02/05/2013 01:20 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2013

From Hard to Soft Chinese Nationalism

Chinese nationalism is bad -- or so it seems to the rest of the world. For most of the 20th century, China viewed itself as a victim of foreign bullying and Chinese leaders drew on the emotion of resentment in order to strengthen the state. Now that China is becoming more powerful, it's China's turn to bully others. Naturally, other countries are worried.

But there are two forms of nationalism in China. The "hard" form often reported by the foreign media tends to be centered in Beijing's military circles and the upper echelons of the party. China's new leader, Xi Jinping, visited the National Museum of China that highlights the Opium Wars and the subsequent "century of humiliation" of China. He then issued a call to realize "the cause of national rejuvenation" that seemed to coincide with increased assertiveness of territorial claims over contested islands.

To be fair, hard nationalism is not necessarily bad. The moral point of building up state power is to secure political stability so people can lead decent lives without worrying about material deprivation and physical insecurity. Hence, it made sense to build up state power when China was poor and routinely bullied by foreign powers.

The problem, of course, is that China is now a major economic power with relatively secure territorial boundaries. Hence, hard nationalism is harder to justify now. It seems designed not just to remind China of its humiliation at the hands of outside powers, but also to make people forget about China's more recent humiliation at the hands of its own rulers.

Since few believe in Marxism anymore, the Chinese "Communist" Party seeks legitimacy by invoking a form of nationalism that assumes an antagonistic and competitive relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, hard nationalism is often put to use to make people serve the government, not the other way around.

But there is another form of nationalism -- let's call it "soft" nationalism -- that makes moral sense in contemporary China. Soft nationalism is centered in China's ancient capital of Nanjing. On a recent Sino-American media exchange in Nanjing co-organized by Shanghai Jiaotong University and Emory University, a Nanjing based scholar told us that Nanjing has been the meeting point between the "Confucian" north and the more commercially-minded south, and more recently between Confucian and Western culture.

Nanjing was a dynastic capital ten times during its 2500 year history. It last served as China's capital under the KMT (Guomindang). What was once viewed as a "feudal" and reactionary period is now depicted more favorably. The ceiling of founding father Sun Yat-sen's mausoleum is painted with the KMT emblem, and the nearby museum depicts KMT history in a more balanced way.

The KMT derived legitimacy at least partly from its promotion of Confucian values and Confucianism is what lies at the heart of soft nationalism. The Confucius temple is one of Nanjing's leading tourist attractions and Sun Yat-sen's mausoleum is inscribed with a famous saying -- tianxia wei gong (the world belongs to the public) -- from an ancient Confucian classic, the Book of Rites.

Chinese-style soft nationalism takes pride in Confucian values -- a humanitarian outlook and self-improvement by learning from others -- and both values are highlighted in Nanjing.

Nanjing is the site of the darkest moment in China's "century of humiliation" -- the massacre of 300,000 civilians at the hands of Japanese troops in 1937. The newly redone Nanjing Massacre Museum portrays the massacre not just as a national tragedy, but as a human tragedy. Emotional anti-foreign propaganda has been replaced with well-documented accounts of individual victims. Symbolic exhibits pay tribute to the people murdered, similar to Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Tribute is also paid to the foreigners who rescued Chinese civilians, as well as to foreigners beaten by Japanese troops.

Another recent museum is dedicated to the memory of John Rabe who saved hundreds of Chinese lives during the Nanjing Massacre by opening his home to civilians. Rabe's humanitarian spirit somehow transcended his Nazi affiliations. The nearby museum is dedicated to Pearl Buck. Once depicted as a reactionary American capitalist, Buck is now depicted as a brilliant writer who sympathized with China's poor and campaigned for human rights in the U.S.

The Memorial Hall of Anti-Japanese Aviation Martyrs includes a tribute to the 2,500 American pilots who died fighting with the KMT in the struggle against Japanese invaders. The name of each dead pilot is etched in a memorial, similar to the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Our Chinese guide proudly told us that it's the only memorial site in China that pays tribute to foreign soldiers.

These exhibits are meant to show that Chinese take pride in an outlook that values humanity and compassion -- ren, to use Confucian language -- regardless of ethnicity or national affiliation.

Another Confucian saying -- well known to all educated Chinese -- is that a group of three people will always include a teacher. The point is that we should always strive to improve ourselves by learning from others. Applied at the national level, it means that the nation can and should always try to learn from other countries, which means developing good ties with those countries. Nanjing was the site of departure for the voyages of Zheng He, the famous Ming Dynasty admiral who explored several continents with his fleet of treasure ships.

Our Nanjing hosts took great pride in the value of learning from other countries. We visited a secondary school founded by American missionaries that teaches an American-style curriculum so students can go to university in the U.S. I asked the principal if it seems fair that China spends public resources on students who might not return, but he said, don't worry, at least some will return, and they can help the country with knowledge acquired abroad.

Nanjing's institutes of higher learning have led the trend to forge international links. Nanjing University was the first university in China to institutionalize learning of Western-style scientific developments. The university was also the first Chinese university to establish an an international center of higher education: the John Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies that trains future diplomats from the U.S. and China. The Chinese are taught in English, and the Americans in Chinese.

Nanjing's party chief, Yang Weize spoke proudly of Nanjing's cultural heritage. He told our group that the Confucian examination system reached its climax in Nanjing and that the first Republic of China government was established in Nanjing, which was helpful for reform in later Chinese history. Mr. Yang noted Nanjing's special links with the U.S.: it has the oldest modern-style hospital in China -- founded by an American missionary -- and that it was the first Chinese city to pair with an American city (St. Louis). Mr. Yang himself was trained at Harvard's Kennedy School in 2006.

From a moral point of view, there is no doubt that soft nationalism is -- or should be -- the way of the future. But can it spread from Nanjing to the rest of China? There are reasons to be optimistic. Most Chinese intellectuals and political reformers recognize the need for a softer form of nationalism. The revival of Confucian morality in China's educational system certainly helps. In early January 2011, Confucius's statue was unveiled on Tiananmen Square, but it was removed three months later. We will know that soft nationalism has reached Beijing when Confucius returns permanently to Tiananmen Square.