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.
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.
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.
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.)