井底之蛙

8/28/2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Chinese “Lies That Bind”

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 4:23 pm

Do Chinese lie?

The Western media have jumped on recent revelations about doctoring the Olympic opening ceremonies and allegations about false ages of their gymnasts, and the recent book The Empire of Lies: The Truth about China in the 21st Century argues that the West is being too soft on China.

On the other hand, John Pomfret asks “Should We Give China a Break?” He refers us to Tim Wu of Columbia University, who asks “Are the Media Being Too Mean to China?” Chinese hosts expect guests to honor their hard work, Wu explains, but Western journalists see their jobs as ferreting out the “real” China, which to them is “the dirt, not the rug it was swept under.” Wu adds that it’s “the dishonesty, as much as the substance of what’s wrong in China, that seems to get under the skin of Western reporters.”

The major factor is that China still feels defensive after two centuries of national humiliation, and, as in any besieged country (the United States in World War II, for example), citizens give the government a pass on regrettable transgressions. It’s all in a good cause.

Jeff Wasserstrom at China Beat sees a “Great Convergence” in which we have made great progress in discussing Chinese behavior in the same terms we talk about our own, and adds that as for “populations that accept lies, while it would be foolish to suggest any kind of complete moral equivalency, this is another case of people in glass houses being careful about throwing stones.”

In much of the mainstream media, I still smell old Western prejudices, which makes me think it’s worth while to look back. After all, Shakespeare used “Cathayan” when he wanted to say “liar” and even today newcomers to China are warned that Chinese concern with “face” leads to evasions and cover-ups, and that guanxi – “relations” or “connections” – opens the back door. [1]

More than a century ago, the American missionary Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (1894; reprinted, with a Preface by Lydia Liu: EastBridge, 2003) explained the China difference using pungent terms echoed by Americans who live there today: “talent for indirection,” “disregard” for accuracy and time, “absence of sincerity,” and “contempt for foreigners.” Smith would not assert there was “no honesty in China,” only that “so far as our experience and observation go, it is literally impossible to be sure of finding it anywhere.” It’s easy to cherry pick outrageous quotes but the book wrestled with a genuine question: why do Chinese and Americans behave differently?

“Face” is Smith’s first chapter. Face provides “not the execution of even handed justice” but “such an arrangement as will distribute to all concerned ‘face’ in due proportions.” Truth was less important than harmony. Smith asserts that “any Chinese regards himself as an actor in a drama,” so “the question is never of facts but always of form.” Face seems to mean “mask”: only if you strip it off do you uncover the truth. He was perhaps the first to explain Chinese behavior by the circumstance of living in a closely knit society and being dependent on harmonious mutual relations, but his mistake was to take America as the norm and to look for “absence” or “disregard” of what were actually parochial American middle class ideals. (more…)

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