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.)

9 thoughts on “Why Mainlanders are taking it personally, racially, and facially – the short answer”

  1. I think you are missing a lot out of this discussion by not including politics. [snip]
    It is probably more appropriate to say that individual, political, cultural and racial identities are conflated, not simply fused. It is hard to separate them for many Mainlanders, which makes it hard for many Westerners who can tell the difference between them to understand the Chinese perspective, as you said.
    But the issue then becomes: Who were the ones who conflated these identities? [snip]
    The same can be said for your third point, who keeps reminding mainland Chinese that they are “still pained” by colonialism and imperialism?
    So we need to think: Who is doing it, why are they doing it and what functions does this have?
    In the end we are seeing the direct consequences of this politically motivated construction and conflation of identity in the reaction my Mainlanders to non-“100% pro Olympic” sentiment expressed around the world, they type of reaction typical to many global events such as this. It’s hard to separate politics and culture!

  2. Hi Jesse, thanks for dropping in.

    “Conflated” may be better than “fused,” though I like using fused to describe this dynamic. I actually lifted it from our pre-marital counseling/psychological profiling days (also called “enmeshed”), where it means something like a dysfunctional relationship between various parties in which their individual identities are too emotionally and psychologically dependent on one another so that they can’t be properly differentiated. Change in one person therefore threatens the very identity of the other, causing them to react badly, etc., etc. Sorry, I’ve been out of the lectures too long to remember a nice tight definition for that.

    I agree that the political dimension to this puzzle is a huge one, and we can’t leave it out if we hope to have a well-rounded understanding of what’s happening. But I deliberately left it mostly out for a couple reasons:

    • I generally avoid political discussion here as it’s outside the scope of this blog. This is about as political as I get on here: January’s propaganda: museum style and The Tianjin “Incident.”
    • My interests are in culture generally, but specifically as it relates to identity, relationship, communication, and ‘worldview’ (for lack of a better term). Politics matter, but they’re not among my primary culture-related interests.
    • It seems to me an obvious given that these cultural factors are deliberately and in many cases unavoidably influenced by politics.
    • It might be useless to start a chicken-or-the-egg discussion, or futile to try and conceive of one factor (like face) in isolation from the others (like politics) but at the end of the day I’d argue that factors like face are ultimately more profound than government policies. Such factors are the environment and conduits through which politics is thought about and experienced.

    Sorry about the edits to your comment; I certainly sympathize. In response to your questions about who, why, and how does it function (worthwhile questions!): I alluded to this in the 2nd paragraph under #2.

  3. I know you only want to discuss about culture here – but the point is: this is not a cultural difference.

    Ppl of country that have painful history, e.g. invasion and occupation by foreign powers, all have conscious national or racial identity. You only think of Canada and Americans, but did you think of Israelis, Pakistani, Irish,Poland?

    Imagine that Americans were only freed from the GB fifty years ago, whould Americans have clear national identity?

    Chinese do feel strong that their individual destinies are closely tied to their national destiny. The country suffered, their ancestors suffered. Our individual identity, put in an international context, is reflected in national identity.

    This is universal. Those ppl who do not feel a strong national identity is because they never experience the same historical pain.

    Further, Chinese distinguish national identity and government. If only our government is criticized, we won’t be pissed off. Only when we feel that our nation is harmed, not our government, that hurts.

    Take the relay as an example, the “Chinese government” is accused of occupation of T!bet and torture of T!betan. But that is not an accusation to the government. It is a harm to the integrity of Chinese territory and a lie. That harms our national identity, not our government. Got it?

    After all, I don’t feel this is cultural difference.

  4. Another example about criticism of government: If you criticized about the corruption of the PRC government, or specific policy of the PRC government, that’s quite okay (although you should not make a chinese feel that this criticism indicates feeling of superiority).

    Because the national identity is so strong that we push that national identity too far, you may feel that we do not distinguish the nation and the government, but actually we do. :)

  5. Thanks for your comments, Zijie. It’s helpful to hear Chinese views expressed well in English.

    Of course, I agree that Mainlanders can distinguish between themselves and their gov; they complain about their gov all the time! ;) But I think Mainlanders understand the relationship between themselves, their gov, and their country much differently than American, Brits, or Canadians do. And I think that has a lot to do with deeper cultural differences. Cultural differences naturally have a lot to do with history; history shapes culture, and culture shapes how people experience and understand their history.

    You wrote:

    If only our government is criticized, we won’t be pissed off. Only when we feel that our nation is harmed, not our government, that hurts.

    A typical Western response might be, “Then why do Mainlanders feel that their ‘nation is harmed’ just because we criticized one of their gov’s policies?”

    About your example from the relay, you say that that criticism harms your national identity. But most of the people who make that criticism (about T!bet) naturally distinguish in their own minds between the Chinese people and the gov. They only intend to criticize the gov’s policies, and can’t understand why the Chinese people take it personally. They might think something like: “If Mainlanders are confusing our criticism of the gov with criticism of the Chinese people, then Mainlanders’ national identity has a problem.”

    It’s very normal for Western nations to give and receive public criticism about one another’s government policies. And they don’t feel personally, racially, or nationally offended, even when they strongly disagree with the criticism. That’s a big reason why people were surprised that Mainlanders were so offended about the relay, and why the anger looked and sounded so ridiculous in the eyes of many foreigners.

  6. Joel, I think we can analyze the relay case a step further.

    On one side, some foreigners hear or say “some T!betans were arrested without trials” “they were beaten up by police and some were shot”. I don’t think Chinese would get angry about that, because (1) it is a description of fact which is either right or wrong, which we who did not experience can not tell. We don’t comment. (2) if it is true, the government’ve done it wrong. it should be criticized.

    But note, that’s not all.

    In addition to the above, we hear “China occupies and invaded T!bet”, we see CNN made fake pictures about Chinese police beating T!betans, we hear many pro-T!betan organizations are actually funded by FBI, we were furious. You see, all these were not about government, it is a reflection of the Western attitude and Western understanding towards/about China.

    I take para #1 as “criticism about gov”, and para #2 as “criticism about the nation”. I don’t know whether, you, because of our cultural difference, would categorize it otherwise.

    Maybe you/your friends only hold the opinion in para #1, so you feel very strange why Chinese take it personally or racially, but because we feel generally #1+#2, (specifically one tends to kind of magify what hurts them most), we took it racially (too sad) when pro-T!betan groups attacked the torch relay (Let’s admit that the general viewpoint from the West about China (not gov) is neither “China is mysterious” or negative.)

    Only when no one in the world will think of “China Threat”, we can be clearly cool-headed. Unfortunately, we still hear a lot of “China Threat”, which make us very easy to take most criticisms racially or personally. So I feel the general sentiment of the Chinese arises from this special era and special environment, it is not because of culture. (If you still don’t agree with me, Joel, I will admit that we have cultural difference!)

    Take Muslims as another example. When one see Muslims got arrested in US airport because “We won’t keep silent” on his shirt, when Muslims were regarded as “all terrorists” (I am magnifying the fact, but you will get nervous if you see a Muslim beside you in NY airport), we (actually most of the people in the world except for the West) easily think that the negative attitude is not against Laden only, but against Muslims generally, that the support of Israelis against Hamas is not because “Hamas is not a good government”, but because “America is pro-Israeli, against Muslims”. Americans may feel this strange, but we (not only Chinese, but most from Non-West) feel it natural.

    Another example, hope which is not offensive, is the US. Chinese didn’t feel any probelms with Americans at first, because we took some wrong deeds of American gov as “the gov’s problems”. But gradually we feel a little bit “the US (not the US gov) is a threat to the world” when we got a general image that “the US gov always have their national interest to serve”, we begin to feel difficult to distinguish whether it is a problem of the US gov, or the problem of the US/US ppl. The change of the attitude does not happen in one day, but it happens gradually (I don’t know whether this example is actually supporting my point or undermining my point) (Hope Obama will do better – I apologize if I am raising a political point)

    I know we have many cultural differences, but hope this is not as big a gap as you have put it.

  7. Many times I feel desperate, sad and disappointed when discussing about cultural differences between West and East with foreigners, because by discussing about that we admit that there is difference that is in our culture which is therefore unchangeable. So you are brave. You are brave to raise the difference and deal with it. I am not as brave as you are. I usually just don’t discuss about or deal with the difference, as I feel it so strong.

  8. I wouldn’t say “brave,” but maybe “hopeful.”

    Our cultural differences — they ways we live, feel and think that are different — are bigger and deeper than most people realize, in my opinion. I don’t like it when Americans subconsciously assume that Chinese basically thing and feel like Americans, and I don’t like it when Chinese people assume that Americans think and feel like they do. You can see both these situations all the time in the assumptions that people from different cultures make about one another. For example, Americans thinking that Iraqis want “freedom” (as defined by Americans), or Chinese people thinking that Americans are looking down on the as a civilization and not giving them face (sensitized to hierarchy in relationship and face concerns, but Americans don’t think in those terms).

    However, I also believe that the things we have in common are deeper and more profound than our differences. So maybe that’s what makes we willing to try and uncover and understand our differences… I think that ultimately what we have in common is more powerful.

    One last point: you said culture is unchangeable. I disagree. Cultures are always changing; they are in the process of change. Of course, some aspects change more easily or more quickly than others. But the idea that culture is unchangeable is simply not true from an intercultural studies standpoint. Also, it seems a fatalistic and a little depressing!

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