The Many Chinas

  • Share
  • Read Later
China Photos / GETTY IMAGES

Now behave Children in Hainan recite Confucian precepts

What factors hinder the growth of "understanding and mutual trust" between China and the U.S.? Chinese President Hu Jintao called for more of both when he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Beijing and is likely to refer to it again when he lands in the U.S. on Jan. 18. One big obstacle, according to Beijing, is cultural warfare. Intimidated by China's rise, Chinese spokesmen insist, the West has been going out of its way to offend the world's most populous country and second biggest economy. Exhibit A in their brief: the Nobel Peace Prize committee's decision to honor Liu Xiaobo, a figure with views so allegedly "un-Chinese" that celebrating him is equivalent to launching a broadside against China's cultural core.

We agree that Chinese culture is under assault — but not, as Communist Party officials would have it, just from the outside. Yes, some foreigners disparagingly talk about China's flawed "cultural DNA," bequeathed to it, apparently, by a hierarchy-loving, conformity-prizing "Confucian" heritage. But damage is also being done by those within the country who repeat the Chinese leadership's simplistic mantra about China's unwavering love of "Confucian" stability and harmony.

One problem with this official rhetoric is that there has been plenty of wavering. A century ago, a broad spectrum of Chinese intellectuals criticized Confucianism for holding China back, and as recently as the 1970s, communist leaders were denouncing Confucius. China, moreover, has never been an exclusively Confucian nation. There have always been other indigenous, competing creeds. Taoism, for example, has provided an antiauthoritarian counterpoint to hierarchical models of politics for millennia.

Beyond this, visions of imperial China as hermetically sealed off from the world are a myth. Foreign belief systems often made their way in and, once reaching Chinese soil, merged with some form of Confucianism (there have been many versions of that creed) or Taoism (ditto) to create hybrid schools of thought. Long before Deng Xiaoping's Marxist-inflected reboot of Lee Kuan Yew's Singaporean capitalist-meets-Confucian soft authoritarianism, there were equally complex homegrown fusion creations. A famous one was Chan Buddhism (known in Japanese as Zen), a mash-up of native Taoist and imported Indian elements.

Current efforts to treat Confucius as Chinese culture personified — whether via state-funded Confucius Institutes or the not-quite-official Confucius Peace Prize just ginned up to compete with the Nobel — also run into trouble when we get to texts. Yes, generations of Chinese have valued the great sage's Analects. But they have also loved Journey to the West, a popular novel in which the central figure, the Monkey King, is a rebellious trickster. Even Liu's essays that present "Chinese culture" as an obstacle to progress are hardly "un-Chinese." Lu Xun, an iconoclastic figure whose stories were once praised by Mao Zedong and still show up in textbooks, made a similar argument in the 1920s.

In its response to Liu's Nobel win, Beijing is trying to claim the center of Chinese culture. Yet Chinese cultural tradition features regional and ethnic variations of sufficient breadth to support dozens of doctoral theses. We need to think about China, with its mutually unintelligible languages — not merely dialects — as more equivalent to a continent than a country.

Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans both South and North shouldn't find it hard to appreciate that a continent-size country might have a culture that is more complex than outsiders imagine or populist nationalists imply. Let's use the U.S. as an example. There is something very American about the missionary movements, often linked to imperialist expansion, that sent U.S. Christians to varied corners of the globe, including China, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And yet, as the enormous interest generated by the newest edition of his autobiography shows, the fervently antimissionary, anti-imperialist Mark Twain has long been seen as the quintessential U.S. writer. To suggest that his views were somehow un-American makes no sense.

Confucianism, whether in service of Beijing's desire to keep political protest in check or as the tool of international observers seeking to discredit China as a nation of automatons, should be put in its proper place. It is not the polestar but just one admittedly important astral body in China's vast intellectual universe.

Merkel-Hess is an assistant professor of history and Asian studies at Pennsylvania State University and co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance; Wasserstrom is chair of the history department at the University of California at Irvine and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know