Rediscovering China by Denouncing Japan: Chinese Scholars as Nation Builders in the 1920s-1930s

Matson, Emily, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Liu, Xiaoyuan, Department of History, University of Virginia

As Japanese aggression continued to intensify in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese scholarship on Japan flourished and increased in scope, asking why Japanese imperialism had developed and seeking to describe its cultural roots. However, despite the strong anti-traditional nationalism characteristic of the May Fourth Movement, many Chinese intellectuals framed traditional Confucian culture in very positive terms when writing about Japan. This cannot merely be attributed to Chiang Kaishek’s New Life Movement, which was overall ineffective. Rather, this essay argues that Chinese national identity during the war years drew upon “traditional” concepts of Chinese civilization under the tianxia system, in which China was culturally superior to Japan. The trope of “civilized” versus “barbarian,” originally utilized in China to distinguish those who followed Confucian precepts from those that did not, was also frequently utilized in writings on Japan during the war years. However, this was not a wholescale embrace of Confucian ideals, but only a method to bolster Chinese national confidence vis-à-vis Japan. China’s hot-and-cold relationship with Japan had lasted for centuries, and the framework for the majority of the duration of this relationship was the tributary system and a civilizational, rather than a nation-state, framework of identity. The overlap of a civilizational, cultural narrative of China with a political, national identity shows that these two conceptions of “China” are not necessarily opposing or mutually exclusive, but rather can be utilized in tandem. As case studies, this article examines the writings of four leading Chinese intellectuals – Dai Jitao, Zhou Zuoren, Jiang Baili, and Guo Moruo – who were so-called “Japan-experts” and wrote extensively on Sino-Japanese relations during the war era of 1931-1945, when the brunt of Japanese military aggression took place.

MA (Master of Arts)
Sino-Japanese relations, Chinese history, World War II, nationalism, Confucianism, War of Resistance against Japan, Sino-Japanese War , Japanese history
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