January 26, 2008

China Bashing

Filed under: blogs,China,culture,east-west,teaching — Kim @ 7:07 pm

Next semester at my university I’m going to be offering an optional course for 3rd and 4th year English language majors on “China through Western Eyes.” It will feature old chestnuts from culture studies like Edward Said and Stuart Hall, as well as well-established old China hands like Matteo Ricci, Pearl Buck, and the wonderful Peter Hessler.

But for the bulk of the course I intend to use stuff from the English-language Chinese blogosphere, so I’d appreciate any tips on what you think would be the the most meaty posts for my students to sink their teeth into. There’s a “list challenge” there…what would be your top-ten of recent posts you think would be most edifying/interesting for Chinese readers?

And I must confess to a bit of a worry. Namely that some students are going to get upset and possibly confrontational when faced with what they perceive as “China bashing.”

I’m really hoping to be proved wrong on this, but it seems to me very likely that an awful lot of Chinese would consider an awful lot of what is written about their country in the English-language China blogosphere to be “China bashing.” But then I would immediately follow that by saying that I think they are wrong. Most of it is not China bashing, it is simply criticism of China. There’s certainly no shortage of griping and venting, but so what? That’s life, and that’s certainly the blogosphere, and most of it is not meant to be offensive, I think. Though some of it clearly is, of which more later.

Most of the blogs I read, and certainly all the ones I respect, are critical of China because they like it here and they want to see things improve. And just to make it clear, we don’t just like it here…we like Chinese! (I can never say that without thinking of the Monty Python song.)

And it should also be said that most of the time the criticism is aimed at the party (the old and venerable “I hate/blame the bloody government” syndrome) and in my book to criticize any government of any nation is completely justified and in fact should be a mandatory duty for all good citizens. So any Chinese who gets upset at criticism of the CCP can go get a life.

A definition might be helpful here then. By China bashing I mean racist, mean-spirited, unconstructive criticism of Chinese.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t include misanthropic, grumpy, or satirical stuff in the above, although there is certainly a fine line sometimes. Where to place some of the old “Yellow Wings” posts? How to explain to an angry student that I find the definition “Han-dicapped (Adj): An inability to complete tasks and function properly because one is born Han Chinese” to be pretty funny? Surely they couldn’t deny that it’s witty!

One of the things I hope to do in my course is to problematise the concept of patriotism. As Samuel Johnson so splendidly put it, patriotism is often “the last refuge of the scoundrel” and another quote I’ll definitely be using is from Bo Yang’s “The Ugly Chinaman And The Crisis Of Chinese Culture.” (Thanks to the Stranded Mariner for this one.)

“Chinese people go overboard with their patriotism, to the point where even the most trivial act is a matter of patriotism. As a result of ‘loving their country’ so much, they have literally loved China to death. They ought to stop loving China so much. China doesn’t need that much love. Or if Chinese have some energy left over, they ought to spend it loving themselves, making themselves better people. True patriotism begins with loving and respecting yourself.”

There is certainly some stuff out there to make a “false” patriot’s blood boil, and a lot of it is racist.

One of my favourite bloggers over in Bejing, Mr Chris Waugh of bezdomny ex patria recently noted that

I thought Sinocidal had stopped posting…I thought wrong. They have continued the inevitable slide from “occasionally funny venting session” to “rarely funny and almost never useful vent if you’re a cynical expat unhappily stuck in China” to “stupid, boring and pathetic racist drivel”. Not that that slide takes particularly long… Anyways, such sites can kinda serve their purpose and are actually kinda useful in their early, frustrated and venting expat stages, but it really doesn’t take too long before they sink into the “I’m a superior Westerner stuck in inferior China” bullshit. I’m sitting here wishing I’d never clicked on that link I should’ve (and very early on intended to) delete from my bookmarks.

Well, yes…basically true…though I thought that enough of Sinocidal was witty and entertaining enough to merit checking it out from time to time.

But what to make of recent offerings like the following from MyLaowai?

Now, you may be of the opinion that I hold most Han Chinese in fairly low esteem. If so, you would be correct. Few groups of people in this world can collectively hold a torch to the Han, when the subjects are Greed, Spite, Sloth, Dishonesty, Cowardice, Arrogance, or any one of a hundred other sins.

One thing you can say is that he doesn’t mince his words. But when I read the following “Comic Poem“, I kind of wished I hadn’t…

I’ve been here more than fifteen years, it’s too late to go home –
I think the cancer’s got me in the stomach, lungs and bones,
And me nerves are all a shattered mess, and I’ve lost the will to live.
But with me final dyin’ breath this warning I will give:

Don’t come to Red China:
Land of sawn-off savage cunts.
The Women are cold-blooded monsters,
The Men retarded runts.
They always blame us foreigners
For all their stupid stunts.
So don’t come to Red China:
Land of sawn-off savage cunts.

Mr “MyLaowai” must be tall I guess, and it sounds like he’s proud of it. Still, as the psychiatrist once said of Basil Fawlty: “there’s enough for a whole conference here”, and I think he should be whisked away homeward by the men in white coats pronto. And the poem itself is about as funny as cancer.

But, nonetheless, I would still contend that if a Chinese person reads the poem and gets enraged by it, then that is an immature reaction. If somebody spouts shite about your race or your country on the internet then is it really such a big deal? There are times when you have to argue back and there are times even when you have to fight back, but rage at criticism all too often demeans the one being criticised and also gives the criticiser exactly the reaction they are looking for…something on their level.

I do think that an unfortunate character trait in some Chinese (some humans!) is a kind of prickly defensiveness about almost everything in their culture and an unwillingness to speak out anything that could possibly be construed as anti-Chinese when in front of a foreigner. So it’ll be interesting to see the reaction to some of my offerings in the course next semester.

And one more time as a gentle reminder and plea for help, please don’t forget my “list challenge”…what would be your top-ten (top 5? top 3 even!) of recent posts you think would be most edifying/interesting for Chinese readers.

Thanks muchly.

K

12 Comments

  1. Kim,

    It’s a fascinating idea. I don’t know if you’re using it or not, but Jonathan Spence’s “To Change China” is a great history of westerners and their ideas coming to China. You might find some interesting material in there for your course.

    As for the defensiveness, that’s natural. I’m a pretty fierce critic of current US policy, but I admit to a twinge when I’m in Europe or Asia and listen to people start to bash “Americans.”

    But I can rationalize that. Like me, most of the time people are criticizing the state, or a particular party’s policies, which I understand as being separate from the nation or my definition of the American people.

    In China, ideology and the demands of statebuilding, first under the KMT and later the CCP, stressed a unity of people/nation/state/party. The ‘patriotic education’ in the PRC reinforces a sense of the indivisiblity between state and nation. (With nation, in many case taking on a tone of ethnic sovereignty that can bring race and racism into the equation.) I think that’s one reason why when foreigners criticize Chinese government policies, it’s sometimes taken as an attack “on China.” For obvious reasons, the idea that to criticize one’s own government can be patriotic is not a popular one with the current regime.

    The “Patriotic Education” also hammers home the point of China’s fragility and humiliation in the past at the hands of imperial powers who, it is taught, are jealous, bitter, and scheming.

    Thus even the most constructive criticism is viewed with a great deal of cynicism.

    I applaud your efforts, it will be a fascinating and challenging course to teach, and I look forward to reading about how it works out and the reactions of your students.

    Cheers.

    Comment by Jeremiah — January 27, 2008 @ 1:18 am

  2. Jeremiah,

    Thank you! A useful tip and some helpful insights. Maybe I could use a few paras of your (anonymised) comment in one of my early lectures?

    cheers!

    Comment by Kim — January 27, 2008 @ 3:46 am

  3. I would just like to emphasize that I did on occasion find Sinocidal funny, and in its early stages it did serve a useful purpose, but like TTC before it it slid into the abyss pretty quickly.

    Well, it’s an interesting idea for a course, and I wish you luck with it. I can’t think of any specific posts that could be useful, and lacking Jeremiah’s genius and erudition, I certainly can’t think of any books for you to use. Oh, wait, Mark Salzmann’s Iron and Silk could be good… But the materials I would be looking for if I were to run such a course would be very much like Iron and Silk and largely narratives of exploration and discovery. I would also make an attempt to use only very measured and balanced criticism, when criticism is necessary. Obviously, MyLaowai’s little piece of doggerel you quoted above would be out of the question.

    Comment by chriswaugh_bj — January 27, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  4. Dang, I had wanted to read Bo Yang’s “The Ugly Chinaman And The Crisis Of Chinese Culture,”back in 2003 but for some reason it’d slipped my mind until now. My friend from Sichuan said he read it when he was in Beida. Apparently it was already a very popular book in China way back then. Thanks for the reminder.

    I agree with Jeremiah… The funny thing or rather the truth is, whenever I play devil’s advocate in class by praising China I get the opposite response from my Chinese students – almost none of them have very much good to say about their government. Go figure.
    Okay, I am sure my Chinese face in such cases is advantageous when the sense of mutual cultural understanding is subconsciously & automatically assumed. However where trust and respect is concerned, they will not be earned easily upon the merits of dry rationale, cold facts, and smart criticism — especially when they’re done in a foreign language. Not initially anyways. Argue and criticize in the subjects’ mother tongue with a little diplomacy and you’ll discovery a whole new dimension. This is true anywhere with any culture.
    Because I am a near native-Mandarin speaker I can basically talk about any subjects that may be taboo to non-native chinese speakers, and this includes my fellow overseas born Chinese/Asian English teachers who aren’t fluent enough in Chinese.

    Comment by chris K — January 27, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  5. Awesome idea. Hope you write about your findings and keep us posted.

    As for me, some blogs that I think would be awesome would be:
    1. Sinocidal (way edgy, to put it mildly, but I’m sure they’d get a kick out of some of it. Especially the Dashan post)
    2. Sinospice.com
    3. MaskofChina’s old Dalian site. Lots of great articles on there.
    4. Ryan’s Humanaught.
    5. LostLaowai Blog has a good mix of people posting.
    6. Ben Ross – this one is a must.
    7. Jeremiah’s Granite Studio. While it’s a bit too smart for my simple taste, it might be interesting for kids to see someone who knows more about their history than they do.

    Comment by Rick — January 28, 2008 @ 3:26 am

  6. @ ChrisW and ChrisK Thanks for the helpful comments and advice!

    @Rick. Good list, thanks! I had forgotten about Ben Ross and will definitely use his haircutting stuff. PS We, must hook up for a beer someday!

    Comment by Kim — January 28, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  7. If you’re really feeling up to the task, I would present this article:

    http://www.blackandwhitecat.org/2008/01/31/lost-in-translation/

    Comment by canrun — February 5, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  8. Nice one, thanks! Will use.

    Comment by Kim — February 7, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  9. I know you don’t really like Mylaowai, but this post may be interesting for your class. If you dare…

    mylaowai.wordpress.com/category/china/page/2/

    Comment by canrun — February 24, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  10. Aw, heck wrong link. I HATE the GFW. Just go to “08.27.07 A True History of the P.R.C.”

    When are you gonna post again? Vacation’s over!

    Comment by canrun — February 24, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  11. During one of his recent racist rants, “the Stranded Mariner” though himself very funny and witty when he start referring Chinese people as “pathetic little c**ts with mosquito brains”. I duly reminded him that he had married one and really got stuck into him.

    Needless to say, he did a nazi on me and removed whole the conversation from his post.

    Comment by stoogie — April 4, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  12. Dear Kimberley,

    you’re an arse but you’re also right for a change. Just don’t answer the door if any knocks late at night. How about Skyping some time?
    Frrr

    Comment by Uncle Frank — April 23, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

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