Understanding China and the Chinese
By John Derbyshire
The subject of my address was “Understanding China and the Chinese.” The conference organizers meant it to form part of a set, with Jared Taylor following me on the topic “Understanding Japan and the Japanese,” then John O’Sullivan on “Understanding Europe and its Bureaucrats,” then Prof. Norman Stone on “Understanding Turkey and the Turks.”
As things turned out, the set was unfortunately incomplete, as the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C., with very un-Japanese inefficiency, lost Jared’s passport a few days before the conference, leaving him no time to sort the problem out and so unable to embark for Turkey.
We missed Jared and commiserate with him on what seems to have been an exceptionally bad year for him so far, marred by misfortunes and indignities at the hands of various state apparatuses, by no means only the Japanese. (He did manage to bring out a book, though.)
The rest of us went ahead with our presentations anyway. Here is mine.
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. The title of my talk here is “Understanding China and the Chinese.” I’m going to take that very literally; so please let me make it clear that the topic of my talk is not China and the Chinese, about both of which I know all too little; the topic isunderstanding China and the Chinese, about which I am somewhat more knowledgeable — about which, indeed, I can claim, I hope not too fancifully, to be something of a world-class expert.
To make a claim to understanding of China and the Chinese, as opposed to merely understanding the business of trying to understand them, would be pretty darn presumptuous. For most of the past 25 years I’ve lived in the United States, a cousin nation to the one I was raised in, yet there are many things about the U.S.A. I still don’t understand, as evidenced by the fact that I still occasionally bang my shins against some aspect of the national psyche I didn’t even know was there. Peanut butter with jam — whose idea was that?
Eight years ago I marveled at the confidence with which American bureaucrats, military staff officers, businessmen, and think-tank whizz-kids breezed into Iraq declaring that they would remake that ancient place into a modern liberal democracy. If I, after all these years in America, still can’t pronounce the word “schedule” properly, what chance did George W. Bush’s proconsuls have of effecting social transformation in a country they’d only just learned to locate on a map?
I think subsequent events have justified my skepticism. We have transformed Iraq all right; but we have transformed it into a client state of Iran, which is not what was intended.
So what chance do I have, does any Westerner have, of encompassing China and the Chinese, let alone of transmitting any understanding to you in 30 minutes?
Modern commentators on China also have before them the dreadful example of the Three Week Sinologist.
Back in the early 1970s when Mao Tse-tung’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was in its acute phase, there was a desire among thoughtful Westerners to know what the heck was going on and what it all meant. Unfortunately China had closed herself off. It was very difficult to get in, even for scholars; and once in, it was difficult to move around.
I was living in Hong Kong at the time. We knew that momentous things were happening in the Chinese interior. For just one clue, there were the matted rafts of decomposing corpses that occasionally floated down the Pearl River past the colony.
Well, now and then the Chinese authorities would allow some Western celebrity or politician to go in on a visit. The foreigner would spend three very closely supervised weeks in China, being escorted around a model farm and a model factory, inspecting some institute of arts or sciences relevant to his own specialty, sitting through a performance by the Dongxiang National Minority Folk Dance Troupe, and so on; then the foreigner would go home and write a book or produce a documentary movie explaining all about China to the news-consuming Western public.
The premier example of a Three Week Sinologist was the movie actress Shirley Maclaine, who on her return from China brought outa very silly movie; but there were many others. My own old boss, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., who had gone to China in Richard Nixon’s baggage train in 1972, showed some inclination thereafter to market himself as Three Week Sinologist but soon, I am glad to say, realized his error.
I was, as I said, living in Hong Kong at that time, and hanging out with local expats, including professional China-watchers. Some of them were scholars; others had grown up, like Jared Taylor, in missionary or China-coast mercantile families. They all spoke two or three dialects fluently. By way of investigative journalism they would hitch a ride on a Hong Kong coastguard boat and go looking for swimmers in Deep Water Bay.
Teenage kids from the mainland would try to escape by swimming to Hong Kong. So your China-watcher would be there on the deck of a coastguard boat sitting opposite some wretched peasant kid who’d just been fished out of the water, who was wrapped in a blanket, soaking wet and shivering, and the expat would be interrogating the kid in Cantonese or Toishanese or Hakka about how things were going down on the commune. Well, you can imagine the scorn these old China hands felt for the Three Week Sinologists.
China, as one of those old China hands once explained to me, is a very big country, and, quote, “the edges are a long way from the middle.”
Jasper Becker, in his book about the Mao famines, tells of a reporter in China in the 1920s responding to a request from his editor for “the bottom facts.” His reply: “There is no bottom in China, and no facts.” Anyone who has engaged with this vast, ancient nation will return a hearty “Amen” to that.
If you’d like a more up-to-date illustration of this central truth about understanding China, I refer you to Richard McGregor’s fine bookThe Party, which came out last year. Page 199, quote:
In September 2005, CLSA, the emerging markets brokerage based in Hong Kong, produced a thick report about how entrepreneurs had taken over as the motor of economic growth in China. They said: “The private sector now contributes more than 70 percent of GDP and employs 75 percent of the workforce …” A week later, a rival and equally respected China research unit at UBS, the Swiss bank, put out a rejoinder, saying the private sector “accounts for no more than 30 percent of the economy, whichever indicator you use.”
So does private enterprise account for 70 percent of China‘s economy, or 30 percent?
Someone’s asking me?
“There is no bottom in China, and no facts.”
As big as China is in space and population, she is even bigger in time.
Alone among substantial nations, China has a culture going back continuously — same language, same customs, same core religious and philosophical concepts — to the Bronze Age.
I have heard working-class Chinese parents send their kids off to bed with the phrase: “Go look for the Duke of Zhou.” The Duke lived in the 11th century b.c., around the time of the Trojan War. Confucius, who lived 500 years later, revered him as a model public servant, and when the sage felt himself to be short on inspiration he’d say that he hadn’t dreamt of the Duke of Zhou for a while. (Analects 7.v.)
To a Chinese person of today, even a working-class kid being shooed away from his Xbox and sent to bed, Confucius and the Duke of Zhou are not foreign in any way. They didn’t speak a different language, live by a different calendar, mentally organize the world in radically different categories, or deploy different table manners when sitting down to different meals, as would be the case for us with their Western equivalents — Socrates and Odysseus, perhaps.
(I can’t resist here my favorite description of the ancient Greek diet, given by Alfred Zimmern, quote: “The usual Attic dinner consisted of two courses, the first a kind of porridge, and the second a kind of porridge.” That wouldn’t do for the Chinese at all …)
When Westerners first started scrutinizing that enormous span of Chinese history, it struck them as being very static, as lacking in forward movement. Here’s a characteristic quote. This is from Demetrius Boulger, who wrote a history of China back in the 1880s. Boulger is telling us about the fortunes of the Imperial family in the later Ming Dynasty, i.e. middle of the 16th century. Then quite abruptly he seems to tire of narrating court intrigues and barbarian affronts, and breaks off from his main story line with this curious little editorial aside. Quote:
It might be more instructive to trace the growth of thought among the masses, or to indicate the progress of civil and political freedom; yet, not only do the materials not exist for such a task, but those we possess all tend to show that there has been no growth to describe, no progress to be indicated, during these comparatively recent centuries. It is the peculiar and distinguishing characteristic of Chinese history that the people and their institutions have remained practically unchanged and the same from a very early period. Even the introduction of a foreign element has not tended to disturb the established order of things. 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. Neither under theTangs nor the Sungs, under the Yuens nor the Mings, was there any change in national character or in political institutions to be noted or chronicled. The history of the empire has always been the fortunes of the dynasty, which has depended, in the first place, on the passive content of the subjects, and, in the second, on the success or failure of its external and internal wars. This condition of things may be disappointing to those who pride themselves on tracing the origin of a constitution and the growth of civil rights, and also would have a history of China a history of the Chinese people; although the fact is undoubted that there is no history of the Chinese people apart from that of their country to be recorded. The national institutions and character were formed, and had attained in all essentials their present state, more than two thousand years ago, or before the destruction of all trustworthy materials for the task by the burning of the ancient literature and chronicles of China. Without them we must fain content ourselves with the history of the country and the empire.
Having thus unbosomed himself of an editorial opinion, Boulger then goes back to telling us about the border policy ofthe Shizong Emperor.
Nobody familiar with historiography will be surprised to hear that the 20th century brought forth a revisionist school of China historians (in fact more than one), keen to prove that, contra Boulger and every other 19th-century historian, Chinese history did so exhibit some progress.
They have made some good points. Joseph Needham in particular showed us in his magisterial workScience and Civilisation in China that there was creeping but steady progress in technology across the centuries. The apparatus of Imperial administration showed itself capable of some modest evolution, too.
First impressions usually get us a good big bite of the truth, though, and while Boulger’s view of utter stasis needs some qualifying, I don’t think eventhe keenest of the revisionist historians would claim that Imperial China was a progressive civilization.
The very first book I ever read on Chinese philosophy wasthe one by Chai Ch’u, popular in the 1970s. (Well, as popular as books on Chinese philosophy ever get … [And note that I gave his name Chinese-style, with surname first. Amazon.com has it Western-style. The surname is Chai, 翟. Trust me on this: I knew his brother.])
Prof. Chai takes you through all the main schools: Taoists, Confucians, Legalists, Mohists …And then the book ends, and you’re still in the third century b.c.! There’s a closing chapter, about ten pages as I remember, called something like “Subsequent Developments,” but the main narrative of Chinese philosophy ended around the time of the First Punic War.
This stasis is a remarkable thing. It’s also a sad thing, as for most of history China was superior, at least in technology and administration, to the West. They were a thousand years ahead of us in metal-working well into the Middle Ages. The first great imperial dynasty, the Han, was much better administered than the contemporary Roman Empire, at least until its last few decades. It wasn’t until the beginning of the modern period — the voyages of discovery and the Reformation — that the West pulled ahead.
If you look at the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century, and compare it with the fall of the Han Dynasty 200 years previously, you have to think that the Chinese imperial system got lucky. In the dark age that followed there were some barbarian incursions, to be sure, and even some petty barbarian dynasties of Turkic or Siberian origins. Steppe and tundra don’t support the same population densities as forest and fjord, though, so the barbarian numbers were small and the core Chinese ethny remained intact.
So did the imperial apparatus, which was much more closely bonded in to the literary and economic culture than Rome‘s was, and which even claimed some vague supernatural sanction. Roman administration survived only in the Church, whose mission was by definition unworldly. China’s remained wedded to the dogmatic worldliness of Confucianism, whose founder would swat down any disciple who tried to get him talking about the supernatural, telling the wayward disciple that when he sufficiently understood the world of men, he might then and only then turn his attention to ghosts and spirits. (Analects 11.xii.)
The Chinese even got lucky with epidemiology: the dreadful plagues that wracked the West through the 6th and 7th centuries had no counterpart in China, for reasons to do with hygiene, superior public works, and different species of livestock.
So the outcome of the Dark Ages in the West was, in the words used byhistorian Sam Adshead, a victory for society over the state. “Society” here means independent power centers: guilds, universities, chartered towns, the Church. In China, to the contrary, the state made a comeback, bringing with it the slogan of all imperial despotisms in all times and places: “There can only be one sun in the sky.” In the town I lived in in northeast China in the early 1980s there was not a single organized body of any kind independent of the Communist Party: not a church, not a drama group, not a soccer team, not a ladies’ knitting circle.
There is a sort of a parallel here — a nontrivial one, in my opinion — between the survival of the imperial system in the early Middle Ages and recent Chinese political history.
The great miracle of China in the last quarter century has not been the economic take-off, which any fool country with a billion people could have pulled off starting from such a low base, but the survival of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and the survival of its administrative apparatus. China‘s contribution to recent world history has not been a Wirtschaftswunder but a Staatskunstswunder, not an economic miracle but a miracle of statecraft.
This could not have been predicted, and at the time of the Tiananmen disturbances in 1989, pretty much everybody — including me —was predicting the opposite thing.
By twelve years later I’d wised up. I spent the summer of 2001 in China with my family, and when I came back National Review asked me to record my impressions. Here is something I wrote in the magazine, September 17, 2001, quote:
I cannot see any reason why the Communists should not go on ruling China and her imperial possessions indefinitely … I think the Communists may well ride out present dangers, and maintain sufficient public support, or at least indifference, to see them safely through WTO accession and forward to a triumphant and well-organized Olympic spectacular that will further cement their hold on the nation. Prognostications about China are always hazardous, and risk making one look a fool in five or ten years’ time, but I see no great changes in China‘s near future. As a lover of liberty, justice and truth, I say this sadly, in frustration; but also, thinking of my Chinese friends and relatives, with much sympathetic understanding.
In August 2001, just a few weeks before I wrote that, Gordon Chang published a book titledThe Coming Collapse of China. Gordon didn’t think the communist system would make it through the decade. I see in fact he’s still beating the same drum; though like the fellow who told us the world would end last Saturday, and like our automobile’s GPS gadget when my wife makes a wrong turn, he’s had to do some “recalculating.”
Is there any prospect for an open and civil society in China — a law-based nation under consensual government? My answer to that would be: It depends what you mean by “China.”
In the first place, a people long accustomed to despotic government certainly can advance into law and constitutionalism. We are at this moment standing on the soil of a nation that did exactly that.
The Ottoman Empire lasted six hundred years, then gave birth to a constitutional republic which still looks pretty robust ninety years later. If you want to tell me that the constitutionalism was sometimes honored more in the breach than in the observance, I won’t argue with you; but an empire it was, a republic it became, and a republic Turkey still is.
Turkey’s transition from empire to republic was of course by no means painless, and encompassed many horrors. A precondition was that the Turks first had to lose their non-Turkish colonies.
Does this have any application to China? Unfortunately it does. Present-day China is not an ethnostate. Mao Tse-tung’s greatest achievement was in fact to recreate the old Manchu Empire, minus Outer Mongolia. (And indeed, the loss of Outer Mongolia rankled with him. When Nikita Khrushchev visited China in 1954, Mao’s first remark to him was a demand for the “return” of Outer Mongolia, then a Soviet satellite.)
Of the territory of the Chinese People’s Republic, less than half has a base population of ethnic Chinese. One quarter is Tibetan; one sixth is Turkic; one tenth is Mongolian. [See this ethnic map, which I have taken from Hermann's An Historical Atlas of China, 1966 edition.] The communists have made strenuous efforts to colonize these regions, but only in Inner Mongolia does their presence look truly irreversible.
Both Tibet and East Turkestan maintain strong ethnonationalist aspirations. Both have governments-in-exile. Yes, I know, governments-in-exile are a bit of a joke, but you can’t second-guess History. In London in the mid-1980s I encountered the head of the Lithuanian mission in exile — a frail, courteous little fellow whose presence everyone found a little embarrassing. There hadn’t been an independent Lithuania for forty years, and nobody thought there ever again would be. Seven years later Lithuania regained her independence.
Like everything else nowadays, it seems, this comes down at last to demographics. It’s all very well to speak of colonization; but for colonization you need some surplus population. The results from last year’s census in China are not yet complete, but the figures we have suggest a total fertility rate of 1.4, perhaps 1.3. That’s not quite as bad as Japan and Korea, which are down in the 1.2 or 1.1 zone, but it’s bad enough, and has been going on long enough, that China’s population will go “over the hump” into numerical decline sometime in the next five to ten years. China‘s working-age population has likely already done so. For holding on by force to vast, inhospitable regions far from the civilizational center, this does not make for a good prognosis.
We know that Chinese people are capable of an open, critical society under rational modern government. They are already running one in Taiwan. If the mainland Chinese retreat to their ethnic homeland, as the Turks did ninety years ago — if, in other words, they get out of the empire business — I believe they will shake off their ancient attachment to bureaucratic despotism as quickly and decisively at the Turks did, and advance to solid prosperity and enduring freedom. I only hope, for the sake of my country-in-law, that they will do so with less bloodshed than was the case with Turkey.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.