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Nationalism and Anthony Smith's anti-primordialism in his view of modern Asiatic history and the construction of what is 'Asia'
Nationalism and what makes a nation a cohesive and functioning unit has been one of the essential questions of modern political philosophy, particularly in Asia today, where in India, China, Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, a plurality of different regional and religious identities fight to dominate particular national territories. Anthony D. Smith is one of most important contemporary scholars of nationalism and is the author of many books on the subject including such classics as his 1986 The Ethnic Origins of Nations, a book of supreme relevance in particular for the region, given the frequent rhetorical role of ethnic identity in a people's claim to territory and nationhood.
According to Smith, the idea of essential ethnic origins of nations has caused some scholars to assume nationalism and nations as preexisting entities, simply waiting for recognition and validation from outside governing bodies, such as the United Nations, as well as the neighboring nation-states. But the thrust of modern history has suggested that nationality is fundamentally more complex, and even the idea of what is 'Asia' and 'Asiatic' is polymorphous and in flux, rather than something complete to be grasped by in its totality, with law, religion, or ideological constructions.
Ideologies who identify themselves as nationalists, perennialists, modernists and post-modernists have very different interpretations of the role of what constructs a nation, and how the past history of peoples can and should affect the present visions of national identity. But it is primarily in "the manner in which they have viewed the place of ethnic history has largely determined their understanding of nations and nationalism today." (Smith, 1994, 18) Starkly defined nationalists stress that the role of the past is clear and unproblematic. For example, Vietnam was always extant, and simply passed into hands of French and American extraction by virtue of unjust historical circumstances. However, in the nationalist view, the nation of Vietnam itself was always there, as if it was part of some natural or truer world order, "even when it was submerged in the hearts of its members" in the military din and conflicts of a colonial past history.
Thus, "the task of the nationalist is simply to remind his or her compatriots of their glorious past, so that they can recreate and relive those glories" that existed before colonialism. (Smith, 1994, 18) But although nationalism may have its roots in anti-colonialism and have a positive contribution to make to a sense of national cohesion, Smith contends such pure nationalism must become a larger part of a global ideology if, for example, post-colonial national structures such as Vietnam are to become part of the international web and economic and political fabric of nations.
For perennialist or primordial scholars as well, according to Smith, the notion of the nation-state is also immemorial, or unchanging, although national forms may change and particular nationally defined borders may dissolve, but the identity of a nation is unchanging. Those scholars who have seen an essential Chinese identity, in a huge conglomeration of regional identities thus pursue a quixotic quest in their endeavor to fix nationhood in such a perennial, or unchanging fashion. Rather, Smith contends that the nation exists only in human, collective minds, and the nation is not part of any natural order, for a citizen can ultimately choose his or her nation, unlike a racial or ethnic classification, and even later generations can build something new on their ancient ethnic foundations. A new nation, such as modern Japan, however homogeneous, is still more ethnically diverse than in has been in the past, despite a past history of isolationism, and notions of what is Japanese have shifted, even amongst those who share the same unbroken ethnic heritage as their ancestors.
Furthermore, religion also suggests a more complex notion of nationhood -- for religion as in the Indian and Pakistan conflict has come to define borders of nations, but religions can transgress national divides, as quite notably the Islam of Pakistan or the multiple manifestations of Buddhism. Religion is an example of how ethnicity is not the only definition of nationhood, for religion can be a part of who one is as a member of a nation, yet one can also simultaneously be part of an international religious movement or construct.
Thus, although the supposed task of nationalism is to rediscover and appropriate a submerged past, it must be a past that is cohesive with current religion and ethnic identities and pluralities in order to be able to better to build on past history. Thus, does this mean Smith would be classified as a modernist, or an anti-nationalist, according to conventional definitions of nationality? Smith states that for the modernist, in contrast, the past is largely irrelevant in defining the nation state, as the nation state is always modern rather than ancient phenomenon. Modern nationalists, contend that the notions of nations themselves are the expression of a modern, industrial society and to fuse nationhood to past history is anachronistic. While the nationalist is free to use ethnic heritages to legally define borders, nation building must proceed without the aid of an ethnic past, covered in a romantic cause. For the nationalist, "nations are phenomena of a particular stage of history, and embedded in purely modern conditions," such as the reaction to colonialism. (Smith, 1994, 18)
However, although Smith displays some sympathy to the modernist viewpoint, he would also remind such ardent modernists that notions of nationhood and ethnic cohesions in national conglomerations have predated the modern rise of anti-colonialism and the assertion of ethnic, national, and regional identities under the heading of nationalism. Even before Asia became a modern regional entity and nations in Asia had their current configuration, the 'Oriental' and the essential Japan was spoken of by Western scholars, and even Japanese and Chinese emperors asserted their nation's uniqueness, a uniqueness still advocated by scholars, economists, and laypersons on both sides of the Pacific. Like it or not, or call it 'real' or not, like religion, notions of ethnicity and nationhood are 'real,' although ever-changing, because they affect perceptions of 'the self,' 'the citizen' and who and what one is as a global citizen.
Smith stresses rather a post-modernist approach to nationalism; an approach that sees the past of a region is slightly more problematic. In other words, there is no one national identity or even one nationalism, rather the present creates the past in its own image, and the damage done by colonialism affects how essentially one's membership of a nation affects one's perceptions today. Thus, though the borders and current constructions of nations are modern and the product of modern cultural conditions, and liberating nationalists may make liberal use of elements from the ethnic past, inventing and mixing of traditions is always taking place when one is forming a new or supposedly ancient political community.
None of these formulations seems to be entirely and finally satisfactory, though to Smith. (Smith, 1994, 19) He notes that despite the will of scholars, quite often a populace demands answers to questions of what is a nation, and thus "nationalists have a vital role to play in the construction of nations ... not as culinary artists or social engineers, but as political archaeologists rediscovering and reinterpreting the communal past in order to regenerate the community." (Smith, 1994, 19)
Smith states that ethnicities are constructed of perceived cultural attributes such as memory, value, myth and symbolism that transcend fact, quite often, but still have a pervasive sense of 'the past' in the living present. There is a complex relationship between an active national present and an often-ancient ethnic heritage, between the defining ethnic past and its modern nationalist authenticators and appropriators. Of course, a scholar must…[continue]
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