»  National Review Online

November 10th, 2003

  The Sad Country


Looking at the picture of those Chinese students demonstrating in Xi'an last weekend, a half-forgotten literary reference came to mind. I went to my books and found the reference. It's in Chapter Eight of Ba Jin's novel The Family, written around 1930. Ba Jin (old spelling: Pa Chin**) was the most prominent Chinese novelist of the Republican period (1912-49) and The Family is a pretty standard "set book" for foreign students of Chinese. It is about a young man from a prosperous family, living in west China in the 1920s. At one point the young man, whose name is Juehui, joins a student demonstration against some misbehavior by the local warlord's soldiers. It is evening, and starting to rain. Thousands of young protestors are jammed into the square in front of the warlord's main administrative building. Some student delegates have just been admitted to the building.

Juehui applauded frantically with the rest of the crowd. His hair was wet from the raindrops that fell unceasingly. From time to time he shaded his eyes with his hand, but he still could not see the facial expressions of the students at each side of him. He could make out the bayonets of the soldiers, and the lanterns by the entrance to the warlord's building. He could see the numberless mass of bobbing black-haired heads in the square. Unable to control his indignation, all he could think of was to let out a great shout, yet he could barely breathe. There had long been rumors that the authorities intended to deal with the students, but this attack had been so sudden. Who could have thought things would happen this way? It was all too contemptible! "Why do you treat us like this? Do you mean to say that patriotism is now a crime? That the purity and sincerity of our youth is a disaster for the nation?" He could not believe it …

That bobbing mass of black-haired young heads was a recurring theme throughout China's history in the twentieth century. Now here they are again, angry, choking with indignation, massed in a square, eyes fixed on the doorway of some official. Why do you treat us like this?

The occasion of this particular protest, in the northwestern city of Xi'an last week, was a light-hearted stage revue put on by foreign students at the city's big university. According to the account I got from a friend who was present, the Chinese students in the audience got riled up over an accidental juxtaposition of Chinese characters in a sketch put on by four Japanese students.

At 3pm the Japanese students asked us to meet with them. They are four very sad, humiliated and apologetic youngsters. They never meant any harm, but I would say their understanding of the deep-seated hatred the Chinese have towards them is not fully understood. They explained their skit. On the back of their T-shirts, one had the words for "Japan," one had "China" and the middle shirt had a heart and in it the word "love." They also had borrowed bras from the girls and wore them over their T-shirts. On their heads they had some kind of paper hats with the names of some famous Chinese and Japanese people. Unfortunately, on the back of the head of the guy who had China on his back, there was the character for "look," so from the back of his head he had "look," then on his back down to his rear, he had China! Soooo, it appeared to be: "Look down on China!!" Dynamite!! The heart and love seemed unimportant after that.

This, at any rate, was the spark that ignited the protest. Aggravating factors, according to various news sources, were:

Demonstrating students filled with indignation at real or imagined insults to their country — especially by the Japanese — and at their own dismal life prospects, have been a feature of Chinese life for close to a hundred years now. The best-known of recent times were of course the Tiananmen Square protestors of June 1989, but the tradition goes all the way back to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when Chinese territory was ceded to Japan by the Treaty of Versailles, and the students of Beijing came out in protest. The particular frustrations on display at any one demonstration are drawn from a small, constant set: misgovernment, corruption, the arrogance of the authorities, poor living conditions, insults by foreigners.

The last is especially potent. Young Chinese people are easily roused to fury by anything they perceive as a slight against the national honor. Here is a story from my own last visit to the country two years ago.

I took my family to see the "Buried Army" of the first emperor, not far from this same city of Xi'an. I stood in line to buy tickets. Just as I reached the ticket window, two young Chinese boys, aged around thirteen or fourteen, ran up, pushed in front of me, and got the attention of the ticket seller. Though annoyed, I let them get their tickets; then, when they had done and were standing there chortling over their coup, I pushed one of them aside rather rudely, and said (in Chinese): "Don't you have any manners?"

At once the person behind me, a young Chinese man, began shouting in a mix of Chinese and broken English. I didn't get all of it, but it was filthy stuff — the lowest kinds of obscenities, including some really bad English ones he had got from somewhere. When I turned to look at him, I could see that he was utterly out of control. He was insulting me in the crudest way, with fierce passion, his arms flapping like a penguin's. His face was bright red with anger. Chinese people standing around clicked their tongues at him and told him to shut up, but he just kept right on, the abuse gushing out of him. I suppose I should have knocked him down; but I was temporarily unmanned by the knowledge that I had done a wrong thing in shoving the boy (who was at least a foot shorter than myself). By the time I got my wits together, some security people were advancing symmetrically from the corners of the ticket plaza, and the ticket seller was yelling back at the guy from her window. Everyone was mad with him for "insulting a foreign guest." I slunk away, guiltily aware that the opening insult, though trivial, had been mine. Yet still, on an action-reaction calculation, the young man's rage was wildly out of proportion to my offense.

This is one of those stories that, when I tell them, prompt people to bring out similar ones from their own Chinese experiences. This passionate rage against any slightest, even imaginary, assault on the national honor, is quite normal in China. If the offender is Japanese, it comes out triple force. If I myself had been Japanese, and a head shorter, at the Buried Army ticket plaza that day, I think it is quite likely the young man would have tried to throttle me.

The striking thing here is the persistence of these kinds of attitudes, their constancy across the whole modern era. China today is, as everyone knows, vastly improved from her condition a hundred, or fifty, or even ten years ago; yet somewhere in China, now as then, is a "numberless mass of bobbing black-haired heads" in some square, filled with rage at the crimes of foreigners, or the corruption of their own rulers, or both.

China seems to me a very sad place. If she were a normal country, under constitutional government, China could lead the world. She has an energetic and talented population, with a higher average intelligence than any western nation and a long, strong tradition of intellectual endeavor. If she could let go of her non-Chinese colonies (Tibet, East Turkestan), she would have a homogeneous population without any of the distractions caused by fractious minorities. With the Confucian ethic of family solidarity still more or less intact, she could run a welfare state much smaller and cheaper than those required in individualistic countries like the U.S.A. Having almost no "installed base" of nineteenth-century technology, she could carry out infrastructure planning and development from scratch, using modern materials and techniques. China could quite easily be a paradise on earth.

Instead, poor China is stuck in some horrible time warp. Unable to let go of her nineteenth-century imperial acquisitions, she garrisons vast territories populated by resentful non-Chinese peoples. Her national psyche poisoned by the humiliations of seventy, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty years ago, she snarls and spits at those who should be her natural friends and trading partners, and amasses armaments whose only purpose can be, or at any rate whose only effect is, to fill her neighbors with fear and mistrust. Cumbered with a stupid, reactionary and corrupt ruling class, her people cannot make their voices heard. Instead of striding forward into the bright future that should rightly be theirs, they seethe, and burn, and from time to time boil over. Why do you treat us like this? Poor China; poor, poor China.

** Incredibly, Ba Jin is still alive, though only just. He will be celebrating his 99th birthday on the 25th of this month, from his hospital bed in Shanghai. "Ba Jin," by the way, is a nom de plume. In his youth, the author was much taken with the doctrines of the Russian anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin — Ba-ku-ning and Ke-lu-pao-te-jin in standard Chinese transliteration. He took the first and last syllables. His original name was Li Feigan.

[Added 12/12/09:  Ba Jin lived another two years, dying on October 17th, 2005, six weeks shy of his 101st birthday. There is an obituary here.]