In Chinese historiography, the decades between the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 and the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 are described as a “century of national humiliation.” In these decades China lost a series of wars with European powers, ceded control of Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Manchuria, the Amur River Basin, and Outer Mongolia to alien empires, was forced to grant extraterritorial rights to foreigners in China, lost sovereign control of its markets and currency, and was saddled with onerous indemnities. This period of external intervention culminated with the Japanese invasion of 1937, which lead to the death of some 20 million Chinese. The legacy of humiliation haunts Chinese intellectuals today and provides the Communist Party of China with one of its most emotionally powerful legitimizing narratives.
The term “national humiliation” [国耻] dates to the late 19th century and served as a common touchstone for the various nationalist movements that sought to “save the country” [救国] at the beginning of the 20th. The founders of the Communist Party of China began their careers as activists more interested in nationalist uplift than communist utopia. In the disciplined, militarized hierarchy of a Leninist party they saw a vehicle for rescuing their nation. “Only socialism can save China” [只有社会主义才能救中国] they declared, and to this day Party historians and officials argue that Republican era experiments with other political ideologies all failed to unite China or drive out imperialist influence.
This narrative erases the sacrifices made by millions of Chinese not associated with the Communist Party for the sake of China’s future, as well as the success these sacrifices secured. It was under KMT rule that the Japanese were defeated, Western powers gave up their extraterritorial privileges in China, and China was given one of five seats on the UN Security Council. In Communist eyes these feats count for little, as they were all accomplished with the aid of imperialist powers. The early Communist leadership believed that only “cleaning out the house before inviting guests in” [打扫干净屋子再请客]— in other words, driving Westerners completely out of China before readmitting them on Chinese terms—could guarantee the founding of a NEW CHINA free from the taint of imperialist influence. The Communist version of eradicating national humiliation thus began with the foundation of the People’s Republic of China and was confirmed by Chinese success against “American imperialism” in the Korean War.
By instructing the children of China to chant “never forget national humiliation” (勿忘国耻) the Party legitimizes this founding moment. It also suggests to the Chinese people what nightmares might occur if Party rule falters. The century of humiliation is a narrative of victimhood. It presumes an innocent China thrust into a dangerous world, there victimized by rapacious foreigners eager to feed on any nation too weak to maintain its sovereignty. Foreign opposition to Chinese policy today is easily reframed as a continuation of this antique pattern. Under this schema China is still a victim of undeserved hostility; without the guiding hand of a strong and united Party, these hostile forces will force national humiliation on the Chinese people once again.
See also: GREAT REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION; NEW CHINA
Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 2014); John Garver, China's Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People's Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); John Fitzgerald, Cadre Country: How China Became The Chinese Communist Party (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2022).