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Andrew Leahey

POLI 225 Research Paper


A simple definition of the complicated issue of nationalism would be “exclusionary

patriotism.” Where patriotism is a passive pride for a country, nationalism is the idea that other

nations, either by force or rhetoric, must be made to see this as true as well. It is thus

exclusionary by nature: “we must progress the cause of our nation, at the cost of other nations if

need be.” Furthermore, it is the inherent assumption that one’s nation is more worthy, be it of

territory, or improved quality of life, than another. It is, however, a complicated and multi-

faceted concept that cannot be summed up in a one or two line definition. Therefore, it is best to

look to established scholars from multiple disciplines for their take on nationalism.

A good starting point is to take the metaphor written by Erik Ringmar, senior lecturer at

the London School of Economics, in the British Journal of Sociology. In his article

“Nationalism: The Idiocy of Intimacy” he states that “democracy, understood as the

representation of interests, is intimately linked to nationalism, understood as the representation of

identities” (Ringmar, 534). He further states that if democracy is meant to be ruling by the

people, nationalism determines who those people are. Furthermore, from the same ideals spring

both the inclination for self-determination and the devotion to the state over which you wish to

have a stake in. Ringmar believes that democracy and nationalism are intrinsically linked as

nationalism, as in the case of the French Revolution, can often be seen as the catalyst for the

pursuit of democracy.

Another take on nationalism comes from George Orwell, in his May 1945 essay “Notes

on Nationalism.” Orwell stated that “Patriotism is of its nature defensive [while] nationalism …

is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure

more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has
chosen to sink his own individuality.” In this way, nationalism can be seen as an unbridled

devotion to a specific nation, to the point of almost religious faith in that group. When you are

willing to put the nation’s well-being ahead of even your own, it is logical that you also value

your nation’s ideals more than that of others. Therefore, it is a small leap to go from a

nationalistic ideal, to an expansionist-type mentality.

Perhaps the best-known and well respected theory of nationalism is that put forth by

English philosopher Ernest Gellner. Brendan O’Leary, a writer for the British Journal of Political

Science, in an essay compiling a record of Gellner’s contribution to the understanding of the

concept of nationalism, stated that “Gellner’s writings aimed to explain why nationalism has

become the key principle of political legitimacy in our times” (O’Leary, 191). O’Leary goes on

to indicate that Gellner’s writings were not released without controversy. Gellner theorized that

religion, thought by conservatives to be a key aspect of political legitimacy, was inessential and

inconsequential when compared to the integral nature of nationalism. He created a stir with

liberals by placing nationalism ahead of even law, reason, material prosperity and social justice

on the list of requirements for a stable political system (O’Leary, 192). However, Gellner’s

theories should not be interpreted as his belief that nationalism is a force for good. On the

contrary, he theorized that nationalism was necessary only due to its voluntary perpetuation.

Gellner, in his book Thought and Change, stated that the fallacy committed by

nationalism’s proponents and enemies alike lies in the assumption that it is “natural”. By natural

here, Gellner means to say that nationalism is a perfectly acceptable psychological tie to one’s

nation, just as a person would be tied to his or her family group. Gellner rejects this theory,

known as “naturalist theory” and he further argues that nationalism is perpetuated by an

assumption that one’s nationality is a telling piece of information, just as height, weight, and

gender are. Gellner contends that it is assumed and accepted uncritically, and the false weight
given to nationality is, at least partially, to blame for its existence as a social phenomenon and

integral role in political stability. In other words, we are voluntarily placing nationalism on its

thrown, and it has not achieved its status by its own merit.

There are differences of opinion between scholars as to the reason nationalism has

ascended to its point of importance. However one thing the consensus seems to agree on is that it

is an integral part, if not the driving force, of modern society. In the 1993 Annual Review of

Sociology Craig Calhoun, University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University

echoes this when he states that although scholars “differ in their estimates of how much

[nationalism] already existed in the Atlantic world of 1785. They are at one in recognizing that

the world by 1815 was full of it” (Calhoun, 213). Therefore we see that, the scholarly consensus

is for better or worse, the nationalistic ideal has been at work in the world for nearly 200 years.

Nationalism continues to be a driving force in international affairs. One needs look no

further than the daily news for instances of nationalism at play. In a recent article for Asia Times

Online, journalist Stephanie Wang writes of a new flavor of nationalism rising in China, coming

from the youth. The article tells of a recent turn of events, wherein two Chinese women, dressed

in traditional Japanese Kimonos, posed for photographs. They stood in front of a stand of

Japanese Cherry Blossom trees given to the Chinese government as a gift in 1972, when

diplomatic ties were reestablished between the two nations, following World War II. This stand

of trees was situated in front of Wuhan University, and the two women quickly drew attention

from young people passing by. They were shouted at, and forced to flee for their safety.

Upon these events being reported in the media, a poll was conducted wherein 51% of

respondents felt that the verbal abuse was warranted, and 47% thought that a more cool-headed

response would have been appropriate (Wang). This is significant data due to the fact that the

poll was conducted on sohu.com, a Chinese web portal with a considerably younger
demographic than the median age of a Chinese citizen. This is perhaps indicative of the rising

Chinese nationalistic mentality among the youth of the country. There had been some hope that

the influx of technology the country has had in the past decade might be influential in creating a

more culturally accepting generation of Chinese citizens. The article sums it up best when Wang

indicates that these cherry-blossom trees have become a perfect metaphor for the opposing

mentalities, they’re “either … symbols of national shame or of Sino-Japanese friendship,

depending on [a] Chinese nationals' point of view” (Wang). Stories such as these seem to

indicate that if there is a mentality shift in China, it is certainly not universal.

In 2008 a Times magazine article by Simon Elegant, a Beijing correspondent, detailed

some of the backlash he has received from nationalistic Chinese readers. In his article he details

a response he received to a blog post he wrote regarding the chaos involving the progress of the

Olympic torch through London. The commenter stated “you will be hated by 1.3 billion

Chinese," … in response to my blog post ... ‘Hope someday someone will spit on your face. Your

name will be recorded in Chinese history book forever as one of cold blooded … murder's

assistant’" (Elegant). This outburst, just one of many negative responses Elegant states he and his

colleagues have received, was due to the torch relay being met with pro-Tibet demonstrations

along its route. The individual nationalist Chinese citizen feels that he or she has been personally

attacked and dishonored, due to differing international opinions on Chinese government policy

issues. This is nationalism in actu.

The venue of the Beijing Olympics laid out the capabilities of China for all to see. It also,

unfortunately, illustrated what has allowed the Communist government to maintain its grip on 1

billion citizens: rampant nationalism and blind devotion. This has brought back some dark

memories of China’s past, Simon Elegant states that “ferocity with which the protesters turn on

anybody who disagrees with them reminds some older Chinese of the dark days of Mao Zedong's
Cultural Revolution” (Elegant). China as a nation has devoted itself to economic growth and a

religious belief in the Chinese state as supreme; in so doing, they have strained their relations

with foreign governments, and may have turned down the path to their own eventual destruction.

A major strength of the nationalistic mentality is its immunity to these criticisms. A

nationalist, much like a cult member, will see anyone criticizing their devotion to the nation as an

enemy of the nation whose opinion is not worth hearing. This was clearly seen during the

Olympics, as the Chinese people responded rabidly to the allegations of human rights abuses.

Fareed Zakaria, a writer for Newsweek surmised that international criticism of conditions in

China during the Olympics would not be helpful, as the “Chinese people would rally around the

flag and see the West as trying to humiliate China in its first international moment of glory”

(Zakaria). He goes on to state that the only way there will be any improvement in the conditions

in China, is through internal pressures. Foreign criticism only acts as a crucible, hardening the

Chinese people’s nationalism.

One flaw in blind nationalism is that it is just that, blind. A nationalist will without

distinction, turn from attacking external negative influences, to internal. In this way, if Ernest

Gellnor is correct, just as a nationalistic mentality of the people can confer political legitimacy

and stability upon the government of China, it can take it away. The government therefore leaves

its own legitimacy up to the people in a way much more susceptible to their whims than even a

democracy. With nationalists seeing the nation as something more than the sum of its parts, the

government is one misstep away from being considered an enemy of that nation, and falling

victim to its own political and rhetorical tool. In this way the Chinese government, in feeding the

flames of nationalism, may be stoking the fire of their own destruction.

Additionally the Chinese government, in supporting nationalism, is being hypocritical.

Their tact for dealing with sub-groups within the Chinese society has always been to suppress
nationalistic sentiments. From the Tibetans, to their dealings with Taiwan, a suppression of a

cohesive nationalistic identity has been their greatest weapon against these sub-groups becoming

autonomous. It is difficult to imagine how they expect to unleash the emotions of nationalism,

and at the same time curtail those emotions and keep them from creating strong associations

between smaller sub-groups.

Finally, in the journal Backgrounder, put out by the Council on Foreign Relations,

Minxin Pei, a senior associate in the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International

Peace states that “a very nationalistic public makes foreigners very wary of China and harms

China’s image” (Jayshree). He argues that a nationalistic mentality will make for difficult

international relations and trading negotiations, as it as seen as an unstable political situation.

While Chinese trade certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering from its rising nationalism, it remains

to be seen what effect it will have on its political stability and long-term interactions with foreign


Chinese nationalism can be best described as a double-edged sword. Whether it will be a

positive or negative for the Chinese people in the long term, remains to be seen. As it stands

currently, it seems that a strong nationalistic mentality in the Chinese people, while not a boon to

their quality of life, it has been a catalyst for the countries economic and technological strides.

Through it, the government has been able to make great leaps forward on the backs of the

people, with little domestic backlash; the decision as to whether this is a fair trade, is a value

judgment, and best left up to the Chinese people themselves.

Works Cited

Calhoun, Craig. “Nationalism and Ethnicity.” Annual Review of Sociology 19 (1993):

211-239. JSTOR. Bankier Lib. 15 Apr. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/‌search>.

Elegant, Simon. “Why China’s Burning Mad.” TIME 24 Apr. 2008. 15 Apr. 2009


Gellnor, Ernest. Thought and Change. London: Westfield and Nicolson, 1964. JSTOR.

Bankier Lib. 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/‌search>.

Jayshree, Bajoria, and Minxin Pei. “Nationalism in China.” Backgrounder (Apr. 2008).

Council on Foreign Relations. 15 Apr. 2009 <http://www.cfr.org/‌publication/‌


O’Leary, Brendan. “On the Nature of Nationalism: An Appraisal of Ernest Gellner’s

Writings on Nationalism.” British Journal of Political Science 27 (Apr. 1997):

191-222. JSTOR. 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/‌search>.

Ringmar, Erik. “Nationalism: The Idiocy of Intimacy.” British Journal of Sociology 49

(Dec. 1998): 534-549. JSTOR. Bankier Lib. 15 Apr. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/‌


Wang, Stephanie. Asia Times Online [Changsha] 15 Apr. 2009: New Branches of

Nationalism in China. 15 Apr. 2009 <http://www.atimes.com/‌atimes/‌China/‌


Zakaria, Fareed. “Don’t Feed China’s Nationalism.” Newsweek 21 Apr. 2008. 15 Apr.

2009 <http://www.newsweek.com/‌id/‌131751>.