2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

One Day in China or China in One Day:
Everyday Life Narrative and the Imagination of Nationhood in 1930s China

Sung-chiao Shen

Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica

It is conventional wisdom for scholars doing research on the topics of nation and nationalism to give privileged emphasis to the effects of particular extraordinary events such as revolutions, wars, and mass movements on the construction of national identity. By contrast, the role that everyday life has played in this process is quite often unduly overlooked. However, thanks to the forceful argument that Michael Billig proposes in his seminal book Banal Nationalism, we are rightly reminded that the power of nationalism lies not so much in its occasional spectacular manifestations as in the way that we presuppose nationhood in talking about the mundane phenomena which constitute our everyday life. At the same time, the idea of nationhood is regularly flagged in our routine practices and everyday discourses. Through this kind of flagging, our nations are reproduced as nations, with our citizenries being unmindfully reminded of their national identity.

China was facing a serious national crisis due to the threat of Japanese imperialism in the 1930s. In order to mobilize popular zeal for the defense of Chinese nation, the constituent details of Chinese people’s daily life were put under the scrutiny of the governing elites and the nationalist intellectuals. Everyday life became the site for contests and negotiations among different national projects proposed by antagonistic power blocks. In 1936, a group of left-wing intellectuals in Shanghai edited and published a voluminous book entitled One Day in China. No less than 480 authors contributed their pieces for this Chinese “Mass Observation” project, recording what they experienced and thought on the day of May 21. Focusing on this archive of the everyday life, this article delineates the historical context of its production, traces the narrative strategies it employed, and finally discusses the imagined Chinese nationhood constructed through this text.


Keywords: imagination of nationhood, everyday life narrative, one day in China, 1930s China