Nationalism and Ethnicity: Asia

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Asia

In Asia, as elsewhere, nationalism has been used to mobilize support for the creation of new nation-states or the reinvigoration of existing ones. It has also been activated for such goals as national self-determination, social and economic development, the defense of territorial integrity or territorial expansion, and domination over other nations. Like other nationalisms, Asian nationalisms have deployed historical memories and myths, belief in a shared ethnicity, links to a territorial homeland, and shared cultural characteristics such as language, literature, religion, and customs to create a sense of common identity, purpose, and responsibility.

The diversity of Asia in terms of geography, culture, religion, and ethnicity is such that in many contexts the adjective Asian has little meaning. However, Asian nationalisms do have one important common feature: they developed largely in response to Western invasion or intrusion. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Western powers increasingly competed for power and influence in Asia. India, Burma, and Malaya were British colonies; the East Indies were under the Dutch; while the French colonized Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, collectively known as Indochina. The United States occupied the Philippines and used military force to open Japan to foreign trade. China escaped outright colonization but was forced to open more than one hundred ports to trade and to allow foreign settlements and concessions on Chinese territory that were, in effect, mini colonies. Foreign troops protected foreign interests, and foreign gunboats patrolled Chinese rivers. The Japanese occupation of much of East and Southeast Asia in the 1930s and the 1940s accelerated the growth of nationalism in the affected nations.

Nationalism developed earlier and faster in some Asian countries than in others. It took quite varied forms: in Japan and Thailand it was based on loyalty to a sovereign and the revival of traditional religion; in China it was strongly linked to support for a republic, to the

restoration of national sovereignty, and eventually to support for the Communist Party; and in India nationalism was based on self-rule and the ideal of a secular democracy. However, everywhere in Asia, nationalism was a reaction to foreign imperialism or colonialism, and it grew out of a fear of the great powers and a determination to strengthen the nation.

Elites played an important part in the development of nationalism. Traditional ruling elites felt vulnerable to the advance of Western imperialism. Although they sometimes reached accommodation with colonial regimes, they also supported nationalist movements in some cases. Even more important were the new elites. The growth of trade, especially in great trading cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Singapore, Bombay (Mumbai), and Calcutta (Kolkata), produced the development of the middle classes that became involved in commerce, administration, and education. These new social groups often worked in close contact with Westerners, sent their children to schools that pursued modern curricula, and read modern-style newspapers. They were conscious of national humiliations but also of what they saw as th th e backwardness of their countries. They perceived reform and modernization as essential for national survival. Many of them joined nationalist movements, which in countries such as Vietnam, Malaya, and Indonesia also involved active anticolonialist struggles.

Asian nationalist leaders promised not only that their nations would become stronger but also that they would make economic progress, become wealthier, and allow their peoples to escape poverty once they could control their own future. These promises undoubtedly gained them much support during independence struggles. After independence, such promises have only been partially realized, although starting from the 1960s, the “East Asian economic miracle” raised the gross national product (GNP) per capita and living standards in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. The economies of other Asian countries, including China and India, entered a period of rapid growth in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Contemporary Asian nationalisms often derive support from economic success.

Asian nationalist movements felt the opposing pulls of modernization and tradition. They developed in order to defend their nations against foreign pressure or colonization. As these nations were defined in relation to a shared language, tradition, custom, or culture, nationalist movements needed to cultivate a sense of pride in national history and culture. Yet often they were led by members of new elites whose Westernized education and urban lifestyles had cut them off from many aspects of their own culture and tradition or predisposed them to reject or despise it.

The discourse of nationalism might venerate certain social customs while it condemned others as backward, unscientific, or unhygienic. Clothing could be a divisive issue. Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), for example, favored the traditional dhoti made of homespun cloth, while most male Congress Party leaders wore a tailored suit, in later decades with a Nehru collar. The nationalist Meiji Restoration in Japan introduced a Westernized educational curriculum, modernized the army and put it into Prussian-style uniforms, and introduced formal Western dress at the imperial court. Yet Japan revived and invented Shinto traditions to provide the new state with legitimizing rites and appealed to the “traditional virtues” of filiality, hard work, and loyalty to the emperor in its depiction of the ideal citizen. In China, the rejection of the traditional family system and the theory that the Chinese nation had been weakened by depriving women of education, created space for feminist action within the nationalist project. However, the New Life movement, introduced in China by the Guomindang government in the 1930s with its emphasis on chastity, modesty, and traditional gender roles, moved in the opposite direction, as did the “virtuous mother, good wife” campaign of the 1980s in post-Mao China.

Language was often an issue. Although nationalists usually promoted local languages in place of colonial ones, their education could mean that they themselves had a better mastery of the colonial language than any local language. For example, the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), a Cantonese graduate of the Hong Kong Medical College, spoke English better than he spoke standard Chinese. The same was true of his wife, Song Qingling (1893–1981), later vice chair of the People's Republic of China. In India, as in other British colonies, nationalism drew on an English-language literature on liberalism and democracy. However, Gandhi increasingly felt that the elite's use of English cut them off from the masses and advocated a switch to Hindi. Others in the Congress Party saw the use of English as a unifying practice in a multiethnic multilingual country.

The greatest problem for Asian nationalisms, as for nationalism elsewhere, has been that of ethnic, religious, and language divides. How can a sense of common identity and unity be achieved in a country as ethnically diverse as, say, India or Indonesia? How can nationalism assist the nation-state to address the deep fissures, such as those between Hindus and Muslims in India, or Singhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka? How can nation-states that have propagated ethno- and linguistic nationalism, such as Malaya or Vietnam, accord fair and equal treatment to their substantial ethnic minorities? The problems are exacerbated by the complex history of national borders in Asia. Some predate the emergence of the nation-state, while others were drawn up in the colonial era or at the

time of independence. Rarely do they provide an exact match with ethnic divides. Each nation has sought its own solution.

Indonesian nationalism developed unity in relation to external enemies—the Dutch and the Japanese in the anticolonial struggle and the Federation of Malaysia in the 1960s. It also exploited hostility to the Indonesian Chinese minority, who, despite a degree of assimilation, are not regarded by the indigenous people as a part of the national community. Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1975 became a subject of international embarrassment for Indonesia and yet was difficult for Jakarta to negotiate its way out of because it had become inscribed in Suharto-era nationalism. The threat of an external enemy has helped to maintain national unity in India and Pakistan and in North and South Korea, while religion has been significant in Pakistan. China and Vietnam have used ideology, and many nations, including China, Vietnam, and India, have relied on the cult of charismatic leaders. Multilingual countries have attempted to promote national languages: Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia, Urdu in Pakistan, and standard Chinese in China. In most of Asia, the state has attempted to maintain a close control over education in order to ensure that the curriculum supports nation-building and the discourse of nationalism.

As this general discussion has shown, all Asian nationalist movements encountered these problems of national culture versus Westernization, of tradition versus modernization, and of building a common national identity in a population that may be more or less diverse. The case studies below will illuminate some particular instances of these problems and the different ways they have been resolved.


Japan's reaction to the challenge of Western expansionism was a modernization project—often referred to as the Meiji Restoration (1868)—designed to make the country catch up with the West. The promotion of industry, the creation of a modern army under central control, and the development of universal education were key measures taken by the Meiji government. The focus of national loyalty for the Meiji citizen, the parliament, and the army was the restored Meiji emperor. The myth of the divine descent of the imperial family and Shintoism—its religious rituals reshaped for contemporary needs—were promoted by the state to strengthen the spiritual authority of the emperor. The new mass education system taught children that the Japanese people belonged to one family, all descended from the same ancestor. Yet the new nation-state was otherwise based on a quasi-Western system of government and administration created by economic, political, and social reforms. The ideology of nationalism was used to demand effort, commitment, and sacrifice from all Japanese.

The desire to compete in power and influence with the Western powers and to control the raw materials needed for its industrial effort led to an expansionist tendency in Japanese nationalism. From the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) onward, Japan strove steadily to extend its economic and political influence in China. The Japanese desire to expand its economic empire, reinforced by the 1930s depression, resulted in Japan's World War II (1939–1945) creation of a vast but short-lived economic empire stretching from northeast China to the Dutch East Indies and including all the former European colonies of East and Southeast Asia.

Japanese nationalism was rocked by unconditional surrender at the end of World War II, the emperor's renunciation of his divine status, and the policies designed by the occupation authorities to prevent a revival of nationalist militarism. Contemporary Japanese nationalism is restrained and introverted compared to past standards. However, Japan's wartime record remains a flashpoint. Official visits by government leaders to Shinto shines commemorating the war dead spark controversy both within Japan and abroad, while the governments of China and South Korea have repeatedly criticized the textbooks used in Japanese schools on the grounds that they whitewash Japan's wartime record of aggression and atrocities.


Nationalism in China was a response to the humiliations suffered at the hands of foreign imperialists.I In the nineteenth century, China lost wars with Britain, Russia, France, and Japan, and in addition to these countries, fourteen other countries, including the United States, seized the chance to force concessions from China. Thinkers such as Liang Qichao (1873–1929), often influenced by modern learning that they encountered through study in Japan, began to analyze China's problems in the context of the modern world and urged the transfer of loyalty from the ruler to the nation. Nationalism inspired revolutionaries such as Huang Xing (1874–1916) and Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Man-chu (Qing) dynasty (1644–1912) and set up the Republic of China.

Both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist leaders were profoundly influenced by nationalism. It helped the Guomindang rally support for its national government in 1928, and inspired resistance during the Japanese occupation. The Communist Party's record of active and successful resistance to the Japanese gave it

nationalist appeal and assisted its rise to power in 1949. Both the Guomindang and the Communist Party sought to legitimize their rule by promoting identity between the nation and the party-state. The Communist Party invoked the need for national construction as often as socialist construction in appeals for effort and sacrifice. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the decline of socialist ideology has led the party-state to rely even more heavily on nationalism.

Nationalist thought in China has often been divided between a pride in China's past civilization and the rejection of customs and ways of living perceived as backward. Advocates of change found ideological and cultural expression in the iconoclastic May Fourth movement of 1920s. Its adherents were extremely open to ideas from the outside, rejected Confucianism, and developed a new written language based on the vernacular and a literature, theatre, and cinema concerned with social problems and patriotism. Maoist China, while avowedly embracing Marxism, was largely hostile to Western influence. Its attitude to China's heritage was also ambivalent, and China's glories were sometimes attacked as the products of a feudal society. Still, except during the Cultural Revolution era, resources were devoted to the conservation of palaces, temples, and artifacts, and they were presented as a source of national pride. Post-Mao China has even rehabilitated Confucianism, out of favor with nationalists since the early twentieth century, as a core national value, apparently in the belief that it will strengthen social discipline and a sense of national heritage.

Ethnicity has been an issue for Chinese nationalism. Over 90 percent of China's population is ethnically Han, but there are many other minority ethnic groups. Ideas of racial hierarchy derived from social Darwinism nurtured Chinese nationalism, which tended to identify nation with race and to represent the ethnically Manchu imperial dynasty as a racially inferior group that had enslaved the Han and sold the country out to Westerners. Sun Yat-sen, a founding father of Chinese nationalism, spoke of driving out the “barbarian Manchus,” but later developed a more inclusive nationalist ideology based on a symbolic alliance of “the five races: Han, Mongol, Man-chu, Tibetan, and Muslim.”

Ethnicity remains a problem, especially when combined with problems of national territory. The Chinese empire reached its zenith under the Manchu dynasty, when Tibet, Mongolia, and the Central Asian area that is today called Xinjiang were incorporated into its territory. China also claimed suzerainty over Korea and Annam (northern Vietnam). Successive Chinese governments accepted the loss of control over Korea, Annam, and the territory that now constitutes the Mongolian

Republic. However, Beijing regards Tibet and Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the northwest, as part of China. Its offer of very limited autonomy to ethnic minorities in these territories has not prevented the growth of secessionist movements. Tibetan and Uighur nationalisms base their appeal on religious, linguistic, and cultural distinctiveness and, increasingly, on fear of the effects of Han in-migration. The international dimensions of both problems also pose difficulties for Beijing. The success of the Tibetan independence movement in exile in drawing attention to its cause makes Tibet a constant irritant in China's international relations. Xinjiang in China's far northwest shares borders with five Muslim-majority countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—and is home to over eight million practicing Muslims. There are more than 9.2 million ethnic Uigh-urs (according to a 2005 sample census) and several other smaller Muslim ethnic groups. Ethnic and religious tensions have fed into Uighur nationalism and encouraged a secessionist movement. Hardly surprisingly, the Chinese government is fearful of the influence of militant Islam from beyond its borders.


In 1947, British India—a complex of areas under direct colonial rule and princely states under the British crown—gave way to the independent states of India and Pakistan. Indian national consciousness, on which the independence movement was based, first developed among the educated middle classes of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras (Chennai). The divide between Hindus and Muslims, reflected not only in religious belief but in culture and education, was a problem that became more serious within the nationalist movement over time. The Congress Party, which projected itself as the sole all-India nationalist movement, had some Muslim support; indeed, Muhammed Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), the future Muslim League leader and founder of Pakistan, was a member from 1896 to 1920, but its leadership was overwhelmingly Hindu.

From 1930, when the Congress Party adopted the demand for independence, politically conscious Muslims began to consider what their place as a minority would be in a unified independent India. Disagreements between the Congress Party and the Muslim League over the constitutional measures appropriate to protect what would be a Muslim minority in independent India led to communal tensions, terrible communal violence, and ultimately to the partition of British India, from which

arose the Republic of India and a Pakistan embracing the territories of West and East Pakistan (geographically separated by more than one thousand miles). Rioting and civil war led to huge population transfers as Muslims crossed into Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs into India. Pakistan emerged as an overwhelmingly Muslim state. This remains the case to the present day. In 2007 Muslims made up 96 percent of the population of Pakistan and numbered nearly 170 million. India, by contrast, has retained a considerable Muslim population. It numbered 138 million in 2001 and made up over 13 percent of India's total population. India also has significant Sikh and Christian minorities.

Nehru, India's post-independence leader, mobilized Gandhi's prestige and his ecumenical vision of an independent India to fight the religious definition of nationhood favored by the right wing of the Congress Party. He encouraged academics to produce a secularist history of India for use in the schools and promoted the celebration of a diversity of cultures within a single secular state. However, suspicion of Muslims (and later of Sikhs and the marginalization of both communities) has at times undermined the idea of religion as irrelevant to Indian nationhood. The ideal of secularism came under strain during the rule of Indira Gandhi (1917–1984) and her son Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991) in the 1980s and suffered further as the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party assumed prominence in the 1990s. In its suppression of Naga and Mizo nationalism, of the Khalistan movement in the Punjab, and of Kashmiri unrest, the Indian state has shown a consistent determination to resist any threat to its stability or its territorial integrity.

Despite a shared religion, the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences eventually resulted in the breakup of the new state of Pakistan. East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. This separation was accepted remarkably quickly. By contrast, Pakistan continues to forge its national identity in large part on the basis of rivalry with India. The two countries have fought three wars since independence and remain in dispute over Kashmir.

Pakistan has four major ethnic groups—Baluchis, Pujabis, Pashtuns, and Sindhis—and many minor ones. Its linguistic diversity mirrors its ethic diversity. The national language, Urdu, was spoken as a first language by only 8 percent of the population, most of whom were refugees from India. Urdu was chosen as the national language over Punjabi and Saraiki, mutually intelligible languages spoken by 58 percent of the population, because it had high cultural prestige, a rich literary heritage, and no particular provincial base. English remains the official language of Pakistan, creating a gulf between the ruling national government and the ordinary people.


The defeat of Japan in World War II resulted in its withdrawal from China, including Taiwan, from Korea, and from the huge territories it had occupied in Southeast Asia stretching from Vietnam to the Indonesian Archipelago. The withdrawal of the European colonial powers from Asia soon followed, leaving nationalist parties in power in most Asian states. The borders of these states rarely matched ethnic divisions, and most of the new states were ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse. Most have nonetheless succeeded in attaining some medium-term stability by building an overarching political culture expressed in the state, by appealing for unity against external or internal enemies, by controlling and shaping education in the service of nation-building, and by promising and in many cases achieving economic growth and improved living standards.


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Delia Davin

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Asia

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Asia