The regime of authenticity: Timelessness, gender, and national history in modern China

While there is much writing on the nation as the subject of linear history, considerably less attention has been paid to the dimension of the nation as the always identifiable, unchanging subject of history. This unchanging subject is necessitated by the ascendancy of the conception of linear time in capitalism in which change is viewed not only as accelerating, but can no longer be framed by an ultimate source of meaning such as God. Ostensibly, linear history is the falling of events into the "river of time," but national history also posits a continuous subject to gather these changes. Such a subject is recognizable only by the spiritual qualities of authenticity, purity, and sacrality. The nation-state and nationalists stake their claim to sovereign authority, in part, as custodians of this authenticity. A range of figures, human and non-human, come to symbolize a regime of authenticity manipulable to some extent by nationalists and state-builders. This essay focuses on the instance of women in early twentieth-century China. Nationalists and cultural essentialists tended to depict women as embodying the eternal Chinese civilizational virtues of self-sacrifice and loyalty and to elevate them as national exemplars. The essay also examines cases of how women themselves may have perceived this role as exemplars and concludes that while there was considerable subversion in their enunciation of this role (to their advantage), there was sufficient reference to the prescriptive code of authenticity in their self-formation to sustain the regime of authenticity. The essay ends with some thoughts about the changing relationship between authenticity and intensifying globalization in the contemporary world.