What follows comes, in part, from reading Philip P. Pan’s: Out of Mao’s Shadow, and in part from dwelling a little on a recent Note of mine, that referred to the issue of understanding China. In it I noted two main points, which were built on my reading of Sam Crane’s article Understanding China- Or Not, which was itself built on Wang Qishan’s comment that Americans are “simple people” and that it “is not easy to really know China”. The two points I made were, one, most peoples’ knowledge of other cultures and societies is limited and thus could be perceived as being simple. Two, that while I recognize that understanding China can be seen as being multifaceted, I was seeing it as meaning understanding the mass of Chinese: the group Crane defines as lacking knowledge due to “limitations on knowledge within China itself”.
I will start here however with a brief anecdote that has coincidentally helped tie Pan’s book and those thoughts together. I was sitting quietly in the Village Café, tapping away at my computer, with Pan’s book sitting on the table next to me, when a youngish Chinese woman quietly asked if she could take a look at the book. (It should probably be noted that Pan’s book has the ‘Mao’ of the title written in large capital letters, while a statue of Mao also sits prominently on the front cover)
I looked up and handed it to her. Suddenly, a scenario began to play out in my mind where the book was being passed between silent shifting hands until it ended up in the possession of an undercover policeman, who was standing somewhere not far behind. The security official, after a quick inspection, nodded to a few of his security staff who swiftly lifted me from my seat.
As it turned out the young girl simply returned the book to me a few minutes later, smiling happily. And, I wasn’t to feel a shadowy hand land upon my shoulder. I did ask her what she thought, though. She said that it was the first time she had seen a foreigner reading about Mao. She continued to tell me that she had heard that most Americans thought Mao Zedong was a great leader, especially the generation of 1950’s America. I replied: “mmm”. She also animatedly informed me that her family thought of Mao in almost god-like terms; that he was not only a great leader but, in her own words, also a “genius as a personality”.
On hearing these words my mind instantly flashed through the pages and the contents of Pan’s book, that I had just been reading. The juxtaposition of the words from her lips and Pan’s *insights, vis-à-vis Party-State governance, struck such an incongruous note that they left me feeling slightly uneasy. My mind also span back to the point I had been trying to make in my last article: that to understand China is to understand the great majority of its population. A majority that probably does think and feel similarly to this young girl, even if not with quite the zeal she seemed to possess.
China can be seen and understood from a multitude of different viewpoints. The reading of Pan’s book offers one such perspective, and there are vast corpora of ancient and contemporary texts at our disposal that provide others. We are able to focus on political, historical, cultural, spiritual, medicinal and philosophical perspectives on China, and we can integrate all these, or parts of these, into some subtle, interrelated whole. It is just that if we don’t see China how the majority of the Chinese are seeing China, then I believe we are missing the point.
I know there would probably be difficulties in finding empirical evidence to support a generalized view of the thoughts of any one group in China. Though, in this instance it may well be possible. But, whether this is true or not, most people who have spent any length of time here would probably agree that certain perceptions are ubiquitous: ideas handed down from the educational system, news programmes and papers, soap operas, documentaries, films and parental advice. This not only includes limited information about periods in recent history and rosier than expected views of leaders and policies during those times, but also includes perceptions framed around very Chinese parables and philosophies.
There is a Chinese logic and form of rationality that seems to exist in a different dimension of space and time to our western version. There is also a generally straightforward, practical and accepting attitude towards life’s ups and downs. The importance of the ties between extended family cannot be understated, and how this attitude can be extended to friendship groups is important, as is of course the associated but more abstract issue of ‘beneficial’ relationships, and the back channels that they manifest within.
We could probably add to this list the absence of a certain set of communication skills, those related to introspective emotional and personal questioning, and the observations and debates that can naturally follow such questioning. These are generalizations in the extreme, and they are prone to suffer from accusations of subjective categorization, and things are changing:
“China’s rapid modernization of recent years has brought cultural transformation and destabilization. What does it mean to be “Chinese” now? That question is more open and more contested than at just about any other time in Chinese history.” (Sam Crane: More On Understanding China)
However, although I do agree with Sam Crane’s comment, as it is actually something I have raised concerns about before, particularly with regard to how unprepared many Chinese are for this changing context. I do for now stand by these general characteristics and perceptions. I do also recognize the validity of Sam’s further comment, while not completely agreeing with it:
“I think subjective experience can shape understanding, as can emotional attachment (or “visceral experience”). These provide a certain basis for understanding, but they can also create biases and distortions. If we are too close to a situation, we may be unable to see other aspects of the total picture, just as when we are too far away we cannot discern all the details. All of this simply demonstrates the complexity of reality. Perhaps none of us, either near or far, can know it all. But we should recognize the value of multiple perspectives, near and far…” (Ibid: comments section)
I still think there is a generalized sense of how many Chinese see themselves and see their society, and it is different to how many people in western societies see their equivalent reality. The Chinese environment is also one where a generally superficial engagement can exist, which is certainly not all bad but it is definitely different to how many non-Chinese approach life and its complexities. I am sure it will bring some benefits when dealing with many issues associated with developed societies, such as: divorce, unemployment, “self” applied and “other” applied pressure, broken families, and competitive job markets, amongst other things. But, such a surface engagement will also bring difficulties when dealing with these changing circumstances.
All the more reason for us, I would say, to stay alert to the fact that there are different perceptions of reality. It is probably better to understand that than misunderstand this fact and force people, although probably unintentionally, to defensively exaggerate their own cultural identity. Different people perceive reality differently: the hardest thing in the world is to recognize and accept other peoples’ perceptions of and emotional reactions to that reality. Only by truly recognizing and accepting that, can we have mutual understanding, and can we really create a space for meaningful dialogue, friendship and peace. Cold hard facts and clear and precise logic won’t necessarily do the job.
*Pan’s book, which I will discuss more in a forthcoming Note, reveals many of the darker realities that have existed and do still exist under the surface of Chinese society, stories that remain hidden from, or not fully articulated to, much of the population. It is a book that focuses on the lives of individuals who have tried to stand up to the might and ruthlessness that can exist within the country’s Party-State governance. It is a book that while highlighting the people’s fortitude, shown in the face of injustice, emphasizes the immense, all encompassing and repeatedly victorious power of the Party-State.