Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


Share |

Australian Identity

Does Australia Need a National Identity?

The Australia Day controversy

Australian values
Australian Values

Australian LanguageLanguage and Identity

Iconic Australians
Iconic Australians

Australian symbolsAustralian Symbols

Australian StereotypesAustralian Stereotypes

Aboriginal RightsAboriginal Rights

Racism in AustraliaRacism and Egalitarianism

Australian mythsAustralian Myths
Fact or fables?




Japanese and Chinese fight over Manchuria

Identities of De-colonisation - Australia and the Asian Identity

Australian psychology operates in the European sphere when it comes to issues associated with national identity. At the very least, when many Australian commentators fret about how Australia is seen over the world, they really mean how Australia is seen in Europe. Despite Asia having very little influence in Australian consciousness, Asian approaches to identity may have more influence in Australia’s future if there is a shift of Asian status and power relative to European status and power.

For a number of reasons, Asians don’t have the same angst in regards to national identities as do Europeans. Firstly, they don’t have to worry whether significant migrant populations are feeling included in nationhood because few Asian countries accept migrants. Secondly, there isn’t an interpretation of history that proposes that genocide and war were the result of national identities as is the case in Europe. To the contrary, approaches to history often see a national identity as the validation for ridding the country of colonialism that most Asian countries experienced. Thirdly, there aren’t trans-national bodies like the European Union that fear national identities are a threat to the union. (Bodies such as ASEAN propose mutual economic self-interest rather than a borderless community.) Finally, most Asian countries have a long history of being linguistically and ethnically diverse. Over this history, common identities have proved useful for binding diverse communities together.

As with all identities, Asian identities have been fluid with different social identities being valued and defined depending upon geo-political rivalries, social issues of the time and relative social statuses of various possible identities that encourage identification or alienation.

In China, changing identities have been part of the massive transformations the country has experienced over the last millennia. For almost 500 years, it was ruled by the minority Qing Dynasty which imposed its minority culture on the Han majority. The Dynasty was so prescriptive that the Han men were forced to wear their hair in the favoured Manchurian style of shaved at the front and pony tail at the back lest they be executed.

China Que

The shaved front head and braided pony tail was a haircut imposed on Chinese by the Manchu invaders.

The Qing Dynasty was weakened as colonial powers from Europe and Japan carved up China and Manchuria for themselves. Finally, a people’s revolt led by Sun Yat-sen succeeded in realising a Chinese republic. Towards the end of his life, Sun proposed that the west was hegemonic (operated via the exercise of power) while the east was Confucian (a philosophy encompassing a number of values relating to respect for the family and education). He also proposed that colonialism could be resisted with the Confucian Asianism that united Asian countries. Sun’s proposal proved to be ironic when fellow Confucian nation Japan started extending their Asian conquests from Manchuria into China, which escalated into a full blown war that culminated with the Communist Revolution in 1949.

Communist China was led by Mao Zedong who had whole heartedly embraced Karl Marx’s view that the working class identity was the only identity that mattered. To ensure adherence to a transnational working class identity, in the 1960s Mao launched the Cultural Revolution which aimed to destroy religious, national and even gender-based identities that could dilute passion for the working class identity. The Cultural Revolution resulted in churches, temples and mosques being destroyed, women masculinised and mass produced boiler suits being worn by almost the entire population. The Cultural Revolution was a disaster on multiple levels. Furthermore, the transnational Communist identity was never achieved as deteriorating relations between China and Russia saw military conflict between the two nations in 1969. China later went to war with Vietnam in 1979 as the fellow Communist country was accused of being too sympathetic to Russia.

Five Teachers

Communism in China did make some attempts to put global citizenship above Chinese nationalism, but this was on the assumption that Mao would lead that global citizenship.

After Mao’s death, new leader Deng Xiaoping commenced an opening up policy that allowed different identities to flourish in what became known as Communism with Chinese characteristics. In truth, the Chinese system was much like National Socialism in Germany during the Nazi era in that the state held power and ownership of key industries while still allowing private enterprise. Furthermore, strong nationalism based upon perceived strengths in Chinese genetics as well as a victimisation by outsiders, helped build loyalty to the only party allowed to rule. Today, aspects of the national socialist thinking can be seen in many areas of Chinese life, including the Chinese national Anthem, the March of the Volunteers

Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves;
With our very flesh and blood Let us build our new Great Wall!
The Peoples of China are in the most critical time,
Everybody must roar his defiance.
Arise! Arise! Arise!
Millions of hearts with one mind,
Brave the enemy's gunfire, march on!
Brave the enemy's gunfire, march on!
March on! March on! March on, on!

Like China, Japanese values have been in a state of flux over the last millennia. From about the 10th century to 1873, Japan was ruled by the Samurai, who adhered to the Bushido Code (way of the warrior), which had Confucian, Buddhist, Shinto and Zen influences. Bushido largely stressed the law of honour, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice. The Samurai who failed to uphold the code were expected to kill themselves.

When Samurai rule ended, Emperor Meiji modernised Japan by assimilating Western philosophy, technology and even fashion. Japan’s love of all things western continued until the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when it attempted to have a racial equality clause inserted into the Treaty of Versailles. Although the majority of participating nations voted in favour of it, some countries, such as Britain, abstained from the vote because it argued its dominions were racist (particularly Australia) and if the dominions did not support the clause, it couldn’t either. (In truth, the racial equality clause threatened Britain’s colonial rule over non-white nations). After Britain refused to participate, the USA used its veto power to overturn the proposal on the grounds it was not unanimously supported. (Some in the USA were concerned about the threat the clause proposed to the USA’s policies on segregation.)

The Japanese reacted to the proposal’s rejection by moving away from co-operation with Britain and the USA in favour of nationalistic policies with the Bushido code being implemented in the military. Under the guise of promoting “Asian values”, Japan invaded China and much of South East Asia under the guise of liberating them from western domination.

Japan’s eventual defeat had far reaching consequences for its identity, not least because its new constitution was written by the United States. The constitution enshrined a number of laws that steered Japan from being a militaristic nation bound to respect the emperor to a liberal democracy with power enshrined in the people.

A number of conflicts have emerged between the values of the socially liberal constitution and the values symbolised by Japan’s history. For example, the Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, was the national anthem during its imperial years and closely associated with saluting the Emperor. For that reason, most public schools have resisted directives to perform the national anthem. In 1999, a specific directive to schools from the education ministry proposed that if Japanese students could not respect their own symbols, then they would not be able to respect the symbols of other nations.  Teachers responded by ignoring the ministry.

While the expression of a Japanese identity has been complicated by some of the incompatibilities with the imperial history and liberal constitution, it has also been complicated by China and Korea expressing displeasure that Japan has not taken a German style approach to war history.  Specifically, they have accused the present generation of Japan as not being sorry for what their ancestors did. The criticisms by Korea and China are recent phenomena and can perhaps be seen as functions of wider geo-political manoeuvring. Past leaders have accepted Japanese apologies and shown a desire to have mutually beneficially relations.

Although China and Japan have responded to past conflict by retreating from a belief in Asian values to more nation-based values, Singapore has gone the other way. At the Bangkok Declaration in 1993, Singapore president Lee Kuan Yew sided with a number of other Asian leaders to assert support for the Universal Declarations of Human Rights but with Asian characteristics. Specifically, the declaration asserted that, relative to westerners, Asians have: 

  • Preference for social harmony
  • Concern with socio-economic prosperity and the collective well-being of the community
  • Loyalty and respect towards figures of authority
  • Preference for collectivism and communitarianism

In short, Lee Kuan Yew was proposing that Asians would take one for the team (sacrifice) if their coach told them to because they believe in the greater good. It was hoped that the belief in Asian values would help Asian nations form cultural and economic coalitions that would overcome past conflicts and forge a united future.

Asian values in the Chinese film Hero (2002). Assassins intent on revenge by killing the first Emperor of China put down their swords.

Critics of the Bangkok declaration have claimed that it was Lee Kuan Yew’s way of making excuses for Singapore’s Human Rights violations, particularly in regards to the suppression of Communist revolutionaries in the 1950s and 60s.  Other critics have proposed that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 spelt the end of a belief in Asian values because the crisis demonstrated the corruption that flows from Asia’s respect for figures of authority. Perhaps another explanation was that the decline in financial status of Asia following the crisis made Asians less likely to identify with a perceived Asian way. Furthermore, in 1998, protests against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia eroded the ideal of Asian solidarity much like institutionalised discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Malaysia ultimately led to Singapore leaving the union. Finally, increasing political conflict between Japan, China and South Korea did little foster a sense of Asian unity. Singapore then found itself pressured to denounce Japanese past imperial aggression in solidarity with China and South Korea.

Despite the Bangkok Declaration ultimately failing to lead to Asian solidarity, and subsequent events showing the myths associated with it, perhaps Lee Kuan’s Yew’s declaration had some validity if confined to Singapore alone. Even though it is technically a democracy, Singapore is essentially a national socialist state in which only one party can rule. The majority of the population is quite happy with the situation as they respect their rulers and appreciate the collective well being that the rulers have brought to Singapore. Perhaps Singapore can be differentiated from many other Asian countries because it is based on the ancient Chinese policy of meritocracy in public service. As a result of the policy, relatively more members of the Singapore public believe they are led by people of merit and who have attained their positions on merit. This perhaps breeds greater trust in officials and a greater willingness to show respect to people in positions of power and authority. In turn, Singapore's leaders have a greater desire to put the good of Singapore before themselves. (Perhaps they are less likely to exploit the "travel allowances" that are so common in Australia.)

As for whether Asians (and citizens of Singapore) are more likely to take one for the team, it is a universal trait of psychology that the willingness of an individual to sacrifice for the team is dependent upon how much the team is valued. Furthermore, the willingness to show loyalty and respect towards the coach is dependent upon how much the coach is trusted. In Europe and Australia, the weak national identities don’t encourage much loyalty in either the general public and politicians so both groups tend to be on the look out for their individual self-interest in matters of national interest. That self-interest amongst politicians in turn breeds a lack of loyalty and a distrust in team nation.

Even though loyalty to the national identity may be weak in many western countries, alternative identities based on race, culture, gender, religion, politics and even sporting clubs are strong. Individuals in Western countries with the sub-cultural identities have repeatedly shown a willingness to subordinate their self-interest for the perceived self-interest of the group. For example, Indigenous women who have suffered domestic violence at the hands of Indigenous men have often been reluctant to report the violence for fear of damaging the image of Indigenous people. On the flip side, Indigenous people frequently open their doors to help other Indigenous people as they value Indigenous culture.

When writing about problems in Australia and the importance of disconnecting from Britain, Donald Horne stressed the need for a national identity. In his own words,

"Australia needs sudden shocks of reorientation within its society that will divorce it from the largely irrelevant problems of the British, make it possible to speed necessary changes and to develop some new sense of identity, some public feeling of being a people who can be described - even if incorrectly - as such-and-such a kind of nation, and act at times as if it were so. Australians are anonymous, featureless, nothing-men. This modest anonymity reveals itself in the argument that Australia does not run to the kind of person we could turn into a president."(The Lucky Country, 1964)

In the process of de-colonisation, Asian countries have been far more confident in asserting national identities that have divorced themselves from colonial powers. In turn, they have also produced leaders that have that looked presidential. Whether Asian countries as a whole have benefitted from those identities is open to debate.

Share |