News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Partial Review of The Real Face of the Chinese

This is a quick review of the first two sections of The Real Face of the Chinese People, written by Taiwanese author Lien Gen-Teng in Japanese and translated into Mandarin.  These two sections constitute the first 80 pages or so of the book. I decided to stop here because the volume of notes I've accumulated is already lengthy.
The author claims Chinese are traditionally fanatical about winning and adopt an attitude of no compromise, take no prisoners, all or nothing.  This is alleged to derive from ideals and metaphors such as "the sky has only one sun."   But I think he's trotted the cart out in front of the horse: this particular metaphor is a flower from a branch of the national tendency for fanaticism and hysteria which in turn has its roots in a deep-seated paranoia.  The latter is a homegrown product primarily of the cherished family upbringing which by North American standards is perverse and cruel.  But all things happen for a reason and the main reason I’d posit would be several thousand years of chronic and cruel busy-body incursions into the family and one’s person by the users, and more typically abusers, of the traditional power and influence scheme that went by the name of empire.  The latter was more often than not run like an Alabama chain-gang with family members, close relatives and distant cousins all held communally responsible for the crimes real or alleged of individuals. 
Without well-lined pockets, one lacked reliable law courts.  In lieu of that, for protection one had to rely upon one's own wits, connections, and make a mad dash when opportunity beckoned to infiltrate ever higher up the food chain.  After all, if the only lasting security is to be found by being a cock at the crest of the dung heap, then in many respects, life is about winning at all costs; there are no safe havens nor mutually acceptable compromises.  It's a dog-eat-dog world without checks and balances and where the winner takes all.  When placed in an environment of chronic and implacable insecurity, people are separated into those who are with you and those who are against you; innocent bystanders flattened by one's juggernaut of guanxi are considered by friends and family to be acceptable collateral damage.
On page 22, the author attributes the Chinese love of face to the same dismal environment.  Plus the refusal to admit fault. 
On page 23 the author points out that pacifying aborigines was often facilitated by assigning grand Chinese surnames, required by these new citizens when dealing with the grand bureaucracy and its passion for documentation.  After the passage of several generations, the family would become Sinofied and, now like any other mainstream member of the empire’s population, the great-grandchildren of the original generation of pacified aborigines would most likely be completely unaware of their genuine antecedents (because Chinese parents don’t talk much to their kids). Looking at their surnames, they would now believe that they were derived from Han Chinese (and illustrious ones at that, as the surnames of prominent historical figures were typically issued to pacified peoples).  An example of the ironic outcomes this generated is the contemporary Cantonese opposition to Taiwanese independence.  Many Hong Kong activists get hot and bothered at mention of the betrayal by Taiwanese independence activists of native Chinese roots and ancestry.  However, the ancestors of neither the Cantonese nor the Taiwanese were Chinese.  They were aborigines conquered and tamed by Han Chinese.
The above notwithstanding, the author does not often get into the root mechanisms that generate behavior.  He describes things rather than explaining them.  In other words, he's not a generator of ideas but a collector. He's not a thinker, but an observer.  Nevertheless, he does point out a number of very interesting issues.  For example, he talks about the Chinese fetish for the sacred national realm, which has inspired a popular notion of a sort of ethnic eminent domain. 
He also discusses the Chinese application of the term barbarian and how it gets appended to what are in fact fellow civilized nations; this is an old trick of ancient times and also found in the Old Testament where illiterate shills for Jehovah are to be found hooting at the citified and literate Philistines whom they considered unsophisticated.
My own explanation for this phenomenon, i.e. the confident primitive who believes mumbled words can in and of themselves alter not just the face but also the substance of reality, is the retention of the child's tendency to anthropomorphize.  Baby Jake stumbles over a tree root and bawls, drumming his fists on the ground in teary rage at the temerity of the offending root.   This is also the basis of animism: the installing of human intelligence and will-power into sacred trees, sacred mountains, fearful weather, and one’s reflection in water.  Once buying into this cosmology, people tend to develop lucky words and portentous phrases such as abracadabra or open sesame in an attempt to put magic to work out in the real world; i.e. to circumvent the restrictions of an otherwise logic-based universe; to slash a bold shortcut through the fatiguing industry required by less savvy mortals pursuing similar ends.  It's a sort of ultimate laziness for primeval couch-potatoes. 
Again, it's a world phenomenon.  Once upon a time, the medieval King Canute of England commanded the tide not to come in and got soaked for his trouble.  But it's still with us; witness a New York Times best-seller, in fact the number one selling, allegedly nonfiction book of 2003: The Prayer of Jabez, which consists of enlightening the faithful in the arts and mysteries peculiar to massaging one line of The Old Testament in just the right way.  Through so doing, one earns a God-given right to pass by secular suckers and other ignoramuses and short-circuit the information highway to financial security and independence.  In other words, a get-rich-quick scheme.  Well, isn’t that probably the most ancient scam of all?
Perhaps it also arises from a universal confusion that many of us feel at a young age.  At around two or three children often believe they can eliminate the physical universe by closing their eyes.  If said child can't see anything, it ceases to exist.  As late as seven and eight, I still cherished a conceited suspicion that people were puppets placed in my universe to feed, coach and entertain me.
Either way, this juvenile outlook, when extending into adulthood, results in many a Chinese historian describing a competing city state as a hive of bandits.  A competing culture becomes simply: the barbarians.  The more things change, the more they stay the same? Yup.  This Chinese edition of snide wordsmithery, a farcical seduction by one's own fibs and spin, when taken seriously, was a sort of tragic-comic precursor to the modern left-wing lunatic conspiracy fringe, forever angry, depressed, and feeling unappreciated, but still bellowing fine, high sounding words which, when moaned en masse with heartfelt piety, are believed to somehow generate an impetus and kick-start social movements and great awakenings of the spirit.  Great things are a-coming. If you dress up and protest free trade imperialism, type blogs belaboring capitalist cliques and capitalist roaders, and moan about right-wing media spin long enough, things will surely change.  Especially if one refers to fellow self-interested parties as brother, sister, or comrade.  A secular prayer is often added to help bring down to earth whatever phantasm is currently atop the politically correct pedestal.  
Hyperbole? If you look at what past and present Chinese patriots have said, it's pretty much the same deal.  For two thousand years, Chinese regimes have been regularly defeated by incursions from other imperialist states (i.e. bandits) and cultural hegemons (i.e. barbarians).  When sticks and stones didn't work, the regimes tried harsh words and sneering.  They still do.  Just today, Jiang Tze-min has threatened to take Taiwan back by violence by 2020.  Take it back with what? With the power of positive thinking. What other options does he have?
A letter writer to the Asia Times recently mentioned the willingness of the Chinese to sacrifice hundreds of millions of fellow citizens for the righteous cause of returning Taiwan to the sacred realm.  Again, this is not just a case of barking dogs don't bite, but also a case of a person believing words (i.e. thoughts) have a palpable force about them that matches that of an extended arm or a clenched fist.  (Wishful thinking still infests the People's Daily too, causing it to flounder like a bull in quicksand whenever a politically sensitive topic comes up.) It also reflects an outlook which is markedly pre-democratic, pre-me-generation, pre-capitalist, pro-clan, pro-violence, pro-fairytale, pro-magic, and pro-extended family.  It also reflects the pseudo-literacy and propaganda machine which acts as a brake on China right down to the present-day and which results in an ignorant, chauvinistic, incurious and intellectually under-stimulated popular perspective that is lacking in compassion or sympathy for the plight of others (i.e. bandits and barbarians).  This in turn also encourages ancestor worship, the notion of sacred territory, and gratuitous association with murderous emperors because, according to the bogus family history, they’re family. And family is the only thing one can count on when justice in the courts requires a bidding war and there’s always a bigger bull in the china shop somewhere.
The author also makes the claim, not unpersuasive, that fleeing Chinese diasporas and overseas Chinese are often interpreted by the home team as weapons, cultural guerrillas, for increasing the national territory.  Ethnic Chinese dominate economies all across Southeast Asia for example.  He points out that in 1997, one million of Hong Kong's 5 million population planned to emigrate to the United States and Australia. 
On page 55 he notes that Chinese parents inculcate Junior with the axiom that strangers are dangerous and unreliable.  He points out that this is also flipped to serve as an excuse to overcharge and under-serve customers, tourists, outsiders, barbarians, bandits, imperialists, enemies, citizens, friends and acquaintances, etc.  In turn, this lack of trust in others leads to a pronounced lack of public morals and decorum when interacting with unknown human entities.
This lack of trust also makes for a persecution complex and unwillingness to entrust strangers in such situations as business relationships.  Ergo the preeminence of the family biz and the unwillingness to distribute authority, which in turn makes for management inertia, micromanagement, and showy frivolous displays of imprimatur.  It also leads to the deliberate promotion of incompetent ass-kissing underlings because they are less threatening.  Competence is feared and fawning is encouraged.  Office politics and politicking blossoms to amazing heights.  Appearances and face are all important.
There is chronic disinformation and spin at a personal level and an unwillingness to share information and thus the common phenomenon of the surprisingly uninformed flatlander Chinese vs. the (relatively-speaking) informed upland aborigine.
This also leads to a lack of cooperation between government bodies plus unwillingness to act without orders.  A lack of orders makes employee initiative in most situations far too dangerous. In part because, even if you do the right thing one’s superior is likely to feel he’s been showed up, and nobody in the office will publicly go to bat for you.
The author also hypothesizes that Chinese conservatism is based on fear of persecution when attempting new things.  Anything threatening to disturb the status quo upsets the other nervous Nellies, and particularly incompetent superiors (even, and in many cases, especially parents) who will strive to quash or make off with your ideas.
He also discusses how China's 2000 years of violent overthrow evolved due to threatened emperors being consistently afraid of making concessions when their regimes began to dysfunction (more than usual that is) and began to face great pressure.  Emperors feared concessions would be interpreted by usurpers hiding in the wings as weakness.  Thus the only way to change a régime was to overthrow it.  No compromises. No negotiating. 
This, to me, also helps explain the incredible folly of Saddam Hussein and his unwillingness to make concessions to the US government and instead take his crazy chances with a ground war.  Not only was he deluded and perhaps genuinely believed he could defeat US forces, but also he may have been very afraid of showing weakness of any kind because internal forces would have risen and toppled him. By internal forces, I'm referring to members of his own military, perhaps members of his personal staff even.  As pointed out by the late Colonel Fletcher Prouty, when the United States wished to topple a banana republic that it had in its pocket, it didn’t send in the assassins.  It made a public statement to the effect that it was withdrawing support from the régime.  Inevitably, regime loyalists scattered like rats from a burning home while the more proactive career-oriented idealists arranged a murderous coup d'etat and dispatched him to the trash bin of history.

No comments:

Post a Comment