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China, Taken Personally

Friday, June 1, 2001

Peter Hessler. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Harpercollins. 402 pages. $26.00 Peter hessler has written a fascinating and sobering book about his life in China. From 1996 to 1998, Hessler lived in a remote city in China’s western province of Sichuan, a city where no Westerner has lived for half a century. In China with the Peace Corps, he taught English literature in a small provincial teacher’s college located in Fuling, a city of some 200,000 souls. River Town is the journal he kept while in Fuling. Hessler is one of those rare people who, when confronted with a hostile cultural and linguistic environment, finds the courage to confront it, rather than retreating into self-imposed isolation. In time, Hessler comes to see himself not just as an observer, but as a participant in the society around him. His persistence serves him well. As a participant, Hessler develops close relationships with people from a broad cross-section of Fuling — the city’s ordinary people as well as members of the college community. Less than 2 percent of the population of China has the opportunity to be educated beyond high school, and this book offers a rare opportunity to see things through the eyes of ordinary Chinese. Hessler paints intimate portraits of these people and their daily lives — the family that owns the restaurant near the college; the elderly men who frequent the local tea house; the artist; the Catholic priest; the bon vivant; the philanderer; Hessler’s students and his Chinese language teachers; and the communist cadre who really run the college. Through Hessler’s appreciation of the land and the people who inhabit it, a vivid and personal picture of rural China emerges. In his role as observer, Hessler also astutely sees the people around him as individuals who have been shaped by social and political forces — the harsh reality of primitive agriculture with its economic hardships and deprivation; the weight of social tradition that still imposes rigid rules on personal behavior; and finally the brutality of communism’s excesses. Hessler modestly asserts that his book is not about China but only about “a certain small part of China at a certain brief period of time.” Modesty aside, Hessler has captured enduring truth; this is, in the end, very much a book about China. There are innumerable Western books about China. Hessler’s stands out. His goal is not to change China. He is not driven by the ideology or religion, or the military, engineering, or medical challenges that China has represented to many Westerners. Hessler has two passions — writing and studying Chinese. Hessler’s language studies are critical to the success of the book. The better his Chinese gets, the more he comes to admire his subjects. The experience of the Chinese people in the twentieth century is almost unthinkable. Yet life goes on, and Hessler marvels at the toughness of the individuals he gets to know. At the same time, he comes to see how different he is from the people who surround him. Hessler finds himself reacting emotionally — and often negatively — to the Chinese worldview that confronts him. And this is the sobering aspect of the book. W hen I first began the study of China and the Chinese language at the end of the 1960s (at the time as a university student, and later as a Foreign Service officer), people still referred to the interactions among states as “international relations,” a term no longer in vogue. In that period, international relations, as a discipline, was firmly focused on power relations. The euphoria that had marked American foreign policy in the Wilsonian era had given way to the Depression, another World War, and the global confrontation with communism. Nearly 40 years of experience had convinced many observers that governments pursued their own interests at all costs, with little regard for broader moral consequences. But whose “interests” were at stake? For five and a half centuries, as the modern state developed, the term “interests” had been synonymous with the ambitions of government and the social groups that controlled the levers of these governments. In the final decades of the twentieth century, as our concept of democracy became increasingly egalitarian, power politics became suspect as a way to analyze the relationships among states. Governments, after all, ostensibly act on behalf of the peoples they represent, so the ideals of those people must play a role in the calculation of national interest. For two centuries, the principal distinguishing characteristic of America had been democracy, so it was natural that the spread of democracy became a moral goal of U.S. foreign policy — a goal worthy of a great people. Many aspects of foreign policy during the Reagan administration were predicated on this goal. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the concomitant spread of democratic governments around the globe appeared to vindicate this approach to U.S. foreign policy. But China’s ascent to the world stage should give us pause. An unspoken assumption that underlies the U.S. commitment to the spread of democracy as the proper goal of its foreign policy is that there are no hostile peoples, only hostile governments. If change in a people’s form of government can be accomplished — whether through external or internal pressures — then the resulting democracy will operate in harmony with other democracies, due to an alignment of interests. But what if societies are fated to compete for power abroad as surely as individuals compete for power within a society? And what if peoples have irreconcilable differences that make them natural competitors? Then a change in form of government would have little effect on relationships between two peoples. To understand the nature of the political relationship between those peoples, we would have to understand the differences between them — what we might call their national character. The past decade suggests that societies may be driven to compete as surely as governments. Communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, yet our experience since then with most of the peoples of the former Soviet Union has hardly been fruitful. China may be set to offer an even more dramatic example in the decades ahead. Consider what Hessler describes. If the reader takes nothing else away from the book, he should be struck by China’s rural character. This is not a nation of suburbs. One crude measure of economic development is the proportion of a country’s population that works in agriculture. On this measure, 50 percent is thought to separate the haves from the have-nots. Some 75 percent of China’s population still toils in agriculture. Moreover, from his own experience, Hessler notes that his students don’t describe themselves and their families as farmers, but as peasants. This is not the great heartland of America, a place we still like to think of as peopled by rugged individualists working family farms. Rural China is hard to comprehend because it represents a society that we have not experienced in the West for literally hundreds of years. A second feature of China that emerges clearly from the pages of Hessler’s book is this: Notwithstanding 50 years of “continuing” revolution (and another 40 years of garden variety revolution before that), traditional society still weighs heavily on the countryside. The composition of social classes has changed, but the nature of social relationships has not — hierarchy and authority are still at the root of those relationships. Social rules are still rigid. Hessler says this is a society in transition, and there is little doubt that he is correct. But this is a society that has been in transition for more than a century, and certain things endure. Reform and opening since the early 1980s have had an impressive effect on the economy; society still lags far behind. A t the heart of Confucianism, as the orthodoxy of the traditional Chinese state came to be known, was the notion that all of human society could be expressed through a finite number of hierarchical relationships. Each relationship in turn imposed certain duties on, and granted certain rights to, the individuals in the relationship. Thus, these relationships were reciprocal, if not mutual. To say that an individual belonged in one of those roles was instantly to define his duties to the other person. Hence, Confucius taught that a proper definition of these relationships would bring about the desired behavior in individuals and, ultimately, in society as a whole. As these relationships were refined over the course of 2,000 years, they became more rigid. The more rigid they became, the more they suffocated individual initiative. Population density and the resulting lack of privacy only heightened the pressure of these relationships. Hessler, for example, talks about running in his early months in Fuling as the only way he could find any measure of solitude, and he occasionally sees a humorous side to privacy issues as well. One of his friends is Ma Fulai, a married man who is an ardent, if unsuccessful, advocate of sexual liberation in a society where divorce is still frowned on, but extra-marital relations are not. As a result, Ma Fulai has a girlfriend in addition to a wife, a fact that he would like to keep to himself. As Hessler reports the conversation: “My wife doesn’t know, I’m certain of it. If I ever go anywhere with the girl, we go someplace where there aren’t any other people.” I wondered where in Fuling that might be, and I thought that I might like to go there myself sometime. With this tradition, appreciation for the value of the individual has no historic foundation in China. While many Americans would agree that rampant individualism has been a mixed blessing here at home, Hessler describes a society that lacks all but the most utilitarian means of calculating individual worth. Certainly parental love abounds, and Chinese families want to have and love their children, but this is a family virtue, not a public virtue. In China, shame is still a powerful social tool. Dissent is rare not only because of government repression but because the would-be dissenter operates in an intellectual and psychological vacuum. In fact any sort of emotional or intellectual difference is rare. Hessler finds little evidence that any of the young people he teaches would ever have the will to criticize or resist the current government or its policies. Social repression manifests itself in a particularly disturbing way in modern China. This is the only country in the world where the suicide rate for females is higher than for males. This is perhaps understandable in a male-dominated society. Hessler illustrates how men, especially younger men, seek to assert their importance through money and the control it gives them, however limited. Women cannot seek even this limited relief. The communists’ brutal enforcement of birth control through their “one child” policy only exacerbates the problem. Mobility may change China’s society in time, as young people find their way to cities and escape the shackles of rural society. On the other hand, urban residents may escape the scrutiny of their families, but not of the government. Besides, there is a limit to how quickly China can urbanize, because of intense population pressure already existing in the cities. There is a newfound interest in religion in China as well, and it may provide some support to individuals seeking to assert themselves socially or politically. On the other hand, religions have traditionally effected little social or political change in China. None of this bodes well for the future. A corollary to the social stability of rural China is the apathy of its peasants. Peasant rebellion was a fact of life in traditional China. Conditions in the countryside were always hard; when they got too hard, the peasants often rose in protest. Just as surely as these uprisings occurred, they were brutally suppressed. These rebellions became the stuff of legends, but had little practical impact. Over the centuries, the peasants came to believe that it was better to ignore politics than to be a part of it. Perhaps this sort of apathy is really a product of an instinct for survival. This solid, yet politically inert mass is referred to in Chinese as the “Old Hundred Names,” a reference to the folkloric belief that in ancient China, everybody belonged to one of only a hundred families, with a corresponding hundred surnames. There is an ethnic reference here as well; if you are “Old Hundred Names,” you are a “true” Chinese or “Han” person — not one of the non-Chinese tribes that subsisted outside the core of China in ancient times. As non-Chinese, these people often had different family names. Many of these people were assimilated and became “true” Chinese in time, but the idea persists. Most important, however, to say you are one of the “Old Hundred Names” is a self-deprecating (but not pejorative) way to say that you are just a simple peasant, or commoner — someone who has no particular influence over his own life or the lives of others. Leave that for the educated or the rich. By tradition, the “Old Hundred Names” focus on the elemental aspects of the human condition — food, clothing, and shelter — and not politics. This is not entirely surprising in view of the deprivation inflicted on the countryside, not only in traditional China, but in the twentieth century. Communism has not changed the apathy of these people and may even have compounded it. As one of Hessler’s sources says, “Many Americans think there are problems with human rights here. In fact, Old Hundred Names doesn’t care about that.” And elsewhere Hessler wryly observes that almost everybody in China claims to be “Old Hundred Names,” having no idea about the way things work and therefore having no responsibility for anything. China’s leading modern proponent of social and political change, Sun Yat-Sen, expressed the same frustration with the revolutionary potential of the Chinese people almost 100 years ago, calling them a pile of sand, unmotivated by ideas or principles and incapable of organizing themselves for any social or political action. S ocial repression in China blends readily into political oppression, especially after 50 years of communism. The Chinese communists may have eliminated certain traditional classes that they viewed as feudal, but there is much about China’s traditional feudal society that the Communist Party has found convenient to reinforce, particularly its authoritarian and hierarchical aspects, to the extent they help to suppress individualism and advance collectivism. Propaganda techniques have a long history in China, and the Chinese people are particularly susceptible. The emphasis on social relationships was only one example of what Confucius called the “rectification of names,” that is, suppressing certain words and forcibly replacing them with others until the old ideas had been eradicated completely. In this way reality could in time be made to conform to theory. Despite their current social and political situation and their recent past, however, the Chinese people are deeply patriotic. This must be clearly understood. They are proud of their history; proud of their long cultural heritage; proud of their economic progress over the past two decades; and even proud of their government. The communists have successfully taken credit for recent economic growth, largely by blaming the great leader, Chairman Mao, for the earlier disasters of communist economic policy — for which millions starved. Not that Mao doesn’t deserve some of the blame, but he had plenty of help. The party has been equally successful, it appears, in washing its hands of the “excesses” that characterized social and political policy during communism’s first 30 years — when millions of people were tortured and killed for the greater good. The result of the communists’ successful revisionism is that the Chinese government today enjoys substantial latitude — if not enthusiastic support — in most policy matters, foreign policy included. In foreign relations, the special nature of Chinese nationalism is pronounced. The Chinese people are deeply aware of their own identity. There are “we Chinese,” and then there is the rest of the world. As Hessler says, “They seemed completely content in being Chinese, and they assumed that this feeling was shared by everybody else.” China as a culture may vary from province to province, but what varies in China is less important than what is the same — history, customs, language, even appearance. Throughout its history, China has confronted competitors of a sort — the central Asian tribes existing at the periphery. Over the centuries, these tribes often succeeded in vanquishing the Chinese state. But what remained the same was more constant than what changed. So while these tribes may periodically have posed a military threat, they never represented serious competition to the Chinese way of life. Thus, splendid geographic isolation produced a sense of uniqueness, which in time became a sense of superiority. China’s handling of its domestic competitors is well illustrated by Hessler’s travels within China. At the end of his first year in Fuling, he visits Xinjiang, home of the Uighurs, and starting point for the great inland trade routes that had linked Europe with East Asia for thousands of years. Hessler’s visit comes not long after there had been “violence” in the northern part of the province, which had apparently included extensive Chinese bombing of the locals. The Uighurs are Turkish-speaking Muslims, and do not get along well with the Chinese in the best of circumstances. The Chinese for their part had only taken firm control of the province in 1949 and had been flooding into the province ever since, in search of job opportunities as well as Xinjiang’s oil and other minerals. “Go West, young man,” as the saying goes. In four decades, the ethnic Chinese population grew from 15 percent to 50 percent. Hessler notes that even long-time Chinese residents in Xinjiang had not bothered to learn the local language, or much about local customs; instead, they were working hard to make Xinjiang as much like the rest of China as possible. As Hessler summarizes: [E]verything I had learned about the Chinese suggested that they would be particularly bad colonists. They tended to have strong ideas about race, they rarely respected religion, and they had trouble considering a non-Chinese point of view. This is the Chinese identity forged over thousands of years, and nothing in their experience encourages a tolerance for what is different. The Western onslaught in the mid-nineteenth century came as a profound shock to the Chinese identity. The forcible division and occupation of China that followed were viewed as a national humiliation. Two generations of reformers struggled to make the traditional system respond effectively to this disgrace. Things only got worse, and the imperial government was swept away in 1911. After a brief republican period, from 1911 to 1917, China’s domestic situation settled into what can now be recognized as a typical pattern in the developing world — a power struggle between the military and the local communist party. Numerous commentators have noted the irony that the Bolsheviks’ urban revolutionary model proved to be more effective in developing countries than in the industrialized world. But this should have been no surprise. Developing countries are largely agrarian and traditional. As traditional societies collapse under the pressures of modernization, generally only two types of modern organization exist to supplant them — the military and the communists. The military’s inherent organizational capabilities often allow it to make the transition from the traditional to the modern setting. While communists have often been the newcomers, they have been successful when they put nationalism before ideology and focus on Leninist organizational methods, which have proved highly effective in times of social and political instability. China was no exception. During the 1920s and early 1930s, alternatives were driven from the field, and in the end, there were only two political survivors — Chiang Kaishek, who had successfully defeated his warlord competitors, and Mao Zedong, who was still struggling to validate the notion of a rural-based Communist Party. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Chinese communists’ embrace of nationalism proved to be an increasingly successful strategy, as China came under Japanese occupation. It was only after the communists successfully united the country in 1949 that they returned to their ideological roots. And the result was 30 years of starvation and anarchy. But what persisted through all this chaos is the Chinese identity — unique, superior, but burdened by shame. In these circumstances, foreign policy is a powerful unifying force and a ready distraction from China’s lack of social and political progress. Where foreign relations are concerned, Americans have been generally complacent about the Chinese desire to project power beyond their borders. After all, China’s history has been remarkably introverted, and China has shown little interest in its relations with the outside world. But in the past two centuries, the outside world has not been kind to the Chinese. This experience, when layered on the traditional Chinese identity, readily explains many of China’s current attitudes. While in the past, China lacked the material and military resources to respond as a nation to these perceived injustices, that situation is rapidly changing. If grievance-prone attitudes are an integral part of the Chinese national character, they will not change soon, even if a change of government occurs. Hessler’s experience repeatedly demonstrates that the Chinese still view the outside world with some trepidation, if not outright hostility. Consider the term “waiguoren,” which Hessler uses throughout his book. This is the Chinese translation of “foreigner.” The root of both the Chinese and English words is “outsider.” In ancient Rome, it is easy to imagine the derisive use of this term to describe people and things from the periphery of the empire. In the West, however, the word “foreigner” has lately lost much of its sting. Arguably the exploding cultural diversity of the United States has driven much of this change of attitude. But while the West has changed, China has not. “Foreigner” is common usage, even to one’s face. Typically, it is used in conjunction with “you,” as in “you foreigners.” Better acquaintances may upgrade that reference, lumping you together not with all foreigners, but with your countrymen, as in “you Americans.” Still, this is an improvement over the nineteenth century, when Westerners were simply “barbarians.” Some of this lack of sensitivity is explained by the fact that foreigners are still unknown in much if not all of rural China. As a result, anyone who does not look Chinese is constantly the object of unwanted attention. Some of this is natural curiosity, but there is an ugly side to it as well. To quote Hessler: When I walked down the street, people constantly turned and shouted at me. Often they screamed waiguoren or laowai, both of which simply meant “foreigner.” Again, these phrases often weren’t intentionally insulting, but intentions mattered less and less with every day that these words were screamed at me. Another favorite was “hello,” a meaningless, mocking version of the word that was strung out into a long “hah-loooo!” This word was so closely associated with foreigners that sometimes the people used it instead of waiguoren — they’d say, “Look, here come two hellos!” And often in Fuling they shouted other less innocent terms — yangguizi, or “foreign devil”; da bizi, “big nose” — although it wasn’t until later that I understood what these phrases meant. Shortly before Hessler’s departure from China, there is a mob scene. Hessler and his American friend are out in the city filming particular scenes they want to remember. As usual, a large crowd gathers to observe the foreigners in action. Suddenly, with no apparent warning, a local couple starts yelling at them to stop filming. Incited by the yelling, the crowd quickly turns ugly, and the two Americans barely escape before the crowd does real damage to life and limb. Nor is this the only time in Hessler’s experience that hostility to foreigners turns physical. These are isolated incidents, it is true; but in Hessler’s view they reflect not just hostility, but fear — fear of what is unknown and different. One of the families that befriends Hessler, the Huangs, runs a small noodle restaurant across from the main gate of the college. Chinese New Year (typically in February) is China’s longest and most significant holiday celebration, and people tend to spend the holidays with family. It is a particularly hard time for foreigners living in China, without family to share the festivities, and the sense of isolation can be acute. His second year in Fuling, Hessler is invited to the Huangs to share the New Year’s Eve dinner, a real honor. The only problem is that the Huangs have a two-year-old son who has never liked the looks of Hessler, even in the restaurant. Hessler’s appearance is simply too — well, foreign — for the child. When Hessler shows up at the Huang’s home for dinner, the child is suitably traumatized and spends an hour howling in the bedroom. Eventually things settle down, but the event is not lost on Mrs. Huang, who takes Hessler aside later in the evening to ask him how he has managed all this time to put up with the incessant attention and often rudeness to which he has been subjected as a foreigner in China. As Hessler reports, after the conversation: I said nothing about how in the child’s fear I had seen a reflection of all the difficulties I had ever encountered in Fuling, the people’s uncertainty about things new and strange. It was . . . an instinct as blameless as a child’s. . . . There was a great deal of generosity in [the Huangs] having me over for dinner. They had known that the child would cry and possibly offend me, but they had invited me anyway. . . . [Mrs. Huang] and her family hadn’t invited me in order to make a point about xenophobia, or anything like that. They knew that I was alone on the holiday, and I was their friend; nothing else mattered. They were simply big-hearted people and that was the best meal I ever had in China. At another point, discussing the beginning of his second year in Fuling, Hessler observes: It was the same paradox that I had realized during the summer — the Chinese could be hard on foreigners, but at the same time they could be incredibly patient, generous, and curious about where you had come from. T here is another aspect of Chinese patriotism that we seem inclined to forget. The Chinese as a people are not like so many giant pandas, soft and cute; they are tough. They have had to be. As noted, theirs is an almost unthinkable modern history. They have paid the ultimate sacrifice — again, again, and again. Even if they could forget this history, the communist government has made it a part of the popular consciousness, so we should expect little change in the way the Chinese people view that sacrifice. The personal histories Hessler has compiled testify to the toughness of these people. Hessler recounts numerous examples of individuals who have lost grandparents, parents, and other family members — some in the great famines resulting from fatuous communist economic policy, others to the needless tortures of the Cultural Revolution and earlier efforts to root out the evils of feudalism. Countless others were forced to xiafang, the practice of sending the educated and other “bad classes” to the countryside to engage in manual labor. Never in human history has there been a willful squandering of human lives on such a vast scale. The work was hard, and, by design, served no purpose. Those who survived commonly reported that “the wasted time was the worst part.” There is, then, much about Chinese nationalism that smacks of xenophobia. Like “international relations,” xenophobia is a term that is no longer in vogue. The scholarly community in the United States has fought long and hard — and successfully — to abolish the use of this term as applied to China: another myth about China dispelled. But what if this hopelessly old-fashioned word describes reality? Hessler goes to great lengths to report the positive attributes of the people he encounters and the many acts of generosity and kindness directed at him by his Chinese friends and acquaintances, and even total strangers. As a traditional society, these impulses are deeply embedded in China’s social fabric. Anyone who has spent time in a Chinese society will confirm Hessler’s view. If Chinese society demonstrates anything, however, it is that a society is something more than the sum of its parts. In matters of foreign policy, we are forced to deal with the Chinese as a society, and as a government. At this level, national character is real, and it matters. If U.S. foreign policy toward China is to be successful, we must understand the Chinese people and their ambitions. China’s government and its policies may change, but the people will remain. China’s history proves that national character is palpable and enduring. Hessler does a remarkable job of describing that character. As the Chinese say, “It is easy to move rivers and mountains, but hard to change a person’s nature.” Where China is concerned, we should plan to deal with this nature for a long time to come.