Contemporary society has created a vast crisis over proof and recognition of cultural identity within human society. Most prefer to skirt around this crisis, as they have no idea how it should be tackled. The contemplation and resolution of this issue, however, holds a very modern significance.
Ethnic Chinese who live outside China and are nationals of other countries, should they desire to ‘return’ to China to visit family, travel, do business etc, must first go to their local Chinese consulate to acquire a visa, as they do not have a ‘Chinese identity’. If, for example, you were involved in Chinese legal matters concerning the inheritance of property, you would first have to put forward ‘proof of identity’: first, by means of notarization by an international lawyer, then through the foreign affairs office of the country you are a national of, and then this must be recognised by the Chinese consulate. Only then can it be confirmed that the ‘you of today’ is one and the same as ‘the former Chinese you’. The Chinese consulate neither has the qualifications, nor feels it worthwhile to directly authenticate your claims. You are not classified as a ‘Chinese citizen’ and so it has no authority to deal with you, and no wish to deal with you either, as China already has too many people to deal with. The Chinese consulate merely carries out legal acknowledgement of the notarization documents provided by the foreign office of the country in which you hold citizenship, and nothing more.
Thus, you cry out in alarm, ‘Proving identity is so complicated! But I am Chinese!’ – -’So you think! Your Chinese identity has already been renounced, lost, and so you are not Chinese.’ – - ‘But in essence, I am Chinese; no, not just in essence even, my blood, genes, skin, physique, language, beliefs are all Chinese!’ – ‘Ok, so physically you are Chinese, culturally, you are Chinese. But strictly speaking this just makes you ethnically Chinese, as your nationality is not Chinese, and so you are not, in any sense, Chinese. From ancient times, Chinese people have said we were ‘clearly set apart from barbarians’, that ‘if you aren’t of my race, your heart must be other’, that if you are not my friend, you are my enemy, no matter how relations were in the past! Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam also have Chinese cultural genealogies, but if they don’t sing the same tune, we’ll still come to blows! So, Mister, as your identity is unclear, in China all your property, all your rights, all your interests and even your basic qualifications can be denied.’
And so, off the top of my head, I give you a classic example of a ‘proof of identity crisis’. In 2004 was released the film ‘The Terminal’, which tells the tale of Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a man from a small Eastern European country. To escape the fires of war, he fled his home country, but unexpectedly whilst he was in the air on his way to America, his home was caught up in a sudden coup d’etat. The foreign relations of the former government were abolished in one stroke, and so all passports issued by the former government became invalid. With no way out of his dilemma, Victor, bearing his passport issued by a non-existant country, was detained in New York Kennedy International Airport. As he was not permitted to set foot on American soil, and yet also could not return to his country of origin, he could only stay in the resting rooms of the airport itself, waiting for the day when his country’s war would end. In the days he spent within the airport, the identity-less Victor constantly endured the persecution of airport official Frank Dickson. Dickson saw Victor as a symbol of bad luck and considered him to be trouble, uncontrollable and did his utmost to get rid of him. Victor’s sufferings were great! His awkward plight is comparable to that laid out in these lines： ‘My own status is not clear, How can I greet my parents-in-law?’ ( Du Fu, Newly Wed Parting). The metaphor Du Fu employs at the start of this poem deserves elucidation: ‘Chinese vines climb up low hemp, but their creeping tendrils cannot stretch very far’. Chinese vines and old man’s beard are both vine-like plants, and are in fact the same plant. The Beiya encyclopedia says that ‘In trees the plant known as old man’s beard, in grass it is Chinese vines.’ It is plainly the same plant, which is merely given different appellations when it climbs on differing trees. ‘To be a bride to a soldier is like a Chinese vine climbing up low hemp.’ Vine-like plants should climb on tall trees, and here this represents a bride finding a good home. However, the weak and delicate old man’s beard is not a good destination for a climbing plant. Du Fu uses this phrase – hemp also being a weak plant – as a metaphor for a woman married off to a husband unable to support her. If you have not experienced the awkwardness entailed by a loss of identity, and thus you do not understand the importance of ‘proof of identity’.
Yet in fact, a true proof of identity crisis does not occur within one’s nationality, but within one’s ‘cultural identity.’ In the globalised world of today ‘proof of national identity’ is now seen as a simple problem, easily resolved. To contemporary people, ‘proof and acknowledgement of cultural identity’ is more important, more challenging, and, moreover, can lead to serious cultural clashes.
One day I asked my friend C, ‘Where are you from?’ – - ‘What do you mean?’ – - ‘Where do you come from?’ – - ‘Shanghai’ – - ‘So you are Shanghainese?’ – - ‘No! I’m from Hunan.’ – - ‘Could you explain to me where you have lived?’ – - ‘I was born in Hunan, grew up there until I reached 18, studied for 6 years in Beijing, then worked in Shanghai for thirty years and last have spent 9 years in Sydney.’ – - ‘But you don’t admit yourself to be Shanghainese? You lived and worked there for thirty years, the longest length of time, you hold a Shanghai identity card, your business was successful in Shanghai, you married a Shanghai wife, had three Shanghai kids, but you say you are still not Shanghainese?’ – - ‘I’m not! I’m from Hunan! As the proverb says ‘The mountains and rivers may change, but a man cannot change his essential nature’, and in essence, I am from Hunan!’ – - ‘Are you prejudiced against Shanghainese? When you were in Shanghai, and with Shanghainese, did you then also openly fly your Hunanese flag?’ – -’Of course! I’ve always said, plainly and simply, that I am from Hunan, that I am not Shanghainese. Shanghainese are an unprincipled bunch, they haggle over every ounce, they are petty and too shrewd for their own good. Although my wife is Shanghainese, she is very hardworking, frugal and quite different from one of your run of the mill Shanghainese.’ I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, saying, ‘Ok, ok, Hunan man, so if I said now you were from Sydney, would you admit to it?’ – - ‘That, that, also, also isn’t, that’s really hard to say…’ We all laughed and moved on.
C himself was extremely conflicted, as his stubborn feelings of pride in his Hunan lineage and loyalty to his cultural roots could not be reconciled with his 30 years of life and work within a Shanghainese culture. As regards the problem of ‘proof of identity’, if this is viewed from the perspective of his governmental administrative affiliation, then it is his current registered living address that is used as determinant. However, if speaking of ‘cultural identity’, this is an extremely complex, extremely ambiguous and multifaceted issue. What standard can you use as a final confirmation of identity? Family lineage? Early life experience? Educational background? Working life? Length of time spent? Characteristic habits? The orientation of one’s primary system of values? There is not one of these that has the power to act as an ultimate determinant of cultural identity. As C does not like Shanghainese, he persistently maintains that he ‘cannot change his essential nature’, yet surely his 18 years in Hunan cannot match his 30 years in Shanghai? Americans say ‘You are what you do’, Freud claimed ‘Childhood experience influences an individual’s whole life’. Sociologists argue that ‘The influence of family environment and educational background brands itself deeply onto the course of your life’. Biologists believe ‘Genetic inheritance has a decisive effect on an individual’s cultural make-up’. All are correct, and yet all are incorrect, as none of these reach the heart of the matter. Thus, proof of cultural identity is a multifaceted, many-layered, complex, ambiguous structure. Furthermore, when looking at specific individual cases, even if they have the same family, same lineage, same educational background, the same life and work experience, different people can have entirely different compositions. C is at once Hunanese, Shanghainese, and now also a Sydneysider. As so, it is not possible to use one single determinant of cultural identity.
C’s life experience and cultural identity confusions are in fact highly representative, and it cannot be said he was wrong. The surnames Mao, Liu, Zhou, Zhu, Chen, Lin, and Deng, even if they leave their homes young and return when old, are now scattered across the seven seas. They are yet more complicated than C, but they have not yet lost the accents of their hometowns. Until death and throughout history, they still retain their original cultural outlook, be they from Hubei, Hunan, Zhejiang, Sichuan or wherever else. According to ancient Chinese customs and concepts, the village of your forebears was the foundation of your identity. Han Yu was known as Han Changli, as Changli in Henan province was the origin of the Han family, Liu Zongyuan was called ‘Liu Hedong’, as Hedong (present day Yongji, in Shanxi province) was where the Liu family originated from. The question of the structural relationship between hometown and the regional culture has not yet been adequately resolved by studies of Chinese cultural geography.
In the traditional society of ancient times, as it was a comparatively stable age, people could easily stubbornly stick to a cultural feeling as their sole proof of identity. This produced hardline factions loyal to their ancestors and with strong patriotic beliefs. However, the Chinese were never good at producing strict, logical, analytical thought, and were unwilling to be practical and put forward realistic counters to the arguments of the hardliners. Thus, there were always many self-contradictory attitudes to issues of cultural identity, born of thinkers not brave enough to tackle the issue head-on. This is especially true of approaches to harsh problems regarding ‘proper politics’ and ‘refined morals’. Qu Yuan’s intractable problem has still not been surmounted, and so my friend C can only set his jaw and unwaveringly declare himself to be Hunanese. Chinese are in this way extremely interesting. On one hand, they praise Qu Yuan; on the other, they worship Qin Shihuang. They sing the praises of not only Zhu Yuanzhang, but also of the golden age of the Qing dynasty. So long as they can continuously pilfer ideas and make the central plains (middle and lower regions of the Yellow River) into China, make the Han the Chinese, then all can be forgiven, and all is well. But the issue that cannot be evaded is that humanity inevitably cannot avoid changing their societal status. People have a natural right to pursue both survival and happiness, but in changing societal status, cultural identity must change alongside it, otherwise all concepts of ‘loyalty’ lack a rational foundation. Not just in modern society but even during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, whilst China was being unified by a great power, those who would ‘serve Qin in the morning and Chu in the evening’ could still be found everywhere. Chu talents worked for Jin, in south and north alike, and everywhere ultimately is the same. Thus, Qu Yuan’s ‘Sorrow at Parting’ is a mournful, self-defeating cry against his times. At the very least, it is the literary reaction to the cultural conflicts of his era.
The hardest part of today’s cultural identity, rather akin to Qu Yuan’s plight, is this: Are we, as ethnic Chinese expatriates and nationals of Western countries, like Su Yin and Zhang Yi ‘serving Qin in the morning and Chu in the evening’? That is to say, should China and the country we now reside in come into conflict, should we be loyal to China, or should we be loyal to America, or Australia? Our Chinese siblings would most certainly solemnly and gravely place a cultural imperative before us: ‘Are you still Chinese?’ – - ‘I’m sorry, I now have American nationality, and so I am not Chinese anymore.’ – - ‘But doesn’t Chinese blood flow in your veins?’ – - ‘But I now enjoy all the advantages of being an American, I can’t forever be in one place and dreaming of another. Isn’t that ‘eating noodles only to complain when the bowl is empty’? No matter what you say, we already reside in multi-faceted circumstances where there are no clear-cut moral standards.’
The contemporary globalization of national space has created these difficulties surrounding proof of cultural identity. If we look at this issue from a Chinese historical perspective, this is precisely the same confusion over cultural identity that accompanies dynastic change. From current historical materials and statistics, it can be clearly seen that the Han ethnicity have been invaded many times by other peoples and every invasion aroused intense opposition. The closer we get to modern times, the more easy it has been to reduce nationalism to merely an identification with a historical culture. But we have to remember that not one collective movement of resistance to foreign rule over the Chinese plains has persisted more than a generation. From the perspective of the relative persistence of different resistance movements, China cannot even be compared to small, weak Poland. China has five thousand years of civilization, but also is now one country with three governments, and with huge numbers of ‘Chinese traitors’. Perhaps in all the world China can only be compared with France, a country which shares China’s historical and civilization conceits. So our present record is a source of embarrassment, and we should compel people to consider for themselves, is this failure of our moral mechanisms? Or is it an unavoidable internal contradiction caused by the role of nationalism in defining and acknowledging cultural identity?
Throughout history mankind has been full of migrants, their numbers countless. All migrants must have gone through a process of gradual change in their proof of cultural identity. In ancient China, the situation was as follows: When one dynasty replaced another, all people must go through a process that ‘reauthenticates’ everything from their political identity to their cultural identity, thus making everyone a kind of ‘migrant’. Political migrants lose their culture, and then from that loss of culture they become reborn political citizens. With one leap, culture is cleansed; this is a leftwards twist of the screw. With the second leap are created political cynics and this twists the screw still further. Like this, pushing further and further, the circle is made complete. Returning to reality, as each soft blow lands on identity from politics to culture, it further completes the identification of a generation of scholars with the power of a new dynasty. The separation between cultural self-esteem and political cynicism is as thin as a sheet of paper. – - It just depends on whether or not the new power acknowledges a little of their previous historical culture. If they do so, loss of culture can occur within even less than a generation, completing the turn away from previous cultural pride and towards recognition of a new dynasty.The excuses used to pacify the inner guilt accompanying the transtition vary from person to person. Like Huang Zongzi who, seeking a position for his son, sent a letter to a scholar of the new dynasty, Xu Yuanwen, saying: ‘I heard the old tale of the two recluses of Shouyang Mountain, who refused to serve King Wu and so eventually starved to death on the mountain as they refused to eat the produce of his state. However, they sent a son to a well-known scholar and received three years of food in payment, and all was well for a time. Today I dispatch my son to take position as an official, will this be enough for you? Even hero of the anti-Qing resistance Shi Kefa’s last words were full of both tragedy and anger: ‘I die for my country, my son lives for his family.’ Modern writer Zhou Zuoren who also sadly endorsed the Japanese regime in north China also surely had his own ways of justifying it to himself. For those proud of their culture to turn and identify with a new government is not at all uncommon. From history to reality, the road is crowded with them. As for whether they receive three years of food or give up, it doesn’t really matter.(For the above, consult Zhu Xueqin’s essay on ‘The internal contradictions of cultural nationalism from the perspective of the Ming Confucian predicament’.)
As for the problem of the unavoidable clashes of cultural identity and its contradictions, both spatial and temporal, we need a hypothesis to illuminate the issue: Suppose your paternal father was an ethnic Chinese who had emigrated to America, and your paternal grandmother was an American Jew, and so your father was a mixed race Chinese-Jew with American nationality. Afterwards, your father moved to Europe, and married a French woman, who gave birth to you. So you are a person of French-Chinese-Jewish descent, a child with three bloodlines. Later, you move to Japan and fall in love with a Japanese girl, and so your children would be French-Chinese-Jewish-Japanese. So now, what cultural identity should you tell your child they have? Some of it is probably located in Japan, some in France, some in China, some in Israel. How can these four siblings be united into one cultural identity? Must you have a single acknowledged cultural identity? Is it ok not to?
Here I have not spared words in order to describe the problems surrounding the cultural identity of immigrants and children of mixed blood. The key points that should be drawn from this are concepts of ‘cultural identification’ and ‘value recognition’. With the help of a little logical analysis, the predicament and problems of patriotism and cultural nationalism become clear. ‘Patriotism’ is viewed as an -ism, and looks as though it is an ideology. In fact, it is primarily a rational emotion. Within it are contained three main feelings that have rational justification: first, I have grown up in one place and one country, with a long history, and am extremely familiar and intimate with it. My forebears, my parents, my brothers, my sisters, my fellow countrymen and my friends are all here, and I have a subjective attachment to the rivers, hills and villages of its landscape. This place has fostered me in kindness, and so I have a deep, profound attachment to it. Secondly, the citizens of this place and I have a relationship of mutual interests and mutual benefits, and are interdependent. We flourish together, and we die together, and so I must be loyal to this place, and I must love this place. Thirdly, I subjectively consider the place where I live to be a beautiful place, a place worthy of my love, she has given me an equitable, generous, civilized and well-developed system, customs, and welfare, furthermore she has given me our great cultural traditions. She has treated me well, and so I should treat her well in return. And so, on these three grounds, I should love her, my country.
‘But the three reasons described above have one, or even two or three ways in which they are not sufficient for me, unfulfilled, and make me feel unsatisfied, and because of this I wish to emigrate to a civilized country. This immigrant country, although I would be unfamiliar with its culture, and feel distanced from it (although I would gradually learn and acquire that feeling of closeness), its living conditions, in all aspects, exceed those of my mother country, and so where should I live? Should I or should I not use these three patriotic reasons to establish and confirm my cultural feelings?’ The answer is – - whatever you answer is right for you!
To confront and resolve the difficult problems surrounding contemporary society’s multi-layered, complex issues of cultural identity, the theories of German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas on ‘constitutional patriotism’ are a valuable intellectual resource. His theories state that as long as each person who holds citizenship is ‘patriotic’ in the name of a modern state system which has a constitutional system founded on principles of citizenship and individual rights, then this is rational. However, ‘patriotism’ cannot be based on nationalistic sentiments or traditional culture. Habermas’s basic viewpoint as regards the problem of integration in contemporary nation states is as follows: the communities formed by ethnic and cultural groups are former political communities; their members are not citizens, but instead are members of ethnic or cultural groups. However, the contemporary meaning of political community and ethnic or cultural community is not the same. Their organising framework does not depend on natural ties of blood or cultural bonds. They are deliberately constructed, and thus such communities are ‘unnatural’ social alliances. This society’s alliance is the constitution. Through the constitution, the members of this society gain membership of the political community and identity as a citizen. Assuming this identity also signifies the setting aside of different ethnic or cultural identities. The loyalty and love members of society hold for their country should be a political loyalty and the constitution should be an emblem and expression of the identity of the members of the political community, and this is what Habermas called ‘constitutional patriotism’. Habermas proposed constitutional patriotism primarily to break the narrow-minded psychology of nationalisms, and create an open-minded, tolerant community for common living. Habermas supported a democratic, collaborative political culture as an alternative to ideologies based on the unification of ethnicities into individual nation-states, and searched for ways to escape this model. In the globalised world of today, the culturally diverse human community cannot maintain this endorsement of ethnic identity. Nationalism is not based on a common system of values. Habermas says:’In a multi-cultural society, a constitutional represents a kind of common knowledge. Citizens, in negotiating the requirements of collective lives, require such principles. As these principles are in the interest of all the people, thus they can gain the rational approval of all the people. Like this, societal relations are built on a commonly recognised foundation, and they can expect everyone to treat them as free and equal individuals.’ Within a constitutional republic the relationship between an individual’s identity as a citizen (republican consciousness) and his identification with a cultural group (ethnic affiliation) does not entail any serious ideological entanglements. This relationship is merely historical accident, people do not require a similar ethnic background before they can unite and work together for the common good. For contemporary people, to learn how to live in a ethnic culture is not important, but to live in a political culture is of the greatest urgency. It is not important to seek your roots or to return to people whose common roots you identify with. Instead, learn how to critique and assess your own interests in order to enter into a process of rational discussion and consultation. This is precisely the form a universal political culture should take.
Source: my1510, February 25, 2012.
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