Historical logic of using traditional culture to construct political identity

By LI YANXIA / 02-22-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Vintage posters promote Chinese values such as virtue, benevolence, righteousness, and harmony. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

Political identity is an organic union of political psychology and political behavior, serving as a crucial manifestation of legitimacy and political cohesion. Traditionally, it has been viewed as the social psychological foundation which modern nation-states are built upon and has thus become a significant topic in the study of state-building. For modern individuals, the formation of political identity involves a “complex interaction” process that includes both an “internal construction” and “external construction.” This process of “complex interaction” highlights the tension between the evolution of culture and institutional change, making the role of the former in the construction of modern political identity important and complex.

Given the missions and strategic goals of modern political system construction, traditional culture might end up with different uses as political identity is “externally constructed.” Traditional culture may be used as a resource to rely on, as content that should be avoided and transformed, or as leverage for forming a “resistant” identity. Consequently, whether traditional culture is presented, what is presented, and how it is presented are comprehensive strategic choices following the rules of psychological mechanisms, task resources, historical logic, and other factors.

Data selection and categorization of traditional cultural symbols

The construction of political identity is an essential outcome of political socialization, reflected in various domains such as civic education, political ceremonies, literary works, and cultural practices. This study primarily analyzes 2,977 political posters collected and organized in the book Political Posters in New China (1949–2016), funded by the National Publishing Fund. In these sample posters, 88 symbols of Chinese traditional culture were identified and classified based on their symbolic content and the posters’ main themes.

These symbols were categorized into six groups: First, symbols of daily life practices, which includes tangible items or rituals in cultural traditions that have distinct Chinese cultural characteristics, such as paper-cutting, couplets, kites, the yangge dance, lion dance, and so forth; Second, symbols of historical significance, which includes iconic symbols formed in ancient China, such as the Great Wall, armillary sphere, sundial, bronze bells (bianzhong), and the ritual tripod cauldron (Ding), etc.; The third group had symbols of famous mountains and rivers that carry cultural significance in China, such as the Yangtze River, Yellow River, Mount Tai, etc.; Fourth, symbols with shared meanings related to material life, such as the peony, crane, magpie, or ruyi (Jade scepter); Fifth, symbols with shared meanings related to moral qualities, such as the pine tree, lotus flower, bamboo, or chrysanthemum; Finally, visual examples of totems and myths including legendary loongs (dragons), the chimerical qilin, the phoenix, and others.

The research focus of this study was to analyze the historical logic of the construction of political identity in contemporary China by examining whether and how traditional cultural symbols were presented in the sample posters. Upon discussion and analysis, we selected a methodology which identifies the three most prominent symbols in each poster, and then if traditional cultural symbols were among the three leading images, the poster was coded as “prominently presented;” if three or more traditional cultural symbols were present in a poster, it was also coded as “prominently presented.” Otherwise, it was considered implicitly presented or not presented.

Major findings

Statistical analysis shows that, at the level of political identity, political posters aiming to construct people’s identities by illustrating well-performing government policies, cultural values, systems, and public institutions made up over 70% of the selected samples. In contrast, posters aiming to construct the Chinese national identity constituted about 10% of all samples. This suggests that the primary focus of political identity construction in new China was on public identification with policy performance, cultural values, and the political system, whereas identification with the nation or Chinese ethnicities were not the main concern.

In terms of the visibility of traditional cultural symbols in the construction of political identity, we found that samples of posters without traditional cultural symbols accounted for 78.3% of the total samples, while those with traditional cultural symbols constituted 21.7%. Overall, traditional cultural symbols were less prominent in political posters. When comparing different historical periods, between 1949 and 1963, posters featuring traditional cultural symbols comprised around 30% of the sample, decreasing to approximately 10% between 1964 and 1973. The proportion rose again to about 20% between 1974 and 1998 and increased then to around 33% between 1999 and 2016. Further analysis indicates that, from the beginning of the 21st century, the number of posters prominently displaying traditional Chinese cultural symbols have continuously increased as a proportion of the total sample. 

In the meantime, if we compare the presentation of traditional cultural symbols through different dimensions of political identity construction, we can see that posters featuring traditional cultural symbols are more prevalent in constructing Chinese national and ethnic identity than in other dimensions of political identity construction. This provides evidence for the theory that traditional culture has an intrinsic connection to an emotional attachment-based identity.

As mentioned above, among the selected sample posters, a total of 646 paintings featured traditional cultural symbols, accounting for 21.7% of the total samples. From these samples, we can see an evolution in the use of traditional cultural symbols for political identity construction. These symbols fall into six categories, totaling 88 types, and they were presented 999 times altogether. Comparing the proportions of different categories of traditional cultural symbols, those depicting daily life practices, with meanings related to material life, have the highest frequency of appearance. These accounted for 35% and 28% of the total frequency of traditional cultural symbols, respectively. Symbols of mountains and rivers, and totems and myths have the lowest frequency, accounting for 3% and 6% of the total frequency of traditional cultural symbols, respectively.

If we put this data into perspective, changes in the presentation of different categories of traditional cultural symbols from 1949 to 2016 reveal that symbols related to material life had a higher proportional presentation in the early years of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The use of these symbols gradually declined over time. Symbols of historical significance had a notably higher usage in political posters after the reform and opening up, and then witnessed a significant increase after 1999. Symbols of daily life practices appeared in higher proportions in early PRC political posters, followed by a gradual decline, but the trend rose again after 1999. At the same time, other categories of traditional cultural symbols fluctuated through different historical stages, with no significant overall trends.


The sense of agreeing with and belonging to the political community are two pillars of political identity. However, these two pillars have different psychological characteristics, as well as diverse historical and cultural contexts upon which different modern nation-states are built. Thus, there are significant differences in the focus of modern political identity construction among different countries. This article, driven by the theoretical premises mentioned above, attempts to explore the characteristics of traditional culture presented in contemporary Chinese political posters as the images seek to construct a Chinese political identity. Our conclusions are discussed below.

First, the implicit presentation of traditional cultural symbols in these posters shows that the core task of the construction of political identity in new China was to cultivate a sense of identity within the modern political system. Overall, 78.3% of the selected samples did not feature traditional cultural symbols. Among the 646 political posters that presented traditional cultural symbols, 282 depicted them implicitly. Therefore, the sense of belonging as community members was a resource, rather than a core goal in the construction of contemporary China’s political identity. As the only country in the world with an uninterrupted civilization, China’s long historical and cultural tradition lays a solid cultural foundation for the sense of community and emotional affiliation required for political identity. 

At the same time, the process of breaking through the ideological shackles that conflict with modern spirits in traditional culture while promoting the transformation from “traditional China” to “modern China” is an important topic in the study of the construction of political identities.

Second, the presentation of different categories of traditional cultural symbols within the sample posters indicates the Chinese nation’s characteristics are based on life practices. Customs and traditions based on common daily practices, rather than ethnicity (in the sense of kinship), are crucial resources emphasized in the construction of political identity in contemporary China. The use, or absence, of these symbols further demonstrates that the political identity construction in contemporary China is not based on ethnonationalism but on the strong national identity of the Chinese nation. 

Finally, we can see that traditional culture was presented in new ways when the new era’s political identity was constructed. In the new era, how did the construction of political identity delve into the rich soil of the nation’s historical culture to creatively transform Chinese traditional culture? How was the essence of Marxist ideology combined with Chinese traditional culture? These unions continue to be central to the national goal as it embarks on a new journey to build China into a modern socialist country in all respects.

As people’s consciousness and sense of community belonging continue to evolve, the construction of political identity in contemporary China requires a strategic selection and creative transformation of traditional culture, thereby achieving a positive interaction between cultural identity and political identity. 

In addition, the humanistic attributes of political identity call for a more nuanced representation of traditional culture in political identity construction. In the era of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, the target of political identity construction needs to shift from the material level to the value level, and the use and presentation of traditional cultural symbols in political identity construction should also take multidimensional forms. 

The logic of similarities and differences in political identity psychology demands a deeper exploration of traditional culture in construction of political identity. In the new era, the construction of political identity should explore the uniquely inclusive elements of traditional Chinese culture to “assimilate differences” or ”assimilate diversities,” while highlighting the distinctive attributes of community culture in China.

In short, traditional cultural elements which reflect the community’s unique attributes should be widely applied in future political identity construction, and elements of traditional culture with inclusive properties and shared values should be deeply studied and thoroughly presented. 

Li Yanxia is a professor from the School of Public Affairs at Xiamen University.

The article is originally published on CASS Journal of Political Science, Issue 5, 2023.

Edited by YANG XUE