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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Things People Believe
I have an author-friend who's putting together a book about Chinese myths. I've proofread a few chapters and once recommended calling the effort Everything You Know about China is Wrong, so when I found an article from the London-based Independent about a book by Ben Chu called Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard about China is Wrong, I had to buy it...
Published 10 months ago by Troy Parfitt

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3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Give it a 6 out of 10.
Published 1 month ago by charlie


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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Things People Believe, 30 Oct 2013
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I have an author-friend who's putting together a book about Chinese myths. I've proofread a few chapters and once recommended calling the effort Everything You Know about China is Wrong, so when I found an article from the London-based Independent about a book by Ben Chu called Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard about China is Wrong, I had to buy it.

Mostly, I was glad I did. Chinese Whispers is pretty good, at least I think so, because I make many of the same or similar arguments in my own book. Ben read widely and I benefited from his research, especially about recent events. In seven chapters, he takes on seven large myths (e.g. China has an ancient and fixed culture; the Chinese are irredeemably racist; the Chinese don't want freedom, etc.) and many attendant myths. My favourite chapter was `China has the world's finest education system,' (I have a background in education and was part of a Chinese education system for 10 years). I also enjoyed `The Chinese have reinvented capitalism,' partly because I'm not versed in economics and am always interested in learning about how government policy affects the economy and people's livelihoods. Plus, I'm familiar with Chinese venality and mismanagement, so the charge that China's economic model is broken resonated.

Each chapter follows a format: the myth (or whisper) is laid out as per common belief whereupon it's dismantled, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. However, before I start with the inevitable criticisms, I'd like to add that I particularly liked Ben's style of leaving no "expert" untouched. Ben illustrates that a host of China commentators (e.g. Mark Twain, W. Somerset Maugham, Martin Jacques, Warren Buffet, Michael Gove, Niall Ferguson, and Henry Kissinger) have described China in ways that are at best unhelpful and at worst racist. His suggestion that people like Michael Gove, Britain's education secretary, use China to fear-monger and push their positivist agendas made me want to stand up and clap. I also liked how Ben argues Chinese people also mythologize about China. Furthermore, it's good to see new blood in the China debate and someone who's not afraid to state what he or she thinks while (usually) drawing on credible sources to reinforce why he or she thinks them. Ben's book represents a sort of ideological stream-of-consciousness, and not everyone would be willing to make repeated statements that take the form: `It's not so much a case of X as it is a case of Y and Z.' Because of the political and ideological nature of the book, it's inevitable that readers will disagree. It's also possible that apologists to the CCP will criticize and claim offense.

It's hard to say how much of the book I disagreed with, but it's more important to ask why, and I think sometimes it involved having read different books. For example, Ben's views on the Nationalists (a word he doesn't capitalize and should because he uses the word to mean a different group of "nationalists" toward the end of the book) aren't mine. Nor are they Fenby's or Seagrave's, who would likely arch an eyebrow at the statement on p. 89 that "The republican forces led by Sun Yat-sen... dealt the coup de grace to the empire in 1911." According to Fenby and Seagrave, the movement that led to the (accidental) demise of the empire was unaffiliated with the republicans, and when the collapse occurred, Sun learned of it while reading the morning paper in Denver, Colorado. Ben points to the republicans and their democracy as evidence that there have been democratic ideals in China for decades. Okay, but the Nationalists' conceptualization of democracy only came to life in Taiwan in the 1980s and then under particular circumstances, e.g. pressure from the United States, democracy movements in South Korea and the Philippines, etc. My point here is that the writer's too-charitable characterization of Sun Yat-sen speaks to one of the book's flaws: in attempting to dispel myths, Ben works to create them, and it's often a lack of rigour with language that is revealing and/or to blame.

For instance, on p. 145, there's a bit about the failed Communist points system regarding agriculture (points were awarded to farmers based on crop yield) where Ben says "the system degenerated into corruption and no one had any incentive to put in any effort at all." Really? No one? No effort at all? Zero people making zero effort? That seems highly unlikely. Unfortunately, and ironically, this type of totalizing language crops up (speaking of farming) repeatedly.

I also wondered about terms like "us" and "we" to mean `we in the West.' For instance, on p. 160, Ben says (contrary to common belief) "we are more productive..." than the Chinese, but who is he talking about? Me? You? Him? People in Britain? People in New Zealand? Does he mean to say something like, "Generally speaking..." or "According to (source)..." "workers in the US and Britain in sectors A, B, and C often out-produce their Chinese counterparts"? It seems he should, but he doesn't, and again the totalizing terminology and lack of hedging language call into question the foundation of his arguments. To cite another example, Ben says it wasn't China that played historical hegemon, but "us." Well, it wasn't "us" the readers, unless any of "us" the readers were around in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conducting business harmful to Chinese people in places like Shamian and the Bund. Although Ben is attempting to bring the reader onside, he's also perpetuating the same sort of "us" and "them" dichotomy he is saying it's dangerous to make.

Finally, Ben has a rather positivistic bent, which surprised me, given his educational background. For example, he often talks about "the facts." In his conclusion, he says, "our view of the Middle Kingdom over the centuries has been characterized by an impressive immunity to the facts." But whose facts? And what are facts? Social constructs or irrefutable, scientific, atomistic bundles of knowledge? Facts or interpretations? Surely, in the social world, it's interpretations. Sure, some interpretations seem more trustworthy than others, but trustworthiness here has to do with beliefs. And what are beliefs? Ben comes close to answering this question when he talks about how the written word connects Chinese people to each other and the past, but what he doesn't seem to realize is that foreigners haven't been mythologizing about China because they're afraid their home countries will become like China (p. 223), but because they've constructed notions about China - sometimes shallow and bigoted ones - through language. Their beliefs about China have been informed by certain discourses, the basis of which is language. It's the same reason you might hear an American say, "If we don't get tough on education, we won't be able to compete with the Chinese." This implies education requires toughness, that it is about competition, and that the Chinese are standing by to win - as if there is something to win. Notions like these become embedded in certain discourses, so people within certain discourse communities latch on to them - for myriad reasons, including their critical inability to resist such ideas. So, the book is about beliefs, and beliefs are socially constructed mainly through language (you could argue they come from experience, but we need language to explain our experiences to ourselves and others). Therefore, the summative statement that "we" need to understand the Chinese by "only [listening] to our hearts" (p. 249) is unfortunate. There are many ways (not just one) for people (not just "us" in the West) to understand China, but a good way, instead of listening to one's heart (whatever that means), is to listen to other people's speech, i.e. by asking Chinese and non-Chinese people what they believe about certain aspects of Chinese culture and society and then analyzing what they say and relaying it to the reader. And I mean asking a lot of people, not just a few; I mean going well beyond asking one's relatives.

Chinese Whispers is still good, though, and I recommend it - and I'm not even the intended audience. I do think that through his own reflection and observation, Ben makes a lot of very good points. It was hard for me not to nod in agreement with these, and it was good for me, when I disagreed, to ask myself why I disagreed, and to examine from where I'd gotten my own beliefs. Any reader interested in China, and willing to critically engage with Ben's ideas, should enjoy doing the same. Four stars.

Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rewarding Journalism, 3 Dec 2013
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A good piece of journalism (and to be a good journalist, you need to be fit). My particular favourite part of the book is the loving recreation of China itself; the buildings, the push-bikes and the food. Chu also builds good ideologies and demolishes a few myths about China and its provinces and demonstrates that China is a salad bowl (rather like the rest of the world), and not a melting pot as so many commentators insist on pushing.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Debunking myths about China, 6 Nov 2013
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An excellent book, that debunks many of the myths about China in areas such as economics, business, education, work ethic and politics. The author's thesis is that China is much more diverse than people think, and on the other hand Chinese people are just human beings like the rest of us. Very well written and easy to follow, with a wealth of references to back up his arguments. The only reason I don't give it five stars is the occasional autobiographical note by the author, which doesn't do anything for his arguments.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, challenging, essential, 29 Oct 2013
I read this shortly before my first business visit to China and it was indispensable.
The concise chapters and neat structure took me rapidly through my preconceptions; dismantled them, challenged, confirmed and left me wanting to learn more about the people, culture and history.
If you've every wondered 'what's next for China?' or how the country has become what it has, this is a great starting point.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A breath of "Fresh Air", 15 Jan 2014
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Ian R. West "deadwest" (Camberley, UK) - See all my reviews
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This book is written by a relatively young writer whoprovides an alternative view to the modern China and challenges the stereotypes we have of the people and country. Although it is an enjoyable read and well-researched, you should go to the country yourself and see for your own eyes.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and easy read on China today, 4 Jan 2014
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This book dispels many myths regarding China. A well researched insight, easy to read and well constructed. There is much information within these pages which is not often known considered by the majority of the British public. A worthwhile read. Are the Chinese different from us? Read the book and then decide for yourself.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars, 10 Aug 2014
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Give it a 6 out of 10.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Informed Alternative View of China, 1 May 2014
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Steve Farr (Warwick, UK) - See all my reviews
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I was actually in China on business when I read this book, so it had extra relevance for me. The format is nice and easy to understand, the author introduces a "myth" in some detail and then goes on to show why it is not as accurate as it seems.

The thing I found most interesting is that each time Ben Chu introduced a "myth" I was not easily able to see how he would be able to break it down, and at the end of each chapter I found myself thinking "yes of course he's right it is like that".

As a regular visitor to China I was aware already that the country is not entirely the frightening boogieman that many in the West imagine it is, but it was good to see this explored in more depth. The author also poses some interesting questions about what may happen in the future with regard to economy, sociology, politics and foreign relations.

The book is well worth reading if you are at all interested in China and would like an alternative opinion from the received wisdom.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the horse's mouth, 22 Jan 2014
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F. A. Rodner (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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Ben Chu knows about China, he knows about the western world and he writes accessibly and well. Where many in the west resent, fear or ignore modern China, Mr Chu approaches China's phenomenal growth positively, but without dismissing the attendant historical and modern negatives. I read the book and gifted it it 2 others. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did!
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It is very good interpretation about China - why everything you have heard ..., 27 Nov 2013
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Although it is could be contentious, It is very good interpretation about China - why everything you have heard about China is wrong.
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