Why China? A Cautionary Tale
In August 2010, when I was fifteen years old, I had a brief, 30-second interaction with a person I barely knew. I was on a Jewish youth group trip, and it was evening. Most people had retreated to their rooms, exhausted after a long day of hiking, but a few of us remained, hanging out on some picnic tables, talking while one guy jammed on a guitar, showing off. The topic of conversation had turned to the upcoming end of our trip, and our inevitable return to the misery that is high school. I mentioned to the group that instead of spending my junior year at my D.C. private school, in a few weeks I would be heading to Beijing for nine months, to learn Chinese and see what China was all about. The show-off playing guitar, let’s call him Daniel, stopped playing. He leaned over, looked me up and down with an air of confusion and surprise, and asked why on earth I would ever want to do such a thing. I was taken aback, and asked him to explain. “I mean, no offense or anything, but why China? I want to travel too, you know? But China definitely isn’t on the list for me. It just doesn’t appeal to me at all.” The others nodded half-heartedly in agreement.
I was offended. I had just told this group of people that I was moving to China for the next nine months and all that this guitar playing, show-off, cool kid could think of to say was that he didn’t find the idea appealing in the slightest. At the time I think I shrugged, blushing, embarrassed and unable to provide an answer to his question. In the years since then, I have come to realize that Daniel’s opinion is not all that unique among Americans, and while that hasn’t changed much in the last seven years, in the time since the question was posed I have finally been able to find a way to answer it.
To begin, let me do as all people who write about China do: allow me to raise some numbers for your consideration. According to the country’s official census bureau statistics, in 2010, the same year I headed to China for the first time, the number of Chinese nationals numbered 1.3 billion, making it the most populous nation on earth. For reference, in 2016, the United States census reported that the American population had reached 323 million, putting us in third place for population, after India (1.19 billion). If, for the sake of comparison, we accept China’s population (although it is likely a bit higher) as roughly 1.3 billion, it means that for every American, there are 4.33 Chinese people. And this number includes only Chinese nationals, excluding the people in the world who share cultural and ethnic histories with the PRC, such as Taiwan and Chinese diaspora populations across the world. A few months ago, in April 2017, the earth’s population was announced to have grown to reach approximately 7.5 billion people. That means that Chinese people now make up over twenty percent, one fifth, of human life. These numbers, like most numbers that relate to China, are impressive. Yet hearing the numbers alone cannot make Americans understand. Seeing the numbers in practice—waiting in line at a train station, trying to cross an eight lane road in a “small” Chinese city, going to the flag raising ceremony on Chinese National Day in Tiananmen Square—these are the sorts of experiences that really begin to hint at the extraordinary scale of life in the PRC.
Let’s return, now, to the question posed to me by Daniel way back in 2010: “I mean, no offense or anything, but why China?” Were I more disposed towards cliché, I would say that this question keeps me up at night. I think back to this question and I am struck by a distinct sense of uncertainty. Not because I don’t have an answer—I can think of about 1.3 billion reasons to give a damn about understanding China. I encounter a certain queasiness thinking about this question because I know that Daniel’s query is not so unusual for an American. In the years since I began studying Chinese, I have repeatedly been amazed by how little my fellow Americans know, or even care, about China. Ask the average American what they know about the PRC and you might get a garbled answer about population, economics, communism, the one child policy, Tiananmen, Tibet, and pollution. And that is from the more informed American. All of these buzzwords are certainly relevant, they are an important part of the story, but they are far from capturing the whole of China, or even scraping below the surface. Americans tend to know only the parts of China that our media points out, and most of the time the U.S. media takes a critical stance. In fact, China is generally portrayed negatively, or as a threat, in American media. I’m not saying that negative portrayal of the PRC is not justified at times—I certainly do not agree with all that any government does, and the Chinese government is no exception to that rule. But it is disturbing to me that most Americans do not have any sense of the dynamism, complexity, strength, and innovation of the Chinese people, and, furthermore, of the Chinese state.
My upset at the lack of knowledge of China held by the average American is compounded every time I am in China and I realize how much more Chinese people know about us. I can have in depth conversations about American politics with any Beijing cab driver; can discuss American pop culture with any Chinese college student. What’s more, what they do not already understand about America they strive to learn about. Chinese people are fascinated by America, and have deep and genuine desire to understand us. I want to be able to say the same thing about Americans, that we are not so certain of our place in the world that we do not try to understand other opinions, other ways of thinking, other cultures. I want to be able to say this about Americans, but I often feel that despite my wishes, this is not the case.
The name for China in Chinese is zhongguo 中国, which, when translated literally, means “middle kingdom.” This name reflects the sense the Chinese held for thousands of years that their society and kingdom formed the center of the world, and that all else was peripheral. At the very beginning of the 15th century, the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty dispatched his favorite naval admiral, Zheng He, to oversee several expeditions to observe what the world outside of China was like, to discover what the rest of the world could offer the Middle Kingdom.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Quanzhou Maritime Museum in Fujian province. At the time, the largest exhibit was dedicated to Zheng He’s expeditions. I remember feeling a sense of combined awe and displacement when my Chinese companion pointed out to scale models of Zheng He’s vessels next to ones of Christopher Columbus’ Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The three ships that loom so large in America’s identity were dwarfed in comparison with those commanded by the Chinese imperial navy three quarters of a century earlier. At the time I felt distinctly as though I had just found out that something I had known with utmost certainty to be fact, to be a big fat lie. I like to imagine this must have been what people felt like when they were told the earth was round, not flat as it appeared. They probably looked down at their feet, up at the horizon, down at their feet, and so on for some time. So too, did I look back and forth at the models of the ships, attempting to adjust my perception of the West’s accomplishments alongside this newfound knowledge of China’s greater ones.
The routes used for Zheng He’s seven voyages carried the imperial fleet south and west, to Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and sections of East Africa. Despite the opportunities these voyages might have provided the Ming Dynasty, once the Yongle Emperor died the subsequent rulers expressed little to no desire to take advantage of the discoveries Zheng He’s expeditions had made. Whereas within a hundred years European monarchs would begin scrambling to acquire control of new far off territories, the Ming emperors felt they had all they could need within China. The Ming dynasty ceased to look beyond its borders, and turned inwards, reasserting the old credo that the Middle Kingdom had nothing to gain, or learn, from the rest of the world.
The Europeans would have no such qualms about engaging with the rest of the world, and within a few hundred years the advantages Europe would obtain as a result of their cruel extraction of resources from other territories would put them in a position to subdue the weakened Chinese imperial system. One wonders what might have happened had the Chinese not been so certain of their own superiority, of their self-sufficiency. I would never advocate the colonization of other territories, but what if the Ming Emperors had cared more about what else was out there? Maybe history would have worked out differently, maybe China would not have been forced into submission by the ambitions of the Europeans in the following centuries. Maybe the Middle Kingdom would not have fallen so far below its glorious past. We will never know, for that is not what happened. All this is to say that even the most successful of nations, of civilizations, ought to be wary of closing themselves off, of limiting their understanding of other societies and cultures. For if in the present you turn away from others, you leave yourself all the more vulnerable in the future.
The last hundred years have demonstrated that the world we live in is increasingly defined by the interconnectedness of countries, economies, and cultures. In the modern era there is no such thing as an isolated event, nor such a thing as a fully independent society. Whether we like it or not, we, as humans, are now, more than ever before, being confronted by the reality that cooperation between nations, between peoples, is the surest way to ensure our continued prosperity. No one country has all the answers. China and America have about as divergent histories and cultures as you can find on this planet. Our approaches to solving just about every problem differ because of our diametrically opposed ways of thinking about just about everything. This series of articles is not an attempt to advocate that Americans change our thinking to be more like the Chinese. Rather, it’s about showing that even if we do not change our thinking, we at least make an effort to know what else is out there. And even if we don’t see eye to eye on every issue, we can at least appreciate and respect the knowledge of a civilization that is one of our world’s oldest. China is not going to become less important as time goes on. It just isn’t going away. Americans need to recognize this and accept it—not with resignation, bitterness, and disappointment, but with a readiness to learn and share. Both our countries have much to learn from one another—and that is what I plan to show through my writings about the Linden Centre.