"China: Humiliation & the Olympics"

This is a great piece by Orville Schell in the New York Review of Books. These essays tend not to lend themselves to editing, but this one does in reviewing several works both for their immediate content and how they relate to the larger issue of China’s deeply held sense of insecurity. I’ve taken the bits that relate to the latter theme, but readers are encouraged to read this piece in full.

From the New York Review of Books:

Dark Matter
a film directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895–2008
by Xu Guoqi
Harvard University Press, 377 pp., $29.95

China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society
by Daniel A. Bell
Princeton University Press, 240 pp., $26.95

China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy
by Peter Hays Gries
University of California Press, 215 pp., $21.95 (paper)

China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Olympic Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges
Edited by Minky Worden, with an introduction by Nicholas Kristof
Seven Stories, 231 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The Incident

On a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor Christoph Goertz, his thesis adviser; Robert A. Smith, a member of his dissertation committee; and Shan Linhua, a fellow Chinese graduate student and his rival.

Next, Lu went to the office of the chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dwight R. Nicholson, who was also on his dissertation committee, and fired three more fatal shots. Then, he walked over to Jessup Hall and demanded to see T. Anne Cleary, associate vice-president for academic affairs. When she emerged from her office, he killed her and then shot and maimed her twenty-three-year-old assistant. Finally, in an empty conference room, Lu raised the pistol to his head and killed himself.

Why a brilliant, hard-working young Chinese physicist, who had come to the US six years earlier filled with pride and hope, had come to such a bitter end is the subject of Dark Matter

But what gives Dark Matter wider significance is the filmmakers’ use of the Iowa incident to explore—indirectly—some important psychological dynamics between China and the West: China’s deeply felt sense of historic injury by foreign nations, and the ways its often thwarted efforts to gain acceptance among leading world powers have exacerbated such sentiments. In the past, feelings of injury have arisen from such events as the Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation; and most recently after the Tibetan demonstrations this spring and during the run-up to this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games.

By retelling the tragic story of a Chinese graduate student attempting to complete a Ph.D. at a prestigious American university, the film suggests, obliquely, a larger parable about China’s ambivalence toward the developed world, especially the United States…What interests Chen is how his anti-hero’s initial willingness to revere and submit to American academic authorities becomes transformed into its opposite, so that by the end, after his dissertation is rejected, he sees them as oppressors.

And yet Chen and his co-scriptwriter Billy Shebar’s treatment of Dark Matter‘s antihero is surprisingly sympathetic. Chen was himself a Chinese graduate student in the US during the 1980s, and has since—as a well-known director of both Chinese and Western operas—become one of the artists who have been able to bridge the cultural divide between China and the West. He understands the sensitivities that linger around questions involving insult, humiliation, and loss of face to China, especially when foreign arrogance is involved. And in the film, Liu Xing’s American Ph.D. adviser is arrogance incarnate. When Liu arrives in his lab, he is smugly told, “Well, feel free to challenge me all you want. Just keep in mind, I’m always right!”

When an assistant reminds Liu’s adviser that his student has “been pulling a lot of all-nighters” doing research for him, he contemptuously replies, “Oh, come on! These kids are grateful for whatever work I give them. They come from a place where astrology is considered a science and toilets a luxury.”

Such exchanges in the film echo a kind of condescension that has historically marked many kinds of relationships between the West and China and slowly formed a kind of “dark matter” that continues to exert a powerful, if unobserved force.

The question the filmmakers seek to explore in Dark Matter is not simply the personal one but the larger question of China’s sensitivity to foreign dominance and criticism. Here the film is masterful in illuminating how any suggestion of foreign superiority, or even condescension, toward Chinese may intersect with their own sense of historical victimization and insecurity to create a volatile chemistry.

“We Chinese carry the burden of our history with us and the question of Western humiliation is always unconsciously inside us,” Chen told me.

Thus, we feel sensitive to any kind of slight and often have a very sharp reaction to perceived unfair treatment or injustices. On an emotional level we cannot help but associate treatment in the present with past injuries, defeats, invasions, and occupations by foreigners. There is something almost in our DNA that triggers autonomic, and sometimes extreme, responses to foreign criticism or put-downs.

….As Peter Hays Gries has written in his thoughtful book China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy, like it or not, “The West is central to the construction of China’s identity today; it has become China’s alter ego.”

“A Century of Humiliation”

A particularly important element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s “humiliation” at the hands of foreigners, beginning with China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century and the shameful treatment of Chinese in America. The process reached an understandable high point with Japan’s successful industrialization and subsequent invasion and occupation of China during World War II, which was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions, because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, while China had failed.

In the early twentieth century, a new literature, with a new historical narrative to match, arose around the idea of bainian guochi, “100 years of national humiliation.” By taking up its own victimization as a theme and making it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity, China ensured that certain traits would express themselves again and again as it responded under stress to the outside world. Highlighting their country’s history as a victim of foreign aggression led Chinese leaders to rely on what Gries calls “the moral authority of their past suffering.” Indeed, China’s suffering at the hands of foreigners became a badge of distinction….

As a result of the insulting terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, by which the West cravenly gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, an expression, wuwang guochi, “Never forget our national humiliation,” became a common slogan in China. Indeed, to ignore China’s national failure came to be seen as unpatriotic. Since then, Chinese historians and ideological overseers have never ceased to mine China’s putative past sufferings “to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present,” as the historian Paul Cohen has put it….

In 1997, when Hong Kong reverted from British colonial status to Chinese sovereignty, the Communist Party returned to the theme of China as victim to help encourage greater nationalism. General Secretary Jiang Zemin pointedly reminded the world that “the occupation of Hong Kong was the epitome of the humiliation that China suffered in modern history.” Since then, much of the talk about victimization has concentrated on Japan, China’s brutal and still incompletely repentant World War II occupier.

Yves here. I am no social anthropologist, but it is important to stress that this theme of humiliation was far from a necessary or inevitable choice. The Vietnamese, which has suffered far worse indignities (multiple occupations by foreign powers, including over 1000 years of rule by China) nevertheless saw themselves as a people who would eventually prevail against oppressors, no matter how long the struggle took. The French and Americans underestimated Vietnamese tenacity. Rand experts who had dealt with prisoner interrogation material from World War II, Korea, and Eastern Europe had never seen interviews like the ones of Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese army fighting in South Vietnam, and concluded that unlike other opponents, they could not be coerced.

Back to the article:

The idea that a nation might restore itself to greatness by emphasizing, even “celebrating,” weakness may seem counterintuitive. After all, why would any leader seeking to gain global respect want to constantly remind his people and the world of his country’s former humiliation? Perhaps Chinese leaders (both Nationalist and Communist) calculated that if Chinese could become sufficiently aware, even ashamed, of their weakness, they would be goaded into rising up and reclaiming their national greatness….

This dream was of reunifying China as a multiethnic state composed of Han (central Chinese), Man (Manchurians), Meng (Mongolians), Hui (Muslims), and Zang (Tibetans), as well as bringing back into the fold of “the sacred motherland” those parts of the old Chinese empire that had either been pried loose by imperialist powers or had broken away during times of weakness. (These included Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, the Spratly Island in the South China Sea, and the Diaoyutai Islands near Japan. And, of course, it also meant holding onto Tibet and Xinjiang, whose peoples have long flirted with independence.)

As the scholar William A. Callahan has recently noted, despite fifty years of Maoist revolution—when “anti-Communism” was often perceived as being “anti-Chinese”—and then as even China began to surprise the world with its recent economic success,

the national-humiliation narrative is [still] painstakingly reproduced in textbooks, museums, popular history books, virtual exhibits, feature films, dictionaries, journals, atlases, pictorials and commemorative stamps.

In 2001, the National People’s Congress even passed a law proclaiming an official “National Humiliation Day.” (However, so many historical dates were proposed that delegates could not agree on any one, and thus, no day was designated, although one of the leading candidates is now September 18, the day in 1931 that Japan began its invasion of Manchuria.) As if to remind the world that China was still an aggrieved party, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmen not infrequently describe unwelcome actions by other countries—such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999—as “wounding the feelings of the Chinese people.”

It would be tempting to dismiss such language as empty rhetoric, but like so much that is said in China, such code words still tap into a reservoir of sentiment that is exemplified by such slogans as “The Chinese people cannot be bullied; the Chinese race cannot be insulted!”….

References to “the ‘Century of Humiliation’…both reflect and powerfully shape China’s relations with the West today,” writes Peter Gries. “By evoking the people, events, and symbols of China’s early modern encounter with the West, Chinese continually return to this unresolved trauma….”….


Having originally been scheduled for release during the spring of 2007, Dark Matter’s première was delayed by yet another shooting on an American university campus, this one at Virginia Tech. As it turned out, the film did not arrive in theaters until this spring, just as Tibetans, hoping to extract concessions from the Chinese—who were increasingly anxious that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing not be marred by dissent because of Darfur and Burma—began their protest. As Nicholas Kristof has written in the introduction to China’s Great Leap, “The world has a new lever to try and win better behavior from China,” and, in the case of Tibet, the world used it. Soon Tibetan exiles and their foreign supporters joined in challenging the progress from country to country of the Chinese Olympic torch, which quickly came to be viewed as a symbol of the PRC rather than the Olympic Games. Repeatedly torch carriers were besieged by protesters decrying what they viewed as China’s forced occupation of Tibet.

While patriots from other countries would doubtless also have felt affronted by the sight of such a potent symbol of their nationhood under assault, the response of many Chinese to these confrontations revealed in dramatic fashion how sensitive China still was to foreign insult. What these Chinese at home and abroad chose to see on television was not oppressed Tibetans seeking a redress of grievances, but China again under siege and again being demeaned in the most public of ways.

China’s restless search for a more self-confident, less-aggrieved persona has paradoxically been made more complicated by other wounds not directly related to foreign attacks: for much of the past hundred years Chinese themselves have also been engaged in a series of assaults on their own culture and history. These frequently uncompromising self-critiques first started in the early part of the twentieth century when Chinese reformers began denouncing traditional Confucian culture, above all because it seemed to have left them so weak before the technological superiority of the West.

By the 1930s and 1940s, these attacks began to turn against the nationalists. Having begun to fashion a new identity that combined elements of both East and West, Chiang Kai-shek and his Wellesley-educated, Christian wife were criticized for, among other things, being too Westernized and closely allied to America. Then, after Chiang was defeated, Mao came to power, and the Chinese Communist Party had spent three decades attempting at great human cost, to refashion a new revolutionary Chinese identity of their own, along came Deng Xiaoping to perform yet another act of demolition, this time on Mao’s revolution itself.

The cancellations of these successive efforts at self-reinvention have left Chinese with an uncertain sense of cultural or political direction. The country has tended to swing from one experiment to another, seeking refuge in a series of large-scale, but never definitive, makeovers. It is therefore perhaps understandable that a more robust sense of cultural and political self-confidence has remained elusive. So, partly in shock, and partly in disappointment, China responded to the demonstrations against its Olympic torch with incensed outrage….

The protests ended up highlighting a China that was not what most Chinese had hoped to see on display during the run-up to the games. Old-fashioned police controls were tightened and rhetoric that harkened back to Mao’s revolution made China look retrograde, just when it desired most to look modern….Militant attacks on China’s critics and foreign broadcasters like CNN and the BBC that reported the torch’s interrupted progress around the world soon flooded the Internet. In cities like Seoul, protesters began to be shouted down, even beaten, by Chinese counterdemonstrators.

What was surprising was that many of the most indignant counterdemonstrators were young Chinese, born during the post-Mao era. Better educated and more worldly than older Chinese, one might have expected them to have been exempt from the China-as-victim syndrome. But, perhaps because they, too, were products of the Party’s propaganda, many of them have turned out every bit as nationalistic, perhaps even more so, than their elders.[*] But what made these demonstrations against the torch such an affront to so many Chinese was the way in which they intruded just when they had allowed themselves to imagine that their national identity might actually metamorphose from victim to victor, thanks to the alchemy of the Olympic Games.

Instead, at this penultimate moment, as Xu Guoqi, author of the timely new book Olympic Dreams: China And Sports, 1895–2008, has noted, “Through their coverage and handling of the Beijing torch relay, the West seemed to remind the Chinese they were still not equal and they were still not good enough.”

The Olympic Games

The irony is, of course, that not for two centuries has China been more “equal.” Indeed, to visit Beijing as it approaches the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is to be dazzled by the city’s single-mindedness of purpose. Anyone arriving in China is bound to be impressed by the magnificent new Norman Foster–designed Capital Airport that opened just this February and by the new Beijing Olympic Park with its dramatic Herzog and deMeuron–designed “bird’s nest” stadium and its equally startling bubble-skinned, transparent National Swimming Center, known as the “swimming cube.” The dingy Soviet-style apartment blocks, disheveled courtyard houses, and defoliated streets that I first came to know in the 1970s Beijing during the Cultural Revolution have all but vanished. Now, one is everywhere overwhelmed by new “development,” or fazhan, a word that has attained almost sacerdotal overtones in this new China whose leaders have, indeed, sponsored an economic revolution that has transformed their country. That so many people are now able to imagine a better future has gone a long way toward explaining the durability of Communist Party rule.

Beijing has seemed bent on making the upcoming games so magnificently endowed with new facilities and so flawlessly run that they will be unforgettable. Indeed, in speaking with Chinese, it is impossible to miss the feelings of pride and patriotism that the games have generated. Almost everyone I spoke with, whether high or low, seemed to feel some identification with this dashi, or “great enterprise,” as Chinese used to refer to the efforts of Confucian dynasties to gain and hold the “mandate of heaven” that legitimized an emperor’s right to rule.

After a century and a half of famine, war, weakness, foreign occupation, and revolutionary extremism, a growing number of Chinese—overseas as well as inside China—had come to look to the Olympic Games as the long-heralded symbolic moment when their country might at last escape old stereotypes of being the hapless “poor man of Asia”; a preyed-upon “defenseless giant”; victim of a misguided Cultural Revolution; the benighted land where in 1989 the People’s Liberation Army fired on “the people.” In one grand, symbolic stroke, the Olympic aura promised to help cleanse China’s messy historical slate, overthrow its legacy of victimization and humiliation, and allow the country to spring forth on the world stage reborn —”rebranded” in contemporary parlance—as the great nation it once had been, and has yearned for so long to once more become….

So, like Liu Xing’s Ph.D. orals, the games had come to be anticipated as the cathartic act in a long agonizing historical drama in which China would finally fulfill its almost mythic destiny: its quest for fuqiang, “wealth and power.” Like Dark Matter’s antihero, who imagines himself arriving triumphantly back in China heaped with prizes and his American Ph.D. to fall into the welcoming embrace of proud parents and country, many Chinese dared hope that China, resplendent with Olympic medals and with new respect, would come closer to attaining their long-denied dream of greatness.

It was into this atmosphere of hopeful expectation that the Tibetan protests intruded. “Chinese felt: This is our time!” Chen Shi-Zheng told me.

And then, along come the Tibetan demonstrations, which made them feel as if they were again being thwarted, as if what they finally rightfully deserved was going to be denied.

Given the lens of disappointment through which many Chinese saw the Tibetan uprising, it was hardly surprising that indigenous protesters, the exile Tibetan movement, and even the Dalai Lama himself quickly came to be viewed as traitors, creatures of foreign forces conspiring to snatch China’s prize—its new world status— from its grasp, much as the protagonist in Dark Matter had come to view his Chinese rival as having betrayed his Chineseness by selling out to foreign masters, their American professors, and denying him his rightful prize.

That may be confusing to outsiders trying to make sense of all this is that despite China’s stunning accomplishments, few Chinese of my acquaintance, at least, have yet allowed themselves to be psychologically convinced by China’s success, to embrace a new national belief in China’s establishment as a leading nation. To do this, I suppose, they would have to fully believe that they already are, in fact, successful and powerful; that the world has already begun to look on their country with a growing sense of wonder, even envy; and that the past is, in fact, the past.

As Xu Guoqi suggests in Olympic Dreams, Olympic medals may not be the answer to what ails. “China,” he writes,

has been obsessed with winning gold metals in major international competitions to demonstrate China’s new status as an economic and political powerhouse….

Although China’s pursuit of Olympic gold medals clearly coincides with the nation’s journey toward internationalization and achieving new status in the world, the state-driven championship mentality still reflects a combination of Chinese can-do confidence and the country’s lingering inferiority complex. A nation that obsesses over gold medals is not a self-assured nation.

Xu goes on to caution that

Beijing has used its so-called gold medal strategy to demonstrate China’s rise in power and wealth, but the political system that the Communist Party has tried to legitimize through sports and other means cannot produce a healthy and strong nation when its citizens have been forced to give up their independence and even personal dignity.

When it comes to accepting outside criticisms related to sensitive topics such as the Olympic Games, Tibet, Darfur, and Burma, Chinese leaders undeniably are thin-skinned. Their defensive reactions suggest that their memories of historical weakness and humiliation still burn with intensity. And while honest criticisms should not be muted just because Chinese leaders find them grating, as we foreigners interact with China, we should become more mindful that much dark matter generated by this history still floats around our common universe….

While we often imagine ourselves to have escaped the confines of that history—or that history somehow ended —it would be naive to forget that we remain part of the equation. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, America can still have a powerful psychological gravitational pull on China, which grows as much out of history as out of current foreign policy.

A film like Dark Matter helps us see the complexity of this relationship more clearly, because it is able to probe the psychological recesses of our complex relationships far more deeply than any kind of policy analysis.

If there is one certainty in all of this uncertainty, it is that, because there exists no more important bi-lateral relationship in the world today than that between the US and China, it is crucial for us to understand as much as we can about its almost infinite complexity. Chen Shi-Zheng’s absorbing film helps us see into the complex and sometimes dark well-springs of feeling between East and West that, because of their deep historical origins, are still able to intrude in myriad destructive ways into our collective present.

To go against the grain of this essay, Japanese have said to me, “China has 5000 years of not living up to its potential.” The humiliation obsession, while it may be highly useful in the short run as a motivating force and a means of social cohesion, seems destined to impede China’s assumption of a leadership role on the global stage. The US has learned that unilateralism and “us versus them” posturing only succeeded in weakening our international position, even though we had the advantage of being the world’s sole superpower. China’s sense of isolation and persecution is more deeply rooted and unless it has skilled diplomats at the helm, it may wind up undermining the success it is so desperate to achieve.

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  1. esb

    Would it not have been appropriate for Lu to have reversed the order of the assasination string, and to have started with himself?

    But, of course, none of them ever do that.

    Or perhaps most of them do.

  2. Anonymous

    Yves, I think you’re glossing over what a hard lesson some things are to learn:

    “The US has learned that unilateralism and “us versus them” posturing only succeeded in weakening our international position, even though we had the advantage of being the world’s sole superpower.”

    Looking at the discourse around foreign policy and the military in the McCain and Obama campaigns, I think you have to question if the US has “learned that lesson.”

    That’s not to criticise the US, just to say that as it’s hard for the US to give up on decades of militarist thinking, so it’s hard for China to give up decades of isolationist thinking.

    For example, a friend of mine estimates that it will be at least another generation before the US can approach relations with Russia in a rational frame of mind. Whole sections of the current political class need to get old and retire/die off.

    It seems reasonable to say something similar about China (and Russia) too.

  3. Anonymous

    Hmmm lets see………………. an emerging superpower with an inferiority complex, wary of humiliation, coming up against another superpower with a love of humiliating and pronouncing their superiority over all.
    Sounds like a very volatile mix.

    Sure hope it works out well.

  4. Richard Kline

    This detailed essay probes some compelling issues, if without really settling upon a perspective of Why contemporary Chinese are culturally defensive at a level that they incorporate a narrative of imposed humiliation in their present worldview. That they do so is a reasonably accurate statement. They say so; we see so; read a newspaper and we are near daily reminded in this issue or in that one. I would caution against aligning this macro-narrative with the grievances of one graduate student; that comparison is unhelpful, to me.

    There are several very important historical issues which have a bearing on the the source of this Chinese narrative not raised in this essay at a relevant level or at all. To begin with, China _was_ conquered and occupied. More than once. By other people who were very much perceived by the Chinese as cultural inferiors, certainly so in a technological and organizational sense. The longest lasting and most pervasive of those conquest-occupations survived almost into living memory: the Manchu conquest. The Manchu are defeated, and rule no more, anywhere, but the legacy of eight generations of foreign governance is stained deep in the grain of Chinese society. The modern Chinese can’t blame the now neglibible and out of power Manchurians for their own night sweats and occasisonal shouting matches, but the bad dreams linger—so someone has to be blamed, even if they know not who. That is one view of mine.

    Then there is the issue that two of the three worst wars of the last two hundred years have been civil wars in China. Decades long, grinding, lethal, ruinous. In neither case did the end of hostilities lead to a ‘prosperous recovery and reconciliation,’ making it difficult to come to terms with the immense costs in wasted lives and opportunities. This is not to blame the Chinese for folly, their civil wars were driven by real divisions and long-term historical changes. The first and worst of those civil wars coincided with a partial effort to overthrown the Manchu occupiers, an effor which failed; this must be understood. There is a great overhang of suffering without full resolution here, though. This is something that I think Western governments in particular fail to comprehend or handicap in their thinking at any meaninful level, not least because these events “are in the past.” issues such as this last in societies, for generations; the beliefs very much part of present experience show the dimension and form of their crucible even if the vessel is no longer in view. A ‘battered child’ aspect, to use an extremely poor but marginally useful metaphor, is something which can results, and is in play here to a degree in my view. Success will take out some of the pain, but these things take generations.

    . . . But why blame the West, for a third point/question? Assuredly, all Western countries treated China extremely badly, from the mid-1800s into the last generation, economically, militarily, politically. So much is true. More than that, so much more, the racism, too, was overt and in their face in their own house at a very despicable level. I don’t think non-Chinese really grasp this fact at the level they should, the overt full-frontal racism with which non-Chinese engaged the Chinese on a minute-by-minute basis. We forgive ourselves too easily this, and turn to self-serving forgetfulness now that the Chinese are a people with whom to reckon, again—but we make no apology, nor seek any real reconciliation for the dealings or views of many among us time was (and time still is, too much, from too many). Believe me, the Chinese sense this lack of apology and genuine reappraisal whether or not they articulate that sense or perception. Their leadership is too focused and well-counciled to give in publicly to contesting this, but there is sure to be a real undercurrent of resentment which has its source in unresolved past rascist treatment. This is not to forgive the Chinese their own flaws and at times racist views, but the kind of response we see from them, to me, has a ‘residual racist’ undercurrent to me. It is telling that this essay made no mention of this, and I do not mean that as a criticism, directly, of its author: Those who are of groups with past racist behavior against others ‘dont’ get it’ when they get back continuing defensiveness from the descendants of the recipients. I will wager that perceptive African-Americans very much get where the Chinese are coming from in this. It’s not simply a ‘culture of grievance’ but having to treat the inflictors now as if nothing ever happened. That’s crazymaking in its way.

    But here is the statement in this essay which, to me, touches on the heart of the issue: “These frequently uncompromising self-critiques first started in the early part of the twentieth century when Chinese reformers began denouncing traditional Confucian culture, above all because it seemed to have left them so weak before the technological superiority of the West.” The Chinese perceive themselves as a culture of greatness, with millennia of very much superior accomplishment IN EVERY FIELD OF ENDEAVOR. And they are correct in most respects in that view. Given the advantages and achievements they have had, it is culturally incomprehensivel how they came to be conquered, were occupied so long, found other distant peoples become vastly ‘advanced’ techonologically and in other respects in the interim, and got the back of the hand from the latter during bad years of putting their own country in order. “If we’re so good, how is it that we got raped and trampled on?” This is not the kind of question easily answered, though there are answers for that too long for a comment here. Their are larger macrohistorical trajectories at work, here, and specific geo-strategic issues in play. But the causal inputs aren’t ones of blame, racism, or malediction, even if those separate inputs have been selected as ‘the answer to Why.’ And moreover, those inputs are mostly in the past: China, now, can be what it can be given its resource base and vast population, which both are both assets and liabilities in different ways.

    A real problem, here, is the very inability to formulate a meaningful answer to the “Who came Great China to be cast down?” question. Most folks are not scholars, particularly of history or society: they need answers, want simple answers, and will accept simplistic answers which sound ‘right’ if they have no better ones. In my view, the Chinese narrative of humiliation is such a simplistic answer. It is correct in all its details but not the answer to the question “Why did Great China get rolled ugly?” . . . Unfortunatley, simplistic answers tacitly accepted to questions for which they don’t apply are the very hardest beliefs to change because one has to learn why the original _tacitly framed_ question was wrong, which since the question was never really asked is hard to get the believer to perceive at all. This narrative is all the more insidious in that way. It could be twisted into an ugly nationalism, or it could dissipate; neither outcome is locked in at all, as I view the context.

    I hope success eases these somewhat dysfunctional narratives, and China reframes a national perception around real and present achievements. This is possible, not least because they are working very hard to achieve somethings that they _want_ for themselves.

    I will say separately that that Japanese view of ‘5000 years of wasted opportunity’ is both false, noisome, and smacks of racism. I’m not accusing you of anything in saying that, Yves; it’s a known perspective, relevant to the issue, and bears repeating. In my view, it is dead wrong, and says everything about the Japanese and little to nothing about the Chinese. There are many things in millennia of Chinese culture which one may question, and I do not mean to or take it as my place to advance a Sino-centric perspective on anything. If one follows the history and the culture, their record of achievement stands with anyone’s, however; they have their failings, and their strengths. It will be a good day when the Chinese as a people cease to see their failings as imposed by others and their strengths as something which much be snatched from others, as in this narrative of humiliation. In this century and going forward, what they achieve—large or small, good or ill—they achieve of their own effort and purpose. They can take solace and direction from that fact, and I hope that they do.

  5. Anonymous

    There is a line in a Country and Western song "Why don't you play another 'Somebody done somebody wrong song?" which I quote just to show how the notion of victimization runs very deep in America. Both in the C&W crowd and in the Left
    So it is that the article cited blames past Western racism for the current Chinese racism. This excuse which is used in various forms to excuse the attitudes of the "oppressed." To me the idea that the Chinese could not have their own Racism, but that it was induced by the Conquerors, is in itself an extremely racist idea
    (See Freud's theory on "Identification with the successful aggressor" for another version of this idea)
    Well with this reframe in mind, let me defend the Chinese by suggesting that they came by their racism honestly. (An old Chinese maxim "Nothing good comes through the front door.")
    The Han must be congratulated as the most successful conquerors on earth. Like the Borg they have assimilated smaller groups. It goes on today not only with the Tibetans and Moslems. There is the ongoing Mandarin-azation of the language of the country.

    The Olympic display is just the evidence of the re-emergence of the natural superiority of the Han.
    The fact that it is based upon Western technology and industrial displacement is an irony overlooked in Beijing.

  6. Anonymous

    I dunno man. The dehumanizing treatment meted out is typical of the attitude of professors toward any and all of their graduate students. It takes me back to grad school and the unbelievable nastiness of the profs. And I’m native born Caucasian.

  7. k

    Let me add some additional points following Richard’s excellent analysis:

    One of my Jewish friends (I’m Chinese by the way, came to US after college) once told me, “I can smell an antisemite a mile away.” Same can be said of Chinese and attitudes towards China and the Chinese. An intelligent English-speaking Chinese person can roughly tell if another person has a “preset” mindset on China pretty quickly. It maybe subtle, but you can pick up signals here and there. The phrase he use, the fact he choose to present, and of course, the tone and the attitude. I maybe overly sensitive, or have an “inferiority complex”, but that’s my experience. (Sadly, I can only imagine how a Tibetan feel when an self-indulgent Han Chinese talk to him about Dalai Lama.)

    Second, there is a generation gap in the attitudes towards “western powers.” For people over 35-years-old and brought up in an ideology saturated era, there’s a strange love-hate mix of attitudes towards west. (Lu Gang will be about 45-years-old if he’s still alive.) Most of them don’t have college education and could not speak English. Their knowledge on the west and Chinese history are largely based on the textbooks written in Mao era. They are naturally wary of “ill-intentioned” foreign powers which would like to split and weaken China as a potential challenger (a statement which is not totally incorrect, by the way); yet they were “shocked and awed” with the California lifestyle when they watched soap opera “Falcon Crest” in the 80s. (“Falcon Crest” maybe the first soap opera introduced into China since it “reveals the decadent lifestyle and utilitarian-based personal relationship in the capitalist society” :) They are the generation responsible for where China stands today: an abject poor country which bootstraps itself out of poverty, yet seems lost its moral and ideological compass; a proud and dazzling nation yet seems defensive and fragile.

    Now, for people under age 35, they were brought up in a largely ideology free society. (In Deng Xiaoping 1992 speech, the Party was told to “prevent the rightist, but mainly the leftist.”) We are the first generation growing up in China without major political or military turmoil. (I was barely a teenage in the summer of 1989.) English is mandatory in middle-school curriculum, and many of us study abroad or work for a multinational company. In about ten to fifteen years, this age cohort will come to power in Chinese government, large state-owned enterprises and cultural and intellectual entities. So what are their states of mind?

    In the group I travel, “confidence/optimism” maybe the best words to describe the mood.(Incidentally, a recent Phew survey found China has the highest percentage respondents with optimal future outlook.) Ill-founded or not, we will wait and see. With regard to international relations, I foresee continued pragmatic and interest-based approach with more participations in international affairs to present Chinese viewpoint. Culturally speaking, China may still be the bogey man in the foreseeable future. Frankly speaking, I just don’t care. We’ve learned to smell the ideological rats in the main stream media a mile away. So what if the west wants to execute its China policy on biased reports and flawed analysis (in my view, at least)? Go ahead, I sure won’t stop you.

    Now if you will excuse me, I have to get back to Olympic programs.

  8. Anonymous

    I taught English at a university in China way back in 1988-1989. One of my courses was made up of professors seeking to bolster their English skills. We often had free-ranging discussions on a variety of subjects, including international relations. One day a professor in his mid-thirties asked me, in class, the following question: “Miss Susan, why is it that, although Chinese culture and civilization are the greatest, China is still a very backward country?” He was genuinely perplexed.

    I can’t remember my response.

  9. Cha Cha

    I actually remember the case from 1991. It was about a girl. The killed Chinese student was perceived as a more talented and was preferred by the professors. He also received a prestigious award which the killer coveted too. On top of that the girl went with the award… Then the rejected loser decided to rectify this great injustice and killed them all. He also left five(5) letters with lofty mambo-jumbo apparently trying to convince himself how right he was. It looks like this movie (and various articles) spin the story according the manure found in the letters. But I expected that anyway…

  10. Yves Smith

    I am probably going to get myself in big trouble on this one….but I am doing so in the hopes of sharpening the discussion.

    The racial issue is no doubt a big one, and America tends to be in huge denial (we believe our melting pot PR and forget how badly each new wave of immigrants was treated), despite our record of the use of Chinese labor in the 1800 and internment of Japanese in WWII.

    As valid as it no doubt is, I am not certain how productive focusing on it is. Even though I am a WASP, I got a teeny dose of what it must feel like to be in a minority by virtue of moving frequently as a child to small towns where I was inevitably the outsider, and treated accordingly, and then by virtue of being in a minority on Wall Street and then a gaijin working for the Japanese.

    A lot of my peers focused on the (quite ample) evidence of discrimination. I found ignoring it to be the better remedy. Showing weakness or sensitivity merely feeds doubts. However, I’ve also tested as being either unbaised or slightly biased in favor of out groups in the Harvard implicit bias tests, and hired a mini UN the one time I had control over my staffing, so I may be insufficiently attuned to this issue.

    So it is hard to know what to do, on a practical level, probe an encrusted wound, or hope that it will eventually heal? Unfortunately, the Chinese almost seem to be engaging in psychological self-mutilation.

    The problem with well-warranted sensitivity to racism is that it is easy to conflate other forms of prejudice with that. For instance, many Americans demand cultural assimilation and are hugely suspicous of people who don’t speak English well, have an accent, or wear ethnic garb. We tend to be intolerant of the “other” in many forms, and it may be getting worse (or more open) with the demonization of illegal immigrants.

  11. Anonymous

    What little I know of psychology is that the search for validation from the outside will never be successful. China’s desire to feel better about its collective self via the Olympics, growth, world leadership, whatever, will inevitably fail. If you are insecure, and worse, as they do, cultivate insecurity, you will ever remain insecure.

    So the more interesting question becomes: why do the leaders cultivate this attitude? As simpleminded as it sounds, I’d assume it is because insecure people are often overachievers. But are there risks to such extreme cultivation of insecurity? I have to believe there are, although I’m not imaginative enough to tease them out.

  12. Anonymous

    This is probably going to flamed, but: to me the most interesting observation was Lu Xun’s: “We either look up to them [foreigners] as gods or down on them as wild animals.” Certainly for many centuries China took for granted that it was the center of civilization, even to disdaining (or affecting to disdain) the snowballing technological advances in the West. Against that background the ultimate humiliation by the West must have been a terrible shock; moreover, at some level they may realize that they invited this humiliation, given the rapacious nature of Western imperialism, by choosing to remain technologically backward. (Contrast the Japanese.) One result is that the Chinese will never again pretend they have nothing to learn from the foreign devils; e.g., no group has taken up Western science and technology with more enthusiasm. There are thousands of Chinese (and other Asians, to be sure) in US universities, and have been for years. (The events surrounding the grad student in the movie, tragic though they were, probably have much more to do with the age-old jealousies of young men than with any deep significance about Chinese history, as someone remarked above.)

  13. Anonymous

    …unwelcome actions by other countries—such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999—…

    WTF? “Unwelcome action” is a very strange euphemism. People were killed, you know.

  14. Anonymous

    Yves, I think you should stick to what you know best, IE stuff with a dollar sign in front. Chinese history is unfortunately outside of your ability to comprehend.

    The search for reclamation from defeat is natural course of action for any culture. What is unnatural for the West and specifically America is: 1. The lack of history for horrendous defeat and enslavement. 2. A utter lack of comprehension for the significance of history. Being on the giving end of violence, the west is unable to truly understand the horrors of its actions. The average westerner knows colonialism is bad, but not how bad. This blind spot in history cause the west to wonder around believing everything is alright when in fact they are not. The west does not question its beliefs but instead simply assume them to be universal. When this is applied to cultures that have faced past transgression from the west (Namely Middle east and China) the reaction is like the response from rubbing salt onto the wound. So when you question how long till China heals itself by having the west poke around it. The answer is quite obvious: Why is the west still poking around it.

  15. Yves Smith

    Anon of 2:21 AM:

    The article was not written by me, but by Orville Schell. I made no statements regarding Chinese history, merely pointed out that the Vietnamese, who had have suffered far longer periods of occupation than the Chinese, did not choose to focus on the theme of humiliation.

    If you had bothered clicking on the link, you would have learned that Schell is the former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US–China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. Asia Society, if you don’t know, is a very connected, high power organization.

    His books are:

    Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood (2000)
    Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China’s Leaders (1995)
    Mandate of Heaven: A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, Dissidents, Bohemians, and Technocrats Lays Claim to China’s Future (1994)
    Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (1988)
    Modern Meat (1984)
    To Get Rich Is Glorious: China in the Eighties (1984)
    Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!: China Encounters the West (1980)
    Brown (1978)
    In the People’s Republic: An American’s First-Hand View of Living and Working in China (1978)
    In the People’s Republic: An American’s First-Hand View of Living and Working in China (1977)
    The Town That Fought to Save Itself (1976)
    Modern China; The Making of a New Society, from 1839 to the Present (1972)
    Modern China: The Story of a Revolution (1972)

    And you contend he doesn’t know Chinese history?

  16. Anonymous

    2:21, I don’t get what your beef is.The article was interesting and I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

    As for the “westerners don’t get occupation and defeat,” spare me. What was World War II about? Hitler took advantage of the damage done by punitive reparations imposed by the Allied powers after WWI. And Germany thought it was a second-class European citizen because it didn’t have a colonial empire (hence the call for lebenstraum).

    There is a lot more to WWII than that, but Hilter had smoldering resentments and got an entire nation to adopt his world view.

    You also miss the point re China. As you suggest, plenty of cultures and peoples have suffered at the hands of colonizers and been on the losing side in war. But China obsesses over these indignities. This seems to put them apart.

    Public schools are the vehicle for imprinting a country’s version of its history. The Germans reportedly do not flinch from recounting their WWII atrocities, while Japan won’t acknowledge the Rape of Nanking or its use of comfort women. I am not endorsing the Japanese approach, but the point is if they can choose to bury something that recent and verifiable, it is far from inevitable that the Chinese should wallow in past failings and make them central to their sense of cultural identity. This is a choice, not a given.

  17. k

    My complaint with Schell’s article is his oversell of “humiliation” meme in his essay. Yes, national pride is an important element in many contemporary Chinese policies and historic trauma is still in the back of many Chinese minds when they are dealing with foreigners. Somehow, Schell made it seem like the overwhelming factor. How about economic interests, national geopolitical concerns, party power base consolidation, etc.? Chinese launch of moon-orbiting satellite definitely boosted national pride, but its main purpose is for the development of domestic space industry; Lenovo’s purchase of IBM PC business was hailed as a milestone in Chinese overseas business expansion, but Lenovo made a bold strategic business decision to survive in the highly competitive electronics industry (and they did an okay job, so far), not for the sake of good feeling of “See, we’re buying America now!” With regard to backlash against western condemnation on Tibet, there’s a wide-spread belief among Chinese that the timing and orchestrated false report in the west is to provoke internal instability within China before Olympic and gained an upper hand when dealing with China. (Course expression on the ground is that Taiwan and Tibet (two “T”s) are the two balls of China. The west would like to squeeze them from time to time, just to cause pain.) Dalai Lama therefore was perceived as a “Western pawn” within China, not a spiritual leader as west media portraits him. (By the way, with the history of receiving funding from CIA and National Endowment for Democracy – NED, financial backers of “color revolution” in East Europe-, who can blame Beijing to regard Dalai Lama as a political figure and call him a “splittist”?) So the surface, it looks like Chinese government is flaming nationalistic flame and invoking people’s humiliation memory, but alas, not everything is what it looks like.

    (Note: I’m not here to defend Chinese government or its policy, just to point out superficiality I regard in Schell’s argument.)

    Also, Orville Schell maybe a fine scholar and has extensive experience and connections in the region, but a leading expert on China? I don’t think so. My limited reading suggest his books are not widely cited among academic Sinologists, and among contemporary China observers, well, we all have our own preference. (Interestingly, some American Chinese history scholars have quite a large following among Chinese history buffs, precisely because their work has a different take on Chinese history. John Fairbank(deceased) from Harvard, Jonathan Spence from Yale, their (translated) works are quite popular among Chinese young college students.)

    Now back to games.

  18. Richard Kline

    *sign* China did not “choose to remain technologically backward.” That statement—I’m not saying this as an accusation but an observation—does not engage with the historical context in China in the 19th century, or in the preceding centuries. There were active attempts at modernization. The carapace of a sclerotic empire made that of limited effect. The fact that China was continually under attack and economic assault at the same time, made the effort moot. There are many other issues involved as well. Incidentally, copying Western technology and political organization is not a relevant criterion for success, but that is a longer and different argument.

    Here are two other things to consider, just for starters. As of c 1500, Chinese technology was at least on par and in many respects superior to European technology. Within a hundred years, China’s government was in collapse, and in 150 they were occupied by a parasitic foreign conquest state. That is not even the most important reason China ‘didn’t keep up.’ I can demonstrate WHY China did not, but that’s a long argument involving models and theory not published. But the takeaway here is that China’s context was different, worse, and not of their own making at least.

    Another point, little understood, is that from the standpoint of having a developed financial economy China in the 18th century was in many ways as proficient as Europe. There were not equities, but lending was very sophisticated, and trade was international at the regional level, profitable, and growing. What happened? Europeans took over the China sea and effectively neutered the sweet spot of China’s trade network, which capped a very low ceiling on China’s ability to modernize itself financially and economically. This information is available, but not widely understood even by China scholars. Europe killed Chinese competition regionally, then occupied the seaboard and tried to cannabilize the Chinese domestic economy. It is not an issue of China ‘failing’ ON THEIR OWN ENDEAVORS; they got kicked down the stairs. There is a great deal more here.

    China does not have ‘an inferiority complex.’ The Chinese are not ‘insecure.’ I understand why those phrases were chosen in the context of these comments, but they are a serious misreading of this issue in Chinese society. Consider k.’s point: the Chinese generation under 35 are _highly_ optimistic, and confident of their ability personally and as a society to achieve. I also agree with k. that Schell rather overemphasizes ‘humiliation’ in his discussion, though I think deliberately as a means to draw out a thesis rather than an out and out misreading. As I tried to emphasize in earlier comments, the historical and social inputs to this mood in China are difficult to articulate exactly because they do not have a single, clear, root cause. Schell probed the issue, and I think in good faith.

    China has a pronounced cognitive dissonance between a very long position of assumed intrinsic cultural supremacy and recent historical execration. There is no good ‘explanation’ resolving this belief in efficacy and evidence of inefficacy, so a sense of blame is attached to obvious if narrower grievances. I think a sense of diffuse grievance is a clumsy but more accurate description than ‘humiliation.’ Only success will relieve that, but success is coming.

    I’ve found Fairbanks’ work very insightful myself.

    To Anon of 4:19, Germany’s inputs to both World Wars are considerably deeper and more complex than your characterization. In that light, it is unsurprising that your dismissal of the societal impact of generations long _subjugation_ doesn’t seriously engage with that issue, either. You’ve read the abstract on these issues; I suggest you read the ‘book’ as well, and better yet several.

  19. Anonymous

    China did not “choose to remain technologically backward.”

    Oh, really? Then why did they destroy Cheng Ho’s (or whatever romanized version you prefer) seagoing fleet in the early 1400s? And then ban seagoing ships completely? Yes, it was a consequence of an internal power play; but destroying such a capability requires an unusual degree of hubris on the part of the leadership.

    Around the same time China had an embryonic iron industry that was ahead of any in the world. They also throttled that capability, as I recall because the emerging merchant/industrial class was perceived to be too much of a threat to the bureaucracy.

    As you note, ca. 1500 Chinese technology was the equal of any in the world. By 1600 they were demonstrably behind, largely because of their own actions. That was _long_ before the serious European military pressure on China in the 19th century!

  20. Anonymous

    Note further that if China had maintained that seagoing capability, their trade networks in the China Sea would hardly have been displaced by Europeans.

    China did cripple itself, badly and on its own initiative. These were the actions of an inward-looking, complacent empire that truly thought it had nothing to fear from the outside world, and which therefore could pretend that its internal power struggles were all that mattered.

    It was a mistake, or rather a series of mistakes, with staggering long-term consequences.

  21. Richard Kline

    The development of ‘technology’ in China, certainly in the 1500s, was not driven by policy decisions at the Imperial level. It is clear that you know this. The policy decision of a particular dynasty at a particular time cannot be extended by metonymy to describe a _culture_ as a whole. We can make many judgments regarding the decision of a particular dynasty at a particular time to limit sea activity. The inability to revive that capability after c. 1550 had everything to do with political collapse, multiple invasions, and occupation, and cannot be described as a _cultural_ decision to suppress technology.

    I’m not disputing the particular policies you cite, Anon, but asking you to see them in a larger context and cease to use them as labels for a culture. If China, for example, had maintained a major fleet after 1450, this would have done NOTHING to defend their interior border except drain significant sums of money from that latter effort in a country where tax collection was collapsing and misspent when received. Chinese naval capacity in the 1600s was from areas hostile and resistant to the Manchu occupation—and a capacity which was crushed after long conflict. Thus, the lack of Chinese military naval capacity in 1700-1900 had more to do with foreign occupation and the stinting of a potentially hostile power base than an assessment of a _cultural_ decision. See these issues in their political context without culturally generalizing them.

    There are multiple levels in Chinese society; this is not well described by outsiders who focus on Imperial policy and politics. Technology and commerce have been driven ‘from below’ for 1500 years, and are very much so now. Unless policy from ‘the center’ prohibits actions, modern Chinese society innovates and trades, and with very considerable success historically and presently, I might add. That is the record as I see it. Official policy from the center to suppress commerce and innovation at times has everything to do with domestic politics and historical tradition and little to do with the _culture_ AS A WHOLE. I think you grasp this from your last comments, Anon, so accept the conclusion: it is not the Chinese as a people, or Chinese society as a collective enterprise and tradition which have ‘failed to innovate’ but self-interested and at times parasitic central elites who have interfered. The reasons for this ‘interference’ are not all of them bad, but they cannot be used in and of themselves as determinative indicators of the society as a whole. Particularly when the government of the center for really the last five hundred years has been _inimical_, repressive, and burdensome to the Chinese as a people. The present government of China is the most responsive and cooperative seen in that country for centuries, look at it that way. And their greatest contribution, one whose continuance is far from assured, is simply to get out of the way of their own people and let them achieve. Yes, lassiez faire (of which I’m no great fan, but), had been a blessing to China, and something historically new as a government policy, very new.

  22. slg

    It seems our differences may be largely semantic. You seem to be claiming that the actions of an overweening, repressive central government over the centuries were largely responsible for China’s technological backwardness. I fully agree. I would merely add that that “historical tradition” is an important part of the culture of China, though to be sure it’s not all of the culture. Indeed, I would suggest that the cultural ideal of a stable, ordered government is more important in China than the West, and that that ideal motivates much of that historical tradition. Think of the “mandate of heaven” and the fear of another Warring States period. I would also submit that, insofar as the current regime has broken that tradition, at least to some degree, it’s because of their recognition that those policies seriously weakened China. (The Russians still seem to be groping toward a similar conclusion, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.) Certainly, the current Chinese regime is nothing if not nationalistic.

    I’d also note that mere “conflict” is not an excuse for technological backwardness. Conflict in fact is often a spur to technical innovation, particularly military innovation. After all, that period around 1600, when Europe was as riven with internal religious and political conflict as it’s ever been, saw an explosion of military innovations that persisted with little change till the mid 19th century.

  23. mxq

    If anybody wants to see proof that the gold medal winning Chinese gymnast is under-age…here you go.

    Disclosure, like the blog says, i could care less if they are underage or not…its just interesting how the Chinese press/gov’t predictably and categorically deny the truth.

    But I’m still wondering whats worse: this or a congressional hearing to determine if/why baseball players were going on Trenbolone benders.

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