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American Exceptionalism vs. Chinese Exceptionalism

I recently gained a new friend and colleague at work.  He’s young, technology wise, law school graduate, and worked in China as a English tutor for 1 year.  (As I told him, not nearly long enough to know China well, but he still thinks he knows China enough).

Our casual debates about China usually ends with him taking the American Exceptionalism type argument, and I disagree with his assessment of US and (in view of China).

But today I realized, my arguments are a different kind of Exceptionalism, a Chinese Exceptionalism, often as a counter to the ideals of American Exceptionalism.  And it begin to dawn on me that the underlying conflict between China and US (and West by extension) is based upon the conflicts of the ideas of American Exceptionalism and Chinese Exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism is the concept that US is qualitatively different from other nations, and thus exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.

(While historically, every rising empire had some form of domestic Exceptionalism ideology.  They are typical in the sense that they all had them while they were on the rise).

US Exceptionalism is a mindset and a set of behavior/policies that base on the assumption that somehow US will prevail on the “wisdom” of the democratic majority, the system of democracy, regardless of everything else.  The assumption is however, based on the majority is rarely wrong for a long period of time, or there is no crazy lemmings mentality that will drive the country into the ocean.

On the opposing side, Chinese Exceptionalism is a different animal all together.

The Chinese people do not have much faith in any systems or any ideologies.  (Afterall, we seemed to be willing to try just about every thing in the last 6 decades).

Yet at the same time, there is enormous faith in the idea that China and the Chinese people will rise after each fall.

Why?  More than 4000 years of history.  The Chinese people thrive on its long history, and depend on it as the basis of the Chinese Exceptionalism.

The Chinese are not exceptional because they are immune or different from history.

Some Americans think that the Chinese government run China as if historical trends do not apply to China.  However, I tell them differently, the Chinese people do not believe in every prevailing trends and predictions as plotted and analyzed by everyone else.

No, the Chinese people respect history, ours and other people’s, but we do not take other people’s views of history as gospel.

Why should the Chinese people?  Is any Western prediction of future based on the Western view of history any better than anyone else’s?  We all know plenty of recent big OOPS in the Western predictions.

*In a sense, the Chinese spirit of Exceptionalism is one of humble individualism, that we are humble enough to know that we are subject to the same fatal flaws and disasters as any other nations on Earth, but individual enough to know NOT to follow the herd in divining the future.

I told my young American friend, the Chinese view is based upon our 4000 years of long history AND the histories of other civilizations that we have witnessed in their downfall, we do not believe we are different from any of them, but we survived history because we somehow managed to see future VERY DIFFERENTLY than all of them.

The Chinese opinion of the future is no better than the US opinion of the future.  We Chinese are not fortune tellers who managed to escape bad turns in our history.

Chinese Exceptionalism is one that China is exceptional in that we do not see us as exceptional to history, and somehow we survive.

The secret is perhaps, the proud Exceptional ones who see themselves as such are the first Lemmings to fall into the ocean, because they thought they knew the way.

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  1. Charles Liu
    February 8th, 2011 at 18:06 | #1

    I also do not think the Chinese believe their country is something other countries should emulate. Its evident while we zealousely impose our ideology by any means, the Chinese are not.

  2. pug_ster
    February 9th, 2011 at 06:29 | #2

    You never know. Qing Dynasty believe that they never need Western knowledge and guess what happened. At least the Chinese government is smart because they learn how to adapt whereas Americans doesn’t.

  3. r v
    February 9th, 2011 at 06:59 | #3

    Added thoughts, and analogies:

    I realized that my explanation might have been generalized. So I offer an example here.

    The conflict of US Exceptionalism vs. Chinese Exceptionalism goes into the heart of many current debates between China and the West (in terms of ideological, political, and cultural).

    1 good example is the recent heated debate over Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mothers” book.

    While many Chinese (and Asian) parents would not subscribe to the detail methods of Professor Chua’s parenting techniques, there is something very fundamentally Chinese in Ms. Chua’s methods that we Chinese would embrace. And that core is what I would characterize as a form or part of Chinese Exceptionalism.

    That core being: the Chinese parent view in themselves and pass down to their children the idea that, you are just like everyone else, no better, no worse, but you are still expected to become exceptional through hard work. (my parents drilled this into me when I was young, and I know they felt the same way about themselves).

    In a way, Amy Chua’s book spoke clearly of the concept of Chinese Exceptionalism, which triggered fear and hostility among many Western critics. But I think it’s worth a moment for us Chinese to think about why.

    A Chinese person thinks of self as average, nothing special, nothing worse, in that we know we must work hard to achieve exceptionalism. Each of us are not born a dragon, but are expected to become a dragon. (Chinese fairy tales and legends are filled with tales of the ordinary striving to become exceptional through hard work, such as the coy fish that jump the water gate to become dragon).

    A Chinese ethos is one that’s born average and acquire individuality through hard work.

    In that sense, the Chinese are not lacking in individualism, but Chinese concept of Individuality is something that must be earned, not something that a person is born with.

    In contrast, Western ethos define Individuality as something a person is born with, a birth right. That is a significant fundamental difference.

    As a consequence of that difference, Chinese Exceptionalism and Chinese Individualism define the unique path that China has endured in history, and explains the prevailing Chinese cultural ideologies, along with other Asian nations that were heavily influenced by Chinese culture.

    The West defines political systems focused on “rights” of the individual given at birth or naturally by age. The assumption is based on the ideas of Western exceptionalism individualism, that a person is born with individuality that must be protected.

    The Chinese prevailing historical systems focused less on the system itself to protect rights, but more on earned rights and privileges. Corruptions and privileges are expected, because life is unfair.

  4. wuming
    February 9th, 2011 at 10:24 | #4

    Good point made on the individualisms of the east and the west. It is rare a truly unique observation or analysis being offered on the blogs.

    I would further arguing that Chinese culture do recognize some natural and universal rights, such as the right not to starve if the society has sufficient resources to prevent it. And the set of natural rights grows as the society becoming more richer. Therefore we have rights because our society can afford them.

    I am not sure Egyptians can afford the rights they are asking for now.

    I think we Americans get more rights than we deserve.

  5. socalrws
    March 24th, 2011 at 14:58 | #5

    In the past 6 decades of China’s history, why is it now fashionable to become more capitalistic, and more profit for the individual and corporations?
    Aren’t the Chinese emulating American exceptionalism by embracing capitalism?
    Since 2008 American Exceptionalism has been minimized in favor of punishing success and making reparations for the poor and you can see what effect it has taken on its economy. Will China’s exceptionalism follow similar footsteps? Will they squander their success? My hope is that they will reinvest it for future generations of improving QOL and not engender political power gains.

  6. r v
    March 24th, 2011 at 16:53 | #6

    “Aren’t the Chinese emulating American exceptionalism by embracing capitalism?”

    Actually, it’s Chinese market economy with State Capitalism, which is quite old in Chinese tradition.

    China was a thriving mercantilistic society long before Adam Smith came along.

    And it is precisely the point that China will NOT emulate Western Capitalism to the letter that sets it apart. Because it does not blindly follow other people’s histories.

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