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The Paranoid Style in Chinese Cultural Politics: Manchu Conspiracy Theories, the Permanent Xinhai Revolution, and the Redemption of Han Identity

Kevin Carrico- Postdoctoral Fellow, Chinese Studies, Center for East Asian Studies

Why does a group of urban Han youth believe that Manchus, the former rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), continue to control the political, military, cultural, educational, and economic institutions of today’s China? This paper analyzes conspiracy theories promoted by members of the Han Clothing Movement (漢服運動), a popular traditionalist, majority ethno-nationalist group. Disillusioned with the profane present in the sprawling metropolises in which they live, movement participants promote the revitalization of what they call “the real Han” and “the real China” through traditionalist clothing, etiquette, ritual, and education.

As I observed during fieldwork with this group in cities across China, the proliferation of conspiracy theories about contemporary Manchu machinations plays a central role in this identity project, which participants call a permanent Xinhai Revolution. Examining the movement's elaborate yet fundamentally unreal theories of Manchu power and its purportedly destructive urges, I argue that conspiracy theory and identity are two sides of the same coin, relying upon one another for their perpetuation. Insofar as contemporary Chinese society is a primarily Han-produced society which nevertheless fails to correspond to participants’ ideal of Han-ness, current political, social, economic, and cultural realities can only ever be an affront to what should be a fulfilling identity. By explaining away this contradiction through an all-encompassing externalizing conspiracy theory which attributes the disappointments of reality to the machinations of an invisible and thus omnipresent Manchu other, the purity of Han identity is recaptured.

Concluding with a detailed analysis of the supposed Manchu origins of China’s one-child policy as recounted by movement participants, I examine the seduction, in the face of the very real challenges of this world, of a fundamentally unreal theory of this world and its challenges.

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:30 pm — 6:30 pm
Old Knight Building, Room 201, 521 Memorial Way

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures