After lamenting Western misunderstandings of the Chinese, their political arrangements and culture, it behooves to examine some Chinese misunderstandings of the West with regard to the attention their country has received from human rights activists and advocate journalists, especially in the run-up to the Olympics.
Why are the Chinese viscerally sickened by the following scenes from the Western media?
1. A European Free-Tibet activist wearing a bull’s eye on her chest and holding a poster with the words “China , would you shoot me too?”
2. American TV personality Jack Cafferty on CNN calling the Chinese a bunch of “goons and thugs.”
4. Western activists disrupting the Olympics torch relay and harassing Chinese torchbearers.
5. Lou Dobbs on CNN correcting the mislabeling of PRC as China and insisting on calling the country by its proper name “communist China .” (Lou has a problem with communism, not me.)
The Chinese antagonism to these “bashing” has received due attention. I focus on another element in the Chinese reaction, i.e., the disgust with the (culturally misperceived) Western trivialness, vulgarity and crassness. Antagonism, the perception of conflict of interests and intentions (e.g., the belief that the West is attacking us and trying to suppress our rise to glory) leads to instrumental actions, instead of emotional reactions (“hurting the Chinese people’s feelings”). The Chinese disgust (a very hurtful feeling) arises from misperception of the Western people and culture, based on their skewed exposure. Having lived in the US for years, I can testify that Americans as a population are civilized and generous. They have their issues but smallness and meanness are not on the list. The American locales I have been to are as safe and supportive to me as any place in China . The Chinese living in China lack my type of immersion in a Western society. Their sampling of Westerners is limited to the images from the media. They must make inferences and generalizations about Westerners based on the skewed exposure. What kind of inferences do they make from the images listed at the beginning of the post? Why do they find their feelings to those images so hurtful and the appallation so hard to swallow?
Westerners find Chinese reactions to Cafferty et al. (e.g., the “goons and thugs” remarks) puzzling and excessive. What is the big deal? News organizations are businesses. They have to sell their stories and programs. Activists have to push their issues into the public agenda. They all need attention. Presenting themselves in a PROVOKATIVE way is a method of getting attention. Gaining attention with provocative, over the top remarks and actions is perfectly acceptable in the West but hits a cultural wall in China . It rubs the Chinese the wrong way for two reasons.
First, drawing attention to oneself is viewed as a dubious (if not perverted) need in the collectivistic Chinese culture, one that emphases conformity and has a low tolerance for deviance. The Chinese have a particularly low tolerance for individuals apparently with no special talent to demonstrate or worthy point to make, but still use cheap deviance to draw attention. My hometown folks have a very descriptive label for this type of individuals (this is embarrassing). Refined writers can make only cursory reference to the term, via its acronym, “SB”, or the more emotionally potent “DSB”. Basically the term means “freaks”, in a sanitized rendition. This link leads to a representative Chinese perception of the freakiness in the Western activists – “SB年年有，今年特别多 (“SBs show up every year. This year they come in droves.” The ESWN English translation of this article used a different term for SB than this writer, a native of Beijing and one-time frequent user of the questionable term in mass chantings at the Workers Stadium soccer matches)” There was a English translation of a related piece on the activists’ counter-productivity and gratuity at Danwei and ESWN.
One reason the China-bashing human rights activists and advocate journalists are viewed as freaky is that their attention grabbing technique cheapens their declared cause. Just abusing and humiliating the Chinese does no justice to the seriousness of the allegations against them. If you believe China is killing innocent human beings en mass in a genocide, and if your kids and entire family are using products made with enslaved Chinese labor every day, shouldn’t you respond with more serious and forceful actions than staging a monkey show (耍猴儿，耍活宝) on camera or in the street to disrupt the Olympics, a sports event? Shouldn’t you have done something more substantial, with more powerful impact on the victims’ plight? The trivialness, ineffectiveness, counter-productivity and gratuity of the activists’ actions make it very hard for the rational mind to attribute them to genuine concern for the victims; it makes no sense. They are there for the attention to themselves at the expense of the victims, driven by a desire to sell their products or fulfill an incurable meanness. The Chinese are culturally sensitive to this kind of narcissistic craving for attention. They despise it from their collectivistic tradition. The activists’ and advocate journalists’ behavior trivializes the plight of China’s victims, and fits perfectly the Chinese definition of “freakiness”. Making a freak show on issues directly linked to the Chinese reputation (genocide Olympics, slave labor, goons and thugs etc.) is disturbing in a very distasteful way. That is my understanding of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” complaint.
(A key difference between freakiness and eccentricity in the Chinese perception is worth noting. Deviance is tolerated by the Chinese in individuals with special talent, who are called eccentrics (怪, e.g., “天桥八大怪” , Tianqiao’s eight excentrics of old Beijing) instead of freaks or weirdo (“SBs”). The American academia is the best place for comparative studies between a worthy eccentric and a deadwood weirdo.)
The second basis for the Chinese disgust is their culturally unique perception of crassness and vulgarity. The Chinese and Western cultures encourage public display of different emotions. Public expression of heart-breaking sorrow at funerals is encouraged (and demanded in the old school) among the Chinese. At my Grandpa’s funeral my mother was inconsolable, sitting on the floor wailing with a shoe missing. (No worries, none of my folks can read the entire English alphabet.) It was an expected part of the grieving, with the whole family gathered around her trying to calm her down, nothing embarrassing. Her abandon on that occasion does not indicate that she has a self-control problem. On the other hand, the Chinese culture has a low tolerance for public display of contempt and scorn, which are quite prevalent and acceptable in the Western/American media and public space. The Chinese regard those who cannot contain their contempt and scorn, such as Bill O’Reilly, along with a couple of his lovely female associates on the show, and the torch relay demonstrators as having self-regulation problems (and deserving social exclusion). To the Chinese eye they are vulgar and crass. In the Chinese/Confucius model of personal development and socialization, these undesirable traits are neatly attributed to lack of proper upbringing, education and enculturation (粗鲁, 野蛮, 缺家教，没教养， 没文化), all major character flaws in the Chinese culture. The importance of these traits can be understood from their role in mate selection. My own reactions to the type of American media represented by the Fox News Channel may serve as an example. I have no problem with their cultural/political position, or their view on reality and truth. Their vulgarity and crassness (or, in a quintessential American term, trashiness) bother me, and violate my feelings and sensibilities even when the discussion is irrelevant to China. I can correct these influences on my view of the American/Western cultures but most Chinese living in China do not have access to a broader picture. The media icons listed at the beginning of the post are among the most salient and vivid sample of Westerners the Chinese in China have access to in a manner with direct relevance to them (apart from the Mandarin speaking foreigners singing and dancing unprofessionally on TV variety shows.). Those disturbing images and their connotation link directly back to the ancient imperial Chinese stereotype of non-Chinese as “uncivilized”. It is embarrassing to acknowledge that nasty name-calling was also part of our culture, with unflattering references to foreigners blatantly entered in all our ancient history books, the jewel on the crown of our civilization.
Anther factor to consider in the Chinese inferences about Westerners is that they separate the “frontal display” (facade) in social interaction from the “backroom reality” of their lives and naively believe everybody else does so. The Chinese find it imperative to clean their houses just for the occasion of receiving guests. The Chinese authorities have been upgrading Beijing ‘s infrastructure and the residents’ hygiene and grooming habits for the Olympics and the citizens find that quite natural. Watching Jack, Lou and Bill on TV calling the Chinese those endearing names, and the demonstrators violently harassing Olympic Torch Bearer Jin Jing, some less worldly Chinese might automatically think “oh boy. Those Westerners are so vulgarly uninhibited even on camera and in the streets, how bad they must be when nobody is watching?” Based on the striking but unrepresentative images, some Chinese could naively infer that an alarmingly large number of Westerners must have a streak of European soccer Hooliganism, simply unstoppable in their irrational and disruptive ways. In the words of one of my friends in China on the Olympic torch demonstrators, they are viewed as “流氓会武术，谁也挡不住。”
I am unsure about the prevalence of these misperceptions in the Chinese population. With more and more inevitable East-West contact, they deserve attention. The fenqing movement, raising nationalism and the boycott of Carefoure in China highlight this worrisome trend. My own anecdotal observations raise red flags too. In conclusion, cultural understanding is a two-way street. Let us march hand in hand to a glorious shared future.