What It Means to Be Chinese

Nationalism and Identity in Xi’s China

Generation Xi: students at a Confucian temple in Nanjing, August 2009 Reuters / Jeff Xu

What does it mean to be Chinese? A strong tradition in premodern China held that it meant thinking, behaving, and living in a society in accord with heaven-sanctioned principles exemplifying the best way to be human. Other peoples could learn this Chineseness, and they could also become civilized, but they could never rival China in either defining propriety or drawing people into accordance with it.

For centuries, this way of thinking went largely unchallenged, and even today, its fundamental assumptions run deep. To be Chinese still means to exhibit proper behavior and to be part of a civilization that has primacy in the world. Most modern Chinese would accept this, at least tacitly. Where they would disagree—often sharply—is over just what values Chineseness should stand for today. Is the moral model of premodern times still relevant in the modern political context, or should it be displaced by newer ideas of political morality? Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is best understood as a backward-looking answer to the question. But in spite of his wishes, the debate will continue, and it could contribute to instability and even violence in the coming decades.

A man talks on an iPhone in Beijing, July 2013. Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon


Traditional Chinese family values, often called “Confucian,” were deeply ethical, although not egalitarian. A father had authority over a son, and the son was bound to obey. But the father was bound, too: he had to be a proper father, treating his son as a father should, and could be held up to public scorn if he did not.

Political norms were based on the family model. A ruler had absolute authority over his subjects but was morally bound to treat them properly. If he did not, they could flee or rebel, and the ruler might lose his “heavenly mandate” to rule. And how could rulers learn what proper treatment of subjects was? By reading and internalizing texts. Officials at all levels were

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