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Imagined Communities

February 13, 2012

Xiamen City, China

It will be a week or so before teaching begins in Nanjing, but here in Xiamen City (population 3 million or so), we’ve started our Fulbright orientation sessions in earnest.  Much of our advice comes direct from state department staff from various embassies in China, who have helped greatly the past few days by offering their advice on life in China.  We’ve talked about health (don’t drink tap water), visas (ours last only 180 days), safety (avoid being a good Samaritan and watch out for deadly silent electric mopeds running the wrong way up one way lanes).   USA China consuls in attendance talked about a whole range of issues from the perspective of American diplomacy, including Chinese attitudes about American politics, the state of Chinese higher education, and their own effort to convey American values intelligibly to the broader Chinese public.  Social media is a hot topic, as Twitter an Facebook are blocked for most Chinese, and Chinese versions of these microblog technologies are incredibly popular among the citizenry, for whom cell phones are the de facto (and portable) electronic hearth and work station.  Everyone in China, these days, seems to be broadcasting something or other on the Internet.

Interestingly, the rise of blogging among Fulbrighters has led the USA consular staff to insist that the particulars of all briefings be off-the-record and that we be discreet about all exchanges we have with state department personnel.  All very reasonable, so far as I’m concerned, although I can say that we got some superb and thoughtful commentary from a number of experienced diplomatic hands here in Xiamen and that we’ve been reassured about nothing so much as the importance of ongoing international exchanges like Fulbright, which is aimed at mutual understanding between the USA and China.  I should point out that, even as my China teaching is still to come, this is perhaps the first time in my academic experience that I’ve been able to see my work as a university professor in light of specific political agendas, and it is an ambivalent sensation: culturally unsettling and unexpectedly patriotic.

Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983), is perhaps the most influential thinker associated with theorization of the modern nation state, and especially its rhetorical construction through print culture and other media.  He writes of national consciousness, persuasively I think, that a nation’s “members . . . will never know most of their fellow members . . . yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).  And thus with communion brings a sense of identity and affiliation that too frequently eventuates in conflict with those who, in our imaginations as national citizens, lie beyond the pale of belonging.  Maybe this explains, in part, some of the patriotic side of my ambivalence about the international experience.

Careful students of Anderson’s career will take note of a curious footnote to his biography: he was born in Kunming, China, in 1936 into an Anglo-Irish family; his father, Anderson has indicated on various occasions, was a “Sinophile” and a very strong supporter of Irish nationalism.  Such are some of the fecund circumstances for theorizing the “imaginary” dimensions of modern nationalism.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Yeats permalink
    February 14, 2012 9:48 pm

    Jim, I appreciate the “unexpectedly patriotic” part of your post. Maybe it’s the optimist in me that makes me believe that not all political action is subversive. Thanks for the blog.

    • Jim Ryan permalink*
      February 15, 2012 5:36 pm

      Dave: the patriotism/nationalism thing is so strong and hermetically sealed here in China, it sort of produces an oppositional response almost by instinct (speaking for myself, of course). One wants to shed some political light and open discourse, somehow. Moreover, as I’m discovering, the educational culture here is something that goes hand in glove with important aspects of Chinese nationalism and maintaining the status quo power arrangements. More on this subject as the semester continues.

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