China’s Challenge: using its culture as an instrument of soft power
Lu Xun quoted: ‘The Chinese have either looked down on foreigners as brutes or up to them as saints, but have never actually been able to call them friends or speak of them as equals’.
The early nineteenth century brought not a clash of civilizations but a rupture in China’s settled way of life, sense of supremacy and imperial security. The Western impact was a rude awakening to the power of logic to form pathways to modernity. The West’s advantage over China stemmed from the Industrial Revolution, hastening the migration of people off the land into cities and providing the panacea of social democracy. The Chinese had no Greek roots, of course, no Aristotle, Socrates or Plato, neither Magna Carta nor rule of law, but they did have a civilisation based on moral codes: Confucian obligations rather than statutory rights. What are the odds of balancing the European Human Rights Act with a Human Obligations Code?
Faced with having to deal with each other for the first time, the Chinese and Westerners viewed one another with shock and disgust. Each must have struck the other as absurd. To the Chinese, Westerners were simply rude and hairy interlopers who had strayed in from the nether regions of the earth with nasty habits - an impression quickly reinforced by the odious opium trade. The Chinese called them ‘raw’, while those who had bothered to immerse themselves in a little local custom were called ‘cooked’. The West found China caught in a curious kind of time warp, apparently hidebound by ritual, elaborate attire and highly affected manners and forms of address.
The Chinese come at life from a different angle - almost another dimension. They have felt battered over most of the past two centuries. Today they are anxious to join the global club as equals, not associates. They live out the old virtues of self-esteem and patience with such diligence that strident vanity in a man-centred world is made an honorary virtue and strict morality almost a vice. In our common confusion over the mystery of life, they remain one step ahead on the ascent to enlightenment: while the English-speaking world talks of being ‘at sixes and sevens’, the Chinese talk of being ‘at sevens and eights’.
Much of this cultural clash arose from the teachings of Confucius in the form of a set of moral or ethical obligations applied to hierarchical members of a state, to patriarchal members of a family, and across networks through trustworthy friends. Confucius, like Christ, worked to lower the prevalence of enmity and strife, help stabilise society and bring peace. China’s stabilisation, resulting in a more structured state, also brought an increase in penal law and acknowledgement of the Emperor’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’. The mandate was, in effect, a right to rule with the rights liable to forfeit. The people would accept the Emperor’s mandate from on high provided he was just and fair. Acts of injustice would be countered with opposition to that mandate through riot and rebellion. Repression often followed with coercion its natural successor.
Confucius can come across as an enigmatic snob, going on as he does about ‘the superior man’. He is particularly down in his Analects on misbehaviour in public: ‘Respectfulness, without civilised behaviour, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, timidity; boldness, insubordination; straight-forwardness, rudeness’. Hints of incivility from the West, as interpreted by the Chinese, will thus take on hues of cheek, cowardice, truculence and insincerity. The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, admitted to a fondness for the ‘humorous and hairless Chinese’. While the British shun seriousness, the Chinese shun levity - in business. Where ribbing, joshing and ‘poking Charlie’ at people and problems are a great emollient in British dealings, the Chinese prefer the poker face of gravitas. That spontaneous snort of laughter you may sometimes hear will have burst out of deep cover for extreme embarrassment or confusion, never on account of a cunning pun or the wicked enjoyment of another’s misfortune. For what is laughter but the dislocation of a mind suddenly ambushed by surprise? The Chinese language does not permit such dissolution in serious discourse.
In Chinese eyes many Westerners still deserve the epithet ‘foreign devil’. Indeed, a common Chinese appraisal of Western character traits remains remarkably shrewd and constant: straightforward, principled at the expense of pragmatism, proud of academic credentials (but often less than competent), morally casual, dogmatic with little tendency to listen, trouble making, na?ve and privileged. Some of our snobbery rubs off on them too: ‘It’s such a pity Mr Wang became so fluent before he learnt the language’, as one Chinese was heard to say of another’s English. The way the Westerner is never perceived to be an equal means that trust can never quite be the same for a Westerner as for a networked Chinese. Friendship in this context is honorary and trust is thus utilitarian. There’s not much room for mateship.
The twin pillars of wisdom in the West have been law and religion (with a stout buttress of philosophy). The absence of both such pillars in China appears to have caused Western concern and some dismay. Western legal process enables governing controls over society - as does religion with its commandments and strictures. China also has controls, substituting a confrontational, dichotomous, legal process with an opaque bargaining system based on arbitration and reciprocity, two constructs not unusual in Western legal systems. The opacity is created by bargaining (which can be corrupt and manipulative) within closed networked connections (guanxi) to ensure ‘a very present help in trouble’. This explains their preference for the collective over the individual, the relational over the contractual and for accepting duties, obligations and responsibilities to family before country. Society in China is ordered by identity as a network: regimental honour over individual life. This is their Gordian knot, dry, locked and a tie that binds.
Rights and obligations separate West and East. The West’s failure is to conflate freedom with democracy resulting in crises created by open capitalism challenging democratic mandates. China’s primary clash is between communism and culture. The Communist Manifesto directly contradicts traditional Chinese family networks in practice: the abolition of land ownership with rents going to the public purse; graduated income tax; no rights of inheritance; property belonging to ‘outlaws’ such as rebels - and those who have fled the country - to be confiscated; a central state-owned bank with a monopoly on savings and loans; state control over communication and transport; state control over factories and agriculture; work for all through army style organisations; equal dispersion of rural and urban populations; free education and abolition of child labour. With the passable exception of point 10, the Manifesto challenges the integrity of the family, the bedrock of the Chinese value system, and destroys the networks which protected the individual from Imperial oppression. Riots and rebellions in China are not anti-government protests but ‘backs against the wall’ families fighting for network survival to retain the brittle fabric of trust amongst themselves.
Leaders after the imperial Mao Zedong, such as Deng Xiaoping and many like him in the Party, were not really Marxists but revolutionary nationalists wishing to see China on equal terms with the great global powers. Deng’s Reform and Opening Movement from 1978 began to erode much of the Marxist argument for a classless and stateless society. The 10 Manifesto requirements are going, if not gone; China is allowing private property ownership to rise, income tax is universal but needs private enterprise to make it work, more banks are being incorporated , some privatisation of communications and transport is occurring, private manufacturing and family agriculture are quite common, national army service is compulsory but limited, the hukou system (of household registration, a form of domestic passport) is restrictive, with the poor desperately heading for the cities but some rich cunningly heading for the country, and children enjoy greater protection. But these reforms are not Engels’ return to capitalism - they are back to a future of traditional family values and bedrock beliefs. For all Mao’s attempts to persuade Chinese workers of the dignity of labour and Marx’s labour theory of value, we now know that this was a load of cobblers, since value is determined purely by supply and demand. Productivity is a capitalist, not a socialist notion.
The rise of China will be unstoppable unless it fails to acknowledge the need for the restoration of a traditional mandate from the people. This mandate must permit participation by the people in the organisation of their affairs and the true representation of their legitimate interests in an increasingly plural society. Accountability will need to be reversed - from people to government to government to people - if growing dissent and disaffection is to be averted. The current younger generation will be unstoppable because so many of them have been emancipated by foreign study, travel and the internet. They understand the importance of method, technique and critical thinking over philosophy and ideology as practical means of advancement in the modern world. What this indicates is that the closed guanxi networks of power and influence at both national and local level need to open up and interconnect. This would mobilise graduates and workers to seize the initiative at home and abroad. It would also galvanise citizens and government into forging a civil society.
The guanxi system is unique to China. It is not based as networks of influence are in the West on clubs, schools, colleges and regiments and other institutions like the law and the church. Its function is not so much to secure advantage and privilege as to protect the secrecy and anonymity of networks established to ensure survival of core interests and to hold people safe from harm and arbitrary victimisation. Thus, guanxi are as vital to peasant farmers as they are to members of the Communist Party, closed as they are in networks set against each other to enforce ‘harmony’ and ‘security’. In time, the Chinese will be able to divest themselves of these expensive insurance policies. They will speak to each other as free agents and stakeholders in the same mighty enterprise.
Of equal if not greater importance are the choices of appropriate behaviour governed by the Chinese notions of qing, li and fa. The first approach in dealing with or judging others is prompted by kindness, sympathy, compassion and fellow feeling. This is the spirit of qing. The expression of these feelings is dictated by li, good order, logic or reason. Only finally and often as a last resort do they have recourse to fa, law or justice, to settle matters. There is thus a strong preference for resolving difficulties or disputes through personal negotiation or mediation rather than impersonally, as in the West, where the quality of mercy and justice is strained through the sieve of the courts. It is this factor weighting in favour of the milk of human kindness or renqingwei that is a distinguishing feature of the Chinese approach to human relations. Thus, it is not a person’s action which is to be judged, but the root cause and intention of the action.
Whether their thoughts and aspirations are of and for this world or the next, are earth-bound or transcendental, for Confucius or Christ, the question remains the same for both China and the West: who’s really the Daddy? Whose ideas and example have left a lasting influence? Who has reconciled us most and best to the business of living? Of the famed philosophers in our own ‘Land of Thinkers’ (as the Chinese have been wont to call us), do Locke and Hobbes still have resonance today? Or that other cuckoo in the nest after Karl Marx, Ludwig Wittgenstein (who could have been referring to the Chinese when he remarked so aptly that ‘to restore a broken culture is like trying to mend a spider’s web with our fingers’)? None of the above, our Doctor of Philosophy friend advises us; if anybody, it was that old Scottish moraliser, David Hume, with his ‘Impressions’ and observations of how people actually behave and what moves them to action. Indeed, as some of our Chinese friends confirm, it is Hume whose work most closely chimes with their own outlook on life.
Unlocking Chinese culture is the best means of understanding the country and its people. China is actively seeking to open its culture to the world and to achieve what it believes to be its rightful standing. The People’s Daily Online declared on March 11th 2010, ‘China needs to take all kinds of measures to educate the world about China so that they can love it’. Data quoted by the same People’s Daily Online shows that the U.S. culture industry has 43% of world market share, while the Asia-Pacific region enjoys only 19%, of which only a very meagre 4% is China’s. The country’s ‘cultural influence’ index ranks 7th among 131 countries worldwide, behind the US, Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain. It is debatable whether this data interpretation is accurate or entirely meaningful. What have modern Chinese ‘cultural values’ been based on and have they been modified to fit an official line?
The wellspring of the Chinese spirit is the written word. It is the touchstone of their memory, imagination and inspiration. Momentous events and instants in human experience are captured in single characters of calligraphy which have today the force and power of scripture. They remain abiding reminders of both identity and purpose, lighting the Chinese mind in triumph and adversity. Only two civilizations on earth have enjoyed unbroken continuity. While those of Egypt, the Middle East, Persia (Iran) and India are no less ancient, it is the culture and traditions of the Jews and the Chinese alone which have survived intact as spiritual phenomena throughout recorded history. The writings of the Jews have passed down in an almost unbroken line through the Torah and the Talmud. Those of the Chinese originate in forms of script which have undergone remarkably little transformation - only deviation with the Mongol (Yuan) and Manchu (Qing) dynasties - over several millennia.
Central to the Chinese conception of life is the Theory of Five Elements (wu xing). Wu (five) means the essential material things - metal, wood, water, fire and earth - while xing (move) means movement and changes. This theory links the human body with the universe around us and the rhythms of nature to be followed in maintaining the balance of a healthy life. With the yin (cold) and yang (hot) energies, which correct imbalances, the five elements are the basis of traditional healing. These ideas also inflect the qualities and properties of musical notes, colours, flavours, senses and directions. The theory remains, of course, as deeply mystical and unfathomable as the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity.
In numerology, the Chinese see trends and wish to change them. In 2007 President Hu Jintao made the enigmatic statement that China had a massive trade surplus, but also a vast cultural deficit with the rest of the world. What did he mean exactly? It seems that he was reflecting the view of his Government Information Office that the levels of cultural interpenetration and influence were heavily weighted in favour of the West. Much more should be done, in short, to extend and communicate the charms and virtues of Chinese culture and arts to a wider world. This would represent a strong, countervailing force to balance undue Western influence.
The initiatives set in train by the campaign of Chinese cultural dissemination overseas have aroused no little suspicion. Are the Confucius Institutes mere propagandistic stalking horses, established to present the smiling face of friendship and China’s peaceful ascendancy? The acid test, of course, and the proof of cultural and artistic integrity is the degree to which foreigners may find some intrinsic appeal and attraction in the cultural ‘products’ on offer. In this regard, the Chinese language is a barrier and bottleneck; the essence of its cultural strength may be lost in translation.
If this process is reversed, the problem becomes much more readily apparent: popular attempts which have risen to the challenge of breaking the sound and sense barrier include ‘pitousi’ (literally ‘The unkempt hair four’) for The Beatles and ‘maowang’ (literally ‘Cat King’) for Elvis Presley. The internal martial art of taiji (literally ‘ultimate or boundless fists’) can, by contrast, really only be understood by doing it. Indeed, it is popular culture which proves to be the key to unlocking some of the treasures in store within. Japan has its foreign fans of ‘cosplay’ (costume + play or dressing up and pretending to be fictional or actual characters) and manga magazines, the lurid and often violent comic books and print cartoons beloved of Japanese commuters. China draws attention chiefly with its kung fu films and its cuisine.
Not to be outdone, the Chinese are planning to introduce their first comic book champion of retribution and meter out of justice, The Annihilator, to rival the US’s Captain America and Batman. But he does rather seem to be emulating The Terminator, The ‘Governator’ and other heroes of virtual reality. Surely The Transformer, The Leveller or even The Regulator would better signal their non-violent, ‘soft power’ intent.
This partial exposure is highly superficial, but will provoke an interest in the more outward aspects of the culture, if only out of curiosity. First, the language; the written script is common to all dialects of spoken Chinese. This is why you will see speakers of putonghua or Mandarin gesticulating and tracing elaborate characters with a finger in the palm of their other hand to indicate their meaning to a Cantonese or Hokkien speaker. For foreigners a system of writing Chinese using Roman letters is a phonetic crib for the pronunciation of words. The next challenge is, of course, the four different tones for each character, which need to be mastered to distinguish their meaning and to avoid sounding silly because the same word spoken in different tones can have different meanings.
The sounds of Mandarin are rounded and its pinyin written version is a useful guide, once the puzzling ‘q’s and ‘x’s and ‘zh’s, have been mastered. Vowels are pure or single, not dipthongs or double as in English. This means that putonghua is much less taxing for an English-speaker to pronounce than, say, French or German with their heavy articulation. It is more like Spanish in the light immediacy of its simple vowels and solid consonants. The written language is also the root of the Chinese spirit in that the script is treated as an art form. Chinese calligraphy is endlessly expressive and instructive of both their literacy and philosophy, as is their brush painting of traditional subjects like plum blossom, lotus flowers and small figures in a landscape at one with nature. The written word in its finest calligraphic form is the one great constant thread which links the present with the remote and ancient past of prehistory. In the millennia BC, it was the crude, runic inscriptions on the flat shoulder-bones of cattle carcasses and the shells of tortoises which first served to record the mind and magical invocations of the earliest Chinese (on their so-called ‘Oracle Bones’). From this developed a form of script which is, with Arabic, one of the highest of the human arts in the beauty of its precision and execution. The cultivation of this art demands an intensely rigorous discipline in self-control and mental equilibrium. It is as if, with every brush-stroke, an attempt must be made to live up to the spirit of the original word-character.
Music is always a mainstay of any society and the first strains of Chinese music which are likely to be heard by foreigners are probably from the Chinese opera. These sound to the Western ear for all the world like snatches of the British radio comedy, The Goon Show, with a crashing cymbal accompaniment. They strike the ear and mind as distinctly odd, much as Mahler’s symphonies must sound to the Chinese - hauntingly unfamiliar and strange. As with so many cultural phenomena, an appreciation of these arts depends very much upon context. Once a full opera performance has been experienced, the charm and significance of the playing with the acting is much more easily enjoyed. The extraordinary costumes, the heavily stylised singing and the music become all of a piece. An initial stunned bemusement turns gradually to awkward appreciation of an enthralling entertainment.
Their classic musical instruments are ancient and very versatile, particularly those that most resemble the woodwind, string and percussion members of the orchestra. The most visible and popular are the plucked lute (the pipa) and the harp (the guzheng), played cradled in the lap, the bowed two-string ‘spike fiddle’ (the erhu), also played upright, and the bamboo flute (the dizi). These can produce a beguiling and often magical sound when played to heighten the drama of the opera or to simulate birdsong or the ripple of running water in a stream. The power and resonance of the Chinese drum (the dagu) - the great red drum that struck terror into the hearts of the Emperor’s enemies - were best exemplified in its synchronised playing by hundreds of drummers at the Beijing Olympic Games. China’s great affinity with music - as more than accompaniment to song and dance - is witnessed by its musicians’ awesome mastery and interpretation of most of the Western canon. It is music and its related mathematical disciplines, which are the true international languages.
The traditions of many countries rest in their tales of olden days, their mythmaking. China’s fabled mythology is a rich source of wonder and fascination, fit to rival the Greek Myths with its pantheon of gods and goddesses, heroes and sages. The creation myth which forms the centre of its cosmology - the world born of an immense cracked, black egg, whose yolk became heaven and whose white became earth - is every bit as fanciful and implausible as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Eight Immortals may correspond to the Company of Saints, while an omniscient monkey performed something akin to the Labours of Hercules and superstition made Household Gods as significant as the Lares and Penates of the Roman Empire. The checking of the local feng shui (literally, ‘wind and water’ conditions) on siting new buildings has become as routine as the structural assessment work of a chartered surveyor.
The literature too is one of highly inspirational fantasy and romance. The Four Books and the Five Classics, based on the teachings of Laozi and Confucius with later embellishment by Mencius, have become a kind of secular Bible. The Yi Jing or ‘Book of Changes’, one of the oldest books of all, codifies the science of divination or fortune-telling, based on the changing conjunction and permutation of the different elements which make up matter. But it is the high romance of the most famous classical stories which reveals the Chinese love of heroism and make-believe. The epic Journey to the West tells the story of how Buddhism was brought back from India by an itinerant monk with a clever pig and a wily monkey for companions.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the legendary tale of the struggles of military commanders to unite China towards the end of the Han in the third century, while The Dream of the Red Chamber is the favourite novel to this day of high-born family life in the eighteenth-century capital, a virtual compendium of lifestyles detailing intrigues, cuisine, the arts, proverbs, love affairs, matchmaking and courtship with a vast number of characters from top to bottom of the social spectrum. Its dramatization today would certainly give Downton Abbey a run for its old money.
The Tang poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, immortalised Chinese history and poetry in their hundreds of evocative verses. In the twentieth century, Lu Xun revolutionized the language of story-telling with his famously demotic tales like The Real Story of Ah Q and Western-educated writers like Lin Yutang did much to bring China alive to the outside world. China celebrated its first Nobel laureate, the novelist, Gao Xingjian, in 2000 and Mo Yan, a kind of national court jester, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. Chinese writing is becoming a clearer window pane for the world to look in.
The role of drama is essentially taken up with Chinese opera, which is a heavily stylized form of sung and danced story-telling with an entertaining amount of acrobatics and martial arts. A Western-inspired spoken theatre also took root with the New Culture Movement from the 1920s with adaptations of foreign classics like Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias and John Galsworthy’s The Silver Box and in the 1930s with Cao Yu’s famous family tragedy, Thunderstorm. Shakespeare has been successfully adapted and performed in the country for over two hundred years - in The Merchant of Venice, for example, a Saracen (Muslim) replaces the Jew, Shylock, like a recalcitrant Uighur from Xinjiang.
But it is in cinema that Chinese culture comes into its own with its stunningly harsh realism and magical fantasy. Films like The Blue Kite and Farewell, my Concubine provide an authentically searing portrayal of events in the Mao years. Later extravaganzas like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower give full vent to the Chinese passion for superhuman kung fu fighting and fantastic imaginary feats of levitation and flitting flight like wind-assisted sequences of free-running parkour, as practised by stars like Jackie Chan. Serious historical dramas like Confucius and 1911, commemorating the anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, document the glorious events of the past in high romantic style. New animated films reach a new level of escapist phantasmagoria. Puppetry and ‘cross-talk’ comedians prevail as the commonest vox populi diversions even as the country talks to itself without restraint on Chinese Twitter (Wechat).
East and West are often literally poles apart in their representation of life in both literature and drama. Comedy and action-fantasy apart, the plot lines of Western and Chinese novels and dramas tend, respectively, towards the up-beat and down-beat. While the stories of Western books and films are generally optimistic or at least stoically realistic, those of the Chinese are often imbued with a certain tragic sense of life, as if it were driven by the cruelty of fate. Perhaps this is no wonder, given the misery and suffering that they have had to endure over the last century. It is almost as if the ‘bitterness’ which they have had to ‘eat’ has become bitter-sweet, part of a staple diet. Even if read only in translation, it is a country’s literature which speaks most clearly to foreigners in its disarming directness.
The balinghou (young people born after 1980, who have never suffered hardship) seem to be brave in their ventures into the unknown, but the Chinese have always enjoyed games of chance as a mainstay of their culture. Gaming and gambling are major recreations. The best known parlour games of skill and chance are mahjong - a board game for four players who compete on strategy to outwit and outflank opponents to achieve a winning hand or set of tiles - and weiqi (probably better known by its Japanese name, go) - a board game for two players who compete with black and white counters in a more complex and variegated version of chess. Both these pastimes are said to be over 2,000 years old and form the backbone of the Chinese love of ‘strategising’ and winning through a combination of brazen risk-taking and luck.
Outlawed under Mao on the grounds of ‘capitalist corruption’, these games are now firmly back in favour for both betting and socialising as alternatives to bridge - which Deng Xiaoping played at international level. The simpler, popular game of pai gow (dominoes) is the common leisure pastime of rural Chinese and a major draw at Chinese casinos worldwide. Horseracing (pao ma) is wildly popular in places like Hong Kong, as it satisfies the Chinese craving for the ‘lucky chance’ of a vast win. But the insatiable appetite and potentially ruinous instinct for gambling is currently channelled and contained in Macao (as an Oriental Vegas) like a quarantined virus so deadly that its contagion could spread like wildfire amongst the mainstream populace.
The Beijing Olympics brought together many traditional sports in a competitive age, but the martial arts remain singularly Chinese. Kung fu and taiji now have a worldwide following. Kung fu (or wushu) is a fighting art associated with military training and the mystique of its monkish development at places like the Shaolin Temple. Its appeal lies in the discipline it offers to strengthen the external physical capacity of the body mentally, as it trains stance and reflex for unarmed combat and self-defence.
Taiji or taijiquan, by contrast, which looks at first glance like slow-motion shadow-boxing with spin kicks, focuses on the strengthening of the internal aspects of heart, mind and spirit to control breathing, balance and concentration. It has the effect of meditation in its trance-like following of a continuous sequence of flowing movements somewhat like a mantra. Chinese acrobatics, on the other hand, are not designed as sport or recreation for the individual. They are simply the best known and most entertaining of Chinese arts and spectacles, whether performed by a circus troupe or as part of a theatrical show. Trained from a very early age, the acrobats perform amazing feats of tumbling, balance, strength and agility as well as juggling with both hands and feet.
Although the West relies on evidence based medicine and large drug companies for its health, China has a tradition of effective healthcare going back millennia. The cure and treatment for all manner of ailments and diseases in China is based on herbal remedies, extracts and compounds of plants and flowers, which may often defy scientific analysis, in spite of their undoubted effectiveness. They represent an alternative form of treatment as a complement to Western patented medication and drugs, somewhat akin to the gentler homeopathic remedies sought out by those who dislike the side-effects of the stronger antibiotics. Acupuncture retains its ancient mystique as a cure for many ills with its use of needles to pinpoint and relieve pressure and pain. Moxibustion continues to intrigue as a therapy using the burning of mugwort against the skin to prevent cold and ‘dampness’ in the body and as an aid to acupuncture. Massage and reflexology (foot massage) bring a whole new dimension to the means of soothing away stress and soreness from a tired body. The art of qigong, the practice of breathing exercises to raise the qi or the body’s vital spirit or energy, is another example.
The western world is well used to Chinese food but not to Chinese eating traditions. Eating together is the primary focus of family life and also the prime recreational activity. Food has been in the front line of Chinese cultural advance with restaurants or ‘takeaways’ in cities and towns throughout the Western hemisphere. The importance of the culinary arts is, as in France, of a different order of magnitude to that of the rest of the world. The preparation and enjoyment of food is the source of the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. Dim sum (little pieces of heart), the Chinese version of French hors-d’oeuvre are appetisers to start a meal or just a delicious snack on their own. Chinese families in Chinatowns gather on Sunday afternoons, their day off work, to socialise and ‘drink tea’ (yum char) and usually feast on dim sum.
Apart from the staple of steamed or glutinous rice, the main dishes are based on a variety of jiaozi (dumpling), baozi (steamed bun) and mian (noodle) with pork and chicken pieces in the south, beef and lamb in the north and seafood all along the eastern coast. Fish in both freshwater and ocean variety seals the meal like a palate cleanser. The vegetable garnish of cabbage, spinach, bean shoots or sweet corn is steamed to conserve the flavour perfectly. The soups are delightful natural additives. The teas and tropical fruits are a great tonic for the digestion. Rice wine, red and white wine and the harder liquors, gaoliang and maotai, are rarely dispiriting. As original ingredients become available in more outlandish places, the Chinese kitchen gains ground worldwide at a time when ‘nouvelle cuisine’ does not quite know which way to turn. Porcelain dinnerware is the most exquisite and delicate of Chinese designs. The distinctive shape, colour and glaze of cups, plates, dishes and bowls over the millennia help you tell your Qing from your Ming and your Tang from your Song, even as your supper rice bowl of today fails to shatter when it falls.
For the Chinese New Year in 2010, enigmatic invitations were sent out to an event at the Chinese Cricket Club in London. Was this place named after the Emperor’s favourite pet insect? No, apparently not. China fielded a national cricket team for the first time in 2009. Although it was defeated by every single Asian nation, including the Maldives, by large margins, there are cricket clubs springing up in several major Chinese cities. Asked what he most liked about the game, the captain of one team said it made him feel part of a family. Glory glimmers, a distant speck on the far horizon of the future, just as it did for their athletes, shooters and canoeists years ago before the Beijing Olympics was even a distant pipedream. So it is with their football: they will not rest without achieving the ultimate prize. A painful national joke runs thus: the Chinese fervently pray to God for a chance to win Olympic Gold at football and God answers dismissively, ‘Not in your lifetime!’ They then beseech him to grant them an eventual win at the World Cup, no matter how long it takes, and God answers with hardly a moment’s hesitation, ‘Not in my lifetime!’
The Chinese take pride in their culture as it is exported, with 5.5 million Chinese now working overseas (up from 3.5 million in 2005). Sixty million Chinese travelled abroad for tourism in 2011. China’s role as a major player on the world stage is evidently widening: in 2003, it chaired the 6-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament; in 2009, it joined the anti-piracy force policing the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden; in early 2012, Jinhai Lin was appointed Secretary of the IMF, making him a pivotal figure in easing co-ordination with China and liaising with member countries for Chinese assistance to the Euro-zone and other crisis-ridden areas of the world. China is understandable through our common humanity and is neither a threat nor an enemy: it is a companion. We may thereby offend only those who will not understand that China’s ‘internal affairs’ are exactly that. Let it get on with fixing itself without external pressure. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
If you feel that the wishes of people, and the propaganda of government, are substantially different between East and West, then the following excerpts from a speech by President Xi may help demonstrate that the world is actually much closer than many believe.
During the modern era (from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century), our nation underwent untold hardship and suffering, and its very survival hung in the balance. Since then, numerous Chinese patriots rose up one after another and fought for the renewal of the Chinese nation, but failed one time after another.
Our people have an ardent love for life. They wish to have better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions and a better environment.
This is exactly how the US President Obama argues. In his speeches, Obama mostly recounts American history and thereby the history of the American Dream; but he also updates the dream to the current situation in the US.
It is a Chinese Dream that the Chinese have now set their hearts on: of a stable, prosperous and rejuvenated homeland. To turn the old Chinese saying about partnerships on its head, far from sharing the same bed but with different dreams, they are in different beds but sharing very much the same dream held out to generations of Americans: all men are born equal (if they did but know or feel it) and may prosper by their own efforts. At present in China, strenuous efforts are being made to raise the quality of air and water and to ensure its food and energy security, but this must inevitably be balanced by the economic growth still needed to reduce the rural/urban divide and the income inequalities between western China and the eastern seaboard.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2014 : China Eye 44, Winter 2014, Page 10-15
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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