The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today

The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today

by Kevin Carrico

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The Great Han is an ethnographic study of the Han Clothing Movement, a neotraditionalist and racial nationalist movement that has emerged in China since 2001. Participants come together both online and in person in cities across China to revitalize their utopian vision of the authentic “Great Han” and corresponding “real China” through pseudotraditional ethnic dress, reinvented Confucian ritual, and anti-foreign sentiment. Analyzing the movement’s ideas and practices, this book argues that the vision of a pure, perfectly ordered, ethnically homogeneous, and secure society is in fact a fantasy constructed in response to the challenging realities of the present. Yet this national imaginary is reproduced precisely through its own perpetual elusiveness. The Great Han is a pioneering analysis of Han identity, nationalism, and social movements in a rapidly changing China.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520295506
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kevin Carrico is Lecturer in the Department of International Studies at Macquarie University and the translator of Tsering Woeser’s Tibet on Fire.

Read an Excerpt


Imaginary Communities


HOW IS THE NATION, as an imagined community, imagined? Where and how do the passions that are characteristic of nationalist identification emerge, and how are they sustained? And what are the political, social, and personal effects of these imaginings? How, in sum, can we begin to understand the complexity of the human relationship to notions of nation, race, and the underlying concept of identity? These questions, which frame the analyses that follow, were on my mind when I met a group of Han Clothing movement enthusiasts in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2010. Having conducted online research on this group prior to my arrival, there were a few facts of which I felt fairly certain. First, the Han Clothing Movement was dedicated to promoting a purified vision of Chinese tradition and contemporary identity, devoid of any polluting "foreign" influences. I was leaving the United States in the summer of 2010 during the rise of the Tea Party to conduct research in China with a group that might be called the Green Tea Party. Second, members of this group, in promoting this purified vision, were not shy about using inflammatory rhetoric with regard to those whom they called "barbarians," meaning either China's minority nationalities or the broad and quite diverse group of people, constituting the remainder of the global population, described conventionally in China as "foreigners." And third, these preceding two facts were indicative of a final fact, namely, that the Han Clothing Movement was a fairly extreme nationalist group, dedicated to celebrating a particular vision of China.


A considerably more complex picture emerged, however, that autumn afternoon when I sat down with movement enthusiasts in Shenzhen. The unpredictable autumn weather, prone to sudden downpours, led the organizers to move an outdoor celebration indoors to a small, dimly lit teahouse buried deep among the skyscrapers of Futian District. After everyone introduced themselves and the conversation started to pick up, I expected to hear fairly straightforward nationalist narratives, which would consist of excessive praise for one's nation and people, alongside equally passionate criticisms or denunciations of other nations and people. And over the course of the afternoon, I did indeed hear plenty of passionate denunciations of other nations and people. However, considering that members of the Han Clothing Movement are racial nationalists dedicated to celebrating the idea of China, I was consistently surprised by just how much time they spent complaining about China.

A man in his late twenties who came from the rural province of Anhui led me through a formulaic set of questions with which any "foreigner" in China will be familiar: How long had I been in China? Did I like it? What were the main differences between China and "the West"? Did I like moon cakes? Who does? But then when we reached a pause in the conversation, my new friend suddenly asked, "How much do you know about traditional Chinese culture?" Answering his own question before I could, he highlighted four components of tradition, namely clothing, food, housing, and transport (yi shi zhu xing), which he asserted were the core of Han traditional culture and thus of Chinese traditional culture.

Considering that we were both attending a Han Clothing event, he began appropriately from clothing. Clothing, he told me, was elaborate and beautiful in the imperial era, and proper attire was a central component in ordering society. Establishing a metaphorical relationship between the individual body and the social body, he asserted that only when clothing was in order could society be in order. But Chinese nowadays, he noted, wear "Western clothes" made from unnatural synthetic fibers. Men wear sneakers and "Western" suits (literally xizhuang), he claimed, that never quite fit them correctly, and women, he asserted, walk around with their breasts and buttocks hanging out, in clear violation of proper dress, and greatly damaging national dignity. This Han Clothing gathering, he reassured me, would finally provide me the chance to see real "Eastern clothes," in contrast to "Western clothes."

Another central component of Chinese culture, he continued, is food. Chinese cuisine is rich and diverse, extending from the delicate cuisine of Shanghai to the numbing spice of Sichuan to the refined gastronomy of Guangdong. And throughout history, the social experience of sharing a meal has created lasting bonds between people. Yet he quickly added that food nowadays is not always safe, and one must be careful what one eats. There is the infamous gutter oil, meaning discarded restaurant oil removed from disposal sites, reprocessed, and endlessly reused, potentially causing cancer through repeated ingestion. There are genetically modified foods, which he informed me have been sent to China by the US government in order to make the Han extinct, despite my clearly articulated skepticism on this point. And there are even fake eggs, he noted, made from the mixture of various chemicals to resemble egg whites and yolks. "The fake eggs look prettier than real eggs on the outside, but on the inside they're made of aggressive cancer-causing agents," he added, as we glanced warily at the dishes before us, which had long before grown cold.

Returning to the tranquil past, he affirmed the architectural skills of his ancestors: "Nowadays, we think that we are more advanced than them. But in many ways, they were much smarter than we are, and had answers to many questions that are now lost." Citing the canals supposedly created by Yu the Great to control flooding of the Yellow River in prehistorical creation myths, he told me with a look of certainty that these canals and riverbeds remain strong to this day: truly superhuman feats that even the party-state with its massive engineering projects could never achieve. Ancient homes, he added, were built using interlocking logs, providing unparalleled structural stability: one could remain safe from earthquakes and any other external threats, a protection no longer afforded by contemporary structures. Pointing to the skyscrapers beyond the window, he asked, "How long will those buildings last? Apartments fall apart nowadays before you've even finished paying them off."

Already seeing the pattern of his monologue, I was not surprised when he followed his final comments about the importance of quiet solitude and meditative wandering within traditional Chinese culture with a simultaneously frustrated yet longing question: "Where can anyone find time or space to do that today?" Then, with a sigh, he told me that "the China out there today, the China that you are visiting, that is absolutely not the real China" (bu shi zhenzheng de Zhongguo).

Suddenly, I was left trying to make sense of a member of a nationalist group informing me that his nation was at the moment not real. No preliminary research had given me even a hint of preparation for this unexpected comment. But this seemingly paradoxical statement upon closer examination came to reveal the fundamentally paradoxical core of the nationalist experience embodied in the Han Clothing Movement, which drives its affective attachments. Briefly reviewing this monologue, we see two completely different worlds emerging as inverted images of one another: the undeniable and uncontainable grandeur of the national past, with its elaborate clothing, healthy food, secure abodes, and peaceful quiet, standing in stark contrast to the bared buttocks, contaminated food, collapsing buildings, and chaotic and cramped cityscapes of the present. Although these two worlds are presented and indeed naturalized as a distinction between an ideal past and an imperfect present, these two worlds in fact represent the distinction between nationalist-identificatory fantasy and lived experience, laying bare the irresolvable split and corresponding tension between ideality and experiential reality that both structures and reproduces the identificatory experience. This book aims to illuminate these conflicted elementary structures of nationalist identification, autopoeitically producing and reproducing the nation as the difference between images and their never completely realized experience, in a perpetually enthralling process falsely essentialized as a stable identity.


These impromptu reflections upon the "real China," although unexpected at first, in fact illuminate a central logic of nationalist-identificatory thought: a logic frequently on display in practice, yet largely overlooked in analyses. Scholarship on nationalism in recent decades frequently employs the concept of "imagined communities," based upon Benedict Anderson's influential eponymous volume, in which he famously proposes a redefinition of the nation "in an anthropological spirit" as "an imagined political community." Yet if a nation is an imagined community, how is this community imagined?

Anderson's answer posits that the emergence of imagined communities is intertwined with the rise of "print capitalism," referring to the mass circulation of novels and particularly newspapers, also known as one-day bestsellers. The simultaneity of space and time expressed in these media, as shown in the examples of a newspaper's front page or a novel's fictional Manila dinner party, then produces a sense of "homogeneous, empty time" that structures national thinking. The homogeneous time generated through these media is then reproduced on a daily basis through consumers' "mass ceremony" of reading newspapers, in which, according to Anderson, "each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion." Anderson's analysis of the nation thus envisions groups engaged in daily experiences of commonality, brought about by shifts in capitalist production, which create a sense of homogeneous, empty time.

This refreshingly novel interpretation of nationalism relies upon a conventionally materialist framework, wherein an imagined community is produced primarily through transformations of infrastructure that in turn affect the superstructure. As revealing and compelling as this analysis may be, one is nevertheless left to wonder whether national experience is really quite so bland and, indeed, devoid of imagining. Peter Sloterdijk has noted that the one phenomenon in the contemporary world that should truly astonish us all is the existence and perpetuation of these "large political bodies." Is "homogeneous, empty time" then the real cornerstone of national identification, which fans the flames of nationalist affect the world over? Is national imagining composed primarily of imagining fellow members and one's communion with them, or is this perceived communion just the beginning of the imagining, which extends further into feats, images, and ideals far beyond the abilities of the individual and indeed any real collective? In his article "Internationality," Jonathan Rée examines these questions in a memorable comment upon Anderson's framework, observing that "it is surely only the coolest of nationalists who will pride themselves on belonging to a nation of newspaper readers." Anderson's theory, which famously begins from the quandary of the passions of nationalism, does not in the end fully account for these passions: nationalism is indeed a daily phenomenon, but it is not as a result necessarily quite so banal.

Such an analytical framework structured around repetitive ceremonies and empty calendrical time misrepresents the human relationship to imagined communities as ironically lacking in imagination, while at the same time misrepresenting fundamental characteristics of human interactions with media and the calendar. First, the act of reading a newspaper is not primarily a ceremony, but more importantly a conduit for distinguishing information and noninformation and correspondingly receiving information on topics of interest and personal investment: an interaction between media and the mind. It is then not so much a ritualized imagining of a community of fellow readers as a structuring of this community around commonly recognized events, themes, and concerns, often in fact detached from readers' everyday lives. Second, in contrast to the notion of "empty calendrical time," we should note that calendars are not empty grids of equal dates, but rather textured grids featuring peaks and plateaus. Such peaks include annual holidays, such as Thanksgiving, in which one recounts and even reenacts American national mythologies, or major historical moments, such as centennials or bicentennials, in which the representation of national identity becomes a matter of primary importance, or national megaevents in which national identity talk is greatly intensified. Modern calendrical time is then anything but empty and monotonous. Third, just as media stories in the information age provide stimuli to think, reflect, imagine, discuss, and (increasingly) comment and share, so calendars also provide space upon which their owners can write, filling in empty blocks of space with their own content, whether burdensome or enjoyable: two categories of content that are also primary in lived experience, as the calendars on our home refrigerators and office walls attest. Such nuances of affective experience, however, are missing from the materialist imagined communities framework.

To overcome such omissions and develop a framework better suited to the imaginings and intensities of the imagined community, Rée playfully and usefully proposes redirecting the study of nationalism towards the field of the Lacanian imaginary to seek out the "wild longings and weird fantasies" therein. In Lacanian terms, the imaginary is the locus of fantasy, which consists of images of wholeness that are "captating," a neologism that explicates the simultaneous processes of captivation and capture in the human relationship to these imaginary images. Even a quick glance into such a nationalist imaginary reveals, unsurprisingly, that there is no nation in the world organized around mundane ideas or represented through bland imagery; instead, the essential ingredients of national imagery are, as Anthony Smith observes, "myths, symbols, and memories of ethnic origins, election, homeland, and the golden age" alongside romanticized national characteristics, redemption and revenge for past injustices, and an ideal national order imagined as an essentialized wholeness. Rather than a relationship to fellow citizens generated through a daily ritual, then, imagined communities are produced through identifications with shared or contested but always imposing visions of what makes "us" who we are. And rather than the "homogeneous, empty time" portrayed as a central characteristic of the national experience, these identifications are structured around an often romanticized past and a promising future, marked in the present by cyclical peaks of excitement embodied in rituals of celebration: national days, national spectacles, mythical and historical commemorations, and countdowns to future accomplishments. Such attention to the imaginary and affect-laden nature of imagined communities, highlighting the zealous investments, wild fantasies, and obsessive identifications structured around a reliably grandiose national symbolic chain, then brings us closer to accounting for the unrelenting passion of the nation form: the passion from which Anderson's analyses famously begin.

Although fantasy is not a prominent component of Anderson's theoretical toolbox, its presence can nevertheless be detected in his examples, such that we might fruitfully reconsider his history of nationalism through the vantage point of desire. In his chapter "Creole Pioneers," Anderson examines the frustrations created for "creoles" born of Spanish migrants in the new territories overseas. A sense of fellowship emerged around the "shared fatality of trans-Atlantic birth" due to the resulting exclusion of these figures from positions of official importance in the Spanish bureaucracy. This exclusion and the thwarted aspirations that it produced in turn generated a logic that eventually provided the foundation for nationhood: for if the Creole born in the Americas was not a true Spaniard and was thus blocked from occupational passage to the metropole, then, the Creole pondered, the Spaniard born in Spain was also not a true American. Accordingly, if the Spaniard has Spain, then the Creole should have his or her own home, a space in which he or she would be free from exclusion, a condition to be reserved for others, and hence better able to realize his or her aspirations, ideal life, or indeed, fantasies. The nation was thus from its inception in these elementary national structures a space of fantastic imaginings, an imaginarily secure sphere of one's own in which one would be able to realize one's aspirations. But most importantly in cultural-historical terms, as Anderson notes, the creoles engaged in this imagining possessed the political, cultural, and military means to enact this fantasy, leading to the establishment of the nation as a social institution founded in and enacting desire. Nations are then externalizations of personal identificatory desires that have become institutionalized and are then in turn internalized as a supposedly existing reality, and thus as a social institution.


Excerpted from "The Great Han"
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Copyright © 2017 Kevin Carrico.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Eternal Apparel
1 • Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification
2 • Han Trouble and the Ethnic Cure
3 • Th e Personal Origins of Collective Identity
4 • Reenacting the Land of Rites and Etiquette: Between the Virtual and the Material
5 • The Manchu in the Mirror
6 • Producing Purity
Conclusion: Neotraditionalism in China Today

Character Glossary

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