to Pearl Buck. Once depicted as a reactionary American capitalist, Buck is now depicted as a brilliant writer who sympathized with China’s poor and campaigned for human rights in the US.
The Memorial Hall of Anti-Japanese Aviation Martyrs includes a tribute to the 2,500 American pilots who died fighting with the KMT in the struggle against Japanese invaders. The name of each dead pilot is etched in a memorial, similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Our Chinese guide proudly told us that it’s the only memorial site in China that pays tribute to foreign soldiers.
These exhibits are meant to show that Chinese take pride in an outlook that values humanity and compassion – ren, to use Confucian language – regardless of ethnicity or national affiliation.
Another Confucian saying – well known to all educated Chinese – is that a group of three people will always include a teacher. The point is that we should always strive to improve ourselves by learning from others. Applied at the national level, it means that the nation can and should always try to learn from other countries, which means developing good ties with those countries. Nanjing was the site of departure for the voyages of Zheng He, the famous Ming Dynasty admiral who explored several continents with his fleet of treasure ships.
Our Nanjing hosts took great pride in the value of learning from other countries. We visited a secondary school founded by American missionaries that teaches an American-style curriculum so students can go to university in the US. I asked the principal if it seems fair that China spends public resources on students who might not return, but he said not to worry, at least some will return, and they can help the country with knowledge acquired abroad.