For many years I’ve contemplated writing a book called The Ugly Chinaman. When the novel The Ugly American was published in the United States, the US State Department choose it as a guide to policy making. But when the Japanese ambassador to Argentina published a book called The Ugly Japanese, he was immediately recalled from his post. This is a good example of the gap that separates the East and the West. In China, for sure, things would be much worse. If I wrote a book called The Ugly Chinaman, you would soon be delivering me my meals in jail. In Taiwan, prisoners pay for their own food, which is the main reason why I haven’t written such a book yet. For many years, however, I have been looking for an opportunity to speak about this subject in public, and to provide Chinese people in all walks of life with some food for thought–if not condemnation. Talking about this subject in public is no easy matter either. A group of people in Taipei once invited me to speak on this subject but when they heard the title of my speech, the invitation was swiftly withdrawn. Thus I am proud to say that this is the very first time I have lectured in public on the subject of ‘The Ugly Chinaman’. I would like to thank all of you present for giving me this precious opportunity.
Once I was invited by Tunghai University (in Taichung, Taiwan) to give a lecture. I told the chairman of the Student Association there that the topic would be ‘The Ugly Chinaman’ and asked him if he foresaw any problems. Though he assured me there would be none, I insisted: ‘You’d better ask the Dean’s Office. I myself am already something of a problem, and if I start talking about a touchy subject, that makes two counts against me.’
After consulting with the Dean’s Office he telephoned me. ‘Nothing serious, though they wondered if you wouldn’t mind changing the title of your speech. The Dean’s Office thinks it’s a bit too direct.’ He then gave me a long and very high-sounding title and asked me what I thought of it.
‘I don’t like it one bit, but if you have to change it, go ahead and do it.’ That was the first time I had spoken in public about ‘The Ugly Chinaman’. When I asked the chairman of the Student Association to record the lecture so I could transcribe it later and turn it into an article, he readily agreed. But when I received the tape, I discovered that the entire tape was blank except for the first few sentences.
I am 65 years old now. Some friends of mine in Taipei held a birthday party for me on 7 March. I told them, ‘I’ve been around for 65 years now, and every one of those years has been an ordeal for me’. This ordeal was not my own personal trials and tribulations, but rather those of Chinese everywhere. Most of you young people here, especially those of you from Taiwan, have grown up in a relatively prosperous society. The concept of ‘ordeal’ may grate on your ears, or be difficult for you to believe, and perhaps even more difficult for you to understand. The ordeals I refer to are not personal hardships or political crises, but rather problems that transcend the sphere of the individual and the realm of politics. They are issues that involve all the Chinese people. I’m not talking about a particular individual’s suffering, or even about the anguish of my own generation. The point I want to make is: if we don’t come to grips with this suffering and all the destructive elements in Chinese culture, they will continue to wreak havoc upon us and our descendants forever.
How shameful it is to be Chinese
Ninety per cent of the refugees in the Khao-i-dang Refugee Camp in Thailand are Chinese (by blood or cultural background, not nationality) who have been expelled from Vietnam, Kampuchea or Laos. A few years ago, a female student from the Overseas Chinese Institute of the College of Chinese Culture in Taiwan joined an aid team which went to Thailand to work with the refugees there. But she became so upset there that she returned home after a few days. When I spoke to her about her experiences, she was in tears: ‘It was so miserable there. I couldn’t stand it any longer.’
The situation of the Chinese refugees in Thailand is indeed pathetic. For example, Chinese people in the camp are not permitted to own any property or enter into any form of business. If, for instance, your shirt has a hole in it, and you ‘pay’ the old lady next door half a bowl of rice to sew it for you, this is considered ‘business’. And if the authorities find out about it, they will possibly force the old lady to remove all of her clothing in front of them, and then take her to the local magistrate’s office, where they will ply her with questions like, ‘Why did you break the law?’ Under these circumstances, she can be considered fortunate. While making me angry and upset, the thought of such insulting behaviour also makes me wonder: what evil acts have Chinese committed that they should end up being punished in this way?
Two years ago, my wife and I were in Paris. Coming out of a Metro station, I noticed a middle-aged Asian woman selling jewellery from a little stand in the street. My wife and I were chatting in Chinese as we looked over her wares, and when she joined the conversation, it made us feel right at home. I asked her how she was able to speak Chinese. She turned out to be a Chinese who had escaped from Vietnam and had lived for a while in the Khao-i-dang camp. She began sobbing, and I tried to comfort her: ‘Things are better for you now. At least you’re not starving.’ As we turned to leave, she sighed, ‘How shameful it is to be Chinese!’ That’s one sigh I will never forget for the rest of my life.
In the nineteenth century, many parts of the East Indies, which we now call Southeast Asia, were either Dutch or British coloniefi. A British commissioner who lived in Malaysia at that time wrote the following: ‘The lives of the Chinese in the nineteenth century were filled with calamity and disaster’. He had seen the Chinese in the East Indies living like pigs. They were uneducated and illiterate, cut off from the rest of society, and constantly in danger of being slaughtered.
Actually, the Chinese in China are worse off today than they were in the nineteenth century. The most depressing thing is how, over the past hundred years, almost every hope that the Chinese people have embraced has gone up in smoke. And whenever a fresh hope appears on the horizon, promising some improvement in people’s lives, it invariably ends up causing them great disappointment and making the situation worse. And when another hope appears, promising similar progress, it too ends up bringing in its wake only further disillusion- ment, greater disappointment and more horrendous disasters.
A country is a relatively permanent institution, while an individual’s life is limited. How much hope can an individual have in his lifetime? How many dreams can be shattered in a lifetime? Does the future hold promise? Or will it bring disappointment? There can be no conclusive answers to these questions. Once when I was lecturing in New York and relating a particularly painful incident, someone in the audience said, ‘You come from Taiwan. You ought to be inspiring us, giving us hope, and fostering our patriotism. I never imagined you would end up making us feel depressed and discouraged.’
I don’t deny that people need constant encouragement and inspiration. The problem is, once you inspire Chinese people, where do they go from there? I’ve been given all sorts of encouragement and inspiration ever since I was a child. When I was five or six years old, grown ups would tell me, ‘The future of China is in your generation’s hands’. At the time, that seemed like a very heavy burden to bear all by myself. But only a few years later, I was telling my son, ‘The future of China is in your generation’s hands’. Now my son is telling his son, ‘The future of China . . .’ How many more generations will this go on for?
On the Chinese mainland, the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1958 was followed by the decade of the Cultural Revolution, a disaster unprecedented in the history of human civilisation. The Cultural Revolution not only left millions dead, it also crushed humanitarian values and defiled the sanctity of the human spirit, without which there remains very little to separate men and beasts. During China’s ‘ten-year holocaust’ people behaved like animals. Can an entire nation of moral degenerates be saved?
Over 30 per cent of the population of Malaysia is Chinese. But in a museum I visited when I was there, the labels describing the exhibits were in Malay and English only. I’m not suggesting that they must have Chinese labels, or that it’s a bad thing that they don’t. I mention this merely to point out the narrow-mindedness of the Malaysians, and to show how the Chinese in Malaysia have very little influence or prestige, and are not respected by the majority. A Thai Chinese I know claimed that the Chinese control the vital rice market in Thailand. This is mere self-deception. (The Thai Chinese are active in the rice business, but can they claim to ‘control’ that vital market?) I advised him to stop flattering himself in this regard. One command from the top and everything they have could be taken away from them.
Everyone is talking about the Hong Kong question these days. It’s a shameful thing for one country to snatch away another country’s territory. And when that territory is returned to its rightful owner-like a child returning to its mother’s embrace-it should be a cause for celebration on both sides. Do you recall France’s ceding of Alsace Lorraine to Germany? Losing these two states came as a terrible blow to France, but the eventual reunification was a cause for great rejoicing. In the case of Hong Kong, however, no sooner was the news announced that the British were going to return the territory to the Chinese Motherland than people panicked en masse. Why?
In Taiwan, a number of young people–both native Taiwanese and mainlanders–support the idea of an independent Taiwan. I remember how happy everyone was when Japan handed Taiwan back to China in 1945; indeed we felt like lost children finding our way back to our mother’s warm embrace. What has happened over the past five decades to make this child want to leave home again, and try to make it on its own?
Take Cyprus, for example, which is split up between the Turks and the Greeks, who differ in terms of language, ethnicity and religion. If the Turks can get along with ‘aliens’ on that island, why can’t we Chinese get along with our own kind? Chinese people share the same blood, similar looks, identical ancestry and culture, the same language; the major differences are merely geographical.
The circumstances described above not only make it extremely difficult to be Chinese, but also cause us untold shame and injury. Even the Chinese community in the United States is plagued by the absurd situation in which leftists, rightists, moderates, independents, left-leaning moderates, moderate-leaning leftists, right-leaning moderates, and moderate-leaning rightists all seem to lack a common language for discourse, and are constantly lurching at each other’s throats with the passion of a vendetta.
What does this say about the Chinese people? And what does this imply about China? No other civilisation on earth has such a long history or well-preserved cultural tradition, a tradition that at certain times has given rise to the most advanced civilisation in the world. Neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians of today bear any relationship to their ancient forebears, while Chinese today are the direct descendants of the ancient Chinese. How have such a great people and nation degenerated into such ugliness? Not only have foreigners bullied us; what is worse, for centuries we’ve been tormented by our own kind–from tyrannical emperors to despotic officials and ruthless mobs.
On my visits to the United States and Europe, I’ve especially enjoyed watching children playing in the parks. They seem so happy, uninhibited and well adjusted that it makes me jealous. In Taiwan, on the other hand, every child who goes to school has to wear glasses to correct their myopia, and in order to cope with the pressure of schoolwork, many children grow aloof and arrogant. A woman faints and collapses at home, but when her son tries to help her, she shouts at him, ‘Let me die! Don’t bother with me! Do your homework! Do your home- work!’
When my wife was teaching in Taiwan, whenever she started lecturing to her students about morality or personal values, they would immediately raise a protest: ‘We don’t want to learn about how to live, we want to learn how to get high marks on our examinations.’ But this is nothing compared with children on the Chinese mainland, who grow up learning how to fight with each other, subject each other to psychological torture in ‘struggle’ sessions, cheat and swindle, and betray their parents and friends. Is this the purpose of an education? I tremble to think what will happen when this generation grows up.
Chinese people are the same everywhere
I have lived in Taiwan for the past three decades. I spent the first decade writing fiction, the second writing essays and the last in jail–quite a nice balance. I no longer write fiction because fiction only deals indirectly with real problems through the medium of form and characters, while essays are daggers that can pierce the hearts of scoundrels and villains.
Writing essays is like sitting in a car next to the driver, telling him when he makes a wrong turn, warning him to stay in the slow lane and not pass, to watch out for the bridge ahead, to reduce speed, to beware the approaching intersection, and to heed red lights. After exhorting and teaching drivers for many years, someone must have decided that I had taught enough, because I ended up in jail. People in power think that as long as no one is around to point out their errors, then they can’t possibly do anything wrong.
During my incarceration I spent many long hours contemplating my fate. What crimes had I committed? What laws had I broken? I continued to ponder these questions after my release from prison and began to wonder whether I was a special case. On this trip to Iowa, when I have had the great fortune to meet writers from mainland China, I discovered that God has predestined people like myself to end up in jail, whether the jail be in Taiwan or in mainland China. One of these mainland writers told me, ‘Someone like you would never have survived the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution. In fact, they would have snuffed you out during the Anti-Rightist Movement.’
Why must Chinese people who have the guts to speak the truth suffer so terribly? I have asked a number of people from the mainland why they ended up in prison. Their answer was, ‘Because I said a few things that happened to be true’. And that’s the way it is. But why does telling the truth land one in such unfortunate circumstances? The way I see it, this is not a personal problem, but a fundamental flaw in Chinese culture.
A few days ago I had a discussion with the party secretary of the ‘All-China Writers Association’. He made me so angry that I literally was unable to speak. I used to think I could hold my own in an argument; but this guy knocked the breath out of me before I knew what had hit me. I can’t blame him for this, though, the same way I don’t blame the cops who handled my case in Taipei. If you lived in their world and were conversant with their ways, you would probably act just like they do, and believe that what you were doing was right. I would do the same thing, though I would probably be even more obnoxious than that party secretary. People often say, ‘Your future is in your own hands’. Approaching the end of my life, I don’t believe that any more. Only about half of your life is in your own hands. Other people control the rest.
Life is a little bit like a stone in a cement mixer; when it gets tossed around with the other ingredients, it loses control of its own existence. I could cite similar analogies ad infinitum, but the conclusion I always come to is that the problems of the Chinese people are not individual but rather social and cultural problems. Before he died, Jesus said, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’. When I first heard that statement as a child, I thought it rather bland and frivolous, and as I grew older I continued to feel that it lacked substance. Only now do I appreciate its profundity and bitter irony. Jesus’ words taught me that the Chinese people’s ugliness grows out of our own ignorance of the fact that we are ugly.
Because Taiwan and the United States have broken off diplomatic relations, the expenses for our trip to the United States were borne by Iowa University and Pei Zhuzhang, the owner of the Yenching Restaurant in Iowa City. Pei is a Chinese-American who had never set foot in China, nor met me before. His generosity moved me deeply. He said, ‘Before reading your books, I felt that the Chinese people were a great people. After reading them my thinking changed entirely. Your books inspired me and made me want to hear you speak in person.’
When Mr Pei started thinking about Chinese culture and its problems, he wondered if there were some basic defects in the moral fibre of the Chinese people. Before I travelled abroad for the first time, Professor Sun Kuan-han said to me, ‘When you come back to Taiwan, there is one thing I absolutely forbid you to say to me, and that is: “Chinese people are the same everywhere” ‘, so I promised him that I would not say it. But when I got back to Taiwan and he asked me about my trip, the first thing I said was, ‘You warned me not to say it, but: Chinese people are the same everywhere!’
Sun hoped that with time the Chinese people would change and mature, and he found it hard to imagine that this would never happen. Are there innate flaws in the Chinese people? When God created the Chinese, did he make us so ugly on purpose?
I believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with the Chinese national character. I am not saying this out of self-pity. Nor are Chinese people lacking in intelligence. Every university in the United States has Chinese students at the top of their class, and we have produced numerous noted scientists: Sun Kuan-han, the father of Chinese nuclear physics, and Nobel Prize winners C. N. Yang and C. T. Lee. The Chinese character is not fundamentally flawed, and I am sure that we have the ability to make China a healthy and happy place to live. I also believe that China will some day become a great nation. But we must not spend all of our time and energy trying to make China a major military power. It is infinitely more important to bring some happiness into people’s lives. Once we achieve this, we can concern ourselves with power and greatness. We must also ask why, over the last century, have we so often failed to free ourselves from suffering?
The virus of traditional Chinese culture
I am going to risk proposing a comprehensive diagnosis for the problems mentioned above: Chinese culture is infected with a virus which has been transmitted from generation to generation and which today still resists cure. People say that if you are a failure, you can blame your ancestors, but there is a significant flaw in this argument. In Ibsen’s play Ghosts, a syphilitic couple give birth to a syphilitic son, who has to take medicine every time his illness flares up. At one point in the drama, the son exclaims, ‘I never asked you for life. And what sort of a life have you given me?”
Can we blame the son, and not blame his parents? We Chinese should neither blame our parents nor our ancestors, but rather the culture that our ancestors have bequeathed us. This huge country, with one quarter of the world’s population, is a pit of quicksand filled with poverty, ignorance, strife and bloodshed, a pit from which it cannot extricate itself. When I observe the way people in other countries carry on interpersonal relations, I envy them. The traditional culture of China has conferred upon the Chinese a wide range of unseemly characteristics.
Three of the most notorious characteristics are filth, sloppiness and noisiness. In Taipei they once tried to mount a campaign against filth and disorder, but it only lasted a few days. Our kitchens and our homes are always in a mess. In many residential areas, as soon as the Chinese move in, everyone else moves out. A young woman I know, a college graduate, married a Frenchman and moved to Paris. Soon their home became a regular stopping-off place for her friends who were travelling in Europe. She told me that as more and more Asians (not all of them Chinese) started to move into the building, the French started to move out. This is a terribly disturbing thought. But when I went to Paris and saw the place for myself, there were ice-cream wrappers and saqals strewn about everywhere, children running and yelling in the halls, and graffiti covering the walls. The whole place smelled like a mouldy cellar as well. I asked her, ‘Can’t you organise all the residents and clean the place up She replied, ‘It’s impossible. The French are not the only people who think we are filthy slobs; after living here like this, we feel the same way.’
Turning to the subject of noise, Chinese people’s voices must be the loudest on earth, with the Cantonese taking the gold medal. I heard a joke about this: Two Cantonese men in the United States are having a conversation in the street. An American walks by and thinks they are having a fight, so he calls the police. When the police arrive and ask them what they are fighting about, they say, ‘We’re just whispering’.
Why do Chinese people shout when they talk? Because we are insecure by nature. The louder we shout, the more right we are. If we shout at the top of our lungs, we must be right, otherwise why expend so much energy? The above-mentioned behaviour patterns are damaging to both our self-image and our mental equilibrium. Filth, sloppiness and noisiness can also damage our nerves. If Chinese lived in a clean, orderly environment, they might behave entirely differently.
The scourge of infighting
Chinese people are notorious for quarrelling and squabbling among themselves. A Japanese person all by himself is no better than a pig, but three Japanese together are as awesome as a dragon. The Japanese people’s ability to co-operate makes them nearly invincible, and in neither commerce nor war can the Chinese ever dream of competing with them. If three Japanese people in the same business are in Taipei together, they will take turns making sales. Chinese businessmen in the same situation would act like perfect Ugly Chinamen. If Li is selling something for $50, Ma will offer it for $40; if Li lowers the price to $30, Ma will cut it to $20. Every Chinaman is a dragon in his own right.
Chinese people can be extremely convincing when they talk, thanks to their remarkably nimble tongues. If you believe what they say, there is nothing they cannot do, including extinguishing the sun with a single breath of air, and ruling the world with a single flick of the hand. In the laboratory or examination hall, where no personal relationships are involved, Chinese can produce impressive results. But when three fiery Chinese dragons get together, they can only produce about as much as a single pig, or a single insect, if that much. This is because of their addiction to infighting.
Chinese people squabble among themselves in every situation, since their bodies lack those cells that enable most human beings to get along with each other. When non-Chinese people criticise the Chinese for this weakness, I like to warn them, ‘Chinese people are like this because God knows that with more than one billion of them, if they ever got their act together, the rest of the world wouldn’t be able to handle them. God has been good to you foreigners by making it impossible for the Chinese to cooperate among themselves.’ But it is very painful for me to say this.
Chinese people can easily come up with enough reasons for why they don’t cooperate with each other to fill a book. The best example of this uncohesiveness can be found right here in the United States, where every Chinese community is divided up into as many factions as there are days in the year, each determined to choke the fife out of the rest. There’s an old Chinese saying: one monk drinks from the water bucket on his back; two monks drink from the water bucket they carry on a pole; three monks have no water to drink. Why do we need so many people to accomplish something so simple?
Chinese people simply don’t understand the importance of cooperation. But if you tell a Chinaman he doesn’t understand, he will sit down and write a book just for you entitled The Importance of Co-operation.
On my last visit to the United States, I stayed with a friend who teaches at an American university. He was a very reasonable and intelligent person, and we held discussions on many subjects, including how to save China. The following day I told this-man that I wanted to visit a Mr G., a mutual acquaintance of ours. At the mere mention of Mr G.’s name, my friend’s eyes lit up in anger. And when I asked him to drive me to Mr G.’s house, he said, ‘Sorry, Bo Yang, you’ll have to get there on your own’. Both Mr G. and my host are university professors and grew up in the same place in China, but they cannot tolerate each other. Are they rational human beings? I’ll say it again: infighting is a serious problem among the Chinese.
Those of you who live in the United States know that the people who harass Chinese people the most are other Chinese, not Yankees. It takes a Chinaman to betray a Chinaman; only a Chinaman would have a good reason to frame or slander another Chinaman.
Here is one example: Shortly after he developed a coal mine in Malaysia, a man I know was accused of several serious crimes. The plaintiff, it turned out, was an old friend of his. Both of them had left China at the same time and had started out in Malaysia with nothing in their pockets. When my friend asked his old acquaintance why he had done such a cruel thing, he said, ‘We both started out together with nothing, but now you’re a millionaire and I’m hardly getting by. If I don’t sue you, who else can I sue?’ This is one isolated incident, but it shows how Chinese people can be their own worst enemies.
To cite another example, in a country as big as the United States, where no individual amounts to much more than a drop in the ocean, how would anyone find out if you were an illegal immigrant? Only if someone went out of his way to turn you in to the immigration authorities. And who would do such a nasty thing for no good reason? Only one of your best friends, an Ugly Chinaman.
Many Chinese people in the United States have told me that if their boss is Chinese, they constantly have to be on their toes. Chinese bosses never promote their Chinese employees, and when people are being laid off, they are always the first to go. Such occasions give Chinese bosses golden opportunities to demonstrate their impartiality and sense of fairness.
Why do people constantly compare the Chinese with the Jews? Many say that the Chinese and the Jews are particularly industrious. We can approach this question from two angles. First, the industriousness which was once the great pride of the Chinese people was destroyed during the reign of the Gang of Four in the Cultural Revolution, as a result of which Chinese people no longer possess a virtue that sustained them for thousands of years.
How else can we compare ourselves with the Jews? Chinese newspapers often carry headlines describing how fierce arguments often break out in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, with, for example, three leading politicians holding three entirely contrary views. But the same newspapers never mention that once a consensus is reached, the three of them will take the same course of action. And while that battle of words was taking place inside the Knesset, a real war was being fought outside, with the enemy surrounding the country on all sides-and yet the Israelis still held their elections. Everyone knows that in order to hold an election, you need an opposition party, otherwise an election is no better than a second-rate soap opera.
If three Chinese people with three different opinions reach a consensus, the three of them will still act according to their own will. For instance, Wang proposes going to New York and Chang wants to go to San Francisco. There is a vote and New York is chosen as the common destination. In Israel, everyone would go to New York. But in China, Chang would say, ‘You can go to New York. I’m going to San Francisco’.
In a British film there was a scene in which several children were having an argument about whether to climb a tree or go swimming. After quarrelling for a while, they decided to vote. The majority chose to climb a tree, so they all climbed a tree. Simple though it seems, this left a deep impression on me. Democracy in the West is more than mere form; it is a regular part of daily life, while in China democracy is there purely for show. During elections, high officials in China insist on being photographed holding a ballot in their hands to show the world that they deign to take part in the democratic process. Democracy is not an intrinsic part of those officials’ lives; it is all show.
A reluctance to admit error
Chinese people’s inability to co-operate, and their predilection for bickering among themselves, are deep-rooted, harmful traits. These behaviour patterns cannot be traced to any inherent flaws in the Chinese national character, but rather are symptoms of an infection spread by the virus of traditional Chinese culture, that causes us to act in ways we can neither conceal nor control. We know that we fight among ourselves, yet it is beyond our control to stop it. ‘If the pot breaks, nobody will have anything to eat; but if the sky falls, someone taller than me will be there to stop it from falling on my head. I don’t have to lift a finger.’
The tendency towards internecine struggle has spawned another insidious phenomenon: an utter reluctance to admit mistakes. How many of you have ever heard a Chinese admit that he or she has made an error? If you have, then break out the Maotai: it is time to start celebrating the renaissance of China!
Once, many years ago, I spanked my daughter for something she had done wrong, but soon realised that I had made a mistake. Her crying made me feel terrible inside. She was a young and helpless thing, so my sudden turning against her must have given her a terrible shock. I picked her up and said, ‘I’m sorry. Daddy made a big mistake. I promise you I’ll never do it again. Be a good girl and accept Daddy’s apology.’ But she went on crying for a long time. Though this upset me greatly, I was also proud of the fact that I had admitted my error.
Chinese people are highly reluctant to admit their errors, and can produce a myriad of reasons to cover their mistakes. There’s an old adage: ‘Contemplate your faults behind closed doors’. Whose faults? The guy’s next door, of course! When I was teaching school, I told my students to keep a diary and record their weekly activities. The entries read like this: ‘Today Ming cheated me. I’ve always been good to him. It must be because I’m too kind to him and too honest.’ But when I read Ming’s diary, I saw that Ming thought that he was too kind and too honest as well. If everyone in the world is so kind and honest, can there be any dishonest people left?
Chinese people don’t admit their mistakes because somewhere during their long evolution they lost the knack of it. Of course we can disavow our mistakes, but that won’t make them disappear. To cover their mistakes, Chinese people go well out of their way and even commit additional mistakes, merely to cover their initial blunders. Thus it is often said that Chinese are addicted to bragging, boasting, lying, equivocating and, worst of all, slandering others. For years Chinese have been going on about the supreme greatness of China, and making extravagant claims about how Chinese culture can make the world a better place to live in. But because these daydreams never come true, all of this is pure rubbish.
I don’t have to cite examples of boasting and lying, but Chinese verbal brutality deserves special mention. Even in the confines of the bedroom, where Western couples habitually address each other as ‘honey’ and ‘darling’, Chinese people prefer such endearments as ‘You deserve death by a thousand cuts!’ And in matters of politics or money, and in power struggles of any kind, Chinese people’s spite knows no bounds. What makes Chinese people so mean and petty?
Stuck in the mud of bragging and boasting
A friend who used to write traditional adventure stories started a business. When I asked him whether he had made a lot of money, he told me, ‘Are you kidding? I’m about ready to hang myself!’ I asked him how he lost so much money. ‘You can’t imagine. It’s a total waste of time talking with Chinese businessmen, you never know what they’re really thinking.’ Europeans and Americans have said to me, ‘It’s hard getting to know Chinese people. You never know what’s on their minds.’ I replied, ‘You think you’re the only one with that problem? When Chinese talk to each other, they have the same problem.’
One way of figuring out what is going on in a Chinese person’s mind is to observe his or her body language and facial expression, and to cultivate the habit of beating around the bush yourself. You ask someone, ‘Have you eaten dinner and the answer is ‘Yes’, but he is actually so hungry you can hear his stomach rumbling. In an election, a Western politician will say, ‘I sincerely believe I am qualified for the post. Please vote for me.’ But Chinese people prefer to take after Zhuge Liang: if offered a post, a modest Ugly Chinaman will decline the honour at least three times. ‘Who, me? I’m hardly qualified for the post.’ But if you take him literally and vote for someone else, he will never speak to you again.
To give another example, you invite me to give a lecture, and I say, ‘Who, me? I’m a terrible public speaker.’ But if you don’t insist I give that lecture, and we meet in the street in Taipei some day, I’ll be sure to aim a brick at your head. If everyone acts in this manner, we will never mend our ways. The way things are now, it takes ten mistakes to cover up one mistake, and one hundred mistakes to cover up ten.
I was once visiting a British professor in Taichung, when a Chinese friend of mine teaching in the same university came in and invited me to dinner in his home that evening. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve already got an appointment for tonight.’ He replied, ‘That’s all right, come anyway. I’ll see you later.’ Chinese speak to each other in this fashion all the time, but a Western person overhearing such an exchange will find it hard to know what is actually going on. When the British professor and I had finished our work, I said to him, ‘I’m heading home.’ He asked me, ‘I thought you were going to your friend’s home for dinner.’ I said, ‘Where did you get that idea?’ ‘But he’s making dinner especially for you!’ This is just one example of how difficult it is for Western people to understand the noncommittal etiquette practised by most Chinese.
The behaviour patterns described above give Chinese people a heavy cross to bear from birth. Rarely does a day go by when it isn’t necessary to decipher what’s going on in someone’s mind. With friends, the problems are minimal. But when dealing with government officials or rich and powerful people you constantly have to read minds. What a waste of energy! Consider the popular Chinese saying: ‘Getting things done is easy; dealing with people is hard’. Dealing with people brings us into the sphere of ‘cultural software’. All of you who have lived abroad will be able to appreciate this. When you go back to China and want to get something done, two plus two equals four. But when you have to deal with other people, two plus two may equal five, or one or 853. If you tell the truth about something, others may accuse you of attacking or attempting to overthrow the government. This is a serious problem, and one which keeps the Chinese stuck in the muck of bragging, lying, boasting and slander.
I like to boast that I can sleep through any meeting or conference. This is only possible because no one who attends conferences says what they really believe. This habit of ‘slinging the bull’ is even more prevalent on the mainland than in Taiwan. One of the participants in this year’s International Writers’ Program at the University of Iowa was the mainland woman writer Shen Rong. The title of one of her books, which I highly recommend, is Truth or Lies.
The Chinese mentality makes us tell lies and act dishonestly. We should at least be able to recognise a bad thing when we see it. But when we glorify bad things or ignore them, it is a sign that our ‘cultural software’ has been invaded by a virus. Take theft, for example. No one can say that robbery is an ennobling act, but when people ignore it and cease to think of it as a dishonest act, we have reached a crisis. This is the crisis Chinese people are faced with today.
Modem Chinese have become increasingly narrow minded and closed off from the rest of the world because of their inability to admit their mistakes and their predilection for bragging, lying and slander.
What state of mind or philosophical outlook properly reflects China’s vast territory and strikingly rich cultural heritage? Magnanimity, broad- mindedness and worldliness come to mind. But where do you meet people with such qualities except in books or on TV? Have you ever met a Chinese who is truly magnanimous and open minded? In many situations, a single hostile glance will spur a Chinese gentleman to whip out his sword and flash it in your face. Then watch when it turns out you have divergent points of view. Westerners can shake hands after a fight, but Chinese become enemies for life, and will even perpetuate a vendetta for three generations. Why do Chinese lack tolerance for others?
Narrow-mindedness and intolerance result in an unbalanced person- ality constantly wavering between two extremes: chronic inferiority on the one hand, and overbearing arrogance on the other. A Chinese with an inferiority complex is a slave; a Chinese with a superiority complex is a tyrant. As individuals, Chinese lack self-respect. In the inferiority mode, they feel like a heap of dog shit, so the closer they get to influential people, the wider their smiles. In the arrogant mode, everyone else is a heap of dog shit. These radical swings in self-esteem make Chinese people imbalanced creatures with psychotic tendencies.
A nation of inflation
In Chinese society it is easy to astound people by performing miracles, but impossible to sustain such activity for an extended period. As soon as someone can claim some trivial achievement, he will suddenly lose his hearing or eyesight, or have difficulty walking. Anyone who publishes two articles is an ‘author’. Anyone who acts in two films is a ‘star’. Anyone who is a petty bureaucrat for two years is ‘the people’s saviour’. A student who spends two years in a university in the United States is a ‘returned overseas scholar’. Such titles are all auto-inflationary.
Several years ago a terrible traffic accident took place in Taiwan. A bus carrying a group of fourth-year students from Taiwan Normal University was passing through the most dangerous section of the Cross-Island Highway, when the conductress announced: ‘Our driver today is one of the best in Taiwan. Look how young, strong and handsome he is!’ To prove this, he took his hands off the steering wheel and responded to the students’ applause with the traditional clasped-hands salute. I don’t have to tell you what happened next. This is boasting at its worst: he was such an accomplished driver that he didn’t even have to steer.
I once saw a film which told the story of a man who had invented a pair of ‘flying wings’ and was ordered by the emperor to give a flying demonstration. The man showed his wings to the crowd, and was about to climb up the tower from which he was to take off, when the crowd’s thunderous applause fired his self-confidence to the point where he threw down his wings and declared he would fly without them. At this point, his wife stepped in and tried to deter him from going ahead with his preposterous scheme: ‘What do you think you’re doing? You can’t fly without your wings!’ He turned to her angrily and said, ‘What do you know?’ When she began to climb up the tower to stop him, he stepped on her fingers. Reaching the top of the tower, he closed the hatch and took off. Seconds later there was a loud thud, and then silence. The crowd suddenly exploded in anger. ‘We paid good money to see him fly, not to watch him plunge to his death!’ and demanded that the dead man’s wife fly for them. She had no choice but to comply. In her grief, before jumping, the woman addressed her husband’s departed soul: ‘You and your big ideas, you’ve killed yourself and your wife as well’.
What makes the Chinese people prone to self-inflation? Consider the saying, ‘A small vessel is easily filled’. Due to inveterate narrow-mindedness and arrogance, even the slightest success makes an Ugly Chinaman feel that the world is too small to contain him. It is tolerable if a few people behave in this manner, but if the entire population, or a majority behave this way, and they all happen to be Chinese, it spells disaster for China. Because Chinese have never had much self-respect, it is immensely difficult for them to treat others as equals. There are two alternatives: either you are my master, or my slave. This makes people narrow-minded, and reluctant to admit mistakes. Being wrong all the time has made the Chinese paranoid.
Here is one example. A man I knew in Taipei became critically ill and was admitted to the prestigious Central Clinic, where a doctor saved his life only after sticking innumerable tubes into him. Two or three days later, the members of his family moved him to Veterans Hospital, mainly because the fees at the Central Clinic were so high. When the doctor in charge of the case learned about this, he exploded: ‘I went to great lengths to save your life, and now you want to go to another hospital’. He then started to disconnect the life-supporting tubes from the patient, who nearly died as a result.
My friend told me this story with a mixture of sadness and anger. I told him, ‘Give me that doctor’s name, and I’ll write an article about the terrible way he treated you’. But he nearly panicked and upbraided me: ‘You’ve got ants in your pants, Bo Yang. If I had known you were such a busy-body, I wouldn’t have told you the story in the first place.’ I nearly blew up at this point. ‘He’s only a doctor, what are you afraid of? If you get sick again and don’t go to him, do you think he’s going to go to your house and treat you, just to get his revenge? If he really wants his revenge, he’ll go after me, not you, since I’m the one who’s going to blacken his name in print.’ His response was, ‘You must be desperate’. One would have thought he would have praised me for my courage, but he only called me names.
Again, this is not my friend’s individual problem. I still consider him a good friend of mine and a moral, upright person. He was only trying to prevent me from getting into serious trouble. This is a perfect example of Chinese paranoia, a fear of trivial things.
Breeding ground for the slave mentality
On my first visit to the United States, I heard about a Chinese in New York who had been mugged and robbed, but refused to identify the culprit after the police caught him. Chinese are paranoid to the point where they don’t even know what their legal rights are, or how to assert them. If anything happens to them, the knee-jerk response is ‘Forget it’. This ‘forgetting it’ has caused the death of countless Chinese, and has turned us into a nation of spineless cowards. If I were a foreigner, or better yet a fascist dictator, and didn’t make it my business to persecute and exploit the Chinese, I would certainly be doing them a great injustice. The psychological environment of neurosis and paranoia I spoke of above is a fertile breeding ground for despots and corrupt bureaucrats, and there is little hope that the particular species of human being that flourishes in this climate will soon die out in China. In traditional Chinese culture, ‘acting wisely by playing it safe’ is praised time and again, particularly in the great Song dynasty treatise, A Comprehensive Mirror of Government. Generations of dic- tators have rubbed their hands in glee at the thought of the Chinese masses acting wisely by playing it safe, since it makes life very easy for them. This is one reason why the Chinese people continue degenerate and atrophy.
Chinese civilisation attained the zenith of its glory during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 BC), after which it began its decline under the influence of Confucian philosophy. By the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD), a law had come into effect stipulating that no educated person could talk about, debate or write anything that trespassed the limits set by his teacher. No one was allowed to challenge what was known as ‘the legacy of the master’. Any thought or concept that strayed beyond the confines of this ‘legacy’ was considered heretical and against the law. As a result, Chinese intellectuals’ imaginations were strangled and their ability to reason stunted; it was like sealing up their brains in plastic bags, preventing them from absorbing anything new.
What do I mean when I say that intellectuals lost the ability to reason? Just take a look at all the Chinese newspapers filled with articles by belly-aching columnists. Reasoning is a complex process that operates on several levels at the same time. Sun Kuan-han likes to cite the example of a sphere which is half white and half black. Those who can only see the white side think the entire sphere is white; those who see only the black side think the entire sphere is black. Neither conclusion can be said to be wrong. But looking at both sides of the ball requires imagination and cognitive ability.
An American joke illustrates this point well. A teacher gave his students a barometer and told them ‘to use the barometer to measure the height of a building’. Of course the teacher expected the students to do this by calculating the difference between the barometric pressure at the lowest and highest points of the building. But one student came up with a few solutions that had nothing to do with barometric pressure. When he was failed for his work, he complained to the school’s administrative committee, ‘The teacher asked me to measure the building’s height with a barometer, but he didn’t specify that I had to do it by measuring barometric pressure. So naturally I used the simplest methods at my disposal. First, I attached the barometer to a string and let it hang down from the roof of the building. Then I measured the length of the string. Secondly, I gave the barometer to the building superintendent in exchange for telling me the height of the building.’
There is nothing devious about either of these methods, unorthodox though they may be. But they reflect the sort of imaginative thinking that drives people with pigeon-hole brains insane.
Here’s another tale, called ‘The Art of Buying Watermelons’. A shop owner’ said to one of his clerks, ‘Go out, turn west, and when you come to the first bridge, you will see someone selling watermelons. Buy me a four-pound melon.’ The clerk went out and headed west, but he couldn’t find the bridge or the person selling melons, and return & to the shop empty-handed. The owner swore at him and told him he was a fool. The clerk replied, ‘I noticed that they are selling melons in the east’. ‘Why didn’t you go there and buy them?’ ‘You didn’t tell me to.’ Though the owner of the store swore at him for being a fool, he actually regarded the clerk as an ideal employee because of his naivety, obedience and lack of imagination. But had the clerk, noticing that no melons were available in the west, headed east and discovered a heap of sweet melons for sale there, the owner probably would have praised him: ‘You’re brilliant! You displayed excellent judgement. If only everyone who works here were as smart as you. You’re indispensable.’ But in fact he would never trust a clerk with such wild imagination. Slaves who think for themselves are dangerous to have around, and should consider themselves lucky if they can stay alive.
Can people raised in a culture that promotes such values think independently? Because Chinese people are incapable of independent thought, they have developed bad taste and poor judgement: they muddle the distinctions between right and wrong; and they have no permanent standards of behaviour. I repeat: we must examine Chinese culture if we want to explain what is wrong with China today.
Developing our judgement
Over the past 4000 years, China has produced only one great thinker: Confucius. In the 2500 years since his death, China’s literati have done little more than tack on footnotes to the theories propounded by Confucius and his disciples. Rarely have they contributed anything original to the body of Confucian thought, simply because the traditional culture did not allow it. The minds of the literati were stuck at the bottom of an intellectual stagnant pond, the soy paste vat of Chinese culture. As the contents of this vat grew more and more putrid, the resulting stench was absorbed by the Chinese people. Since the many problems in this opaque, bottomless vat could not be solved by individuals exercising their own reason and intelligence, the literati had to ape other people’s way of thinking, or be influenced by other schools of thought. A fresh peach placed in a vat full of putrescent soy paste will soon wither away and turn into a dry turd.
China has its own peculiar way of transforming foreign things and ideas and making them Chinese. You Westerners say you’ve got democracy; well, we Chinese have democracy too. But in China,democracy is understood as follows: you’re the demos (people), but I’ve got the kratos (power). You Westerners have a legal system; we Chinese have one too. You’ve got freedom; so do we. Whatever you have, we have too. You’ve got pedestrian crossing lines painted on the street; we do too, but in China they are there to make it easier for cars to run pedestrians over.
The only way we can do anything about the Ugly Chinaman syndrome is for every individual to cultivate his own personal taste and judgement. One doesn’t have to be an accomplished actor to enjoy going to plays. People who don’t understand what is happening on stage can at least enjoy the music, the lights, the costumes and the scenery, while those who do understand can appreciate drama as an art form. The ability to make such distinctions is a great achievement in itself.
When I first arrived in Taiwan some thirty years ago, I met a man who owned eight sets of Beethoven’s symphonies on records. I asked him if he would sell or give one of them to me, but he refused. Contrary to what I had assumed, each set of the symphonies was performed by a different conductor and orchestra, and they were not at all similar. When I realised that, I felt quite ashamed of myself. This friend was a true connoisseur of music.
During a recent US presidential election, the pre-election debates were broadcast on television in Taiwan. Many people found it remarkable that not once during the debates did either of the candidates reveal anything about their opponent’s private lives; American voters disapprove of such tactics, and it would have cost the erring candidate many votes. Chinese politicians are just the opposite. They go out of their way to expose their rivals’ personal secrets and perhaps invent a few as well, all couched in the filthiest language.
The quality of the fruit is determined by the quality of the soil in which the tree grows. Similarly, people are the ‘fruit’ of the societies in which they live. The citizens of a country should cultivate the ability to judge their leaders; otherwise, they only have themselves to blame for the consequences. If we are willing to shout our praises for a man who is unworthy of our respect, who is to blame if he rides roughshod over us? Buying votes is a very disturbing phenomenon. Voters line up to cast their ballots, a man starts handing out money, and the voters ask him, ‘Hey, where’s my share?’
If this is Chinese political judgement, is China really ready for democracy? Democracy is a privilege to be earned, not a free gift. People say that the Taiwanese Government has relaxed its restrictions on human rights considerably, but I find this a terrifying situation. I have my own freedom and rights, whether the government grants them to me or not. If we had the capacity to make proper judgements, we would demand elections and be rigorous in our selection of candidates. But lacking this capacity, we will never even be able to distinguish a beautiful woman from a pock-marked hag. Who are we to blame for this? If I paint a fake Picasso and you give me half a million bucks for it, who is the fool? You are the one who is blind and entirely lacking in taste and judgement. If there are too many deals like this, no one will buy authentic Picassos, and as the market becomes flooded with fakes, all the real artists will starve to death. Thus, if you buy a fake, you only have yourself to blame. To give another example, you hire a tailor to install a door in your home, and he puts it in upside down. You scold the tailor, ‘Are you blind?’ But the tailor says, ‘Who’s blind, you or me? Who told you to hire a tailor to install a lock?’ This is a story worth remembering. Without the capacity to make informed judgements, we will always end up making the same mistakes.
Only the Chinese can change themselves
Plagued with so many loathsome qualities, only the Chinese can reform themselves. Foreigners have a duty to help us, not through economic aid but by means of culture. The Chinese ship of state is so large and overloaded that if it sinks many non-Chinese people will perish in the whirlpool as well. I would like to invite all the Americans attending this lecture to extend us a helping hand.
One final point: China is seriously overpopulated. The country has more than a billion hungry mouths to feed, with a collective appetite that could easily devour the Himalayan range. This should remind us that China’s problems are complex, and call for a high level of awareness on the part of each and every Chinese. Every one of us must become a discriminating judge and use our ability to examine and appraise ourselves, our friends and our country’s leaders. This is our only hope.
[From: Bo Yang, The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture, translated and edited by Don J. Cohn and Jing Qing. St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1992.]
Sumber : Gabungan Melayu Perihatin