The Creation of Identity and Community in Print

In his chapter ‘Piety in Print’, DuBois uses the Shengjing Times as a case study to trace the development of religion in print, as controlled by the Japanese, in Manchuria/Manchukuo. He argues that the images of religion presented related to both social trends and political needs, and the images tended to mirror the larger aims of Japan in the region. In his analysis, he refers to the theories of nationalism and community building of Anderson and Weber, which both include the role of print journalism/language in developing identities, ideas, and community. DuBois notes there is a key difference between their two theories however, turning on the question of whether mass media reflects existing identities or creates new ones:

‘In other words, the former [Anderson] shows publications expanding to fit the contours of an existing community, the latter [Weber] shows them creating a new one’.[1]

DuBois concludes that even at its most propagandistic, the paper was never able to simply impose its ideas onto its readership and that its later propagandistic messages probably ‘changed fewer minds than Weber’s example would suggest’.[2] Rather, the paper reflected existing identities, adhering closer to Anderson’s theory, due to newspapers being a product to be consumed and discarded at will and its readership holding the ability to simply disagree with its contents. This is illustrated best in the Shengjing Times’s attitude towards religious practices which promoted superstition; its theme of anti-superstition in its early publications (1906-1924) appealed to an intellectual readership and the iconoclastic May Fourth generation. DuBois argues that it was this image of religion the paper provided that was most successful, because it was a message its readership was keen to hear. Here we see the paper appealing to the pre-established intellectual community of ideas which subscribed to ideas of anti-superstition and anti-religious vision of social progress.

Perhaps Weber’s theory of community and identity building is instead demonstrated in the ‘revolution plus romance’ literary genre of China which appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. In his chapter ‘Revolution of the Heart’, Haiyan Lee provides a critical genealogy of sentiment and highlights the transformations of love as a concept of social and cultural life in twentieth century China. Through this literary genre, we see love used as a discursive technology for constructing individual and collective identities by the KMT and CCP, and literature participating ‘in (re)defining the social order and (re)producing forms of self and sociality’.[3] Love was supplemented to the revolutionary agenda, argued to threaten revolution and diminish revolutionary zeal. The genre therefore was able to use the concept of ‘love’, popular as a symbol of freedom, autonomy, and equality among the May Fourth generation, in order to promote the collective over the individual and further the revolutionary agenda.

Both the Shengjing Times and the Chinese literary genre of ‘revolution plus romance’ serve to illustrate the potential language has in the creation of identities and communities. While the Shengjing Times reflected existing identities and formed a community of readership based upon them, the Chinese literature aimed to form new identities aligned to the revolutionary movements. Overall, both demonstrate the use of language to further political agendas, and as case studies indicate both Anderson and Weber’s theories as feasible.

[1] Thomas David DuBois, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900-1945 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 87.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2010), p. 7.

‘Love has no boundaries’, and what that can teach us about the self

I am a hopeless romantic. So, when we were assigned readings on new conceptualisations of love in China, I jumped on the chance to learn more about something that resonates deeply in me. I ended up reading Lee Haiyan’s Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950, which maps the way perceptions of love changed within Chinese society. Lee does this by taking Chinese sentimental fiction as her source material. With the rise of popular press in China, it became a genre that was both widely-written in and widely-consumed – pervasive, in short. This pervasiveness meant that sentimental fiction had a social utility: an ability to reflect on and perpetuate certain views within society.1 Therefore, in applying a historical analysis to works within sentimental fiction, Lee argues that we can shed light on what ‘the social order, the self, and sociality’ were like at the time, and how they were expressed.2. To demonstrate Lee’s point, I take as reference her analysis of Hu Chunbing’s play, Ai de geming/愛的革命 (The Revolution of Love), and expand on the serious historical implications her analysis of it has on our understandings of the self, vis-a-vis the external world.

Zhong Sanmin is the rebellious son of a well-to-do compradore merchant. His name, Zhong (invoking Zhongguo, China) Sanmin (invoking Sun Yat-sen’s sanmin zhuyi, the Three People’s Principles), marks him as a  … Nationalist patriot … [Sanmin] steadfastly courts a free-spirited New Woman appositely named Hua Ziyou (free China). 3

In the extract above, Lee references the lovers’ names, arguing that the symbolism contained within them indicates that love and revolution were seen as an ‘essential oneness’ in Hu’s time.4 Private emotions can be united with public political commitment; the public action of revolution is just another means of expressing the private feeling of love. Moreover, one could also speculate that Hu, in naming his characters after nationalistic and revolutionary ideals, believes that love is a necessary factor drives revolution. Of course revolution is, by no means, guaranteed through the use of love on its own. However without love, revolution cannot emerge and/or is fruitless. Either way, no matter what inference we draw out, Lee’s point is Hu’s characterisation of love and revolution as an ‘essential oneness’ gives rise to a unique understanding of the self. (( Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 276 )) If we believe that love and revolution are two sides of the same coin, then love exists externally as much as it does internally, with the boundary between the two fluid.

I think this point comes with some very serious – but important- historical implications. I turn to the philosophy to explain why. ‘Internalism/Externalism’ is a dichotomy that is used in philosophical debates to draw a distinction between the external world and the self. Traditionally conceptions of this distinction take ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to mean ‘inside the skin’ and ‘outside the skin’ respectively.5. However, if internal feelings, like love, can arise in external events, like revolutions, then this means that internal feelings can arise outside the skin – a contradiction. Traditional philosophical interpretations of the internal/external distinction thus fail to explain cases of the sort that Lee describes. This poses a serious problem for history. If we have been analysing Chinese history with the presupposition that there is a distinction between the internal and external when no such distinction really exists, then our historical analysis is misguided. This means that our understanding of Chinese society, and particularly the way in which individuals relate to the outside world, needs to be overhauled – an unsettling thought. On the bright side, at least we now know better.

  1. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), pp. 4-5 []
  2. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p.7 []
  3. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 276 []
  4. Lee Haiyan. The Revolution of the Heart: a genealogy of love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 276 []
  5. Farkas, Katalin. ‘What is Externalism?’ in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol 112, No. 3 (February 2003), p. 189 []