China’s public image war

For much of the 20th century China has waged a battle to shape and assert its national identity and culture, both overseas and at home. Robert Bickers explains why exploring China's evolving nationalism is crucial to understanding its modern fixation with the country's international image

Armoured cars unloaded in Shanghai in 1927

How did a Chinese general end up in a Hollywood movie studio in 1936 – and what was he doing there? For several weeks at the beginning of that year, Major General Tu Ting-hsiu was a regular feature in the film industry gossip columns of the California press as he observed the shooting of MGM’s The Good Earth, the film of Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Chinese rural life. In on-set photographs Tu, described as the film’s ‘technical advisor’, can be seen chatting with one of its lead actors, Luise Rainer.

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The visitor from China probably knew very little about the harsh struggle for existence in his nation’s countryside that was portrayed in the film. Tu, who had adopted the English name Theodore, was an American-educated singer, a baritone known as ‘China’s Caruso’, heavily involved in music education and Chinese political life. But examining the question of his presence in California provides insights into what today seems an unusual fixation – the preoccupation by China’s government with the image of its people and the presentation of its history, overseas and domestically. Any attempt to understand China’s contemporary strategic assertiveness and sensitivity to foreign understandings of its past must begin by exploring its 20th-century history and its long struggle to secure the dignity of both the state and its people in foreign eyes.

Any attempt to understand China’s contemporary strategic assertiveness and sensitivity to foreign understandings of its past must begin by exploring its 20th-century history

Tu went to Hollywood to oversee MGM’s compliance with a formal agreement the studio had signed with his government. The document specified that the film should “present a truthful and pleasant picture of China and her people” and use Chinese actors, and that the studio should “accept as much as possible” the suggestions made by the nominated envoy of China; it also stated that, if it so decided, the Chinese government could provide a preface for the movie. The 1934 agreement was the first that any US studio had ever contracted with a foreign government on issues relating to film content, and it showed how fixated Chinese nationalists, both in and out of government, had become with representations of their country overseas. But this was no mere matter of disgust with the prevalence of Chinese villains (such as Sax Rohmer’s ‘devil doctor’ Fu Manchu, played by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee) in foreign film and fiction, or with the lurid portrayals of opium use and sexual predation that were routine in tales of ‘Chinatown’. It was instead one strand in a concerted policy of cultural diplomacy that also aimed to help China in its existential struggle against Japan.

Post-imperial conflict

For decades after the downfall of China’s last imperial rulers in 1912, nationalists had fought hard to unite a country splintered by militarism. This was a war fought on many fronts, including a cultural offensive – of which the public face in the US was ‘China’s Caruso’. The first stage of the conflict involved a military campaign launched with Soviet aid, advisors and weapons. By 1928 the Guomindang, the party founded by the veteran revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, had fought its way north from its base in southern Guangzhou and established a new national government in Nanjing. Sun had not lived to see this triumph (he died in 1925), and the new state was led instead by his former right-hand man, Chiang Kai-shek. The second phase of the battle was a diplomatic struggle that involved confronting the legacy of China’s near-century of weakness in the face of assertive foreign power.

This was a challenging legacy. Since the ‘opium wars’ of the mid-19th century, China had been forced to accept treaties that degraded its sovereignty, had seen Hong Kong and Taiwan carved off and made into foreign-controlled colonies, and had been forced to accept foreign-controlled ‘concessions’ or ‘international settlements’ in many of its coastal and riverine cities. As a result it hosted tens of thousands of foreign nationals who were not subject to its legal jurisdiction, but instead enjoyed the benefits of ‘extraterritoriality’. An archipelago of European or Japanese-run zones was strung along the coast, foreign shipping firms secured inland navigation rights, and even China’s tariffs were set by foreign diktat, while its customs service was run by foreign administrators. It was little wonder that foreign observers talked of China as a ‘dying nation’, and that its own intellectuals anxiously debated the chances of ‘national extinction’.

This situation came to be known as China’s ‘National Humiliation’. Though Chiang’s government applied pressure on the foreign powers to roll back these ‘unequal treaties’, as nationalists termed them – with some success: by 1931 even the British were ready to sign away their extorted privileges – Japan, a latecomer to the game of predatory nations in China, instead became more aggressive.

Japan’s attempt at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to secure the transfer to itself of German concessions in China had provoked outrage from the Chinese. A revitalised nationalist movement erupted, named the May Fourth Movement for the date in 1919 when the contentious treaty clauses became known, prompting a wave of protests and strikes. This movement had helped inspire hundreds of thousands of people who joined the call of the Guomindang, as well as others who believed that answers to China’s weakness and humiliation might be found in communism.

In 1931 Japanese forces based in one of those hived-off zones, the ‘leased territory’ of Dairen (now Dalian, in Liaoning province), faked a Chinese terrorist attack on a Japanese train near Shenyang in Manchuria. That provided a pretext for a series of lightning retaliatory strikes against Chinese forces, initially unsanctioned by the government in Tokyo, that brought north-east China into Japan’s hands – an action that attracted international censure. As the Japanese turned Manchuria into a new puppet state, and installed the Qing emperor Puyi as its titular head, China’s nationalists continued to wage a diplomatic campaign – and a cultural one. It was as part of this campaign that Theodore Tu came to be casting Californian Chinese-Americans as extras in MGM’s movie.

Cultural renewal

During the May Fourth Movement, a strong body of thought had emerged that demanded a complete cultural renewal for China. If its traditional culture had failed to protect it, the reasoning went, then that culture needed a root-and-branch overhaul. Some thought the answer lay in a comprehensive adoption of western cultural forms and values. This conviction prompted the initiatives that sent Tu to Columbia University, established a National Conservatory of Music in Shanghai with which Tu was involved, and sponsored the Chinese Boy Scouts movement for which Tu composed the anthem. Many others, in the cities especially, simply developed their own amalgam of foreign and Chinese cultures: they danced to the latest jazz numbers from the US, peppered their speech with English words, and acted in a self-consciously modeng (modern) fashion. Anti-imperialists wore suits and drank cocktails in cabarets; they fought imperialism by day, and embraced the west by night.

If China's traditional culture had failed to protect it, then that culture needed a root-and-branch overhaul

But renewing China also meant persuading those overseas to take its traditional culture seriously. Witty writers such as Lin Yutang penned hugely popular introductions to Chinese culture and customs – his My Country and My People topped The New York Times bestseller lists in 1935, and tore into the caricatures of Chinese decay proffered by British and American ‘old China hands’. Widespread denigration of Chinese culture had accompanied the degradation of its sovereignty – and now an apparent indifference to its fate after 1931, as Japanese forces pushed into northern China. To counter this, the government supported a massive exhibition of Chinese cultural treasures in London in 1935/36, with more than 1,000 items loaned from the National Palace Museum in Beijing. Wily Chinese leaders believed that the benefits of such cultural diplomacy could be worth much more than pleas to the League of Nations.

They were right. The International Exhibition of Chinese Art at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House in Piccadilly transformed foreign perceptions of China’s culture. “All London is China mad,” reported one Australian visitor in 1935, as Chinese wallpapers and designs filled department stores. But the impact was felt far beyond the ephemeral world of interior design. “One cannot but hang one’s head in shame,” announced one reviewer, who bewailed the injustices inflicted on the culture that had produced such artistic treasures over so many centuries. (Ironically, of course, many of those injustices had been planned in London, a short walk away from Piccadilly.) It was finally understood that the China then under attack by Japan was not the caricatured land of comic ‘Chinamen’, nor the decayed and corrupted civilisation portrayed in Hollywood’s most hostile moments. Rather, it was a rich and valuable culture of world standing. When in the summer of 1937 Japan launched an all-out war on China, it found that foreign sympathies overwhelmingly supported the Chinese. Lin Yutang’s work, the exhibition at Burlington House and even Theodore Tu’s technical assistance on The Good Earth had all played an important part in this perception.

Ambivalence to the west

After the Japanese invasion of 1937, as Chiang Kai-shek’s forces retreated into China’s interior, the work of cultural diplomacy continued. It proceeded even after the start of the Second World War and the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and after the US and Britain formally signed away their privileges in China with new treaties in 1943. But a cultural conservatism had also taken root in China, alongside an unpredictable ambivalence towards western culture.

American observers were shocked in 1943 by Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime manifesto China’s Destiny, a book that seemed to be a xenophobic call not only to restore China’s sovereignty but also to assert control over regions long lost to Chinese power. The foreign presence had not only degraded China’s sovereignty, Chiang argued, but also morally corrupted its people, who should reject western ways and values. Those who once thought they were helping to make a strong new China by creating syncretic new styles in art or literature that embraced forms of western culture now could find themselves branded cultural traitors.

This hostility towards the west had its roots in much earlier history, but grew in its reach and impact after Chiang’s national government was overthrown on the mainland by the forces of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, and withdrew to the island bastion of Taiwan. Continuing the work of the Guomindang, the communists steadily pressured the remaining western communities to leave and their enterprises to shut down. By the mid-1950s nearly all had been forced out.

A heady cocktail of nativism and socialist culture reached its peak in the days of xenophobic rage of the Cultural Revolution

In the 1950s, Soviet Bloc advisors and technical experts arrived to help China rebuild its war-shattered economy and infrastructure. Even then, leading cultural policy advocates in mainland China applied pressure on those deemed to be slavishly following western modes and forms in their arts. The national renewal that grew out of the May Fourth Movement was reflected in the early decades of the communist era by a swing towards China’s peasant and proletarian cultures. The view was that those highball-sipping moderns of earlier decades had sold out to Washington, London and Tokyo. China’s peasants now stood up and ran their country, and their culture and values would be triumphant.

Revolutionary rage

This heady cocktail of nativism and socialist culture reached its peak in the days of xenophobic rage that characterised the Cultural Revolution in 1966–69, Mao Zedong’s great attack on his perceived enemies in the party. Theodore Tu had died during the war, but people like him came under intense pressure. Pianists had their fingers broken. Passionately nationalist writers were harangued and attacked, accused of being ‘running dogs’ of western imperialism or the Soviet Union, now reviled since Mao’s ambitions to lead the communist bloc had led to a vitriolic split between the former firm allies in 1960. Those who had studied overseas, many of whom had devoted decades to the fight to end China’s subjugation at foreign hands, suffered intensely. London-educated memoirist Nien Cheng later recalled how teenage Red Guards invaded her Shanghai house, smashed her classical music records, burned her books, and used her lipstick to scrawl “Down with the Running Dog of Imperialism” on the wall above her vandalised bed. Peasant values and peasant art forms, or at least versions of these revised by party cultural commissars, became the only acceptable ones.

Young members of the Chinese red guards during the cultural revolution
Young members of the Red Guard raise fists at a rally during China’s Cultural Revolution. This militia targeted ‘class enemies’ and those with ties to the west or the former nationalist government (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 these strictures slowly began to fade, and today China appears wholeheartedly to have re-embraced the west: Starbucks, KFC, Walmart and IKEA are ubiquitous. However, today’s leadership is waging a steady campaign against ‘western values’ on university campuses, and against the fashion for wholly western names on city restaurants.

If we are to understand China’s actions today we need to understand this history of ambivalence about the west. We also need to remember why the past matters so much in China. Colonialism was part of its recent history: it is less than 20 years since it regained the colony of Macau from Portugal, for instance.

If we are to understand China’s actions today we need to understand this history of ambivalence about the west

Unresolved territorial disputes with some of its neighbours have their roots in the 19th century, when territory was lost by China’s Qing rulers. Others are fuelled by a reaction against its past weaknesses and an ambition to wipe away the humiliation of the past through assertive policies in the present. President Trump’s tweets criticising China’s devaluation of its currency and construction of military bases sound in China like statements from that humiliating era when foreign diplomats chastised and hectored its rulers.

China’s Communist Party rulers decisively turned to nationalism in the aftermath of their suppression of the 1989 democracy movement. Those protesting, it was concluded, lacked a sufficient understanding of the dark past from which the party had saved China. Building on the longer story of nationalist anti-imperialism in the 20th century, the government embedded ‘patriotic education’ at the heart of schooling, pumped resources into new history museums and memorials, sponsored films and television series, and established research centres. Sites of Communist Party sacrifice or Japanese military atrocity became ‘patriotic education bases’. The humiliations of history were to be kept raw to serve the party’s crisis of legitimacy after 1989.

Much is left out of this version of the story, which places the communists at the heart of China’s recovery from its degraded state. But nationalism always was a bigger force than any single party. It was greater than the Guomindang, and it is likely to prove more powerful than the Communist Party. Popular anger over territorial disputes, such as with Japan over the Senkaku (in China, Diaoyu) Islands, is a dangerous fire to stoke: what might happen if the government fails to satisfy its people? Nationalism helped China survive the Japanese assault after 1931. But it has also sparked all of the great upheavals that beset China over the past century.

Robert Bickers is professor of history at the University of Bristol and the author of Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (Allen Lane, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 3 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in April 2017