Nationalism in Asian Education

Nationalism in Asian Education

Origins and Impact

Franklin D Roosevelt stated that “we cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” The use of nationalism in education is prevalent in many countries spanning from the United States to India. Often, state-sponsored and regulated education is synonymous with selective education, including and rejecting certain narratives and stories over others, bolstering the good and glimsming over the bad. Thus, through education policy, governments control the effective indoctrination of mass populations into a constructed idea of society. The use of selective education and taught nationalism creates biases that prohibits clear and effective diplomacy.

Combining the control of information and ideas with impressionable youth can result in a continuation of taught ideals and politics and ultimately control of a population. When taught values and stereotypes are passed down from generation to generation, prejudice and discrimination exist.

Every human has a set of values and habits that are based in language, religion, philosophies, and communal cultures. Taught nationalism is both good and bad; it is inherently a part of a culture identity. Nationalism creates an alterity that often results to discrimination, bigotry and at worst genocide for those who don’t fit into the nationalistic idea.

This concept is not only positively used in everyday cultural communication that creates identities, but also used negatively to manipulate people. Taught nationalism diffuses throughout the world, regardless of region, language and religion. This article explicates the causes, forms, and impact of taught nationalism in Asia, specifically in China and India, where textbooks are rewritten to curate students’ ideas of their national identity.

Asian Nationalism in Education - looking at China and India

Education is often a tool through which state sponsored nationalist ideas are instilled. With an increase of foreign influence from Western nations such as the United States, countries turn towards more conservative approaches as nationalism is on the rise globally.


Scholar Suisheng Zhao of University of Denver argues that the origin of Chinese nationalism came into existence during the Opium War in the 1840s that ultimately opened China to Western imperialism. Nationalism takes on many forms in China from Han ethnic based nationalism to ideological liberal nationalism, or “the nation as a group of citizens who have a duty both to support the rights of the state and to pursue individual freedom.” While China opened its doors to the West, a 3rd form, pragmatic nationalism gained popularity allowing legitimacy and political control of the Communist party. The pragmatic nationalism allowed for the adoption of democratic ideals and loosening of communist ideology as long as it aided the continued growth and stability within China. From this movement came about the Patriotic Education campaign.  

The Patriotic Education campaign began in 1991, and shortly after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.  The campaign targeted young school-aged children to teach about past greatness and the “humiliating experience in the face of Western and Japanese incursion” and how the Communist led revolution created China into the power it is today. A primary mode was through the use of changing the narrative of collective Chinese history with a version in favor of the communist one party rule. The textbooks were replaced and “the old class struggle narrative” was replaced with a “ Maoist ‘victor narrative’ (China won national independence) was also superseded by a new ‘victimization narrative; which blames the ‘West’ for China’s suffering”. The teaching of this narrative by Chinese textbooks instills a sense of shame and effectively associates China’s problems to the West imperialism and forces. This goes as far as questions of national humiliation have become topics in the nationwide examination for attending universities.


The rise in nationalism originated with the decolonization movements at the end of the 1940s and 1950s. While the idea of a national identity, especially in the case of India and Pakistan was formed before the founding of the nation-states, it wasn’t until after full independence from the British Empire that nationalism was able to fully manifest.

The decolonization of British India and the creation of India and Pakistan left complex feelings, with celebrations of independence tinged with regret surrounding the violence brought about by partition - essentially, a divided freedom. The independence movement of 1947 created different narratives in the history of partition in Pakistani and Indian textbooks. Many Indian textbooks often portray the Muslim League as focusing solely on Muslims’ interests and the National Congress party as “Guardians of all Indians, regardless of religious affiliation”. Many Indian textbooks focus and revere the work of Gandhi. Where as comparsionly the same events in 1947 are taught in Pakistani textbooks as freedom and created a nation-state focused on social justice and Islamic Ideology, and more critically, the justification for the creation of Pakistan and the Two-Nation Theory. In the past few year in India as the BJP party has come into power and the rise of Hindu Nationalism within India, has resulted in the rewriting of history textbooks to portray Muslim Mughals as military brutes and Hindu rulers as victorious. Standard social science textbook for class 8 fail to mention Prime Minister Neru and the events of Gandhi’s assassination, which is particularly significant because the assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a member of the RSS which was the precursor to the BJP, the current political party in power.

What Taught Nationalism means in IR

Nationalism itself is a purely constructivist political theory in that it is centered on collective ideas and communal identities. Nationalistic portrayals of collective identity can instill a chosen trauma, or “the horrors of the past that cast shadows onto the future” and a chosen glory “myths about a glorious future, often seen as a seen as a reenactment of a glorious past” in an attempt to strengthen a group identity. This directly impacts international relations when countries, such as in the case of China, blame “Western” powers for economic, political and social challenges.

How the collective Chinese population views Western powers creates challenges during diplomatic exchanges. If nationalistic educational narratives instill distrust in Chinese leaders and Western leaders, actors will either work to deconstruct biases held against them or they will internalize those biases if their experiences validate them. As relations between the United States and China are currently marred by economic tension in a trade war, knowing of the biases of collective histories in the United States with anti-communism movements and the Tiananmen Square anti-democracy movements could aid in more diplomatic solutions. When nationalism is effective, chosen trauma and chosen glory impacts generations and cannot easily be corrected or significantly altered.

In the case of India, the distancing of Indian history from Mughal history is another example of how education can increase tensions between Hindus and Muslims. As political parties focus on Hindu identity, often hate-crimes become overlooked and a narrative of religious-political battle becomes prevalent in the media. As India becomes more Hindu-centric, it disengages from the realities facing the nation and surrounding states. India, known for taking in Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils and other persecuted people purportedly turned away Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar in the name of national security, while in reality the religious difference plays an important role in the decision.


Young Adults are powerful political entities that are often forgotten, however even without the right to vote, their voices are undeniable. Youth are often easily impressionable as well. Education systems instill their young students with values, ideals and cultural understandings. While schools instill positive qualities for youth, they can just as easily instill  discrimination and hatred. China and India are not alone in the attempts to erase or hide specific aspects of their national histories. In understanding history, it is always important to be aware of what stories are being told and which ones are not. The education in the United States often glosses over many of the complexities of American History such as Native American massacres, freedom struggles for African Americans, modern-day race relations and institutional racism. When considering the impact of national education curriculums, it is important to ask what is missing and, more importantly, why?

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