China, the world’s most populous country with the longest undisrupted civilisation, has re-emerged strongly on the modern world stage. In the global forest of civilisations, this ancient civilisation indeed has a unique history and a cultural mindset that is befuddling to many Westerners. Undoubtedly, cultural influences have shaped the psyche and worldview of the Chinese people to a large extent.
Experts of China affairs in the West have already noticed that the translation and dissemination of Chinese and American ideas has always been an unequal one-way street. That is, the ideas, theories, and concepts of the West are constantly translated and introduced to China, but contemporary independent Chinese voices are never truly heard in the West. Thus, Western academics are asking “What does China think” and are beginning to systematically translate the opinions expressed by some of today’s most representative Chinese scholars from different perspectives.
While these academic views are certainly worth translating and disseminating, they are generally well laid out, follow a set of theoretical foundations and are put forth by authors who are highly self-aware. Besides, the positions and presuppositions in these essays often fall within a Western evaluation framework: some are liberals, others are nationalists; some are on the left, others are on the right.
But it is precisely these a priori Western labels that are causing some Western-style confusion. For example, why are Chinese liberals so different from Western liberals?
Chatter of ‘middle society’
On the other hand, when we are unable to find answers to these questions in the writings of those with a clear political stance, take a closer look and one might see that the Chinese “middle society” (中间社会) holds a clue to these opinions and thoughts. The middle society has its origins in the scholars of the late Qing dynasty who observed China and Chinese society with critical self-scrutiny. Even today, the middle society’s positions, perspectives and certain traits of its thought processes are worthy of attention.
This community possesses historical knowledge and international experience but is not guided by academic theories. They easily imbibe trends of thought in modern Chinese culture such as the concept of “national humiliation”.
The Chinese middle society can broadly be defined as a community of people who have an undergraduate education and who read and think a lot. That is, they are neither professional academics who engage in advanced humanities and social science research and theoretical thinking nor members of the working class who work all day or who engage in protests.
This community possesses historical knowledge and international experience but is not guided by academic theories. They easily imbibe trends of thought in modern Chinese culture such as the concept of “national humiliation”. National humiliation is an extremely important facet of modern Chinese cultural psychology and is certainly not unique to mainland China alone. In fact, the legend of Huo Yuanjia (a Chinese martial artist who fought against foreign opponents), rich with themes of national humiliation and the fight against it, became popular in mainland China only after the mega-hit drama series The Legendary Fok (《大侠霍元甲》) aired in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
If we regard countless renditions of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and endless remakes of Huo’s story (a latest television drama aired in 2020) as continued efforts of the Chinese to romanticise martial arts heroes and perpetuate patriotic tropes over the past few decades, then this cultural phenomenon has, in itself, revealed modern China’s deep-seated victim mentality, sense of national humiliation, inclination towards heroism, and the need to turn to tradition to fight imperialism.
Stories from the past ... are used to deepen the sense of humiliation in the Chinese psyche and to legitimise the quest for revenge.
Bearing the yoke of national humiliation
With a strong sense of national humiliation imbued in them, middle society writers very easily recount and summarise all of the US’s past offences against China — such as the Yinhe incident, the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the Hainan Island incident — in painting an image of a China that endured great humiliation before getting the justice it deserved. Stories from the past, such as that of Goujian, the King of Yue who waited for his chance to seek his revenge, as well as that of military strategist Han Xin, who endured the humiliation of crawling between the legs of a bully, are used to deepen the sense of humiliation in the Chinese psyche and to legitimise the quest for revenge.
Such an endurance-retaliation mindset is now combined with a deep sense of being unfairly bullied in Western discourse. Based on this thinking, the West is always taking the moral high ground to criticise China yet disregards its own tainted parts of history. Also, the middle society rationalises that if the West gained the right to criticise China based on its wealth and power, then China’s elevated wealth and power should now give China the right to question the West’s right to criticise China, or even criticise the West in return.
Under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easier for them to question the value of human rights based on the high Covid-19 death tolls and institutional failures in Western societies.
If criticism from the West indeed stems from an advanced set of ideas and system, then on its part, the middle society believes that survival and development are more important than the West’s concept of human rights. On that premise, Chinese society and all its members struggled to survive, became well-fed, then moved on to affluence over the past few decades. The fruits of these efforts cannot be denied as well.
In modern Western civilisation, human rights mainly refer to the political freedom of citizens. However, it is difficult for this concept to take root among China’s middle society. Under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easier for them to question the value of human rights based on the high Covid-19 death tolls and institutional failures in Western societies.
Wedded to 'grand unification"
Another concept deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche is that of China’s ethnic and historical view of “grand unification” as well as its grand narrative. In China, apart from particularly radical and peculiar thinkers, virtually everyone in the middle society has internalised the Chinese nation’s historical view of “grand unification”. In this sense, the vast majority of Chinese liberals are no different. In other words, this is where there is consensus between academic elites and the middle society.
An important phenomenon amid ongoing debate among Chinese and American academics over New Qing History is how mainland Chinese and Taiwanese academics are joining hands — through shared cultural identity and historical views — to fight against American New Qing History academics who, to a certain extent, exaggerate the ethnic identity of the Manchus, the “Inner Asia” nature of Qing dynasty rule, and who question the relationship between the Qing dynasty and China. This phenomenon, and especially how the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are offended by New Qing History research, is also befuddling to Western academics.
As Westerners regard China as a target of criticism, I think that they should, at the same time, attempt to truly understand China’s modern ethno-psychology...
A leader in the study of New Qing History at Harvard University once asked me in an email: “Why do the modern Chinese need a grand historical narrative?” I could only reply from the perspective of a modern history of humiliation, or, at the very least, a sense of humiliation and a concept of national humiliation, as well as tense relations between China and the West.
If a renowned Chinese studies expert from Harvard is still confused as to why the Chinese people of the 20th century “need” to create the grand narrative of a united multi-ethnic country, then that at least tells us that even a top-notch American researcher in Chinese studies has also failed to dive deep into the Chinese historical memory and imagination, as well as emotions and soul, to understand China. Therefore, it is no longer strange for the West to frequently ask, “Why are the Chinese this way?” or “What does China think?”.
As Westerners regard China as a target of criticism, I think that they should, at the same time, attempt to truly understand China’s modern ethno-psychology — the Chinese’s perception of China’s rise and the accompanying confidence as well as the quest for revenge and their critical reading of what the West represents. This China must include the Chinese middle society and must not be limited to Chinese academic elites fond of formulating theories.
Related: 'Transnational Chinese-language cyber intellectual enclaves': An emerging phenomenon | The China story is not just about politics, Confucius and mooncakes | Socialism and Nazism: Branches of the same tree? | History lessons: Who gets to decide what is humiliating, unfair, right or wrong? | Why Taiwanese are pro-Japan but anti-China