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Citizenship: historiography and identity formation

People in Asia increasingly feel the need for a strong identity. This is the consequence of developments such as globalisation and the realisation that Asian countries such as China and India are becoming new world powers. Professor Hilde De Weerdt studies how political ideas and national identity spread in China over the centuries. She believes that the cultural elite played an important role in this.

Many Asian people see history and modernity as strongly interlinked. For instance, many traditional texts appear in today’s self-help books. These traditional texts are about universal principles, and people refer back to them frequently in various contexts. This is important to the Chinese, because they like to believe that they are influenced not only by Western ideas but by Chinese traditions too. It forges an identity for them as a ‘Chinese citizen’. History and tradition are also hugely important to modern governments in China. The government wants the people to see it as reliable, with policies that build on traditions and history. For instance, history is used to legitimise China’s claim to islands in the South China Sea. A territorial dispute about these islands has simmered with Japan for years.

Political ideas

One aspect of De Weerdt’s research is examining how, from the eighth century onwards, a dialogue between a warlike emperor and his ministers spread through East and Central Asia (China, Korea, Japan and Mongolia). ‘The political ideas in these dialogues argued for cooperation between various levels of administration, and they are very topical now. The Chinese Prime Minister and a former minister of South Korea said that they used this text as a source for their policy.’

Historian Sima Guang (image from Wikimedia Commons)

China: no continuous history

The development of modern China is politically sensitive. Modern governments like to create the impression that China has been a single state for as long as 5000 years. However, this is not actually correct: in the eighth century Sima Guang, one of the most important Chinese historians, had already ascertained that in the 1700 years that preceded, there had been a single China for only 500 of them. For the rest of the time the country was divided among multiple rulers.

In a recent book, Hilde De Weerdt studies how the idea of a continuous history in the country took hold, and concludes that this was primarily because the idea took root in the cultural elite. ‘From the twelfth century, the literate elite made use of the printing press to circulate news and maps that emphasised the unity of the nation. The cultural elite also offered to work with rulers with Mongolian and Manchu roots if they succeeded in bringing the Chinese territory under a single regime. It is possible to follow the spread of ideas and stories through time, because many notebooks, letters and other personal documents can be found in Chinese archives. In these latter-day ‘blogs’, people wrote about their conversations with others and about how they read newspapers, maps, posters and miscellaneous news and information about the administration of the empire.’ Hilde De Weerdt worked together with a computer scientist to develop a digital platform that speeded up the analysis of these sources.

India: militant nationalism

Identity based on history plays an important role in other Asian countries too. According to political scientist Ward Berenschot, India also claims 5000 years of history and emphasises the merit of this in its dealings with Europe. ‘In the history of India you see the growth of militant nationalism, with an ideal of a greater India. Hammering home the value of the Indian culture is a wider trend in the country. At the same time, this nationalism causes internal and external tensions. Not only does it stand in the way of better relations with neighbouring countries, it could also gradually undermine democracy in India, because alternative, critical voices are deemed “unpatriotic”.’

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