Chinese nationalism has drawn from extremely diverse ideological sources including traditional Chinese thinking, American progressivism, Marxism, and Russian ethnological thought. The ideology also presents itself in many different and often conflicting manifestations, including ultraimperialism. These manifestations have included the Three Principles of the People, the Communist Party of China, the anti-government views of students in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Fascist blueshirts, and Japanese collaborationism under Wang Jingwei.
Although Chinese nationalists have agreed on the desirability of a centralized Chinese state, almost every mother question has been the subject of intense and sometimes bitter debate. Among the questions on which Chinese nationalists have disagreed is what policies would lead to a strong China, what is the structure of the state and its goal, what the relationship should be between China and foreign powers, and what should be the relationships between the majority Han Chinese, minority groups, and overseas Chinese.
The vast variation in how Chinese nationalism has been expressed has been noted by commentator Lucian Pye who argues that this reveals a lack of content in the Chinese identity. However, others have argued that the ability of Chinese nationalism to manifest itself in many forms is a positive trait in that it allows the ideology to transform itself in response to internal crises and external events.
Although the variations among conceptions of Chinese nationalism are great, Chinese nationalist groups maintain some similarities, most notably ultraimperialism. Chinese nationalistic ideologies all regard Sun Yat-Sen very highly, and tend to claim to be ideological heirs of the Three Principles of the People. In addition, Chinese nationalistic ideologies tend to regard both democracy and science as positive forces, although they often have radically different notions of what democracy means.
There have been versions of a Chinese state for around 4,000 years. The Chinese concept of the world was largely a division between the civilized world and the barbarian world and there was little concept of the belief that Chinese interests were served by a powerful Chinese state. Commenter Lucian Pye has argued that the modern "nation state" is fundamentally different from a traditional empire, and argues that dynamics of the current People's Republic of China (PRC) – a concentration of power at a central point of authority – share an essential similarity with the Ming and Qing Empires. There were only a few periods in Chinese history when China fought total wars against foreigners (most notably the Mongols, Manchus, and Japanese), whereas all other conflicts were mainly civil wars that led to dynastic changes. However, attempts to sinicize foreigners or "barbarians" (such as the Vietnamese, and Koreans) who wanted to maintain a separate cultural identity had been going on for millennia. This particular trait of Chinese history was not conducive to realizing a Chinese nation-state, until contact with Western countries in the 19th century.
Defining the relationship between ethnicity and the Chinese identity has been a very complex issue throughout Chinese history. In the 17th century, with the help of Ming Chinese rebels, the Manchus invaded the Chinese heartland and set up the Qing dynasty. Over the next centuries they would incorporate groups such as the Tibetans, the Mongols, and the Uyghurs into territories which they controlled. The Manchus were faced with the issue of maintaining loyalty among the people they ruled while at the same time maintaining a distinctive identity. The main method by which they accomplished control of the Chinese heartland was by portraying themselves as enlightened Confucian sages part of whose goal was to preserve and advance Chinese civilization. Over the course of centuries the Manchus were gradually assimilated into the Chinese culture and eventually many Manchus identified themselves as a people of China.
The complexity of the relationship between ethnicity and the Chinese identity can be seen during the Taiping rebellion in which the rebels fought fiercely against the Manchus on the ground that they were barbarian foreigners while at the same time others fought just as fiercely on behalf of the Manchus on the grounds that they were the preservers of traditional Chinese values. It was during this time that the concept of Han Chinese came into existence as a means of describing the majority Chinese ethnicity.
In the late 19th century, Chinese nationalism identified Han with Chinese and argued for the overthrow of the Manchus who were considered outside the realm of the Chinese nation. This led to many rebellions by Han Chinese. Sun Yat-sen once declared: "In order to restore our national independence, we must first restore the Chinese nation. In order to restore the Chinese nation, we must drive the barbarian Manchus back to the Changbai Mountains. In order to get rid of the barbarians, we must first overthrow the present tyrannical, dictatorial, ugly, and corrupt Qing government. Fellow countrymen, a revolution is the only means to overthrow the Qing government!"
After the 1911 Revolution, the official definition of "Chinese" was expanded to include non-Han ethnicities as part of a comprehensive Chinese nation (Zhonghua Minzu), in order to boost the unification of different races in China.
The official Chinese nationalistic view in the 1920s and 1930s was heavily influenced by modernism and social Darwinism, and included advocacy of the cultural assimilation of ethnic groups in the western and central provinces into the "culturally advanced" Han state, to become in name as well as in fact members of the Chinese nation. Furthermore, it was also influenced by the fate of multi-ethnic states such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. It also became a very powerful force during the Japanese occupation of Coastal China during the 1930s and 1940s and the atrocities committed then.
Over the next decades Chinese nationalism was influenced strongly by Russian ethnographic thinking, and the official ideology of the PRC asserts that China is a multi-ethnic state, and Han Chinese, despite being the overwhelming majority (over 95% in the mainland), they are only one of many ethnic groups of China, each of whose culture and language should be respected. However, many critics argue that despite this official view, assimilationist attitudes remain deeply entrenched, and popular views and actual power relationships create a situation in which Chinese nationalism has in practice meant Han dominance of minority areas and peoples and assimilation of those groups.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese nationalism within mainland China became mixed with the rhetoric of Marxism, and nationalistic rhetoric become in large part subsumed into internationalist rhetoric. On the other hand, Chinese nationalism in Taiwan was primarily about preserving the ideals and lineage of Sun Yat-sen, the party he founded, the Kuomintang (KMT), and anti-Communism. While the definition of Chinese nationalism differed in the Republic of China (ROC) and PRC, both were adamant in claiming Chinese territories such as Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands.
In the 1990s, rising economic standards, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the lack of any other legitimizing ideology has led to what most observers see as a resurgence of nationalism within China.
Chinese Muslims have played an important role in Chinese nationalism. Chinese Muslims, known as Hui people, are a mixture of the descendants of foreign Muslims like Arabs and Persians, mixed with Han Chinese who converted to Islam. Chinese Muslims are sinophones, speaking Chinese and practicing Confucianism.
Hu Songshan, a Muslim Imam from Ningxia, was a Chinese nationalist and preached Chinese nationalism and unity of all Chinese people, and also against imperialism and foreign threats. He even ordered the Chinese Flag to be saluted during prayer, and that all Imams in Ningxia preach Chinese nationalism. Hu Songshan led the Ikhwan, the Chinese Muslim Brotherhood, which became a Chinese nationalist, patriotic organization, stressing education and independence of the individual. Hu Songhan also wrote a prayer in Arabic and Chinese, praying for Allah to support the Chinese Kuomintang government and defeat Japan. Hu Songshan also cited a Hadith (圣训), a saying of the prophet Muhammad, which says "Loving the Motherland is equivalent to loving the Faith" (“爱护祖国是属于信仰的一部份”). Hu Songshan harshly criticized those who were non patriotic and those who taught anti nationalist thinking, saying that they were fake Muslims.
Ma Qixi was a Muslim reformer, leader of the Xidaotang, and he taught that Islam could only be understood by using Chinese culture such as Confucianism. He read classic Chinese texts and even took his cue from Laozi when he decided to go on Hajj to Mecca.
Ma Fuxiang, a Chinese Muslim general and Kuomintang member, was another Chinese nationalist. Ma Fuxiang preached unity of all Chinese people, and even non-Chinese people such as Tibetans and Mongols to stay in China. He proclaimed that Mongolia and Tibet were part of the Republic of China, and not independent countries. Ma Fuxiang was loyal to the Chinese government, and crushed Muslim rebels when ordered to. Ma Fuxiang believed that modern education would help Hui Chinese build a better society and help China resist foreign imperialism and help build the nation. He was praised for his "guojia yizhi"(national consciousness) by non Muslims. Ma Fuxiang also published many books, and wrote on Confucianism and Islam, having studied both the Quran and the Spring and Autumn Annals.
Ma Fuxiang had served under the Chinese Muslim general Dong Fuxiang, and fought against the foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion. The Muslim unit he served in was noted for being anti foreign, being involved in shooting a Westerner and a Japanese to death before the Boxer Rebellion broke out. It was reported that the Muslim troops were going to wipe out the foreigners to return a golden age for China, and the Muslims repeatedly attacked foreign churches, railways, and legations, before hostilities even started. The Muslim troops were armed with modern repeater rifles and artillery, and reportedly enthusiastic about going on the offensive and killing foreigners. Ma Fuxiang led an ambush against the foreigners at Langfang and inflicted many casualties, using a train to escape. Dong Fuxiang was a xenophobe and hated foreigners, wanting to drive them out of China.
Various Muslim organizations in China like China Islamic Association (Zhongguo Huijiao Gonghui) and the Chinese Muslim Association were sponsored by the Kuomintang.
Chinese Muslim imams had synthesized Islam and Confucianism in the Han Kitab. They asserted that there was no contradiction between Confucianism and Islam, and no contradiction between being a Chinese national and a Muslim. Chinese Muslim students returning from study abroad, from places such as Al Azhar in Egypt learned about nationalism and advocated Chinese nationalism at home. One Imam, Wang Jingzhai, who studied at Mecca, translated a Hadith, or saying of Muhammad, "Aiguo Aijiao"- loving the country is equivalent to loving the faith. Chinese Muslims believed that their "Watan"(country in Arabic) was the whole of the Republic of China, non-Muslims included.
General Bai Chongxi, the warlord of Guangxi, and a member of the Kuomintang, presented himself as the protector of Islam in China and harbored Muslim intellectuals fleeing from the Japanese invasion in Guangxi, who preached Chinese nationalism and anti imperialism. Chinese Muslims were sent to Saudi Arabia and Egypt to denounce the Japanese. Translations from Egyptian writings and the Quran were used to support propaganda in favor of a Jihad against Japan.
In Xinjiang, the Chinese Muslim general Ma Hushan supported Chinese nationalism. He was chief of the 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army). He spread anti Soviet, and anti Japanese propaganda, and instituted a colonial regime over the Uighurs. Uighur street names and signs were changed to Chinese, and the Chinese Muslim troops imported Chinese cooks and baths, rather than using Uighur ones. The Chinese Muslims even forced the Uighur carpet industry at Khotan to change its design to Chinese versions.
General Ma Hushan's brother Ma Zhongying denounced separatism in a speech at Idgah Mosque and told the Uighurs to be loyal to the Chinese government at Nanjing. The 36th division had crushed the Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, and the Chinese Muslim general Ma Zhancang beheaded the Uighur emirs Abdullah Bughra and Nur Ahmad Jan Bughra. Ma Zhancang abolished the Islamic Sharia law which was set up by the Uighurs, and set up military rule instead, retaining the former Chinese officials and keeping them in power. The Uighurs had been promoting Islamism in their separatist government, but Ma Hushan eliminated religion from politics. Islam was barely mentioned or used in politics or life except as a vague spiritual focus for unified opposition against the Soviet Union.
One common goal of current Chinese nationalists is the unification of mainland China and Taiwan. While this was the common stated goal of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (ROC) before 1991, both sides differed sharply on the form of unification.
In Taiwan there is a general consensus to support the status quo of Taiwan's de facto independence as a separate nation. Despite this, the relationship between Chinese nationalism and Taiwan remains controversial, involving symbolic issues such as the use of "The Republic of China" as the official name of the government on Taiwan and the use of the word "China" in the name of Government-owned corporations. Broadly speaking, there is little support on Taiwan for unification. Overt support for formal independence is also muted due to the PRC's insistence on military action should Taiwan make such a formal declaration. The argument against unification is partly over culture and whether democratic Taiwanese should see themselves as Chinese or Taiwanese, and partly over a mistrust of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP), its human rights record, and its de-democratizing actions in Hong Kong. These misgivings are particularly prevalent amongst younger generations of Taiwanese, who generally view both the CCP and the KMT as obsolete and consider themselves to have little or no connection to China, whose government they perceive as a foreign aggressor.
After decolonization, overseas Chinese were encouraged to regard themselves as citizens of their adopted nations rather than as part of the Chinese nationality. As a result, ethnic Chinese in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia have sharply divided the concept of ethnic Chinese from the concept of "political Chinese" and have explicitly rejected being part of the Chinese nationality.
During the 1960s, the People's Republic of China and Republic of China (ROC) maintained different attitudes toward overseas Chinese. In the eyes of the PRC government, overseas Chinese were considered capitalist agents; in addition, the PRC government also thought that maintaining good relations with southeast Asian governments was more important than maintaining the support of overseas Chinese. By contrast, the ROC desired good relations with overseas Chinese as part of an overall strategy to avoid diplomatic isolation and maintain its claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.
With the reforms under Deng Xiaoping, the PRC's attitude toward overseas Chinese became much more favorable, and overseas Chinese were seen as a source of capital and expertise. In the 1990s, the PRC's efforts toward overseas Chinese became mostly focused on maintaining the loyalty of "newly departed overseas Chinese", which consisted of mostly graduate students having emigrated, mostly to the United States. Now, there are summer camps, in which overseas Chinese youths may attend to learn first-hand about Chinese culture. In 2013, "100 overseas Chinese youth embarked on their root-seeking journey in Hunan."  Textbooks for Chinese schools are distributed by the government of the People's Republic of China.
In addition to the Taiwan independence movement, there are a number of ideologies which exist in opposition to Chinese nationalism.
Some opponents have asserted that Chinese nationalism is inherently backward and is therefore incompatible with a modern state. Some claim that Chinese nationalism is actually a manifestation of beliefs in Han Chinese ethnic superiority (also known as Sinocentrism), though this is hotly debated. While opponents have argued that reactionary nationalism is evidence of Chinese insecurity or immaturity and that it is both unnecessary and embarrassing to a powerful nation, Chinese nationalists assert that Chinese nationalism was in many ways a result of Western imperialism and is fundamental to the founding of a modern Chinese state that is free from foreign domination.
Edward Friedman has argued that there is a northern governmental, political, bureaucratic Chinese nationalism that is at odds with a southern, commercial Chinese nationalism. This division is rejected by most Chinese and many non-Chinese scholars,[who?] who believe that Friedman has overstated the differences between the north and the south, and point out that the divisions within Chinese society do not fall neatly into "north-south" divisions.
During the 1990s, Chinese intellectuals have vigorously debated the political meaning and significance of the rising nationalism in China. From their debates has emerged a multifarious populist nationalism which argues that anti-imperialist nationalism in China has provided a valuable public space for popular participation outside the country's political institutions and that nationalist sentiments under the postcolonial condition represent a democratic form of civic activity. Advocates of this theory promote nationalism as an ideal of populist politics and as an embodiment of the democratic legitimacy that resides in the will of the people.
Populist nationalism is a comparatively late development in Chinese nationalism of the 1990s. It began to take recognizable shape after 1996, as a joint result of the evolving nationalist thinking of the early 1990s and the ongoing debates on modernity, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and their political implications-debates that have engaged many Chinese intellectuals since early 1995.
The end of the Cold War has seen the revival throughout the world of nationalist sentiments and aspirations. However, nationalist sentiment is not the sole province of the CPC. One truly remarkable phenomenon in the post-Cold War upsurge of Chinese nationalism is that Chinese intellectuals became one of the driving forces. Many well-educated people-social scientists, humanities scholars, writers and other professionals-have given voice to and even become articulators for rising nationalistic discourse in the 1990s. Some commentators have proposed that "positive nationalism" could be an important unifying factor for the country as it has been for other countries.
As an indication of the popular and intellectual origins of recent Chinese nationalist sentiment, all coauthors of China Can Say No, the first in a string of defiant rebuttals to American imperialism, are college educated, and most are self-employed (a freelancer, a fruit-stand owner, a poet, and journalists working in the partly market-driven field of Chinese newspapers, periodicals, and television stations).
Chinese nationalism targets against two major groups : Japan, which invaded China in 1931–1945, and Secessionism like Tibetan independence, Xinjiang independence, Taiwanese independence and their supporters like USA, India and Turkey.
In the 21st century, notable spurs of grassroots Chinese nationalism grew from what the Chinese saw as marginalization of their country from Japan and the Western world. The Japanese history textbook controversies, as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine was the source of considerable anger on Chinese blogs. In addition, the protests following the 2008 Tibetan unrest of the Olympic torch has gathered strong opposition within the Chinese community inside China and abroad. Almost every Tibetan protest on the Olympic torch route was met with a considerable pro-China protest. Because the 2008 Summer Olympics were a major source of national pride, anti-Olympics sentiments are often seen as anti-Chinese sentiments inside China. Moreover, the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 sparked a high sense of nationalism from Chinese at home and abroad. The central government's quick response to the disaster was instrumental in galvanizing general support from the population amidst harsh criticism directed towards China's handling of the Lhasa riots only two months previous.
Since the state controlled media has control over most media outlet, the Internet is one of the rare places where Chinese nationalists can rant and express their feelings. While the government is known for shutting down controversial blogs, it is impossible to completely censor the Internet and all websites that may be deemed controversial. Chinese Internet users frequently write nationalistic topics online on websites such as Tianya.cn. Some web-based media such as a webcomic named Year Hare Affair also features nationalistic ideas. The nationalists look for news of people whom they considered to be traitors to China, such as the incident with Grace Wang from Duke University, a Chinese girl who allegedly tried to appease to both sides during the debate about Tibet before the 2008 Summer Olympics. She was labeled as a traitor by online Internet vigilantes, and even had her home back in Qingdao, China, attacked. Her parents had to hide for a while before the commotion died down.
In response to protests during the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay and accusations of bias from the western media, Chinese blogs, forums and websites became filled with nationalistic material, while flash counter-protests were generated through electronic means, such as the use of SMS and IM. One such site, Anti-CNN, claimed that news channels such as CNN and BBC only reported selectively, and only provided a one-sided argument regarding the 2008 Tibetan unrest. Chinese hackers have claimed to have attacked the CNN website numerous times, through the use of DDoS attacks.