National Humiliation in China
By Ryan Kilpatrick on October 20, 2011
The titular character of Lu Xun’s most revered work of fiction, The True Story of Ah Q, is famed for finding a form of victory in even the most debasing instances of defeat, claiming moral and spiritual superiority over all those who surpass him, but convincing only himself. Lu Xun’s allegory for the pride and pettiness of the Chinese national character in the early 20th century is still relevant today; but whereas Ah Q habitually convinces himself at times of defeat that he is in fact the victor, contemporary China is equally determined to convince itself in times of triumph that it is the perennial loser.
For the last century, the narrative of national humiliation has been an enduring framework through which scholars and common people alike have interpreted China’s recent history. The term itself was first coined in 1915 in response to Japan’s 21 Demands, made upon China on 7 May that year, and Yuan Shikai’s subsequent concession to them on 9 May—two days thenceforth singled out for annual celebrations of National Humiliation Day (Luo, 310). However, although the so-called Century of National Humiliation is generally regarded as having begun with the First Opium War (1839-42), there is far less agreement over when it ended, or indeed if it has ended at all. In 1945, Chiang Kai-shek claimed to have ended the Century of National Humiliation by achieving victory over the invading Japanese and securing China’s position as one of the key victors of the post-war order, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and uncontested recognition worldwide. In declaring that China had at last ‘stood up’ in 1949, Mao too was claiming authorship for the end of national humiliation. Yet when Chinese ‘volunteers’ fought American troops to a standstill in Korea, their pyrrhic victory over the world’s strongest military power was again cast as the final cleansing of national humiliation. Decades later...