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

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