Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Dark Matter

Orville Schell's essay "China: Humiliation & the Olympics" in the New York Review of Books is well-researched, informative, and insightful, one with rare high quality. However, it is a pity that even such a serious China scholar was at times unable to break away from his own presumptions. Just as I was immersed in his eloquent analysis of the way China's historical humiliation by foreign powers shaped the country's modern identity, and brought forth extreme nationalistic sentiment visible today, something in the following passage stuck in my eye:

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.[*]

Then, as if an after-thought, Schell hesitantly adds a footnote:

[*] Daniel A. Bell's China's New Confucianism, an account of teaching at elite Tsing-hua University, where classroom discourse has proven far more open and students far more reflective, reminds us that not all Chinese students are xenophobes.

While I must give him credit for including this footnote, Schell's convenient presumption that today's students in China are as much products of the Party's propaganda as earlier generations lacks a basis in reality. Apparently, he was very familiar with China in the 1970s, and many of the then-concepts got stuck in his mind as immutable. I visit China every year and talk to all sorts of people, including college students. They appear very well connected to the outside world and not at all as xenophobic as Americans imagine. Their nationalism has a lot more to do with the good economy they enjoy than Party propaganda.

Of course, Schell is not alone. As recent as last week, during the Q&A session of a book event, a woman asked me, "Do the Chinese know about things outside their country?" "Oh yeah," I replied. Such a question came often, and it is understandable, and reasonable, when it comes from someone who doesn't follow China regularly. But it is a bit disappointing to hear it from an expert like Schell, or the BBC anchor who said, "How did they even know we have biases? The Chinese government blocked us!"

Which reminds me last summer when I toured a mountain in Sichuan, an old peasant lady sitting under a tree asked me, "Are you from the city? Do you have trees there?"

If you skip this small disappointing spot, Schell's essay is well worth reading. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the Chinese people's cultural insecurity caused by the continuous "large-scale, but never definitive, makeovers" occurring in China during the 20th century. Coincidentally, a few days ago when I gave a talk at the Harvard Coop, an American man who had lived in Taiwan for several years told me that the Taiwanese are the most culturally secure people in the world, with no identity issues at all. The reason? The Taiwan Chinese, while deeply rooted in the five-thousand years of rich culture, didn't experience any of the upheavals of the mainland each rejecting the concepts of its predecessor. A very interesting observation.

By the way, Schell's article makes me really want to see Dark Matter. If any of you have seen the movie, would you please tell me what you think of it?


Matthew said...

Great, I wrote a long and thoughtful comment about what I've discovered through talking with my grad students and it disappeared. Maybe another time I'll find the motivation to write it again.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun wrote: "College students...appear very well connected to the outside world and not at all as xenophobic as Americans imagine. Their nationalism has a lot more to do with the good economy they enjoy than Party propaganda."

I agree entirely with you on this one.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Matthew, you have first hand experience with students in China, I especially want to hear your thoughts on this! I'm not sure what happened to your comment, and I'm really sorry it got lost. Please do write again when you get the time.

Matthew said...

Comments seem to disappear when using a proxy to access websites.

As I've seen in my classes (in a top-tier grad school), there are students on both sides of the spectrum. I have some thoughtful and open-minded students and some who just speak the party line.

Figuring out why they think in these ways in much more complicated than most think--the majority of my students come from the northeast and have similar backgrounds. I'm beginning to think that it's not the education system that causes them to think in these ways, but rather family and peer influences.

The more I listen and try to understand students' views and opinions, the more I realize that they aren't that much different from Americans (only dealing with different subjects).

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun - I taught Certificate IV English for the N.S.W. Department of Education and Training in China for five years- to tertiary level students. From my experiences, most were optimistic about their future, and about China's future in general, and most struck me as being very connected to the world. In my book I detail a very insightful discussion I had with a class of students from Beihua University, in Jilin City, Jilin Province - see pp.40-44 (I emailed you the pdf file). I think you'll enjoy the passage, as the students demonstate their impromptu debating skills on China's environmental problems.

I have also posted some Youtube clips that I made featuring interviews with some of my students in Hangzhou, talking about their optimism for China's future, etc. Go to:

Please keep in mind though, that English was NOT their major, and so their ability to express complex ideas in English was very limited - hence they may come across as simple-minded, overly innocent, almost child-like. Their responses are nowhere near as sophisticated as those whose debate I detail in my book.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Matthew, I have the same impression from my visits: today's Chinese students are not that much different from Americans. Times have changed.

Kong Lau said...

Found your site a few days ago and was very impressed. Still have to glance through all your entries. May hopefully recommend your site to my children (I'm an old grandpa now) and a few of my students.

A quick note on Dark Matter: I'm actually viewing the DVD in Shanghai (may finish the film by tomorrow.) There's a very good website, International Film Database (IMDb), with a lot of information on almost every movie made in the world (except China, but they have a affiliated Chinese site for that.) Have you visited the English one?

BTW, congratulations for being blocked in China - I accessed your site twice today and had to use a proxy (it was a bit better a few days ago.)

Xujun Eberlein said...

Kong Lau, thanks for commenting and the film website information. I'm eager to take a look.

My guess is China blocks the entire, not singling out my blog. :-)

CLC said...

the Taiwanese are the most culturally secure people in the world, with no identity issues at all.

How about the de-Chinese campaign that was going on for several years?

Xujun Eberlein said...

CLC, as far as I know, in Taiwan, there are (politically oriented) people who want to de-Chinese, and there are people (especially academics) who try very hard to preserve Chinese cultural traditions. The latter seem to have done a better job than their mainland counterparts. Although I don't have statistics to prove it, from my reading of Taiwan literature I do believe the latter outnumber the former. But for the future, who knows.