on 30 October 2013
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