The Rising Tide of ‘Imperial Han’ Nationalism in China

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The Rising Tide of ‘Imperial Han’ Nationalism in China

This extreme Han ethno-nationalist sentiment, once relegated to the fringe, is increasingly influential.

The Rising Tide of ‘Imperial Han’ Nationalism in China
Credit: Freer Gallery of Art

In the complex socio-political landscape of China, the “Imperial Han” (皇汉, Huang Han) faction stands out for its significant resurgence. This extreme Han ethno-nationalist sentiment, which once occupied the fringes, now influences domestic and foreign policy considerations. Understanding its historical roots and current manifestation is key to comprehending China’s evolving trajectory.

The Han people are China’s largest ethnic group, accounting for over 90 percent of the country’s population. Originating from a historical consciousness where the Han ethnicity predominated, the Imperial Han sentiment symbolizes the central role of Han-majority dynasties like the Tang and Ming in expanding and shaping Chinese civilization. However, the non-Han dynasties, particularly the Mongol-led Yuan and Manchu-led Qing, complicate China’s ethno-national identity. The Qing era (1644-1911), often viewed by Han nationalists as colonial rule, is especially contentious within the Imperial Han faction, which rejects its contribution to the Han legacy.

The 21st century has seen a revival of Han nationalism, spurred by China’s global resurgence. This modern iteration draws from China’s historical grandeur, intertwining modern pride and ancient glory. Post-2008, as China positioned itself as a global power, the Imperial Han faction gained momentum, seeking to reinterpret modern achievements through historical context.

China’s current era of economic growth and global influence has reignited interest in its rich past, with the Imperial Han faction at the forefront. This movement is more than nostalgia. It represents a complex mix of pride, identity, and ambition for global recognition. The Imperial Han faction is thus emblematic of the majority Han Chinese’s desire to reclaim their historical and contemporary significance. Today, this movement now significantly influences Beijing’s narratives and policies. 

The Three Faces of the Imperial Han

The Imperial Han movement in China, a robust expression of Han nationalism, is defined by three distinct subgroups: the radical, conservative, and revisionist factions. Each offers a unique perspective on Han ethnicity’s role in China’s past, present, and future.

The Radical Faction: The most assertive of the three, radicals seek to restore the vast territorial expanse of Chinese history, encompassing lands governed by both Han and non-Han dynasties like the Yuan and Qing. Their expansionist ideology is driven by a desire to reclaim “lost” territories and reinforce Han dominance. 

Radicals harbor ambitions that extend across a broad historical canvas, aiming to avenge past humiliations, particularly against countries like Japan. Their stance includes extreme measures, such as economic and cultural colonization, to assert China’s dominance.

The Conservative Faction: More restrained in territorial claims, conservatives base their aspirations on ancient Chinese literature and records. They advocate for a China that mirrors territorial descriptions from these texts, encompassing an ambitiously large area from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the Rocky Mountains in North America. Unlike radicals, conservatives’ territorial ambitions are rooted not in the peak territories of various dynasties but rather in historical texts – like the “Classic of Mountains and Sea,” which is read by this faction as a historical account of ancient Chinese exploration, reaching all the way to today’s western United States. 

Their approach also includes aggressive strategies against perceived historical violators of the Han people, with extreme suggestions like using nuclear force as retaliation for past aggressions, specifically against Japan for its actions in World War II.

The Revisionist Faction: Representing a blend of traditionalism and modernism, revisionists revere Han history while acknowledging the Chinese Communist Party’s role in continuing the Han legacy. They view the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a modern manifestation of this legacy. The revisionist segment of the faction parallels the achievements of the PLA with those of ancient Han warriors, creating a narrative continuum of Han dominance. 

This approach not only validates the present through the past but also crafts a vision for the future. This faction synthesizes traditional Han worship with contemporary Chinese identity, occasionally leading to syncretic beliefs, such as viewing Mao Zedong as the new leader of the Han nationality, to symbolize the continuity of China’s historical and modern narratives.

These three factions collectively form the intricate fabric of Han nationalism in modern China. While the conservatives and radicals each have their unique interpretations and extreme demands, they, along with the revisionists, contribute significantly to the ongoing narrative of the Imperial Han. As China’s influence grows globally, the ideologies and actions of these factions gain increasing relevance and warrant close scrutiny for their potential impact on both domestic and international fronts.

This movement taps into China’s historical consciousness, where the Han identity, representing the majority, has been pivotal in shaping the nation’s history. The faction evokes memories of the Han dynasty’s grandeur, linking past cultural and military might with contemporary ambitions. In particular, they advocate a significant increase in military spending to train the strongest military in the world. Since 2020, their most widely used political slogan is: “If taxes are not used to increase military spending, should they be reserved to pay war reparations?” 

Significantly, the faction adeptly uses symbolism to broaden its appeal. In some rural and less developed areas, by associating Mao Zedong with the Manjushri Bodhisattva, they connect the roots of the CCP to ancient Buddhist narratives. This fusion of communist ideology with traditional Chinese religious and cultural elements exemplifies their strategic use of iconography and mythology.

Implications for Beijing

The Imperial Han faction’s rise presents both opportunities and challenges for Beijing. It aligns with the CCP’s vision of the “Chinese Dream,” promoting national unity and rejuvenation. However, the demands of the radical and conservative elements, especially regarding territorial expansion and ethnic minority issues, pose risks to China’s internal harmony and foreign relations.

Unchecked, these demands could disrupt the balance among China’s diverse ethnic groups and provoke unrest. The faction’s territorial claims also risk straining diplomatic relations, potentially conflicting with Beijing’s current foreign policy strategies.

While the Imperial Han narrative supports the CCP’s legitimacy by blending communist and Han elements, it also carries the risk of overshadowing the unique identity and accomplishments of the communist era. This overemphasis on Han centrality could inadvertently undermine the CCP’s narrative.

Beijing faces the complex task of harnessing the positive aspects of this resurgence, such as heightened national pride, while ensuring the narrative doesn’t compromise the vision of a unified, multiethnic China. Managing this balance is essential for China as it navigates its identity in a changing global context.

The Imperial Han faction’s interplay of past and present, tradition and modernity, offers a window into China’s ongoing quest for identity. For Beijing, wisely steering this resurgence is key to defining China’s path forward on the global stage.

Global Impact of the Imperial Han Faction’s Rise

The ascent of the Imperial Han faction in China transcends domestic boundaries, influencing China’s global interactions. As a major economic and political force, shifts in China’s internal narrative resonate worldwide.

The faction’s territorial ambitions, while not officially endorsed by Beijing, create unease among neighboring countries. Nations bordering China, particularly those concerned about its activities in the South China Sea and Himalayan region, are vigilant about these expanding claims. Even rhetorical assertions by the faction can heighten regional tensions.

Internationally, the Imperial Han’s blend of nationalism and historical supremacy could steer China toward a more assertive foreign policy. While the faction doesn’t directly dictate policy, its influence on public sentiment can indirectly shape governmental decisions. This potential shift in stance can lead to more confrontational diplomacy and military posturing.

In trade and economics, Han-centric policies might impact foreign investment and businesses in China. Proposals to reduce privileges for foreign enterprises could disrupt their operational ease, prompting the global business community to reevaluate their engagement with China. This recalibration could affect international investment strategies and partnerships.

Culturally, the rise of the Imperial Han faction may alter China’s soft power strategy. An emphasis on promoting Han culture and history could see Beijing pushing these elements in international cultural exchanges and media outreach. While cultural promotion is standard, a narrative of supremacy or exclusion could undermine the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Finally, the faction’s rise necessitates a recalibration in global diplomatic and strategic approaches. Western countries, in particular, may need to deepen their understanding of China’s evolving dynamics. Diplomats and strategists will require nuanced strategies to engage with a more confident and assertive China, especially in multilateral settings. Understanding the internal shifts within China becomes crucial for informed and effective international relations.

As China continues to assert its place in global governance, the world must adapt to its changing internal dynamics, shaped in part by movements like the Imperial Han faction.