Judging China

I’ve tried several times to write about evaluating your host culture (or “passing judgment” on aspects of someone else’s culture). But it’s hard to do that and feel fair about it. But evaluating or judging the culture around you is also impossible to avoid. Everyone makes judgment calls about their own culture and other cultures whether they realize it or not, especially if they’re living in another culture. Because China and the West are so very different in many important ways, it’s easy for people from either place to find fault with the other. Westerners in China, if/when they are so inclined, can easily make a long list of cultural aspects that they consider at least inferior and at most downright wrong.

This is taken from a recent e-mail to Kelsey at Where Am I Wearing? He just returned from the China leg of an Asian garment factory tour, and we were talking about how sometimes it’s hard for Westerners to not pass negative judgments against aspects of Chinese culture:

I totally understand your feelings about Chinese culture/people. I try to be sensitive to the fact that I’m unavoidably going through the cycles of culture stress, and that I’m a baby when it comes to our understanding of what’s going over here. But, yeah, there is a lot of stuff here than my “don’t make ethnocentric judgments” education can’t stop me from condemning, at least personally. One of our latest posts gives an example. I could’ve got into a fight.

As is typical of cultural adjustment cycles, at first I had truck loads of sympathy/pity for the Chinese people, particularly after studying their modern history. But now some days it’s like, “So what if foreign nations abused you 200 years ago? You’ve been doing it to yourselves for thousands of years and you’re still doing it today!” Foreigners didn’t create China’s problems, they just participated in them and added to them for a relatively brief stint in China’s long history. I had a similar reaction in East Africa, though it was less harsh there; more like a redistribution of blame among the nationals and the European colonizers. I suppose it’s just useless to try and lump an entire nation into one group for things like this.

It’s hard for Westerners to judge/evaluate China fairly. I have no doubt that there are unbelievable amounts of abuse facilitated and perhaps even celebrated by Chinese culture (and that goes for every culture, including our own). However, many of China’s cultural values are directly opposite of ours (generalized examples: ‘harmony’ and order are preferred over ‘freedom’ and chaos; laws (rule of law) are too impersonal and can’t adequately show compassion appropriate to individual situations). It’s very easy for Westerners to negatively judge Chinese culture, but often what we’re doing is simply condemning them for not being Americans… or even for not being ideal Americans, when they aren’t necessarily even trying to be Americans! If I condemn an aspect of their culture, I want it to be because the actual real nature of the thing I’m condemning is bad, not because it’s not Western enough.

Achieving an understanding that is informed enough and objective enough (of course not totally objective) to deliver evaluations that I’m willing to own in public will take a long time. In the meantime, we sort through our reactions and feelings, our premature judgments and the judgments we hold on to anyway, and try to live here with both grace and authenticity.

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14 thoughts on “Judging China”

  1. “’So what if foreign nations abused you 200 years ago? You’ve been doing it to yourselves for thousands of years and you’re still doing it today!’ Foreigners didn’t create China’s problems, they just participated in them and added to them for a relatively brief stint in China’s long history.”

    Lu Xun writes in one of his works: “It is fine for one to slap himself, but he will be furious but if someone else slaps you”. If someone kills himself, that’s suicide, if someone is killed by someone else, that’s called murder. That’s the difference.

  2. Keep in mind that my comments that you’ve quoted and the feelings that go with them are part of the culture stress cycle — when the person living in a foreign culture (in this case, China) is having a negative reaction to that culture. We don’t walk around everyday feeling strongly about who should get how much blame for China’s current problems. Well-adjusted foreigners can disagree about China’s modern history without getting all riled up about it.

    The Lu Xun quote is intersting for a number of reasons, the presence of a strong group identity, for example. One thing that seems suspicious to me (and many other foreigners, I assume) is how, in Mainland China, people talk like the Opium Wars are more relevant to today than the devasting policies of the last 50-60 years. It’s like the Opium Wars happened in the 20th century and the horrible blunders of the 50’s-70’s in the 19th century, or that the devasting policies of the 1950-70’s weren’t all that big a deal. Do you get what I’m trying to describe (I’m not describing it very well)?

    Is it because Chinese would understand the 20th century problems to which I’ve alluded to be self-inflicted (referring back to your Lu Xun quote)? Although those things were done to the Chinese people by a specific organization, which in theory could be blamed for greatly hurting the Chinese people even more than the foreigners did two centuries ago, the Chinese people’s identity and feelings have been sufficiently shaped to think of it as doing it to themselves? Or they see the 19th century injuries at the hands of foreigners to be much greater than the injuries received by their own authorities, so to them the problems of the 1950-70’s are less relevant?

    (Of course I realize there is a wide variety of opinion in about these things among Chinese. I don’t mean to make it sound like all Chinese think the same! Also, please be careful if you respond; I don’t want to risk getting blocked, and anyway, I’m more interested in the way Chinese people think and feel, not debating politics.)

  3. “One thing that seems suspicious to me (and many other foreigners, I assume) is how, in Mainland China, people talk like the Opium Wars are more relevant to today than the devasting policies of the last 50-60 years. It’s like the Opium Wars happened in the 20th century and the horrible blunders of the 50’s-70’s in the 19th century, or that the devasting policies of the 1950-70’s weren’t all that big a deal.”

    This is a good question (I noted your same point in the Tianjin Museum post). Here are my thoughts:

    1. Chinese fighted in the Opium Wars against foreign invaders, but Chinese themselves participated in/inflicted the C** Revolution on themselves. While we all understand that someone was the first to be blamed for the C** Revolution, but he was not the only one to blame (foreigners usually don’t understand that). Fanaticism was in everyone’s mind. It is easy to blame others, but painful to do self-examination. The participants are still alive (e.g. my parents’ generation). They don’t want to peel the scars to see their own blood. You need to think/look from the perspective of a participant when you come to c** revolution. It is not that they think the 60’s is not a big deal, it is just too painful for them to look back. We try to simply set aside it (the best would be: we totally forget it!). My parents avoid talking about what they did at that time. I can feel they are ashamed and painful. They have the courage to show themselves as victims but they don’t want to display themselves as foolish ppl in the museum – maybe after they die. If your dear one breaks up with you, you will try most to forget her. (Hopefully that’s not a cultural difference, again.)

    2. Foreigners tend to look at the history of 50’s-70’s isolated from the post-Opium Wars/Sino Japanese war period. they don’t understand the historical legitimacy of the party(because by nature the West just feel very uncomfortable about comm****?) and why the history finally came to the point. Every people has its ups and downs and good management and mismanagement. Chinese tend to take the past 200 years as a whole to look at why we were so foolish to mismanage ourselves and why we isolated ourselves. On the other hand, the Opium Wars look to us more like an accident that should not have happened.

    3. To uderstand the different mentality of a suicide and a murderee is the key. A suicide is clear why he commited suicide (at least he thinks he is), e.g. he is too sad, he feels others don’t like him, he is crazy, he thinks he can do nothing else good except for suicide, he feels he has to kill himself to get a new life, etc. He may not hate himself to be a suicide.But a murderee is furious to the murderer, because he thinks of himself as such a good man and there is no reason why the latter kills him. He thinks that the murderer must be a very bad man. He thinks it is none of his faults to be killed. Does that make some sense?

    I don’t know how much of the above makes universal sense or again just belong to the Chinese culture.

  4. Is it because Chinese would understand the 20th century problems to which I’ve alluded to be self-inflicted (referring back to your Lu Xun quote)? (YES)

    Although those things were done to the Chinese people by a specific organization (THIS IS THE USUAL FOREIGN MISUNDERSTANDING. NOT SPECIFIC ORGANIZATION, IT IS: MOST COMMON CHINESE. THAT’S WHY C*** REVOLUTION IS A SUICIDE RATHER THAN A MURDER. )

    , which in theory could be blamed for greatly hurting the Chinese people even more than the foreigners did two centuries ago, the Chinese people’s identity and feelings have been sufficiently shaped to think of it as doing it to themselves? (YES)

    Or they see the 19th century injuries at the hands of foreigners to be much greater than the injuries received by their own authorities, so to them the problems of the 1950-70’s are less relevant? (NO)

  5. Li Zijie –

    I may just be biased by my own culture, but your comments about who killed who – making it suicide/murder, and Lu Xun’s comment “It is fine for one to slap himself, but he will be furious but if someone else slaps you.” – both seem to come down to:
    Killing Chinese people is OK, as long as it is Chinese people doing the killing.

    In the millions of deaths that happened in the 60’s, it was not people killing themselves, it was individual humans killing other individual humans – they just all happened to be living in a nation called China.

    To me, such killing is wrong, it doesn’t matter what nationality they are.

    You seem to be saying:
    X number of people were killed by foreigners, and
    Y number of people were killed by Chinese – so we won’t care about Y, (because it’s OK for people living in China to kill other people living in China) but X we can never forgive!

    You see why this is confusing to foreigners?

    This thinking places the group, (China) so far over the individual that the group (China) can kill part of itself (some of the people) and not think it’s a big deal.

    This is so far beyond the thinking of most Westerners that they cannot even partially agree with the idea.

  6. James, I don’t see you are seeing any of my points, I am afraid… I cannot come up with something better now.

    Simply, I just did not see why you can come up with the conclusion from my explanation “Y number of people were killed by Chinese – so we won’t care about Y, (because it’s OK for people living in China to kill other people living in China) but X we can never forgive!” and “the group (China) can kill part of itself (some of the people) and not think it’s a big deal”.

    And neither I objected to “such killing is wrong, it doesn’t matter what nationality they are.” I did not propose the opposite in my comments.

    I think you just need to think from the perspective of a Chinese to understand Chinese. :)

  7. Li Zijie,

    Thanks for taking the time to explain these things for us. It’s interesting and helpful. Sorry I took so long to reply, but we were traveling and I just got back in town this week. I’ll respond to your numbered points below.

    1. I agree about the CR being a self-inflicted thing — the people did it to one another. That’s mostly how I think about it, though I’d say the leadership still bears much of the responsibility. I guess I’d place most of the blame for other things like the Great Leap Forward, or devastating instances of corruption, at various levels of the leadership.

    2. Foreigners, including myself, were surprised to find that the average Mainlander still looks up to Mao, and our friends and Chinese teachers were surprised to discover that Westerners often put Mao in the same category as Hitler and Stalin. But I remember a Chinese history lecture where the guy presented Liberation from a Mainland Chinese perspective, in the context of the post-Opium Wars/Japanese invasion period. Suddenly the feelings of our Chinese teachers and friends made much more sense to me. I still don’t agree with some of the way they interpret the history, and it still looks to me like they are being manipulated, but the big difference was that I could at least begin to understand how they could feel the ways that they do about Mao and the current leadership.

  8. Joel, I can understand your both points and agree.

    I think the reason why foreigners and Chinese take different views to Chinese history and leadership is that foreigners are reading the Chinese history written by foreigners and Chinese reading the Chinese history written by themselves.

  9. I agree that reading different interpetations of history is one big reason why people have different feelings and ideas about the Mainland’s leadership. Of course, there are more than just two versions (Chinese and foreign) of China’s modern history. Even among Chinese people there are still different versions and interpretations.

    The Mainland’s official historical narrative, which de-emphasizes the second half of the 20th century, was written (and enforced) by the Leadership, not the People. Sure the Chinese people and the Chinese leadership are all Chinese, but in some important ways they are different, and to many Westerners that distinction is very important no matter what the country.

    But speaking of China’s official modern history, I thought the Olympics Opening Ceremony was interesting for the way it seemed to skip the 20th century. I’m curious about how Mainlanders interpret the meanings and messages in the Opening Ceremony, since it had so much to do with China’s history, identity and direction.

  10. Joel – regarding opening ceremony, it is just a big Hollywood show – don’t go too far. I personally don’t feel it impressive from a historical perspective, and I think most Chinese just enjoy it as a glorious show – we did not try to learn history from it. Further, don’t know what other good things China can report to the world except the thousand-years-old inventions and glory. Don’t know how one can put Mao on the show as we put the spacemen. The biggest reason of ignoring the second half 21st centry in the show is, in my personal view: the organizer doesn’t want to put on something that would raise disputes, let’s put on something everyone would agree (ancient glory of China). And I kind of agree on that approach.

    Don’t worry too much about us. As the title of one book you mentioned: Can Asians think? It would just surprise me if any leadership in the world is found not ever manipulate histories/politics to the direction it wants. You need to trust that people can find out the truth – someway or the other. If not from the official version, there are still witness, there are brave ppl, there are, after all, many versions we see, as you say. So, don’t worry about us.

    What astonishes us after we are finally open to different versions is actually: foreign leadership from democratic world manipulates as well as (if not better than) our leadership does. as we say in Chinese: 天下乌鸦一般黑 (All crows are black!)

    Admire that you have the interest to read Chinese history!

  11. So I realize that I’ve posted way too much today, but this is interesting and at the heart of an eternal conflict.

    First, Li ZiJie, I completely agree with you about the CR and why it’s painful for people to go back and talk about it. Joel, certainly, there are a lot of leadership to blame, but it’s all very very complicated. If there is anything close to a comparison, I would use the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution to illustrate the fanaticism then chaos then paranoia and fear that happened. But that probably doesn’t even come close in describing the complexity and often ironies. In fact, I think it’s easier for people to blame certain politicians because it’s easy to believe oneself to be mislead. Blindly pointing at leadership is to me, very hurtful, because I had close family members in upper-levels of leadership, and they were jailed and prosecuted by the very party they helped to form and by the people they ardently believed they were serving, much in a similar fashion to “dissidents” and counter-revolutionaries, and I think it’s very dangerous to blanket term any organization. Easy perhaps, since there is a lack of transparency, but dangerous and fallacious. Thus, I think it’s better that we don’t forget the CR, and instead bear the pain and scrutinize it, because it’s necessary. Because it’s probably even more important than making the Japanese peel back their scabs and scrutinize the wrongs they did in WWII. If that doesn’t get across to Chinese people how important it is, I don’t know what will.

    Secondly, I hope that you all will be more-open-minded to a well-intentioned party, especially at its inception. I don’t mean that the party was perfect, or that history hasn’t been rewritten for its benefit, or in fact that the party was well-intentioned at all. Just that I see you’re beginning to understand the complex and conflicting ways mainlanders see the party, but I don’t think you’re really open to it. Perhaps because of my personal connections, of my personally knowing the stories of the countless revolutionaries: students, soldiers, volunteers, who lived and died for a cause, however flawed, that they believed in, I have a personal obsession with this. You don’t have to ultimately change your mind, but please be open to the possibility that the party and its history may actually be different from the way you understand it, and not just that people’s interpretations are different.

    I don’t want to tell you how you should think about China, and what you should feel about Chinese leadership, but I just wanted to suggest that, if you’re interested in the issue, it might be wise to let go of certain long-held Western beliefs about it, because it contains as much bulls**t as Official Chinese ones.

    A lot of what has happened in recent reigns need to be examined in broader historical and cultural contexts, and with the goal of learning from our mistakes. What I fear is that I see a lot of current “reformists” uttering the same extremist, one-sided intolerance that their predecessor have and are still doing. How would this nation and this culture, and all these people we love and hold dear benefit from another round of ideological warfare?

    Anyway, I have some more detailed examples, but they may be too sensitive for this site, but I’s love to correspond via email with anyone who’s interested.

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