A Study Of Unchanged National Character
What's Wrong with China?
by Paul Midler
The Chinese sure can be exasperating. Paul Midler writes in his new book What's Wrong with China:
No one is sure when it began, but the phrase "I'm having a bad China day" has become synonymous with the expatriate experience … Those who become testy in this country are not limited to the cholerically predisposed. China has a way of also taking easygoing milquetoasts and turning them into hotheads. The phenomenon is so common that long-term expatriates have coined various terms: The Laowai Wigout, The Expat Snap, and Angry Foreigner Syndrome are three such expressions floating around the bigger metropolitan areas.
(Laowai is the common — informal, non-hostile — Chinese term for a foreigner, equivalent to Japanese gaijin. Pronunciation here. During my own China days in the early 1980s the usual expat term for the syndrome under discussion here was "China Fatigue." I, a representative of the easygoing milquetoast community, recall experiencing one or two episodes.)
Paul Midler is an Old China Hand. He has lived and worked in China for more than twenty years, mainly as a business consultant helping foreign firms in their dealings with Chinese manufacturers. His wife is Chinese. His 2009 book Poorly Made in China (reviewed by me here) is wonderfully informative on the Chinese way of doing business.
These two books of his are in a fine old tradition, to which Midler pays homage in the very title of this latter one.
I encountered that tradition myself when studying Chinese in London thirty-eight years ago. I had a reader's ticket to the magnificent library of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and spent whole days there, in the stacks of the China section.
I can read Chinese only with difficulty, though; so after two or three hours of intense cognitive effort I would, for relaxation, drift over to the shelves of English-language books about China.
The items that most got my interest there were the memoirs and diaries of foreigners living in China during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — the late-imperial and republican period.
The SOAS library has a great collection of these, almost all by authors whose names have sunk into oblivion: missionaries, merchants, diplomats, adventurers, and oddities like the botanist Robert Fortune. (Who was one of the most upbeat: "In no country in the world is there less real misery and want than in China." That was written in the mid-1840s.)
One particularly striking book in that genre is Rodney Gilbert's What's Wrong with China, first published in 1926. I was so taken with this book, I acquired a copy of my own from the second-hand shelves at Probsthain's oriental bookstore, around the corner from SOAS.
I still have that copy: so there are now two books on my own shelves with exactly the same title but by different authors, published 92 years apart.
Rodney Gilbert wrote with a frankness about race that would make his book utterly unpublishable nowadays, and he sometimes slipped into the supercilious diction of a Victorian lady complaining about the servants. At one point he actually does complain about his servants.
Also, Gilbert's partiality for his own race occasionally led him into error. He recounts, for instance, the episode from the Battle of Maldon in a.d. 991 when the Anglo-Saxon leader allowed his Viking enemies to ford a waterway and form up for battle before he attacked them. No Chinese leader, said Gilbert, would ever show such chivalry.
Wrong! In fact there is a closely parallel incident in Chinese history from the Battle of Hongshui (638 b.c.), the source of a well-known remark of Mao Tse-tung's.
If you can get past all that, though, Rodney Gilbert, writing a long lifetime ago, had some penetrating insights into China's history, culture, and national character.
Most of those insights are of a negative kind. For a person so intimately acquainted with the Chinese people, he seems not to have liked them much. His keynote, which he returns to again and again, is:
In China the psychic flame burns low, for want of fuel.
Gilbert is not uniformly negative, though. He gives credit where he thinks it's due.
Like all Orientals, [the Chinese] have a strong dramatic sense, and a professional storyteller, speaking his primitive and undeveloped language [by comparison with the classical style of the scholarly literati, Gilbert means], can rise to heights in characterization, description, narrative and metaphor to which not one Occidental in ten thousand could aspire in his own tongue. An infallible sense of rhythm and cadence is born in the great majority of Chinese. In ordinary speech, they divide their sentences up into euphoniously balanced periods …
Paul Midler quotes Rodney Gilbert numerous times in this new book for which he has borrowed Gilbert's title. He also quotes many other foreign commentators from that late-imperial, early-republican period. I get the impression Midler had the same experience I had when studying Chinese. But for a few years' difference in the dates of our studies, we might unknowingly have bumped into each other among the stacks in SOAS library.
Much water has of course flowed under the bridge since those earlier observers wrote. Midler, however, does not think the quality of observation has improved.
It is curious that books written on China in the 1960s — Dennis Bloodworth's The Chinese Looking-Glass is an example — should read finer than most of what is produced these days, and that even these books pale in comparison to the works of the previous generation. The trend appears to go back quite some time. In the 1930s, Ralph Townsend was convinced that his contemporaries wrote nothing as accurate as that which was produced by Arthur Smith [1890s] and Abbé Huc [1840s] … Economic and technological progress alone ought to have made it easier to watch China; but modernity, as it turns out, had actually a negative influence … You will find more insights in a book written one hundred years ago than in something written last month.
I think that's right as a generalization. Reading it, in fact, brought to mind something I have found myself thinking rather often in recent years: The much-discussed Flynn Effect notwithstanding, we are in some important, unquantified way stupider than our forebears of a hundred years ago. Paul Midler is, however, an exception to that generalization. His observations, based on those twenty years of wrangling with Chinese exporters, take us right back to the unsparing, unillusioned critiques of those old Old China Hands.
Like them, he is eloquent on the ferociously optimizing skills in negotiation that Chinese people bring to commercial transactions.
Chinese factory owners hate to see their customers happy, because it means that money has been left on the table.
Similarly with Chinese customers. A Chinese friend of mine, once established in America, decided to buy a car. He picked the model he wanted, went to a showroom, and began haggling. So persistent was he — "Oh come on, you can give me another fifty dollars on that!" — they threw him out, almost literally. Two of the salesmen pushed him into the street, one at each elbow.
"That," he exulted, telling me the story, "was when I knew I'd found their price!"
The downside of this high level of commercial acumen is long-term commercial failure. Chinese merchants can't resist the temptation to kill the golden goose for the sake of a couple more cents on the dollar.
Midler tells the story of tea, which I think is quite well-known. Given that tea is native to China, not (except very marginally) to India, why did the West end up drinking Indian tea, not Chinese tea? Midler:
The tea industry collapsed in part because growers were sending leaves to market without drying them. This was not a time-saving maneuver. It was done because wet leaves weigh more, and the additional weight brought in more revenue. The problem with moisture is that it leads to mold, which affects taste.
Some similar style of cheating may have affected the opium trade, with dire consequences.
In the grand scale of psychoactive substances, opium as smoked in China from the seventeenth century onwards is not exceptionally harmful. A wealthy Chinese opium smoker "'does not seem much the worse' for his habit," noted an 1890s observer (quoted by Midler).
So why was opium smoking so devastating among China's poor? Adulteration, says Midler. In the extreme, a cheap variety named Hankow Cake contained no opium at all, only sesame seeds. Midler:
Historians are so hell-bent on blaming the West for everything that went wrong with China in the nineteenth century that they have no room for an investigation into the serious possibility that the nation may have actually poisoned itself.
Chinese people acknowledge that an individual fellow-countryman may be wicked, but China as a nation can do no wrong.
National self-esteem is of course not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. We Americans — well, some of us — treasure our "exceptionalism." Chinese propagandists take it to the extreme, though.
Nothing can be wrong with the Chinese spirit and their inward identity. All problems must lie outside and therefore be the work of "foreigners."
The most wince-inducing aspect of this national trait is the frequent announcements out of Peking that some action by some foreign government — holding a meeting with the Dalai Lama, for example — has "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." Poor things!
Midler shows that there is nothing communist, or at all modern, about this ploy. He tracks it back to a 1901 article written by Wu Ting-fang, an official in the imperial government, who implored foreign critics to "respect the feelings of the Chinese." Our author really has read everything.
That point, and many others Paul Midler has drawn from his reading and his commercial dealings, reinforces the grand theme of foreign commentary on China down through the ages: continuity.
The great event in China's twentieth-century history was Mao Tse-tung's revolution. Mao boasted that he would re-make China into a socialist utopia.
No such thing happened. In fact nothing much happened. There was a spell of turmoil, to be sure; but when the dust settled, all was as before under Heaven.
"The supreme ruler possesses the same attributes and discharges the same functions; the governing classes are chosen in the same manner; the people are bound in the same state of servitude, and enjoy the same practical liberty; all is now as it was." — Boulger's History of China (1881).
Leszek Kolakowski in Main Currents of Marxism described Mao Tse-tung Thought as "a naïve repetition of a few commonplaces of Leninist-Stalinist Marxism." He allows, however, that Mao was "one of the greatest, if not the very greatest, manipulator of large masses of human beings in the twentieth century."
So Maoism was a cheap Chinese knock-off of Marxism-Leninism. Once Mao's extraordinary personality ceased to drive events, the political system quickly reverted to the imperial norm.
The continuity of national character comes out clearly in Paul Midler's use of older commentators. Mao's revolution, for all its upheavals and horrors, had very little effect on the national psyche, perhaps none at all.
To speak of a "national psyche" nowadays, however, is to trespass into the minefield of Political Incorrectness. The Scots are mean, we used to say blithely; the French are arrogant; the Germans are orderly; the Italians, excitable; the Russians, gloomy; the Irish, pugnacious; and so on.
Saying such things aloud in 2018 will get you horse-whipped on the steps of your club; but common observation suggests that there is some underlying reality to these unmentionable old perceptions, as is usually the case with stereotypes.
(In the current enstupidated condition of our public discourse about human nature, the weary commentator is obliged to add that these are statistical generalities. Of course there exist generous Scots, humble Frenchmen, disorganized Germans, placid Italians, and cheerful Russians. There may even be placatory Irishmen: I don't know, I couldn't say.)
The Chinese in this schema are characterized by love of money and addiction to gambling. Midler:
Whenever you read about a stampede in India, you can rest assured that it has taken place during a religious festival. In Europe, stampedes that result in death usually happen at sporting events. In China, the mad rush of a crowd almost always has something to do with economics. A sales promotion on cooking oil and rumors of a rice shortage have both sent Chinese into frenzied action.
What, then, is wrong with China? Paul Midler offers many suggestions. He tells us for example that the Chinese, their colossal national self-regard notwithstanding, have no faith in the permanence of their political arrangements. All Chinese people, including the rulers, have internalized the dynastic cycle. Every Chinese person knows the opening words of a classic novel written seven hundred years ago:
What was long divided must unite,
What was long united must divide.
Much, says Midler, flows from this; the passion to get while the getting is good, the gambling instinct, the leaders' determination to put off the inevitable day of dissolution as long as possible by fierce repression, and so on.
The Chinese also nurse ambivalence about their relation to the other peoples of the world. For long millennia the situation was clear to them: they were a civilized enclave surrounded by barbarians.
The nineteenth-century encounter with Europeans woke China from this particular opium dream, but they have not yet found an alternative equilibrium point on which to rest their identity.
Rodney Gilbert thought the Chinese of ninety years ago yearned to be isolated once again. If he was right, Mao Tse-tung fulfilled that yearning, isolating China for thirty years. The results were not altogether satisfactory, and now China poses as a nation among other nations.
The pronouncements of China's leaders, though, suggest that their hearts aren't really in it. Chinese nationalism is something other than Westphalian; Chinese globalism, as currently manifested in the Belt and Road initiative, has a clumsy, out-of-tune quality to it, so that it inspires not admiration and respect, only suspicion and fear.
China's internal governance, too, is chronically unstable. Midler:
China is a vase teetering on its edge, and maintaining balance has been a goal throughout its history.
He goes on to give an account of post-1949 China's lurching from centralization to decentralization and back.
None of this should be taken as a slander on the Chinese, although of course it will be so taken. They, like the rest of us, have emerged as they are, in all their distinctness, from the long slow churnings of history, geography, and population genetics.
And, as Paul Midler writes:
Much of what's wrong with China is actually something wrong within us. We are too fond of this country. We are too forgiving. We willingly have amnesia on the basis that we care.
He is writing there about the remarkably un-advertised fact that the Chinese have conducted many massacres of foreigners.
Why are so many of us so forgivingly fond of this exasperating, paradoxical, unstable place? Paul Midler quotes from the answer given by Progressive sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross in 1911.
Chinese are extremely likable and those who have known them longest like them best. Almost invariably those who harshly disparage them are people who are coarse or narrow or bigoted. They are not a sour or sullen folk. Smile at them and back comes a look that puts you on a footing of mutual understanding. Their lively sense of humor is a bond that unites them to the foreigner.
Ross (1866-1951) is an odd person for Midler to quote in this context. He would himself be denounced as the worst kind of bigot today. He was a race realist, nativist, and eugenicist who strongly objected to race mixing — so strongly, he was fired from his professorship at Stanford in 1900 for his views.
Much as he liked the Chinese, Ross did not want them settling in the U.S.A. This is a perfectly tenable position, although intolerably shocking to present-day orthodoxies.
Ross got the likability right, though, and "those who have known them longest like them best." (Rodney Gilbert may have been an exception.)
And to the further collective credit of the Chinese must be added this: Unlike the nations of the West today, they have no intention of opening up the borders of their nation to tens of millions of foreigners. Stupidity on that scale is peculiarly Western.
What's wrong with us?