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National Humiliation and China’s claims in the South China Sea

American political cartoon satirising foreign dominance of China during the Century of Humiliation, 1900. Source: Library of Congress.


The South China Sea (SCS) dispute is complex and multifaceted, as six different countries are claiming sovereignty over different reefs, rocks, islands, and waters (Hayton, 2018, p.370). The area has significant natural oil and gas reserves, holds lucrative fishing grounds, and is a crucial maritime passage for global trade (Council of Foreign Relations, 2018). While other parties limit their claims to a specific region, China’s assertion is the most ambitious as it claims sovereignty over everything inside a ‘U-shaped line’ which stretches as far south as James Shoal, an underwater bank that lies just a few kilometres from the coast of Malaysia and thus far away from mainland China (Hayton, 2018, p.370). Beyond China and other regional parties in the Indo-Pacific, the United States have maintained their geopolitical interest of ensuring freedom of navigation and continue to keep a strong naval military presence in the region. Additionally, the European Union is deepening its cooperation with states in the Indo-Pacific and has committed itself to maintaining peace and the rule of law in the South China Sea (EEAS, 2021). The region is of crucial interest for Brussels not least because around 40 percent of EU external trade depends on safe passage through the maritime corridor (The Diplomat, 2021).

In order to fully understand the conflict and find diplomatic solutions to it, this article aims to go beyond strictly Realist understandings of security and economic interests, and instead shed light on the politics of memory that have shaped the emergence of China’s ambitious claims in the South China Sea. By conducting an analysis of the Chinese media discourse, this article argues that the narrative of National Humiliation continues to shape the way China justifies its maritime claims.

The emergence of China’s claims in the early 20th century – National Humiliation discourse

One of the most widespread narratives of collective memory in China is that of the so-called Century of National Humiliation (百年国耻 bainian guochi). William Callahan (2004), as one of the many scholars writing about this narrative, finds that the notion of national humiliation is at the core of Chinese national identity, is prominent in public culture and serves as the central framework in China to make sense of the country’s modern history.

But what exactly is collective memory? Political theorists such as Ernest Renan (1882, p.261) have long argued that a selective forgetting of the past together with a “rich legacy of shared memories” are at the centre of national identity and the very construction of a nation. Assman (1995) affirms the ability of public memory to form collective (national) identities by reconstructing the past in a particular way. He points out that this collective memory is often expressed in various cultural forms such as memorials, buildings or media.

The Chinese memory of national humiliation explains a historical period stretching from the beginning of the First Opium War in 1839 to the horrifying Nanjing massacre perpetrated by the Japanese in 1937. Importantly, it emphasises not only China as the victim of foreign imperialist aggression and unequal treaties, but also the nation’s recovery and salvation through Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic (PRC) in 1949. Callahan (2004, p.205) furthermore notes that uniting the “lost territories under Beijing’s leadership” is one of the main long-term goals of the narrative. So what are these lost territories?

Bill Hayton (2019) finds that neither officials of the Qing dynasty government nor the population, even in southern China, knew much about the existence of the rock features in the South China Sea before 1909. Through extensive process-tracing, Hayton (2019) shows that China’s emerging claims of sovereignty over islands and maritime areas were instead the product of the construction of a Chinese ‘geobody’. The term ‘geobody’ refers not just to an actual geographic region, but rather to a socially-constructed territory in which nations imagine themselves to exist. In this case, Hayton (2019) finds that a Chinese geobody emerged in the context of rising nationalist sentiment and national humiliation discourse that accompanied China’s transition from an unbound imperial entity to a sovereign nation-state with strictly defined borders. Hayton (2019) finds that Chinese interest in the South China Sea first sparked in 1909, when news of a Japanese merchant mining guano on the Pratas island broke in Guangdong.

Throughout an extensive period of collecting and constructing evidence of Chinese sovereignty, territorial claims gradually extended from Pratas (Dongsha) to the Paracel islands (Xisha) and further south to the Spratly’s (Nansha) in 1933. Also examining the emergence of China’s geobody, Callahan (2009) highlights the role of cartography in the Republic of China (ROC) period. He finds that many cartographers were producing “national humiliation maps” to highlight China’s lost territory (Callahan, 2009, p.146). Callahan (2009) points out that it was in this period of cartography that a ‘U-shaped nine dashed line’, implicitly claiming everything within it, first appeared on a Chinese map and was published in the ‘Atlas of Administrative Areas of the Republic of China’ in 1948. Strikingly, Hayton (2019, pp.158-159) finds that the final extend of the U-shaped line was partially a product of translation errors, in the result of which the underwater features ‘Vanguard Bank’ and ‘James Shoal’ from British maritime maps ended up as island features on Chinese maps around which the line was drawn.

South China Sea map with the ‘Nine dash U-shaped line’ in green. Source: Asia Maps - Perry Castañeda map collection:

The construction of patriotic national identity in 1990s

The narrative of national humiliation first emerged in public discourse in the final years of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century and played a prominent role also in the construction of a national identity during the time of the Republic of China (ROC), producing humiliation maps as outlined above. However, Wang Zheng (2008, p.789) points out that the concept of national humiliation had been absent from the public sphere during Mao’s time after the establishment of the PRC. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1990s that the communist party (CCP) rediscovered the narrative in the context of its grand ‘Patriotic Education Campaign.’ At the end of the Cold War and after the disastrous Tiananmen incident, the Chinese leadership faced a decline of the persuasiveness of communist ideology and sought to reinforce its political legitimacy through mass education of patriotic nationalism. The national humiliation narrative was a powerful tool to achieve this goal.

Launching its education campaign in 1991, the CCP revised its school textbooks by gradually replacing Marxist narratives of class-struggles against the bourgeoisie. New textbooks instead emphasised foreign invasions and Chinese patriotism based on the victimhood of national humiliation (Wang, 2008, pp.790-791). Throughout many stages in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Chinese leadership completely changed the curriculum of history teaching in the entire country and furthermore established over 100 ‘patriotic education bases,’ memorials and museums as sites of memory to further institutionalise China’s new national identity around patriotic collective memory (Wang, 2008).

National Humiliation and China’s current diplomatic position in the South China Sea

The discussion thus far has illustrated the emergence of national humiliation discourse, its connection to the emergence of claims in the South China Sea, and how it was used to foster patriotic nationalism since the 1990s. However, also the relevance of national humiliation narratives in China’s current diplomatic position deserves closer scrutiny.

Amongst the many disputes that have arisen in the context of the South China Sea, tensions between China and the Philippines have been the most prominent. In 2013, the Philippines initiated proceedings of the “South China Sea Arbitration” case under the dispute settlement mechanism of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a multilateral treaty that governs maritime international law (Permanent Court of Arbitration [PCA], 2016). Initiating this case, The Philippines wanted to dispute the extraction of resources and other activities by the Chinese in areas that it viewed to be its own exclusive territory under the UNCLOS treaty. In its final award delivered on July 12th, 2016, the tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines and argued that China’s ‘U-shaped line’ is not a legally legitimate claim to resources within it under UNCLOS (Hayton, 2018, p.373). The tribunal furthermore found that South China Sea islands were historically used by fishermen and navigators from both China and the Philippines, and that both enjoyed historical fishing rights in these waters (PCA, 2016, p.2).

The Chinese side refused participation in the arbitration from its outset and has entirely rejected the ruling, arguing for instance that Chinese sovereignty had been “established in the course of history” (State Council Information Office of the PRC, 2016). But how did it justify this position? An analysis of newspaper articles published in Chinese state-owned media outlets around the time of the final ruling reveals a coherent narrative of Chinese collective memory promoted by the CCP leadership that resonates with the notion of National Humiliation in multiple ways.

In articles such as “Backgrounder: South China Sea islands first discovered, named by Chinese people” published on People’s Daily Online in April 2016, the authors frame the SCS as an integral part of China since ancient times and tell a contingent story starting from fishing in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) to larger scale naval activities in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) until today’s administration of the region in the PRC (Xinhua, 2016a). Articles like this are actively constructing a collective memory that justifies China’s claim of ‘historic rights’ over the region.

Other articles like “Islands always Chinese” (2016) published in the Global Times go even further. This article frames China as the victim of unfair aggressions by Vietnam and the Philippines, who have violated the international order by questioning China’s SCS sovereignty. The newspaper furthermore argues that the US is part of “Western forces hidden behind [the arbitration case]” (Global Times, 2016).

Three days after the ruling on the South China Sea Arbitration, Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi gave an interview to People’s Daily Online (Xinhua, 2016b). He states that China has always been trying to uphold peace and stability in the region. This role then, stands in direct contrast with the Philippine government’s “hostile policy towards China” initiating the arbitration (Ibid.). The state councillor further identifies Shunji Yanai, the Japanese President of the International Tribunal who appointed most of the judges for the case, as driven by a “right-wing Japanese intent on ridding Japan of post-war arrangements” (Xinhua, 2016b). More generally, he portrays the arbitration as a political tool “staged under the cover of law and driven by a hidden agenda” (Xinhua, 2016b). Not mentioning the US explicitly but clearly referring to it, he argues that “certain countries outside the region” have tried to deny China’s sovereignty through the arbitration (Ibid.). Yang Jiechi furthermore directly addresses the Chinese people, stating that:

“Big as China is, we cannot afford to give away a single inch of territory that our ancestors have left to us. […] The South China Sea, important to the Chinese people since ancient times, is our heritage to which our forefathers devoted their wisdom and even lives” (Xinhua, 2016b).

While the latter statement again appeals to a collective memory of Chinese ownership over the SCS, the general line of argumentation developed over a multitude of newspaper articles can be seen as directly falling in line with the narrative of national humiliation. China is portrayed as the peaceful victim faced with three main aggressors: a hostile Philippine government, a right-wing Japanese judge, and the US as the hidden power behind the arbitration. These actors are framed as staging an illegal arbitrational tribunal to deny China’s rights and attack the values of the international order that China is standing up for.

In an interview published in the China Daily on July 7th, 2016, a Chinese diplomat was asked why he thinks the territorial dispute in the SCS is so important for China. He answers that this is because of “China’s DNA” (China Daily, 2016). He elaborates on the Treaty of Yantai that was imposed on China by the United Kingdom after the Opium Wars and states that: “The Chinese people have a long memory of what we suffered, when many unequal treaties were imposed on China. […] This was a humiliating past. It’s always remembered” (China Daily, 2016).

These statements imply the internalisation of the memory of national humiliation in Chinese national identity. The Chinese ambassador expressly argues that this is why the SCS dispute is so important for China. Predisposed by this memory narrative, in the Chinese media discourse the SCS dispute is placed within a framework of Chinese victimhood and foreign imperialist aggression. In contrast to the discourse on the Century of National Humiliation in the 19th and 20th century however, China no longer portrays itself as a helpless victim faced with superior imperialist powers, but as a strong guardian of international law and order that has to deal with hostile aggressors.

A Vietnamese soldier. Source: The Diplomat & Reuters:


The Century of National Humiliation is the key narrative through which China makes sense of its modern history. As outlined above, this narrative was not only prominent in the construction of a national identity in the early 20th century, but that it is also fundamentally connected to the South China Sea dispute. While Chinese claims in the region first emerged within a discourse of national humiliation and the construction of a ‘U-shaped line’ on Chinese maps, the above analysis of Chinese newspapers has shown that the narrative continues to serve as a relevant framework along which the Chinese position regarding the South China Sea is made sense of.

When pursuing a diplomatic solution to the South China Sea Dispute, it is important for all actors to understand the extent to which China’s claims are rooted in its sense of national identity and are not solely the product of specific strategic considerations. To this end, this article has aimed to shed more light on the connection between Chinese national identity and the South China Sea.


Carl von Mansberg is a student of International and EU Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He grew up in Hamburg, Germany and Beijing, China. His research on Chinese national identity and the South China Sea dispute was done in the context of his bachelor thesis at Leiden University.


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