Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Not being Chinese in your next life

I have just powered through a full-length book in Chinese. No, it wasn't the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but a polemic by Hong Kong journalist Joe Chung. Its title, 来生不做中国人, is officially translated into English as "I don't want to be Chinese again", but a more exact rendering would be along the lines of "I won't be Chinese in my next life" or "not being Chinese in your next life" (the subject of the sentence is unstated). It has yet to be translated into English or any other language.

The book is actually a collection of the author's essays and articles. It is basically a frontal attack on Chinese culture and everything it stands for, written from the point of view of a Chinese from Hong Kong. The book's title was inspired by an opinion poll which appeared on Netease, one of China's main web portals, in 2006. The poll asked people whether they would want to be reborn as Chinese in their next life. Over the next few days thousands of Chinese took the survey, with a whopping 65% of people answering "no", until the government noticed and demanded that the poll be taken down. A Netease editor lost his job as a result.

Drawing inspiration from this episode, the author engages in a full-blown polemic against his own culture. He attacks the Chinese mindset as selfish, irrational, antiquated, petty and incapable of changing, and criticizes the Chinese people for accepting injustice by their own leaders and blaming others for their misfortunes. Unlike many Hong Kongers would do, he doesn't limit his critique to the Mainland, but criticises his native Hong Kong's culture as well, seeing in it the same flaws that hold back the whole of China.

The author dismisses Chinese culture as a culture which has long outlived its usefulness and should have disappeared long ago, and compares its survival to the Roman Empire surviving until the present day. Although he doesn't make a very big thing about it, the author is in fact a Christian, and blames the lack of a strongly held religious faith for what he perceives to be his countrymen's flawed and underdeveloped sense of morality. He claims that Confucianism is an ideology which cannot act as a substitute for true religion.

Such total dismissals of their own culture by Chinese intellectuals are actually not entirely new. A famous example is Taiwanese author Bo Yang and his well known book that came out in 1985 with the English title "the Ugly Chinaman and the crisis of Chinese culture". Under the relatively liberal atmosphere of the time, the book was actually distributed in the Mainland as well. Going back even further, China's most famous modern writer Lu Xun had some very harsh things to say about the "Chinese national character" and his own people's 劣根性 or "deep-rooted flaws". What's more he felt that the defects of the Chinese mentality had not really been improved with the Xinhai Revolution and the end of the empire. There is in fact a vein of self-hatred that has run deep within Chinese culture since at least the nineteenth century. This self-hatred actually survives in Mainland China too, although it is buried under the veneer of state-sponsored nationalism and pride.

It is certainly true that China's particular version of a modern society leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes China can seem like a country trapped in its own history, unable to find a way out, in spite of all the economic growth and material development of the last decades. But total rejections of Chinese culture aren't really convincing either. If China's problem is the Confucian tradition and the lack of a strong religious faith, then why have the Japanese and South Koreans, who come from a similar religious and ethical tradition, been so much more successful at creating decent modern societies then the Chinese have?

Traditions and cultures all have good and bad sides. Cultures based around monotheistic religions can lead to rigidity and fanaticism, while East Asian cultures sometimes appear to lack a concept of basic moral norms that have to be abided by at all times, and lead to extreme utilitarianism and only caring about your "in-group". But the reality is that until the enlightenment took off, European societies (and other Asian ones) never appeared to be any more successful than China at producing peaceful or civilized behaviour. In fact when Marco Polo travelled around China he remarked with wonder that the men did not need to carry weapons with them when they went out, unlike in Europe at the time.

It is certainly true that China has found it harder than most countries to reconcile itself with modernity, and many progressive values which much of the modern world takes for granted still struggle to take root in China (the value of life, equality, moral concern for strangers etc...). The country's size and its isolation from "global culture", part natural and part intentional, also contribute to keep things this way. But it can only be hoped that when China finds a system that can bring out the best in its culture and people, then things will no longer be so.

Lu Xun

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Marco Polo was a fictional character.

Ji Xiang said...

Most serious scholars agree that Marco Polo existed and spent years in China.

justrecently said...

The poll asked people whether they would want to be reborn as Chinese in their next life.

Questions like these usually have a mobilizing effect. If you take to a German forum - say, an automobile fan website - and ask something along the vague line of "do you think that Putin is kicking the crap out of NATO in the Ukraine, and rightly so?", you are likely to get a Yes majority, because people who find the question silly or lunatic may not care to answer at all.

Now, I'm not saying that the "rebirth question" is outright silly. After all, lots of things in China are about tradition, and there's the May-11 movement, the idea that Chinese characters should be scrapped and replaced by Latin letters instead (you mention Lu Xun), etc..

But I would be curious if the answers would still be the same in 2016, ten years on. I doubt it would. For one, the Olympic Games 2008 seem to have marked a watershed. It was as if Chinese people had become tired to ask themselves or their rulers questions, and leapt at "CNN" (i. e. all kinds of gaffes in Western media, like confusing Nepalese and Chinese police). The fun hasn't ever ended since. Propaganda nudged the process a bit, but they didn't have to do a great deal to moving things into the direction that suited the CCP.

And then there's the Xi-style propaganda. I've heard several - not particularly dumb - Chinese people say that they are proud of their chairman (if not about the secretary-general).

But books like Joe Chung's are useful. I think I'm going to buy myself a copy - Bo Yang is already here. Among Taiwanese people, Bo didn't seem to be popular either, in the 1990s, and by now, he is probably hardly relevant, because people don't give the issue of "Chineseness" much thought.

The problem to me seems to be that Chineseness is, not least, about painting most things in black and white - unless it's about your private life, where tolerance is always in order ;-). When it's about politics and the smotherland, it's usually either-or.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Jixiang -
I always feel a bit wary when I hear Chinese people engaging in this kind of criticism. Do anything that can be seen as agreement and you'll trigger a bunch of (not unnatural) responses about foreigners starring down their noses at Chinese people and China. Try to argue against them and the you get the feeling that you are telling them to be happy with their lot.

@JR -
"I would be curious if the answers would still be the same in 2016, ten years on. I doubt it would. For one, the Olympic Games 2008 seem to have marked a watershed. It was as if Chinese people had become tired to ask themselves or their rulers questions, and leapt at "CNN" (i. e. all kinds of gaffes in Western media, like confusing Nepalese and Chinese police). The fun hasn't ever ended since. Propaganda nudged the process a bit, but they didn't have to do a great deal to moving things into the direction that suited the CCP."

2008 systemised this kind of activity, and coincided with pervasive internet censorship that had only been spottily applied before. However, I'm not sure that it wasn't actually a common response before, or that people are any less likely to criticise in China - what has changed is that the megaphone is in the hands of the nationalists everyone else is being gagged, not people's basic instincts.

Anonymous said...

While I believe that the Teachings of Christ thumbs Confucianism hands down (since I myself is a believer) because true Christianity is a SPIRITUAL path not just moral dos-and-dont's, or religion. However, that being said, BE VERY CAREFUL & WEARY of WESTERN form of Christianity (which is why I don't call myself a Christian anymore. A follower of Yahushua, but not a Christian). Western Christianity is a spawn of Roman Catholicism / Vatican morphing into different sectarians but the root is still same. When this Joe Chung start to sing praises of Roman Empire 2 things come to my mind.

Either he is :

a) A complete retard, self-hating 'chink'(the most pathetic kind. There is a difference in being self-reflective and critical vs self-hate)who blindly kiss-ass to the West without doing thorough research and drilling down the rabbit hole.

or, the worst Chung is ...

b) An Astroturfer shill from those Deep State occultic society of which The Roman Empire is and which gave birth to the collective The West. Many of these Jesuits, Freemasons, et el secret societies' shills and agents love to infiltrate as some activists, freedom fighter, religion head, attache, both political and media etc to IMPLANT dissenting and subversive ideas to subvert and dissent. Divide & Conquer. IF the nation is multicultural, use religion and race rhetoric, just like what Donald Drumpf did and see it worked!
If it is more of a homogeneous society, employ demographics and ideologies and/or religion differences and start planting and deepening the gap for dissention.
Both methods required the stirring of the emotion of victimhood and offering a solution. It works 99%!
These esoteric cults of whom are the spawn of the hedonistic and debauched Roman Empire was what created and is pushing forth all the war globally to usher in their malevolent NWO agenda - a unipolar world under one head Lucifer (it sound s stupid, but go do some research).
Now over a decade I wonder how much a penchant does this Joe Chung still have for the hoax of democracy and his fervour for Roman Empire style? Most of the most corrupted and impoverished and unequal wealth-distribution countries are democracies! Democracy has so far proven to have failed many countries esp. The West. We have looming immigrants issue, social unrest, mass unemployment, social-ills, weird ass interest group all springing forth.

This Joe Chung IF still truly believe Roman Empire is the ideal, the it need to ask why did it need to disappear and morphed into collective West? And how is the democracy and the West doing now? Is Pederasty an acceptable part of Chinese culture because it sure is in Ancient Rome. Very debauched.

Let's be real..ALL countries are Authoritarian, the only difference is, are they honest and in-your-face enough to not hide it or do they need to add a few more cosmetic layers of deception to give the illusion of "freedom" and "human rights" but using social pressure, interest groups, media, basically all these trojan horse to MANIPULATE, influence brainwashed and using subtle terroristic STRATEGY to forced for THEIR desired outcome. USA is the best example. I too hail from a so-called "democratic" country, and it's just as bad if not worst than communism! So what's the difference?

Ji Xiang said...

@anonymous,

mate, you seem to be a little bit deranged, but in any case I would just like to point out that if you look carefully I never said that Joe Chung sings the praises of the Roman Empire or considers it an ideal. He says that the survival of Chinese culture is as if the Roman empire had continued until the present day. He claims that just like Roman culture rightly perished, Chinese culture should also have perished long ago. Your whole comment thus rests on a misunderstanding, as well as being delusional and making use of racist terminology such as the word "chink".

Zahid Hamidi said...
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