- Imaginary Identities and Han Nationalism: A Consideration
This is a good book. It is bracing, informative, and lucidly written. It is also by turns (perhaps unintentionally) entertaining and tragic. In its narrative focus, Kevin Carrico takes up the vexing question of why Chinese nationalism—here understood as a form of exclusionary ethno-racial identity—commands the kind of intense loyalties and devotions it does in China today, and he explores this question anthropologically through the unlikely medium of what is called the Han Clothing Movement (hanfu yundong). This movement emerged in the early 2000s amid the chaos of consumer culture, geopolitical maneuvering, and frenetic urbanized life to advocate for a return to “Chinese tradition,” articulated by its acolytes as exclusively Han, thus purified of all so-called extraneous ethnic, racial, or foreign contribution and taint. This movement centers on reinforcing several performative-behavioral forms of Han-ness— hanyu [Han language; Mandarin]; hanzi [Han orthography; Chinese characters], and hanfu [Han Clothing], with clothing the most outwardly visible and thus most clearly marked of the three. The signifying practice of garments—or, fashion—is Carrico’s wedge into the theoretical focus, which emphasizes “imaginations,” not merely in the Benedict Anderson sense of expansive media materiality but, as Carrico develops it, in the affective bodily sense of individuals’ fantasies of how to suture the gap between, on the one hand, a lived individual reality of near-failure, and on the other, a conjured social order deriving from the deep past imagined as a stable community of harmony and authenticity.
To his credit, Carrico gives ample space for the fantastical nature of this Han-centric cultural quest to be elaborated by its advocates, refusing to mask the at-times slightly comical or tragic discourse either in Orientalist othering or faux solidarity and support. As Carrico rightly argues, the Chinese traditionalists he studies are both unique in their particular advocacies and yet they also share their concern over racial-ethnic national identification with “all people across the world [who] are engaged in similarly imaginary and mystifying relationships with their own national communities” (p. 10). While I would question whether in fact “all people across the world” are would-be or actual nationalists, suffice it to note here that refusing to exceptionalize China, treating Chinese as one people among others—unique and yet not uniquely unique—is a (lamentably still) radical gesture of co-evalness in the academic sphere, and thus a welcomed intervention in those terms alone. Happily, Carrico’s point does not rest only there. [End Page 126]
Carrico’s focus on structures of identification as a pyscho-social phenomenon is theorized through three axes: a Lacanian focus on subjectivity as a form of alienating identity (in the sense of marking and closing a psychic gap), a Luhmannian focus on society as difference (in the sense of the formal organization of distinctions), and an appeal to Sloterdijk’s framework of “spheres of human activity” (in the sense of arenas that allow people to live in messy reality through projected ideals of perfection). Luckily, this clumsy theoretical edifice, once explained in the introduction, mostly drops away in direct terms. However, several of its components clearly inform—for good or ill—the ways in which Carrico pursues his themes. For good: it allows him to take very seriously the words and intentions of his interlocutors and to record their various genuinely-felt and yet often far-fetched theories of perdurable Han identity. For ill: it allows him to ignore certain materialist questions of and in contemporary history that might have provided more contextualized explanatories than those available through aggregated analysis of individual psyches. Now, I confess that I am particularly allergic to psycho-analytical explanations of historical phenomena, so this form of explanation was never going to satisfy me. Having said that, however, I commend Carrico for doing a better job in this idiom than most.
The first four chapters establish Carrico’s object of study, his human subjects, as well...