03 December 2011

Book Review: Why China Will Never Rule the World

Why China Will Never Rule the World

To start with, I was really intrigued with Parfitt's book, even before it arrived in my mailbox. I first heard about this book on The Peking Duck, after which I checked out the link posted therein, where I found an interesting online interview with this author talking about his book.

The attitude of adventure found in this book is acerbic, not unlike chef/food critic/TV host/writer, Anthony Bourdain. In Bourdain's case, however, the acerbic wit isn't so organically embedded in his commentary. Bourdain, as much as I like him and find him entertaining, engages wit not so much as a result of his journeys, but as a condiment instead.

The great thing about Parfitt's more organic brand of wit (it certainly helps that Troy Parfitt is Canadian!) is the ability he enables in us to flip the bird at conventional stereotypes and Politically Correct motivations, lazy thinking, etc. etc. This is what is most needed, I should add, for commentary about China, particularly with the proliferation of pollyannaish commentary from the likes of Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, and author of The World is Flat. We are starting to see less of the latter now that the 2008 Beijing Olympics have faded from view; cheerleading for China has become less trendy, to be replaced by other things, like environmentalism, if CNN's self-advertisements are anything to go by.

Parfitt's commentary, observations, experiences, and dialogue are all profoundly entertaining. While one of the drawbacks of this book is that it rarely engages direct commentary on its title (there are ten pages at most, if that, of actual direct discussion involving why China will never be anointed the kind of dominant superpower status the majority of commentators have been relishing), the countless array of anecdotes does give one the impression of a nation and a culture which is exceedingly dysfunctional. Examples of this include the top-down attempts to curb behaviour and manners by the government. One constantly sees signs, written in Chinese, and the supposed equivalent - but, usually bad - English proclaiming things like "No Striding," "No Tossing," "Please! A Civilized Train!" or at a zoo, "Wild Animals Are Not Food."

Bo Yang, author of  The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture, and Lu Xun, author of A Madman's Diary and The True Story of Ah-Q are repeatedly invoked by Parfitt; this is a deliberate attempt to go against the grain of mainstream thought in Chinese-language culture. Yang represents an individualist approach to Chinese culture (in the way, I suppose, we have been taught that writers in the West are exceptional achievers/thinkers, etc.). On a side note, by invoking someone like Bo Yang, isn't Parfitt engaging in an almost meta-Chinese paradigm? Isn't he suggesting that the only way China could progress is being almost...non-Chinese, or a kind of Chinese in another dimension, like Bo Yang?

Bo Yang, however, has not been respected, even after-the-fact, after his exile, imprisonment, and ostracization, in the Republic of China's system. Bo Yang, whom Parfitt characterizes as an aberration who could have represented an alternative, sophisticated sortie or progressive conduit, has only been ignored and punished by the culture which he rubs, and rubs him, the wrong way. Yang is summed up in a number of interesting ways. A sample: Harmony in Chinese society? It doesn't exist, in reality! The only thing that so-called harmony actually applies to is the everyday rapport between superiors and inferiors.

Living in Taiwan as I do, and having read Parfitt's countless anecdotes about observations in China, I can concur with the idea that the Chinese idea of harmony is, as Yang claims, a fallacious and even fatuous idea. Parfitt continuously observes confrontations and arguments that take place in plain public view, be it in Beijing or on the airplane, for example (the latter example being when the author was challenged to move to another seat by a surly PRC soldier). As for my own experiences, you only need to take thirty minutes of time in a car on on a scooter during rush hour in Taiwan to see how the default mode is the opposite of commonsense.  I've lost count of how many thousands of times I have seen people drive their motor scooters and turn on their right turn signals and then turn left, and then keep their signals on for block after block after block. Don't get me started on triple or quadruple parking either....

The anti-Confucian appeal of Bo Yang is a salve for our own, and Parfitt's nonplussed reaction to the persistent lack of self-consciousness, self-awareness, or logic, endemic in China, or "the other China." Parfitt declares the importance of the Socratic method, to independently question, examine, understand, and objectively observe. Such a method is contrary to the Confucian paradigm, which demands things like filial piety, respect for one's elders, feudal ideas like fealty to one's superiors (bosses, kings, emperors, lords, etc.).

I myself recently read a particularly detestable passage in Confucius' Analects: "44. Yuan Jang (an old acquaintance of Confucius) was on one occasion squatting on his heels, and did not rise when Confucius passed by him. Confucius then said to him: 'When young, you had no respect for your elders, in manhood you have done nothing to distinguish yourself, and now you are dishonouring your old age, which is turning you into nothing but a rascal!' With that, Confucius lifted his staff and hit him on the shanks." We are making a serious mistake if we think that we can learn everything from a quarrelsome old character who goes around hitting people when he considers them lacking in what he considers virtues!

When Parfitt proclaims that "the ideas for reform espoused by Sun Yat-sen, Lu Xun, and Bo Yang provided the prospectus that China must adhere to if it ever hopes to become a truly great nation" and concludes that "the changes which are occurring presently are totally unrelated" he makes a truly thought-provoking statement. It's a real pity, however, that he doesn't follow it up or support it more with previous information. For example, the details given about Lu Xun and his works don't give us any idea about what Lu Xun's "ideas for reform" are. Rather, what we have are severe criticisms, in both Lu Xun's fictional accounts and Bo Yang's critical account of Chinese cultural proclivities. One truly wishes Parfitt has substantiated his claims, at least a little. Certainly, what he says about Sun Yat-sen is true. But he only writes such things about Sun Yat-sen's ideals much, much earlier in the book (almost seventy pages earlier!): "His objective was to overthrow the tyrannical, ham-handed, and hopelessly unprincipled Qing government and to replace it with a republic based on his newly devised political philosophy, the Three Principles of the People, often translated as nationalism, democracy, and the people's welfare or livelihood. Originally penned in English, the Three Principles of the People traces it's origins to Abraham Lincoln and his belief in a government '...of the people, by the people, and for the people....'" Parfitt later concludes his discussion of Dr. Sun by stating that no doubt, his "heart was in the right place" and, interestingly, in light of Parfitt's, and Bo Yang's own versions of pessimism: "Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Father of the Republic of China and Father of Chinese Democracy, wondered aloud more than once whether a democratic system was even viable in China. In his later years, he made statements to the effect that it might not suit the national character."

Most of Parfitt's experiences with "Chinese" culture originated from living in Taiwan. It might seem questionable to lump them together. M. Turton, over at the blog, The View From Taiwan, and Richard at the previous mentioned blog, The Peking Duck, have both mentioned this in their reviews. They are unjust, in a way, however. Certainly, Richard's criticism of this is more informed, especially as he has lived in both countries (among others cities in Taiwan and China, Richard lived lived in Taipei and Beijing). The particular meaning that Parfitt pursues regarding "Chinese culture" seems to be different from what his critics have in mind, however. Part of the problem is the apparently hastily put-together title: Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas.

In this regard, we have a quandary. One the one hand, Parfitt has challenged us to conceive of China differently. On the other hand, this author hasn't editorialized enough about what exactly he means by "China," at least in any explicit form. Parfitt would do well, if he ever republishes the book, to scrap fifty pages or so of entertaining anecdotal reveries contained herein. Following this, he should lay out what idea of China, or Chinas, or "the Chinas," he has in mind. There also needs to be some sort of groundwork laid out in reference to the falsity of an emerging China being anything resembling a superpower, a ruling hegemonic state, or what have you. As I said, he almost does this in the few pages that end the section about what we can call, based on Parfitt's historical/literary/political perception of China, the Mao version of China (as opposed to the Chiang Kai-shek version of China which has taken place of the apparent tabula rasa of Taiwan.

The immensity of the book is breathtaking. I confess that I am surprised how uninteresting Parfitt found Harbin. The historical reflections on Tibet (Parfitt shatters a lot of myths propagated by Free Tibet types), Chongqing (the center of gravity for Chiang Kai-shek and his forces), and Shandong (home to the rebellious so-called Spirit Boxers) are intriguing and eye-opening. The chaotic nature of Chinese history greatly contrasts with other histories, for instance, Egyptian history (towards which much of Western history owes its genealogy, particularly via Alexander the Great. While there have been chaotic periods in Egyptian history, there have also been remarkable periods of calm, unity, and progress, as seen in some of the Mamluk period, or during the Ottoman Empire, for example. Chinese history, on the other hand, astonishes one with how few periods of calm there have been, and how much repression has been the driving force throughout its history.

As an alternative "China," Parfitt sees Taiwan, via the Republic of China, as little better. Foundering on the same chaotic, yet authoritarian bases, the smaller version at first appears to imitate Western models, with its democratic elections, friendlier and less confrontational outlook, but when looked at more closely, Taiwan/ROC is seen as muddling in the same Confucian, inward-looking paradigm. Just like in China, where foreign tourists are perpetually pointed at and ridiculed by children and adults alike, we see the same thing in Taiwan, particularly in more provincial areas, like Jinmen. I can confirm that similar experiences can be had in places like Fengyuan, Taichung or Miaoli City, Miaoli County. In Taipei or Hsinchu City, people are a little bit more educated and worldly-wise because foreigners are a much more common sight in the such places.

This is a fine book. For the most part, I agree with Troy Parfitt's conclusions. However, the statement put forth in the press kit for this book, stating that China's top-down way of doing things is incompatible with the Western way of doing things is unfortunately wrong, at least in a number of ways. You only have to look at what is happening in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom - particularly the latter two countries - to see the sad fact that many of our governments are apparently imitating totalitarian states. I am not merely speaking of CCTV cameras installed on the streets. That is merely cosmetic, all things considered. More and more laws are being passed regarding what we can or cannot say, regarding how much more about our private lives that the government can peer into, etc. Lawmakers have even expressed desires to outlaw people from wearing MP3 players when they cross the streets! Our governments tax us ever more heavily and our taxes go to repressing us even more - and we have to work even more hours to pay off the debts we owe, and to make up for what we lose in taxes. This may not be a Chinese thing, nor even an Asian thing. Top down rules, heavy taxation and repression are not merely the trademarks of Chinese culture. The money that Western governments owe countries like China does have an impact, however. China's restriction on foreign media in China, and what it can say about Chinese interests are elements that have an impact. These are things that Parfitt doesn't go into in his book. Mentioning this doesn't help support his thesis that China will never rule the world. Such things, however, do show, that we are getting dangerously close to being numbed down when it comes to repression of freedoms.

If the loss of freedom of expression is experienced uniformly and as a normal state everywhere, online or offline, and not merely in China, then we are truly headed for dangerous times indeed. This is not China's fault, but what is everyday experience in China might have become our nightmare, as well. This is, of course, not Parfitt's conclusion, but my conclusion. What is one to make of this? Certainly, we have started to react. More of us have voted "conservative" governments - whether the conservatives are actually "conservative" is up for debate - but this has been the reaction, in North America, and in some of Europe (many of whom don't really want the European Union being forced upon them).

Troy Parfitt is somewhat unconventional in his approach to writing about culture. I truly look forward to reading what he has to say about Canada, which according to some of the author's statements, is another project on which he is working.

TROY PARFITT'S WHY CHINA WILL NEVER RULE THE WORLD  is also available on Amazon. There are a number of positive customer reviews there, too.

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