Recently there have been anti-Japan demonstrations in China, and anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam. These demonstrations in both instances are related to issues about certain uninhabited islands (“rocks in the sea” is what I prefer to call them), but there is something else that they share. They are both informed by “nationalist victim narratives.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chinese talked about the “national humiliation” (guochi) that they faced as Westerners encroached upon their land, starting with the Opium War.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, they declared that they had put an end to a “century of national humiliation” (bainian guochi). However, this narrative was revived in the 1990s, and it was evident in the recent protests.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Vietnamese started to talk a lot about “struggle” and “resistance” and this ultimately led to the idea of a “history of resistance against foreign aggression” (lịch sử chống ngoại xâm). This narrative has continued to play an important role to the present.

The “century of national humiliation” and the “history of resistance against foreign aggression” are both “victim narratives.” They both stir emotions by appealing to people’s perceived sense of having been wronged by others, but they both also are consoling in that they imply that such wrongs have been righted in the past, and that all future wrongs will likewise be righted “if” the people continue to act as they supposedly always have in the past.

In his China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), Peter Hays Gries has a nice explanation of how such narratives work in people’s lives. He says the following:

“Narratives are the stories we tell about our pasts. These stories, psychologists have argued, infuse our identities with unity, meaning, and purpose. We cannot, therefore, radically change them at will. Far from being simple tools of our invention, the stories we tell about the past both constrain and are constrained by what we do in the present.

“Simply put, the storied nature of social life provides our identities with meaning. ‘Identities,’ Stuart Hall notes, ‘are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves in, the narratives of the past.’” (46)

So in the case of China, the “century of national humiliation” is not “fact” (because there are many other ways that one could explain that same period, particularly by focusing on Chinese “failures”), but it is also not a complete “invention” (because events like the Opium War did take place).

What Peter Hays Gries is pointing out, however, is the way in which the narrative of the “century of national humiliation” becomes part of people’s identities through its repeated telling. And then once that has happened, it informs the way they think and act.

So today Chinese are determined to “wipe clear” the “national humiliation” of Japan’s claiming control over some rocks in the sea, and Vietnamese are determined to “resist the foreign aggression” that they see in China’s claiming control over some other rocks in the sea.

In both of these instances, the Chinese and Vietnamese, respectively, feel a strong sense of righteousness as they both “know” that they have been “victimized” like this by the Japanese and Chinese, respectively, before. At the same time their “knowledge” that they have triumphed over such wrongs in the past gives them the conviction in the present that they will triumph again.

One point that I find fascinating is that the values that these narratives glorify are precisely the values that were perceived to be lacking when these narratives were created.

Paul Cohen has pointed out that during the late Qing and in the early Republican years in China, there were many writers who were frustrated to find that many Chinese did not seem to feel humiliated by the many “national humiliations” that were taking place. [Paul A. Cohen, “Remembering and Forgetting National Humiliation in Twentieth-Century China,” Twentieth-Century China 27.2 (2002): 1-39.]

Therefore, part of the reason why certain intellectuals wrote about “national humiliation” was because they felt that too many people were not feeling humiliated, and that positive change could never take place if they remained passive and indifferent.

The same point applies to Vietnam. The “resistance against foreign aggression” narrative began to take shape in the second half of the 1940s when there was an immediate need to fight the French, and then it took its final form in the 1960s when the nation was divided and when there were many people who were not perceived to be “resisting foreign aggression.”

Peter Hays Gries says that we cannot “radically change [narratives] at will.” That may be true, but it’s worth trying to at least bring about some change.

It is not difficult to determine when a certain narrative emerged and why. When we discover that information, then the “emotive truth” of the narrative weakens.

If there are more complex explanations for what happened in China from the Opium War until 1949 (rather than a single simplistic explanation which evokes emotions), then there should be complex explanations for what is happening today as well.

If Vietnamese history has been more complex than a simple emotive tale of people uniting against foreign aggression, then the issues which Vietnam faces today should likewise be viewed with more complexity.

Problems are easier to solve when fewer emotions are involved and when more sophisticated modes of thinking are employed. Victim narratives, however, are based on the exact opposite. Without a heavy dose of emotion and a simplistic view of the world, a victim narrative cannot survive.

As long as victim narratives dominate, problems will endure. Human beings probably cannot live without narratives about themselves, but they can perhaps create narratives that allow for more complexity than victim narratives do.

Gaining a clear understanding of when and why current narratives emerged is an obvious first step to take.