Where does China fit in the West’s global narrative?

Mainlanders often feel exasperated by constant Western criticism, as if no matter what China does and no matter how much China accomplishes, it’s never good enough in the eyes of Western nations. The poem “Chinese Grievances” (aka “What do you want from us?”) expresses this feeling well.

Every society, including Mainland China, has an over-arching public narrative through which the society describes itself and its place in the world. The author I’m quoting here describes and then critiques the global narrative shared by Western societies, that is, the Big Public Story that modern, liberal, democratic Western nations and peoples use to understand the world and the role of their nations in the world. Although the author isn’t writing with China in mind, I think it’s worthwhile to read the quote below and consider where and how China fits into the West’s understanding of the world. Discovering the roles that China is currently playing in the West’s “Big Public Story” helps explain why the West never seems happy with China.

The excerpt below comes from Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996), an award-winning book on forgiveness and reconciliation. The author, Dr. Miroslav Volf, is a Croatian writing here in reference to the 1990’s Balkan ethnic bloodshed. I’ve quoted from a section titled, “The Dubious Triumph of Inclusion”:

The desire to distance “Europe” — “the West” and “modernity” — from the practice of ethnic cleansing is, however, driven by more than just the simple displacement mechanism by which we locate evil and barbarity with others so as to ascribe goodness and civilization to ourselves. It has as much to do with certain aspects of our philosophy of history as with our moral perception of ourselves. What makes ethnic cleansing seem so “nonmodern” and “nonWestern” is that is it starkly at odds with the major public story we like to tell about the modern democratic West — a story of progressive “inclusion.” Here is a version of such a narrative of modern liberal democracies as described by Alan Wolfe:

Once upon a time, it is said, such societies were ruled by privileged elites. Governing circles were restricted to those of the correct gender, breeding, education, and social exclusiveness. All this changes as a result of those multiple forces usually identified by the term democracy. First the middle classes, then working men, then women, then racial minorities all won not only economic rights but political and social rights as well. (Wolfe 1992, 309)

To put it slightly differently, once “hierarchically segmented” societies gave way to what sociologists call “functionally differentiated” societies, inclusion became the general norm: every person must have access to all functions and therefore all persons must have equal access to education, to all available jobs, to political decision-making, and the like (see Luhmann 1977, 234ff). The history of modern democracies is about progressive and ever expanding inclusion, about “taking in rather than … keeping out” (Wolfe 1992, 309). By contrast, stories of ethnic cleansing are about the most brutal forms of exclusion, about driving out rather than taking in. Hence, they strike us and “nonmodern,” “nonEuropean,” nonWestern.”

But how adequate is the modern story of inclusion’s triumph? I pose this question as an insider who wants to help build and improve rather than as an outsider who wants to destroy and completely replace. To a person, such as myself, who experienced “all the blessings” of communist rule, the suggestion that there is no truth to the liberal narrative of inclusion and the claim that its consequences are mainly unfortunate sounds not only unpersuasive but dangerous. Similarly, most women and minorities would not want to give up the rights they now have; and most critics of liberal democracies would rather live in a democracy than in any of the available alternatives. The progress of “inclusion” is one important thing to celebrate about modernity.

Yet, though the narrative of inclusion is in an important sense true, like some magic mirror which gives the beholder’s image an instant face-lift, it was also crafted in part to “make us feel history has a purpose that in some way corresponds with a more positive understanding of human potential,” as Alan Wolfe rightly underlines (309). but how would the face look if the mirror were to lose its magic? How would the face look in a mirror that was not made by us in order to court out vanity? In the mirrors made in the sweatshops of “submodernity” (Moltmann 1995b) and held by the exploited and emaciated hand of “the other” a mean streak appears on the face of modernity, acquired through the protracted practice of evil. Those who are conveniently left out of the modern narrative of inclusion because they disturb the integrity of its “happy ending” plot demand a long and gruesome counter-narrative of exclusion.


Luhmann, Niklas. Funktion der Religion. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977.
Moltmann, Jurgen. Public Theology and the Future of the Modern World. Pittsburgh: ATS, 1995b.
Wolfe, Alan. “Democracy verses Sociology: Boundaries and Their Political Consequences.” In Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, edited by Michele Lamont and Marcel Fournier, 309-325. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

I see two roles that China currently plays in the West’s global narrative, and both of them make Western nations and peoples feel very uncomfortable. Within the confines of the Western Big Public Story, (1) China’s presence as an authoritarian state with a hierarchical society directly opposes the Western Story’s ‘happy ending.’ Obviously, this is a bad thing in the eyes of modern, liberal, democratic Western nations; it’s a direct contradiction of their core values. But, (2) the presence of millions of China’s poor, exploited workers making products for the West exposes a dark sub-plot in the Western Story (what Volf calls a “counter-narrative”). This exposes the West’s selfish hypocrisy and makes the West look bad in its own eyes. Either way, China’s presence messes up the happy story that the West wants to tell about itself.

Of course China has its own self-centered global narrative. China also has a Big Public Story, an over-arching narrative that Mainlanders use to understand the world and the place of China and the Chinese people in the world. Much of the conflict between China and the West happens because each culture is working out of a different Story. China interprets foreign nation’s and foreign people’s actions according to whatever roles are available to foreigners within China’s Big Public Story, just like the West does to China. I think identifying and understanding the differences between these different narratives is one big step on the long road toward getting along better, and perhaps even a more just world.

I’m curious what you other Westerners think about the public narrative we’ve inherited.

For some creative, active responses to the damning Western counter-narrative of exploitation and economic oppression, see the conversations and activities of some our friends who hang out at Toward Simplicity. You can also check out Where Am I Wearing? and meet the author who traveled the globe trying to locate the specific factories that made his clothes.

For more from Dr. Miroslav Volf (but less academic), try:

  • To Embrace the Enemy.” A post-9/11 interview from that September in which Dr. Volf discusses his ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in light of the 9/11 attacks.
  • A Religion & Ethics PBS interview in whicn Dr. Volf discusses violence, forgiveness, reconciliation, Christian-Muslim relations, and related topics.

I adapted this post for Fool’s Mountain, and asked their Chinese readers two questions:

  1. How does the Western “Big Public Story,” as described here, sound to you? Or, how do you think it would sound to most Mainlanders?
  2. How would you describe China’s “Big Public Story”? In the big picture, how does China understand its place in the world, and its place in world history up to this point? If China achieved its ‘happy ending,’ what would that look like?

You can see what becomes of that discussion here.

4 thoughts on “Where does China fit in the West’s global narrative?”

  1. ha, people always take issue with that term “West.” I realize it’s almost too broad to be useful, but for this discussion I think it works (in China discussions it’s unavoidable) – we’re not in need of a perfect, exhaustive definition here. It’s not primarily geographical, but referring to the societies that buy into the above narrative, mostly: modern, developed, liberal democratic nations that are mostly located in Western Europe and North America. A “Westerner” would be someone enculturated in such a place and who therefore operates within that general set of values (most of the native English speakers in the world).

    For Chinese responses, I’ll let you sift the comments on the Fool’s Mountain post. Though there are few succinct descriptions of a Chinese public narrative in that thread, you’ll find plenty of ingredients for one there.

    By “public narrative we’ve inherited” I mean according to the description of the author, which he summarizes in paragraphs 2 and 3. No doubt we absorb that in our textbooks and popular media. How that looks to various minority peoples in the US is important, I think, especially as those groups, along with their diversity, grow in prominence.

  2. What is a westerner? And, what is a western society? And, for that matter is everyone living in a so called western society western? In Japan the term west/westerner can even be used of countries that are east of Japan and even of people from India and Iran. How, would people you typically met define west?

    What term would Main landers use for the concept”public narrative”? Or, do they have a different line of logic and world view in which they use to understand life?

    “I’m curious what you other Westerners think about the public narrative we’ve inherited.”
    If by public narrative you mean that which our primary school education tried to teach us and that the media tries to tell us then no I did not accept that. Usually, because I couldn’t idenity with the people in the texts books.

    I think other miniorities in the states would have had simular experiances as well. For example would a native american buy into the happy thanksgiving story found in most primary school texts books? Would a Chinese American reading about the early Chinese imigrants who worked on the rail roads in the states for low wages buy into the concept of an equality in the west? How much time is devoted to salvery, african american history, in the texts books?

    I think many minorties in the west do not buy into the public narrative, but rather each minority group/and post minority group may have their own narratives.

  3. Howdy Joel,

    I often wonder about the terms “China” and “Chinese”? There are various tribes/clans and dialects in what is known as China. Do, the ‘Chinese’ usually think of themselfvs in terms of being one race, or various people who have been united but maintain their clan statues’, histories, languages, and lands?

    As, for myself, I think I might be a true westerner! After all I am from Texas objectably the biggest and therefore the best state in the USA(a maybe the world). Texas, has western(country music), a dialect, cowboy hats, cowboy boots, tex-mex food, big ford trucks, and four dangerous snakes! Our Cows and horses are much more efficent than those found in New York city.

    See Ya’ll later,
    Cowboy Brian

  4. Most common I’ve heard is one ‘family’ made of various ethnic groups. but I’ve never heard from a member or a minority group here though.

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