When a Chinese person asks you for your impressions of their culture, they already have an image in their mind of what their culture is, and they are not expecting to update or expand it. They would like you to confirm their existing beliefs, and nothing else. They need to be reassured that Chinese food is indeed the best food, and that Chinese history is the longest and Chinese wisdom the most “profound”.
Herein I shall explore China’s strangely insular self-perception and the difficulties Chinese people face in adjusting to alternate points of view, and to being perceived.
Chinese Cultural Analysis
One of my students recently gave me a book titled Unravelling the Mystery Chinese Faces – A collection of articles “analysing” Chinese society and behaviour and explaining the “misconceptions” foreigners have about this ancient and deep culture.
The book labours at length to convince the reader that foreigners who perceive anything deficient in Chinese people’s behaviour are simply not aware of the profundity of Chinese thought and action – the subtle excellence in everything Chinese people do.
Could the book be described as self-serving? Most definitely. And enlightening? Certainly, though not in the way the author intended. What the series of essays unwittingly reveals is how Chinese people wish to be perceived, the deep insecurities that underlie their self-appraisal and national myths, and the lengths to which they will go to avoid engaging with reality. Unravelling the Mystery Chinese Faces is an excellent work of self-parody*, self-deception and deep (if unintentional) satire.
*Britain and Australia – both countries with proud histories of self-parody – would be delighted to welcome China to their literary circle. If only Chinese writers knew what they were writing.
Chinese Faces, P.13: In McDonalds in America, customers can get their own condiments, whereas in China, the condiments are kept behind the counter and handed out to customers. Could it be that in China, if you put free stuff in public, it will all disappear instantly? No. Apparently, keeping the condiments behind the counter is a matter of politeness. Chinese customer service staff just love serving their guests, and want to hand out condiments because of their cultural disposition towards courtesy. That kind of attentiveness is what makes Chinese customer service staff the best in the world.
Chinese Faces, P.26: Apparently, Chinese people have many strange and subtle ways of showing gratitude. Like having one’s entire family rescued from a river, then driving away while your rescuer drowns. Wait, ignore that. I meant falling off your bike, then suing the person who runs across the road to help you, because actually they pushed you over. Perhaps that wasn’t a very good example either. I can’t, at this time, think of an instance of a Chinese person showing appreciation for a random act of kindness, but when I do, it will totally vindicate this excellent book and its profound truthfulness.
Chinese Faces, P.59: Guangdong Dim-sum is compared with KFC to demonstrate (with no hint of irony) that Chinese food is superior to Western food – by which they mean superior to allWestern food* – in sophistication, taste and convenience. If all Western food was KFC (an assumption that I guess we are meant to overlook), the conclusion would undoubtedly be true. The book does not go on to compare French Patisserie and Instant Noodles.
*See what they did there? Those clever Chinese with their “subtle” manipulation of language and logic.
Chinese Faces, P.32: Foreigners can never truly understand the Chinese language, and Chinese ideas can never be accurately translated into English, because… the Chinese language is more profound (I’m not kidding). Of course, there are a lot of things which Chinese people cannot comprehend in the English language (irony, understatement, sarcasm, satire, implication*); but why would they want to, when their first language is obviously superior? In truth, only a Chinese person could “know” that their language is superior without reaching the same proficiency in another.
*Actually, they usually don’t get past verb tenses.
The Western Rationalist Tradition (beginning with Socrates) has resulted in science, democracy, free thought, abundant streams of modern philosophy, human rights and constitutional law. Perhaps it’s time China stopped praising what great thinkers they are, and instead look around themselves and wonder “What has been the result of all these profound ideas?”
Not one article in the book explains why this group of cultured, polite, humble, courteous, sophisticated, considerate people – profound of thought and noble of gesture – spit, defecate and screech at each other in public places; nor why they point and laugh at anyone different, despise anyone less fortunate, take photos of people in distress, or extort those who come to their aid.
While liberal in its praise of the modesty and deference exhibited daily by the Chinese, it does not explain why Chinese people push in front of others just to be served first or enter a doorway, or why they run traffic lights and kill poor people with their Audis, then laugh at the victim’s family because they (the driver) have more money. Perhaps the modesty and deference being exhibited in these scenarios is too subtle or nuanced for an oafish Westerner to perceive.
Chinese National Myths
Having, over the past few months, sat through several evenings (and a few entire days) of “Chinese Dream” speeches, I have heard about as much jingoism – “All of China will have a glorious future!” – as I can stomach. What is most apparent is that Chinese people have more faith in national slogans than in their own observations or (god forbid) research. Their perceptions about the Chinese Nation are based on phrases often heard but rarely considered. Two often repeated examples are as follows:
Student: “China is a peaceful country.”
Me: “Why does it send warships to threaten its neighbours?”
Student: “We are defending our territory.”
Me: “But China keeps claiming to own more territory. How is this different from imperialism?”
Student: “But China is peaceful!”
Student: “China is becoming more democratic.”
Me: “What does democratic mean?”
Student: “I don’t know.”
And then there’s a frequently repeated slogan about the length of China’s history. Don’t ask what actually happened in China 5000 years ago, because that question can’t be answered. To most people of the world, history means actual history – you know: historical records and so forth – but to China it isn’t so much a matter of evidence as one of national pride, and that’s off limits to inquiry.
Suggesting that Western Europe achieved more during the Renaissance than China did in its entire “5000 years of history” will meet with a blank stare. After all, it’s not about what Chinaachieved during that time – It’s about the length. We’d better consult Freud on that one.
Suggesting that Egypt’s history is longer, or Iran’s civilizations older – or that due to geographical isolation, Aboriginal Australian culture existed unchanged for tens of thousands of years – will meet with a similarly vacant expression or a subtle but perceptible drop in friendliness and receptivity.
“Facts” in China are accepted through wishful thinking or sheer repetition; not through discussion, and definitely not through a process of reason.
Chinese Methods of Denial
Having fragile egos and a sense of national pride based on rather shaky facts, Chinese people have perfected a few simple, effective and somewhat infuriating methods of defence, with which they can stand their ground in argument, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or reason.
1. The Trademark Chinese Blank Stare
Lacking the desire to update or expand their points of view, Chinese people have become adept at erecting mental “anti-logic” barriers.
If an observation (no matter how self-evident) or argument (no matter how rational) doesn’t mesh with their current understanding of reality, it will meet with an uncomprehending and impervious stare. The words you just uttered will glance off your conversation partner’s impassive and expressionless face, and drift harmlessly off into the aether. Then he or she will snap back into reality, unaware of anything that transpired during the last 10 seconds. The technique was invented by a Taoist monk, after he spent one year contemplating a blank scroll.*
*This fact has been neither substantiated nor researched.
*Some would call the act of contemplating a blank scroll “profound”, though if one were to be honest, one would admit that the monk probably didn’t learn much during that time.
2. “No I’m not: You are!”
When confronted with unavoidable guilt, Chinese people (sometimes) and the Chinese state (every time) will seek to deflect blame by pointing out something bad that someone else did – then wonder why everyone is still looking at them.
Whereas in Western countries, we would associate this defensive emotional reaction with 12-year-old girls, in China it has become a mainstay of international politics. Instead of acknowledging (or god-forbid apologising for) whatever it has done wrong, China will always respond with accusations that other people (Americans) are doing worse things, elsewhere.
When I hear a foreigner criticize Australia, I am very interested. Foreigners who visit Australia are aware of prejudices, political forces and social phenomena that white Australian citizens aren’t. Their view of Australia is largely objective, and not based on wishful thinking or national myths. I would like my understanding of Australia to be accurate, not comforting.
Typically a person’s “world view” becomes more nuanced by exposure to doubt and conflicting ideas. We acknowledge alternate points of view and continuously update our own. Any criticism of the Chinese nation, on the other hand, can only have one explanation: Bias. I often encounter unexpected hostility for mentioning a story I read – typically one published on SCMP or translated from a Chinese Source.
Colleague: “Where do you get your stories from? America I suppose!”
Me: “Hong Kong.”
Colleague: (Looks uncertain about whether to continue with her nationalistic and entirely automatic reaction. Then, unable to restrain herself…) “Obviously they are biased!”
Reminding her that independent media is generally more objective than party-controlled media would only comfirm her suspicion that I am an agent of American Cultural Imperialism.
A Word to the Infinitely Wise
“To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.”
To Chinese Nationals I would say this: Chinese history, culture and identity are complex and interesting things. Do them justice in your appraisal. Embrace the good and the bad. Not everything about your history and culture is praiseworthy, but not only praiseworthy things are worth talking about. The everyday problems you face, and their root causes, merit more attention than self-aggrandising and oft-repeated myths.
We would love you to talk openly about your experiences and observations. When we inquire about something we have observed in your country, it isn’t a personal insult, and it isn’t a call to retreat into denial or nationalism. Avoid conflating personal pride with national pride. You can be a modest, dignified and well-behaved person in spite of your society.
Don’t assume, because you are Chinese, that Chinese wisdom is the most profound. If you believe it, then be profound of thought. Nobody is interested in claims of wisdom, social sophistication or cultural superiority. We are interested in seeing those things manifest.