China’s ‘century of humiliation’ and the Olympics

You can not hope to understand the 2008 Olympics without considering what is often called China’s “victim mentality”:

“”The question of Western humiliation is always unconsciously inside us,” filmmaker Chen Shi-Zheng—whose recent film, “Dark Matter,” explores this theme—told me. “There is something almost in our DNA that triggers autonomic, and sometimes extreme, responses to foreign criticism or put-downs.” Or as Lu Xun, China’s most famous essayist and social critic, lamented almost 75 years ago, “Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners. We either look up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.””

This same theme by Orville Schell in two different essays:
China’s Agony of Defeat (Newsweek)
China: Humiliation & the Olympics (NY Review of Books)

Why Mainlanders are taking it personally, racially, and facially – the short answer

If you have friends who are Mainlanders or you’ve been watching the news, then you’ve probably noticed that a lot of Mainland individuals are having remarkably strong emotional reactions to the less-than-glorious reception that people in some nations gave to the Olympic T0rch relay. Accusations of racism are among the milder responses.

(NOTE: This is about culture – specifically how certain aspects of Mainland culture and history affect Mainlanders’ relationships to non-Chinese – not politics. If you want to discuss politics or current events, go elsewhere. If you want to discuss the cultural factors highlighted by recent events, then welcome!)

It’s only a small minority writing death threats or comparing misquoted Western media personalities to Nazis or forcing the parents of “race-traitors” (汉奸 – specifically a traitor to the Hàn race) into hiding like some sort of sick re-run of the 1970s. (But what else is the internet for, anyway?) We don’t personally know anyone doing this kind of stuff. But individual Mainlanders here and around the world, including our friends and teachers, are taking it as a personal, racial insult that a few thousand foreigners dared sully the Olympic T0rch relay with public criticisms of particular government policies. Mainlanders living North America have expressed how they now feel unwelcome; as if Canadians don’t want them, and maybe they should just go back and serve their motherland. Obviously, these protesters have pushed a large, sensitive cultural button.

This doesn’t make sense to a lot of Westerners. North Americans, and I’m assuming Western Europeans as well, generally draw a sharp distinction between our government’s actions and ourselves as individuals. We don’t necessarily take it personally that someone might not like a particular policy of the our nation’s government. We routinely publicly criticize each other’s government policies whenever we’re not already busy publicly protesting our own government’s policies. Sure, people might get worked up, but the idea of it being racist doesn’t even enter our minds. When our governments get publicly embarrassed it’s more entertaining than anything else.

Not so for Mainlanders. That crucial distinction doesn’t exist. But why is it so personal? And why so extreme? Why is the CNN office in Beijing requesting all it’s non-essential personnel to stay away due to threats of violence? It makes us want to say, “Hey, welcome to the world, now stop being so touchy. If you can’t handle criticism, then you can’t play in the big leagues.” What’s the deal?

There are reasons. And I think being aware of them goes a long way to helping Westerners learn to better understand and communicate with Mainlanders. Of course there’s tons more to say, but here are three of the biggies, as far as I can tell anyway.

The Short Answer: Wounded Nationalized Face
The short answer explaining Mainlanders’ reactions to recent events has three parts that go together.

1. Culture
First, China is a ‘face’-oriented culture. You can think of ‘face’ as “one’s degree of standing (and amount of power) in the social hierarchy” (too simplistic, but good enough for now). The way that ‘face’ expectations work in Chinese culture – the nature of ‘face’ culture – leaves them unable to ‘handle’ certain kinds of public criticism; their only recourse is to fly into a rage and demand that ‘face’ be returned to them. What’s happening now internationally with Mainlanders’ reactions to the less-than-perfectly-glorious torch relay is a national-scale version of what happens on the sidewalk somewhere in China every day: someone feels they weren’t given the ‘face’ owed them and a public shouting match/fistfight ensues. We saw one on our first day in Tianjin, on the way in from the airport.

There are Chinese scholars who argue that the current state of Chinese ‘face’ culture is a major hindrance to Chinese individuals’ personal happiness, and to China’s constructive participation as a nation in the global community. Mainlanders’ current reactions to public criticism from outsiders is a perfect example.

2. Identity
Second, individual Mainlanders feel criticism of their government as criticism of themselves as a people, a race, a culture, a nation. Their individual, racial, cultural, and political identities are emotionally fused; individual identity is nationalized. The national identity/face has a closer relationship and bigger impact on Mainlanders’ individual self-conceptions than national identity, honour, and pride do for Westerners – even Americans and the French.

This is part of a Confucian cultural framework, and it’s thousands of years old. And although Confucius himself has fallen in and out of favour many times over the last several decades, this particular deeply-seeded cultural aspect is quite useful when those in charge need to rally the people around the flag, and it’s been deliberately cultivated over the last several decades.

3. History
Third – and foreigners have to be aware of this if they want to have any hope of understanding China – Mainlanders are still pained by the humiliating wounds inflicted by Western powers in the 19th century. When foreign powers took economic advantage of China by force, it was a devastating blow to national face. China is in the long process of regaining the ‘face’ lost in those historical episodes, but they have a long way to go and success is still uncertain. Mainlanders as a nation are desperate to prove to themselves and the world that they’re a great, superior nation/race/civilization, but they know they haven’t arrived yet, and are therefore still insecure about it. But the Mainland is absolutely determined to never take crap from Western powers ever again.

So when foreigners publicly and rudely tell China’s rulers how they should conduct their national affairs, these foreigners are pushing the “Remember the Opium Wars! The Century of Humiliation! The Unequal Treaties! Remember what THEY did to US! NEVER AGAIN!”-button. That’s a very sensitive and powerful button. It operates on face-principles, and the individual ‘faces’ of a billion-plus Chinese are directly connected to it.

If we take these three factors and put them together backward, we have a wounded, nationalized face . And that’s a big part of why individual Mainlanders are so touchy right now.

P.S. – This is the short answer. Of course the short definitions I’ve given above are inadequate, and there are thoughtful dissenting Chinese voices out there, and there is so much more to say. I have thousands and thousands of words in drafted posts on these topics of face and foreigners and nationalism, but it’s such a complicated situation that I don’t know when they’ll see the light of day. We’ll see.

(Remember: this is about culture, not politics. If you want to talk politics, don’t do it here.)

January’s propaganda: museum style (Tianjin Museum)

TianjinIncident.JPGYesterday we went to the spectacularly named Tianjin Museum (天津博物馆). It was built in 2004 to commemorate Tianjin’s 600th birthday, and focuses on Tianjin’s role in China’s modern history (from the first Opium War against the foreign imperialist aggressors in 1840 to Liberation in 1949).

The museum is well done, all bilingual and with the best (though not perfect) English I’ve seen so far in China. Two especially eye-catching displays are worth mentioning, because they give us a glimpse of the roles foreigners play in China’s historical narrative, and the prescribed view of the current general situation.

You may be wondering about the burning cross pictured above. The museum has a huge mural portraying Tianjin from 1840-1949, and this is a detail depicting the “Tianjin Incident,” which is called the “Tianjin Massacre” in the West. Rumours had apparently spread that the nuns, running an orphanage for sick and abandoned children, were actually eating the children. I suppose it’s not so crazy: strange people in strange clothes take great interest in children no one cares about, the children occasionally die in their care, lose the Eucharist somewhere in translation, and plop the whole situation in the middle of an intense historical context where anti-foreign sentiment is already running high. The situation was just waiting for a spark. Anyway, one thing led to another and the cathedral (pictured top centre), which we’ve seen in real life, was burned in 1870 by rioting locals. Over 20 nuns and priests, and almost double the number of local converts, were murdered. But the price of Western blood was high and France extracted heavy reparations, which, as you can see, China has not forgotten.

Western powers instigated the First Opium War (1839-42), which consequently forced southern China wide open to the mercy of Western economic interests (that’s how the British got Hong Kong). The Second Opium War (1856-60) was the same story in the north, and was fought on Tianjin’s doorstep.


The people of every nation spin their history, and China is no different, though they seem to spin their’s with a certain unapologetic flair we don’t often get in the West.

Here’s the Preface, verbatim, posted at the entrance to the exhibit:

Centermural.JPGThe past hundred years after the Opium War, the Chinese nation had undergone the semi-feudal and semi-colonial miserable experience. During this period, Tianjin historically became the forefront where Chinese and Western civilizations collided with each other. In the life-and-death struggle for the defense of the Chinese nation, Tianjin more than once became the main battlefield in the resistance against foreign invasion. Faced with the challenges of “free trade,” Tianjin blazed a trail to Chinese modernization the hard way, became the center of disseminating industrial civilization in North China, and began the historical journey proceeding from inland rivers to seas and oceans, and from the domestic ferry terminals to the integration with the world system.

The struggle and rise of Tianjin in modern times constituted the theme of the recent development and vicissitudes in China mirrored the two big problems China ran up against in modern times: national contradictions between China and foreign countries and the crisis arising from development at home, and epitomized the brilliant road the Chinese people took in modern times in safeguarding independence, pursuing freedom and greeting liberation.


dagufortsmall.jpgTianjin was founded 600 years ago, serving as the customs and trade port for Beijing. The Dagu forts, pictured immediately above, below, and right, were where foreign armies crushed the Chinese defenses and worked their way upriver to Tianjin, and eventually Beijing. The photo on the right shows the what was left of one of the Dagu forts after Allied Forces overran it during the Second Opium War. All the material I’ve seen so far on the Opium Wars includes this photo.


From a display panel:

Dagu1.JPGIn June 1840, in the flames and smoke of gunpowder of the Opium War, China was plunged into the abyss of semi-feudal and semi-colonial disasters in history. As a sea gateway to the capital, Tianjin became the first choice of Western powers for political blackmail and military attack against China, and therefore inevitably became the more forefront of resistance of the Chinese people against foreign invaders in modern history. The three heroic and stirring battles at Dagukou, the world-shocking Tianjin Incident, and the Boxer Uprising in 1900 which inflicted heavy blows on the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers, the battle for the defense of Laoxikai — all these showed to the world the spirit of the people of Tianjin to fight the aggressors to the last drop of thir blood.

LiberatedFuture.JPGAs you step out of a darker, grey, drab room of foreign occupation into a brighter, red room of military victory and patriotism, you approach the museum’s final display. You find yourself standing before a huge open doorway. On the other side you can look out over railing, before which stands a microphone just like the one Mao used to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 from atop the Gate of Heavenly peace (one local with us knew all the words by heart). But instead of seeing Tiananmen Square like you would expect, a red-toned Chinese landscape reaches into the distance over Great Wall-capped mountain ridges. I think they’re trying to make a point.

What do the Olympics mean to “their China”?

This is the nation where there are already thousands of infants named after the Olympics. Why does hosting the Olympics mean so much to Mainlanders? Two keys to unlocking the answers are reflected in this rather cool Olympic-themed ad (1 min.):

When it comes to understanding what hosting the 2008 Olympics means to Mainlanders, (1) nationalized “face,” and (2) Mainlanders’ thick, bright dividing line between “them” from “us” are two crucial pieces of a still bigger puzzle. This post is just my guesses/hunches/wonderings about nationalized “face” right now in China. Soon I’ll post some experiences, half-baked current understanding, and maybe a little venting about the Mainland’s “them” vs. “us” mentality.

Regaining Face at the National/Cultural/Racial Level
That video could have shown equality-enjoying multi-cultural masses working in harmony to help athletes achieve new heights – you know, Olympic ideals and all that. But it doesn’t, because for Mainlanders the Olympics aren’t so much about that. It’s more about Mainlanders as a national/cultural/racial entity getting face. The one possible role left open to us non-Chinese is that of competitors to be rallied against, foils against which bigger face can be realized. I guarantee you the 2010 Vancouver games (which have their own cultural identity issues) will not be showing an all-white version of this video. This kind of “face” makes no sense in Canadian culture, and it’s a cultural sin to publicly strengthen racial and cultural divisions like that.

Maybe you think that’s a little harsh, a little over-interpreted. I don’t think it is. Maybe it’s just my culture stress talking. Or maybe I’m just stating the obvious: that at a very deep level, hosting the Olympics is a huge step toward China recovering the “face” lost to the West at a national/cultural/racial level during the modern era, and that since recovering this face requires a demonstrated superiority over the West, it necessitates the strengthening of an already-thick dividing line between “insiders” (Mainlanders) and “outsiders” (foreigners). For the Mainland, non-Chinese are the national/cultural/racial identity-galvanizing Other.

Nationalized “Face” is Crucial and Powerful
It might be hard to accept that something as ambiguous and foreign as “face” could be this important. If the West has never really needed it and it’s so hard to explain, does it really matter? Yes. I’m not making (most of) this up. Why is China putting men in space and hosting Olympic games when millions live in poverty and the environment is hemorrhaging? From 林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng)’s My Country, My People:

Abstract and intangible, [face] is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.
Face cannot be translated or defined. It is like honor and is not honor. It cannot be purchased with money, and gives a man or woman a material pride. It is hollow and is what men fight for and many women die for. It is invisible and yet by definition exists by being shown to the public. It exists in the ether and yet can be heard, and sounds eminently respectable and solid. It is amenable, not to reason but to social convention. It protracts lawsuits, breaks up family fortunes, causes murders and suicides, and yet it often makes a man out of a renegade who has been insulted by his fellow townsmen, and it is prized above all earthly possessions. It is more powerful than fate or favor, and more respected than the constitution. It often decides a military victory or defeat, and can demolish a whole government ministry. It is that hollow thing which men in China live by. (195-196)

There is a fascinating, first-person account of China’s last 30 years of change here, which gives us glimpses of the intersection between the Olympics, nationalized face, and today’s China:

… he insisted, saying he just wanted to be there—”one of only a few million Chinese to see the moment.” He was eager for China to get back the land taken from the spineless Manchu dynasty more than half a century before Mao took power. “As a kid, I had the history of the Opium Wars drummed into me,” he said. “It was the biggest humiliation in history. We hated the British for that.” And for what came after. He recalled seeing burly cops—turbaned Sikhs from British India—beating Chinese beggars and prostitutes in Shanghai’s International Concession in the 1930s.

Papa came to Hong Kong to watch the handover ceremonies in the company of old friends. I remember Prince Charles delivering a stiff-lipped farewell speech while a summer downpour dripped from his cheeks and chin. One flaglowering event featured a team of three motley Brits, mismatched in height and gait, and each in a different outfit. One wore a kilt. They made a sad contrast to China’s towering honor guards, perfectly synchronized in their movements and wearing impeccably tailored uniforms. A PLA soldier unfurled a gigantic Chinese national flag with a single fluid motion and a snap so loud and clear you could practically feel it. A burst of pride and vindication swept through millions of Chinese—my father included.

How powerful and crucial is nationalized face? It’s the key to public confidence:

China’s leaders needed the Games the same way they needed Hong Kong. They had to keep earning the public’s confidence—what used to be called the Mandate of Heaven—with ever bigger and better achievements: joining the World Trade Organization, putting their own man in space, building the world’s biggest dam, the highest railway, even the tallest Ferris wheel. At some level all Chinese are driven by the dream of reclaiming their ancient imperial glory.

“Our China” and “Your America”
Mainlanders generally perceive a greater relationship between the status of the nation and its people than Westerners typically do. (This becomes rather ironic if we contrast the role played by the American people with that of the Mainland Chinese public in each nation’s respective political system.) “Our China” and “Your America” are standard ways of talking about countries here; personal and national identities are more intertwined. You can see Mainlanders use these phrases in some of the comments under the article quoted above.

We don’t care much about “face” in the West, not as much or in the same way as Mainland Chinese do, and over here it’s bred on a national level. Mainlanders are highly motivated (and able-to-be-motivated) to regain the national face they lost to the West in the modern era. The national disgrace of the Opium Wars in the mid-1800’s and the perceived continued belligerence of the USA burns hotter and closer to the surface of public consciousness than any of the more recent self-inflicted tragedies from the last half of the 20th century.

And unlike North America’s nations of immigrants, or increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse Western Europe, the line between “insider” (Mainland Chinese people and national interests) and “outsider” (foreigners, foreign nations and interests) is much clearer and thicker. The more powerful China becomes – the more “face” China perceives itself to have – the more the West will need to understand it.