Medieval nationhood

Nationalism in Heian Japan

Posted by dianamuir on April 22, 2013
Medieval nationhood / Comments Off on Nationalism in Heian Japan

もろこしも Far Cathay too
天の下にぞ Lies under the same heaven,
有と聞く I hear:
照る日の本を Please do not forget
忘れざらなむ This Land of the Rising Sun.

Written by an aristocratic lady of the Heian period.

Formal argument for a “strong sense of national identity”  among the chattering classes of the era,  Robert Borgen, Japanese Nationalism: Ancient and Modern.

Annual Report of the Insitute for International Studies [Meiji Gakuin University], no. 1 (December 1998), pp. 49-59.

Construction of Nationhood, by Adrian Hastings

Posted by dianamuir on December 25, 2012
Bible, Medieval nationhood / Comments Off on Construction of Nationhood, by Adrian Hastings

The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997

Excerpts from “Adrian Hastings on nations and nationalism,” Anthony D. Smith, March 18 2003, Nations and Nationalism


“Hastings’s…   aim in The Construction of Nationhood (1997), published four years before his untimely death, was to outline that debate and put the case for those medievalist historians who could not accept the prevailing modernist orthodoxy on the nature and rise of nations and nationalism.

“The argument is threefold. Hastings’s first and most important contention is that nations as well as nationalisms, though they may have spread more rapidly in the modern period… (were not)  the product of modernity. On the contrary, a sizeable number of European nations (and their nationalisms) can be traced back to the Middle Ages…

“The other two arguments serve to support his main thesis. The first is that nations and nationalism were products of the spread of Christianity in Europe, because Christianity sanctioned the use of vernacular languages in biblical translations and in the liturgy, and nations are founded on literary languages. The second argument holds that, since Christianity had adopted the Old Testament (while rejecting the Jews), it had also to adopt the Old Testament ideal of a polity, because the New Testament possessed no political ideal of its own. As a result, the biblical ideal of the ancient Israelite polity, with its fusion of land, people and religious polity, which Christianity spread throughout Europe and beyond, was almost monolithically national. No other religious tradition possessed such a political prototype; and that is why nations and nationalism are exclusively Judaeo-Christian, and European, phenomena…

The article can be found in full here.


Sixteenth Century Nationalism

Posted by dianamuir on December 18, 2012
Medieval nationhood / Comments Off on Sixteenth Century Nationalism

Sixteenth Century Nationalism is a slender 1976 volume by E.D. ( Eva) Marcu.   It is not a constructed argument so much as it is a collection of quotations offering “a great variety of voices”  from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and England that Marcu deems “sufficient to demonstrate no more, no less, than that nationalism in the sixteenth century was noisy, fanciful, and plainly fashionable.   Dressed in contemporary style, with its contemporary vocabulary and associations, it was neither quantitatively nor qualitatively different form later configurations.”

Because Marcu reads  all of the languages in which she found these quotations, and tells us that  she first “encountered, almost incidentally, so much chauvinism,” while pursuing other topics, it is necessary to take the material she found seriously and explain why such strongly-expressed nationalist sentiment existed in the sixteenth century.

In a one dated to the the time of the Armada, Elizabeth visits her troops (presumably at Tilbury)


“And many a captain kissed her hand,

As she passed forth through every band,

Where many a one did say and swear

To live and die for England

Add would not ask a penny pay…

But of their own would find a stay

To serve her Grace for England.”


Page follows page filled with patriotic sentiments of this sort.   Marcu concludes that “the abundance of examples should leave little doubt as to the existence of nationalism in the sixteenth century and of a nationalism that differed in no essential way from any later kind.”

At the very least, the existence of so much nationalist sentiment needs to be encountered.

The Eurocentrism of Post-Colonial Studies

Posted by dianamuir on October 12, 2012
Imperialism, Medieval nationhood, Ottoman Footprint / Comments Off on The Eurocentrism of Post-Colonial Studies

Happened on this very interesting article  seeking  “to connect with the broader postcolonial project of decolonizing the mind by exposing and deconstructing its Eurocentric frames of reference”   on the grounds that the phenomena of conquest and colonization can be more usefully studied as a group that includes earlier empires.

“It would have been beyond the scope of this article to more fully illustrate the economic continuities be- tween premodern and modern colonialism in this article, but we defer to others who have argued and shown that most economic activities that are commonly associated with modern, capitalist colonialism-profitable mercantile activity (Wheatley 1966; Duncan-Jones 1974; Mann 1986); the extraction and import of raw materials from colonies and export of manufactured goods in profitable return (Polanyi 1977); the control and exploitation of colonized land (Mayer 1988) and labor (Hawkes 1973); the taxation of colonized peoples (Given 1989); the appropriation of land and direct resettlement-predate the modern, capitalist period.”

The subtext for many post-colonial authors “is that the modern period witnessed a fundamental shift in the ways in which society was organized. Furthermore, the ideological and organizational forms of the premodern and modern periods are characterized by significant qualitative differences. In effect, the group senses of identity, the polities, the economic forms, and the ways of thinking of the modern period are fundamentally different from those that existed in the premodern period. In its most extreme form, it can lead social scientists to argue that the new social and spatial formations of the modern period could not conceivably have existed during premodern times (with regard to nationalism, see Gellner 1983; in the context of rational bureaucracy and the state, see Giddens 1985; Dandekar 1990, 1-2).

“We vigorously contest such views. As Latour (1993) has shown, there has been much continuity between the premodern and modern periods (on another broad note, see Dodgshon 1999). More specifically, Tilly (1990) has demonstrated that the state was “consolidated” from its earlier inchoate form in Europe during the modern pe- riod. It was not formed anew and, therefore, did not represent the first territorialization of power within Eu- ropean society. Similarly A. D. Smith (1986) has ex- plored the way in which modern nations were based on earlier ethnic communities or ethnie. Nations are there- fore not wholly fabricated modern social phenomena. Indeed, A. D. Smith’s (1996, 386) assertion that nihil ex nihilio, or “nothing comes from nothing,” is a clarion call for more sustained analysis of group senses of identity, but also state forms, rationalities, modes of production and, we argue, colonial practices over the long term. Students of nationalism and the state have learned much from expanding their temporal horizons, and we suggest that the same may well be true for those who wish to examine imperialism in all its forms. The challenge must be to engage with the premodern and the non-European and to explore what lies beyond: to unsettle geographical horizons.”

Unsettling Geographical Horizons: Exploring Premodern and Non-European Imperialism
Author(s): Rhys Jones and Richard Phillips,  Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), pp.141-161Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American GeographersStable URL: .Accessed: 12/10/2012



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Japan – When is a Nation?

Posted by dianamuir on October 03, 2012
Medieval nationhood, When is a nation? / Comments Off on Japan – When is a Nation?

A good case can be made for considering Japan to have become a nation in Heian period (794-1192.)     During the previous century, when the court was based in Nara, the two earliest chronicles of Japan were written, the Kojiki  (712) and the Nihonshoki (720).  Like other ancient national chronicles, both draw on much older sources, but, like the Kojiki   and Nihonshoki themselves, those sources were written in a hybridized version of Chinese, the language in which East Asia learned to write.  It was only after the court moved to Kyoto in 794 that a system for writing in the Japanese language was developed, followed by the burst of literary creativity  that is typical of national revivals, both those “revivals” that form new nations and those that revive old ones living under occupation.   A poem written in the Heian, Kimi Ga Yo is the modern Japanese national anthem.   It is said to be the shortest national anthem in the world, (the longest, weighing in at 158 strophes, belongs to the Greeks.)  The Heian also produced  the early and enduring classics of Japanese literature, Tales of the Genji, Pillow Book, and iroha, a poem that signals its Japaneseness to foreign eyes by its  brevity, and its perfection to Japanese eyes by its use of every character of the Japanese writing system exactly once.

There is  an English word for this literary trick: pangram.  Pangrams are nearly impossible to achieve in English, such attempts as “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” hardly reach the level of art. Useful mostly for testing keyboards, pangrams are not taken seriously as literature in English.  In Japanese, pangrams are a form of high art, beautifully allusive examples of the fundamental untranslatability of culture.

The major cornerstones of Japanese identity: the Emperor, Shinto, Confucian thought, Buddhism, samurai, and the distinctive Japanese class system, were all well developed by the end of the Heian, which ended with the establishment of the first Shogun.   Much of what is still familiar as Japanese architectural, artistic and cultural style also comes out of the Heian.   The final element that defines a nation – the belief that it has the right to sovereignty – was not tested until a foreign power attempted conquest.   When that test came, the Japanese responded with a unified effort demonstrating the Japan was a strong and highly identified nation.

The Mongols, after conquering the continent from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, set their sights on Japan.   In 1274 Kubblai Kahn, already Emperor of  Northern China and of Korea, ordered a seaborne invasion by 15,000 troops carried by a Korean fleet manned by 7,000 sailors to conquer Japan.  Landing on Kyushu, the war-hardened Mongol army led by experienced generals faced a much smaller Japanese force with no experience of war: Japan had not fought even a small war between feudal lords for two full generations.

The Battle of Hakata Bay was a clear victory for the Mongols over the far smaller Japanese army, which retreated at the end of the first day’s fighting to a fortified  position it had little chance of defending against the war-hardened Mongols.  The Mongols withdrew to their ships for the night.  The next day never came.

Overnight, a “Divine Wind” (Kamikaze) destroyed the Mongol fleet.  Only a remnant survived to tell the Mongol Emperor that they had defeated the Japanese, or, at any rate, that they would surely have vanquished them utterly in the morning if not for the storm.  The Japanese, meanwhile, claimed that they had defeated the Mongols; or, perhaps, that they would have been victorious if the fighting had continued long enough to allow them to bring up reinforcements from other islands and outlast the invaders; or that the gods sent a storm to fight for Japan.   What, precisely, was said at each court is not clear at this distance.  What is not in doubt is that Kubbai Kahn emerged certain of his army’s ability to conquer Japan and followed the failed invasion by sending envoys to demand Japanese capitulation.  The Bakufu, however, appears to have been persuaded that Japan could be defended.  Kublai Kahn’s envoys arrived in 1275 and were executed.  No one, then or now, could mistake this signal of the Japanese determination to resist conquest.

Shinto became ascendant as Japan prepared for a second invasion, much as it did when Japan prepared for war in the twentieth century.  Worship at the great Shinto shrines was the central symbolic act of the Japanese will to resist the Mongols.  Prayers were held throughout the country with Emperor Kameyama leading the state prayers at the Iwashimizu Shrine in Kyoto.  The Hakozaki shrine on Kyushu, destroyed in the first Mongol attack, was rapidly rebuilt.  To this day a plaque hangs above the Tower Gate bearing the words of Emperor Kameyama, “May the enemy nations prostrate themselves [in defeat].”  [i]

Meanwhile, the Bakufu moved energetically to improve Japan’s defenses.  A vast, defensive wall was built along the coast of Kyushu, but the defense was far broader than the mere building of fortifications.  The court and nobility undertook belt-tightening in order to direct all resources toward defense, the administration of the army was reformed to put men who had displayed qualities of leadership at the first invasion in positions of authority.  The entire productive might of the nation was mobilized to provide an effective defense, an effort that would continue in the expectation of a third invasion attempt  – an all-out, twenty-year-long defensive effort that kept Japan independent of the Mongols, but left the islands with a central government that was insolvent and vulnerable to collapse.

The second Mongol invasion came in 1281 in two waves.  The first assault, launched from Korea, was about the same size as the attacking force of 1274.  The second, sailing directly from China, was manned by as many as 100,000 soldiers transported by a navy of 60,000 men.   This  was one of the largest armies ever to embark on a seaborne conquest.  By way of comparison, in 1944,  Eisenhower sent an army of 140,000 men across the English Channel.

The first assault landed at Kyushu, where well-armed Japanese soldiers fighting from behind their new wall turned the Mongols back.    The Mongols had apparently expected the first fleet to establish a secure beachhead.  Instead, every breach of the wall was closed as the Japanese not only held back the attackers, but spread confusion in the Mongol fleet with small ships built to come out at night to harass the ships of the great armada.  The first Mongol fleet was forced to pull back to Takashima Island, where it was joined by the enormous second fleet.   At that point the gods again intervened to protect Japan, or, a storm blew up and destroyed the Mongol armada.  Upwards of 100,000 men drowned.

If the Mongol invasions were defeated by random storms at sea, it is nonetheless true that the gods help those who help themselves.   It was the extraordinarily unified effort by a Japanese nation determined to resist conquest that held back the Mongol army, forcing the retreat to Taksshima.

[i] George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford Univ. Press, 195, pp.442-450.