25 April 2008

The idea that the Chinese people, as a whole, are engaged in struggle, overcoming shame, or that every individual is responsible for the fate of the nation goes back before the Communist era. Since 1949, these ideas have been intensified, but it didn’t start there. And now’s a good time to remember it, because the 80th anniversary of the Jinan Incident is coming up next weekend. The Jinan Incident, on May 3rd 1928, was a brutal clash between Chinese and Japanese troops that both sides, it seems, wanted to avoid but failed. Kuomintang forces ended up retreating from the city, and the Kuomintang government declared May 3rd to be National Humiliation Day. A boycott of Japanese goods followed.

A new documentary on the 5-3 Massacre, “Do You Remember, Do You See?”, promises to “guide people through a recollection of history, not to forget national shame, strengthen their sentiments about historical mission and responsibilities, devote themselves to development, cherish peace, in the Chinese peoples struggle to rejuvenate the nation”. (引导人们缅怀历史,勿忘国耻,增强历史使命感与责任感,致力发展,珍爱和平,为中华民族的伟大复兴而奋斗) Many countries suffer humiliating battles in wars. Few nations seem to use losing battles in wars they eventually won to define their national identity, or to inculcate intense emotional feelings in their children about them. In 2005, one school, Cixi City Xufu Primary School in Zhejiang, had a banner that said “勿忘国耻,兴我中华” - “Never Forget National Shame, Let Our China Flourish”, while students signed a similar banner. The author says “This afternoon, all of our schools students and teachers held a “Never Forget National Shame, Let Our China Flourish” name signing ceremony in the courtyard to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the victory in the War of Resistance Against the Japanese.” The writer goes on to describe the kids displaying feelings of “indignant nationalism” when they put pen to paper, so that they are “not merely trifling names, but in their hearts have a concentrated patriotic feeling.” Another article from 2007 talks about the “bloodsoaked history” of the Jinan Incident and begins with a photo of a young child being shown around the 5-3 Massacre Monument by an elderly relative, before launching into poetical language of how blood was like water and the rain like tears, how brutal those murderers were, how the past is a guide to the future, and again, to never forget this national humiliation.

This emphasis on national humiliation is quite something in China. It’s interesting to read this on ANZAC day; Gallipoli was an disaster, a pointless and bloody battle that claimed thousands of lives, and Australians are quite frankly nationalistic about it. The Sidney Morning Herald describes Gallipoli as the birthplace of “mateship”, “which gave legitimacy to Australia’s fledgling nationhood”, much as China struggled with nationhood in 1928. Yet the only use of the word “shame” I can find is that the ANZAC monument is a “derelict relic”. Though Gallipoli is considered a horrible mistake and loss, there is no invocation of indignant rage, or bitter grudges. Meanwhile, a Xinhua article on Chinese male celebrities greatest patriotic statements reports that Olympic hurdler and poster boy Liu Xiang “really hates Japanese” and so won’t ever wear or endorse their products “at any price”. There’s only 13 years between Gallipoli and Jinan.

The humiliation narrative connects to sports and the Olympics in a big way. Zhang Boling, one of several fathers of modern Chinese sports, described in this article as the Chinese Coubertin, or pioneer of the Chinese Olympics, said to get rid of the “Sick Man of Asia” label, “a great nation must first strengthen the race, a great race must first strengthen the body” (“强国必先强种,强种必先强身”) and “to strengthen the race, first strengthen the body” (“强我种族,体育为先”). This, as I’ve written before, falls in a tradition that goes back to China’s modern encounter with the West. This means that first of all, he considered the Western diagnosis of China as “sick” as the correct one, which is hardly a positive self-image. Second, he said that the need to cure the nation rested in the hands of every individual, an enormous burden to bear. And you can find references to national humiliation, the Sick Man of Asia and rejunvenating the nation in the official website of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. These are pre-CCP ideas, that continue alive and well.

It’s not just the sense of humiliation, either, that weighs heavy on Chinese shoulders. That’s strongly connected to rhetoric about Chinese people having lost and needing to reclaim their dignity, honor and strength, and its not simply the product of the government’s official history. Invoking the need to make China stronger, and that each individual has a responsibility to do so, is in everything, from Li Yang’s Crazy English “huckster nationalism” to doing push-ups.

Two phrases that are aren’t uncommon are 弱智的中国人 (feeble-minded Chinese) and 丑陋的中国人 (ugly Chinaman). The first made an appearance recently in a post on Time’s China Blog, where a Chinese journalist notes a conversation with a fellow Chinese about Tibet:

When I tentatively raised the topic with a long-time friend, who is well-educated and mild in manner, I was immediately cut short by a righteous lecture. “What do you have to complain about hostile phone calls?” he said. “Those shameless western mouthpieces deserved it! And It’s only for the best that CNN and BBC are blacked out so your lot could not pollute those weak-minded Chinese with your lies!”

The second comes from the book by Taiwanese author Bo Yang, The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture. A reviewer on Amazon who has read the Chinese original explains:

His target audience was his fellow Chinese, especially those living in Taiwan, who at the time were still lulled in the belief that Chinese culture (or at least as it was preserved in Taiwan) was the best among all civilizations. While everyone acknowledged that the West was technologically superior, many felt that spiritually and culturally China still triumphed over the decadent West. No one disputed that Chinese society had severe problems. But prior to Bo Yang’s work, it was customary to blame these ills either on Westernization or a departure from China’s true values. Bo Yang turned the tables by arguing that the culture itself was the source of these ills. It is as earth-shattering as William Bennett coming out and identifying Judeo-Christian values as the source of much that is wrong with the West…

When Bo Yang’s work crossed the seas and entered the mainland, the effect was somewhat different. Mainland China had always blamed China’s evils on the “feudal” (whatever that term means) culture of ancient China, so in many ways Bo Yang’s criticism of Chinese culture resonated with what the communist government and mainland intellectuals believed at the time (this anti-tradition stance had reached its height in the 1919 May 4th Movement, and continued ever since on the mainland. In Taiwan, however, the ruling government returned to a staunchly pro-tradition, neo-conservative stance).

In an excerpt online, you can read:

Why must a Chinese person with the courage to speak even the thinnest slice of truth suffer this sort of fate? I’ve asked a number of people from the mainland why they ended up in prison. Their answer was, “I made a few true statements.” And that’s the way it is. But why does speaking the truth lead to such unfortunate consequences? My answer is that this is not a problem of any particular individual but rather of Chinese culture as a whole.

Just as Bo Yang is Taiwanese, there are other Chinese people around the world who talk as if there is something fundamentally wrong with China or Chinese people themselves. Doug Saunders received lots of congratulatory emails from overseas Chinese after he wrote an article some, though not Sauders himself, believed proved a conspiracy against China and interviewed one writer:

One typical e-mail came to me from a young man named Bin Wang, born to Chinese parents in a New England town, married to a white American woman, holding an advanced degree, well-travelled, fluent in English but not Chinese — that is, fairly typical of the pro-China movement. I know this because I actually phoned him to see if he was real and not a product of a back office in Beijing…

“Being Chinese,” he replied, “is not something easily forgotten when you move to a new land. Perhaps we don’t assimilate as well as others. But Chinese Americans are much more Chinese than Irish Americans are Irish. For them, it’s neat to discover their past. For us, it is very much a part of who we are. And the CCP is responsible for bringing pride back into being who we are. And that is why Western Chinese still consider themselves very much Chinese and would use the term ‘we’ to connect ourselves to China.”

But, I asked, isn’t this giving in to a paternalistic myth? His view of the Beijing’s regime as a kindly house builder portrays the Chinese as too weak to be trusted with the candy bowls and matchbooks of civil society without the helping hand of a strongman party.

To my surprise, he agreed with me, and turned this argument on its head, describing “paternalism” as exactly what the Chinese in his circle wanted and needed: Yes, he said, we need a paternal force ruling Beijing. For, without it, this ethnic nationalism will become more profound, more loud, more dangerous, and it will become a deadly menace.

There it is again; agreement with the idea that to be Chinese is to experience shame on behalf of your entire people and culture, a sense of weakness, that pride was lost and now needs to be returned. The second part I’ve highlighted is also quite critical of Chinese people, since it implies that Chinese people cannot control their own anger but instead need a strongman to do it.

Taiwan is proving to be an interesting example in all of this, as Bo Yang’s work was meant to counter excessive pride, and meanwhile the recent election of Ma Ying Jeou has been described as a blow to the stereotype that Chinese people “can’t handle real democracy”, a trope that does have some adherents.

There is a long-standing argument that the Chinese - who have lived through thousands of years of autarchy - are not fitted for and would find it impossible to create democracy. They cite places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau which don’t enjoy real democracy. However, Taiwan’s historic performance in these few days has contradicted such a theory, indicating that Chinese people are great - we have not only created a splendid civilisation in history and resurrected ourselves even after western exploitation, but also self-questioned and refreshed ourselves so as to step onto a main avenue of human civilisation. As Taiwanese have fulfilled all of this, then theoretically, mainlanders too will have no problem to be able to do so as well.”

These are just some of thousands of ideas that float around in the Chinese world of ideas. By no means is it monolithic. Rather, there are enormous debates again and again around these concepts. But the doubts, the anxieties, the pressure and the stress are real. And so when a foreign voice comes in, adding a new litany of complaints and pointing out flaws, it can sometimes be the straw that breaks the camels back. You can almost hear “I get enough of this s**t at home, don’t you start!” in the chants of protesters outside Carrefour. And as commenter Munir Ming points out, again at Time’s China Blog, pointing out China’s problems at this particular time is doubly bad, if not counterproductive. And to my Chinese friends, all I can say is, chill out. You’ve accomplished alot. Be proud of that, and cut yourselves some slack whether others give it to you or not.

blog comments powered by Disqus