Authors: Eric Liu
When Gary Locke was governor of Washington, his 1997 “homecoming” to his family's ancestral village, Jilong, was a glorious occasion. His grandfather had immigrated to America in the 1890s, finding work as a houseboy in Olympia, Washington, less than a mile away from the governor's mansion that Locke would come to call home. The Chinese media treated Locke like a celebrity, following him at every stop and showering him with adoration. They played up his family roots and the fact that Washington, home of Boeing and Microsoft, has strong trading ties to China.
Then in 2011 he was named US ambassador to China. At first the reception was similarly adulatory. Early reports marveled at how humble and down-to-earth Locke was. A photo of him at an airport Starbucks, waiting in line to get his own coffee and carrying his own bags, became a viral sensation in China. It turned out, though, that the sensation was less about love of Locke per se than it was an indirect criticism of the Audi-chauffeured princelings and party powerbrokers who rule China today. Once Locke settled into his jobâwhich, after all, was not to please Chinese people but to represent the interests of the United Statesâhe on occasion became the object of orchestrated scorn. Special scorn, for he was not just American but Chinese American. Locke's predecessor, the Mormon, Mandarin-speaking Jon Huntsman, had also been criticized by Chinese citizens. But now nationalist mobs of those citizens pelted Locke's car during anti-Japanese (and implicitly anti-American) riots. They pointed out that Locke is unable to speak Chinese. They excoriated him in online forums for being a fake, a lapdog, and, odd as it may seem, a traitor to his race.
But what he was, was simply this: an American, overseas.
When Locke was ten, his parents had brought him from Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood to Hong Kong. The plan was to leave him with his grandmother and to immerse him for a year in Chinese schools and Chinese culture. Locke hated it. He was mocked by school kids for not being able to speak Chinese. He missed his home, his Boy Scout troop, his parents. After only a few months, they relented and brought him back. Brought him home. It turns outâand Gary Locke, onetime hero of the diaspora, is proof of thisâthat there is no such thing, really, as an ABC. To be American-born is inherently, inescapably to become something other than pure Chinese. It is, indeed, to highlight that there may never have been such a thing as pure Chinese. Purity of Chineseness is a fiction imagined and nurtured by those who migrated and by those they left behind to mask a sense of loss, to mark the distance traveled, to reckon with the reality that any hope for purity ended, on some level, the moment they who set sail set sail.
What is a seed, Dearly Beloved? Is a fish not a seed? May we not open the fish to find the sea? Do the birds know what they carry?
The Winged Seed
There are many dialects of spoken Chinese, from Shanghainese to Toishanese to Mandarin. Sometimes the aural distance between them is like the distance between Mississippi English and Boston English. In other cases it is the distance between English and Greek. But there is only one written Chinese language, used by the speakers of every tongue generically called “Chinese.” It is the constant, the glue that binds all these speakers of all these different dialects from all these separate provinces that might otherwise begin to think of themselves as separate nations.
Many Americans know that written Chinese characters are ideographs, derived from primitive symbols. Most do not know, however, that written Chinese comes in two formats,
, complex and simplified. So-called complex Chinese characters are what was traditionally written, read, and taught in China for thousands of years. Simplified characters were implemented by the Communists in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the mass illiteracy of the nation's peasantry. It was a great feat of linguistic engineering. Simplified characters dramatically reduce the number of strokes in each character and make reading and writing far easier. Many lamented this “dumbing-down” of written Chinese: the subversion of the nuance, beauty, and tactile intricacy of the original characters. Indeed, in Taiwan, where the Nationalist government fled in 1949, simplified Chinese is not in use. But there is no denying that because of simplification, many millions of people over several generations have learned to read. And it is their ability to read that gives added force now to their burgeoning sense of Chineseness.
As it is with Chinese characters, so it is with Chinese
. There is a complex original. It is sprawling and unwieldy. Then comes a simplified version, easier to retain and transmit. But is something lost in the simplification? What is the essence of Chineseness? And does a more abstract, less detailed representation of that essence truly do it justice?
National character is both real and imagined. It is real because it is imagined and imagined because real.
The popular, simplified conception of Chinese national character (
) begins with the fact that China has long called itself Zhong Guo, “center nation” or, in the better-known translation, the Middle Kingdom. A presumption of greatness. Other popular notions of Chinese character hold that the Chinese are tradition-minded, thanks to Confucius and his heirs, and noninterventionist, thanks to Taoism; they cherish order because of China's long history of warlordism, chaos, and foreign rapacity; they take a long and cyclical view of life because Chinese history affords one of the longest views available of recorded human experience. They are resilient and have weathered the worst that heaven and earth can deal out.
But there are other things that people, including Chinese people, sometimes say are part of Chinese national character. For one: a suffocating conformity that leaves only a vestige of individualism, as warped and rotted as the crushed bones of bound feet. Moreover: unthinking obedience to central authority, rationalized by a pragmatic unwillingness to stick one's neck out. Sublimated pain and anxiety that come out in periodic paroxysms of mass insanity. And then something subtler, what the 1920s reformist author Lu Xun called an “Ah-Q” mentality in his famous short story. Ah-Q, a tragicomic everyman, kisses up to his social superiors but heaps scorn down on his peers and lessers. He fails in his day-to-day dealings with people but deludes himself into believing that each setback is actually an advance. He is boastful, small-minded, nitpicky, legalistic, oblivious to the reality of the world around him until a series of events carries him like a cork on a current to his execution.
Which of these notions of Chinese character is true? National character is a chimera, a quantum reality neither here nor there yet both at once. When the current president of China, Xi Jinping, ascended to power, he began to deliver speeches championing what he dubbed “the Chinese Dream.” This Chinese Dream is, in the first place, a reaction. It is an answer to the fact that America has the American Dream and that an American columnist, Thomas Friedman of the
New York Times
, wrote, “China needs its own dream.” Soon the state marketing machine was selling one. The Chinese Dream is deliberately vague, a blend of official slogan and unofficial buzzword, but in its broad strokes it seeks to do rhetorically what simplified Chinese characters do lexically: remove complexities, create unity. The Chinese Dream, according to the keepers of Communist Party doctrine, consists of four clean parts: Strong China, Civilized China, Harmonious China, Beautiful China.
Some reformers in China hope that “Beautiful” means a greater emphasis on environmental sustainability or that “Civilized” means more individual liberty. Others interpret “Harmonious” to mean greater equity in the spread of prosperity. Much hopeâmany a dreamâis invested in the meaning of these words. No one is quite sure if these beams of doctrine can actually bear this much weight, but then, it doesn't actually matter what the particulars are or whether there even are any codified particulars. The Chinese Dream is mainly about
a Chinese Dream and being able to announce it.
It's also a fairy tale. Or, rather, a fable. This is not to be harsh. Every nation's story of its own characterâand every nation's story of
nations' characterâbegins with a moral and works backwards. That is certainly true of the tale we tell in America of our own can-do, ruggedly individualist character. What's important is to ask
we tell these stories and why we filter out evidence that contradicts them.
Two decades before Xi Jinping's Chinese Dream, Lee Kuan Yew, then the benevolent autocrat of Singapore, peddled a morality tale called “Asian Values.” The West, he said, should not harshly judge Asians, and especially the Chinese, for their approach to human rights. Asians have their
values, Lee argued, that prioritize the good of the whole over the good of the individual, the need for stability over the need for freedom. And his kicker was:
. Asian economic success was proof, he said, that these values were right for Asians. Never mind that the Cambridge-educated “Harry” Lee, running a former British colony, was living testimony to the universalizing power of Western values. Never mind that “Asian” was too soggy a bag for all the cultural traditions he was trying to stuff into it. The Fable of Asian Values was an elegant closed-loop justification for soft authoritarianism.
As China grew mightier in the ensuing years, Lee became one of the era's most vocal evangelists of an Overseas Chinese revival. He said that whether they lived in Canada, Australia, the United States, or Europe, ethnic Chinese should see themselves as members of a tribe. They should nurture their ethnic network. They should exploit their
âtheir connections, to one another, and to their cultural motherlandâto generate business and get deals done and further the cause of progress. Now countless others, East and West, have taken up this gospel of co-ethnic networking, of Confucian capitalism. The idea of
as gold, or at least the way to find and mine gold, has yielded a secondary industry in China of cultural brokers who sell nothing more than knowledge of how to get and use
It's all very convenient. But what if this same story, this same tale of indelible Chineseness that says you can take a Chinese out of China but not the China out of Chineseâwhat if it were to be deployed not just by China-boosters in search of profits but also by China-bashers in search of scapegoats? What if this spidery web of Chinese ethnic connection was seen not as beneficial to global capital flow and efficient exchange of goods but as a spider's web, meant to ensnare and incapacitate prey?
Much of the media coverage of China and its dealings with America can be understood more clearly if you conduct a simple thought experiment: imagine that the reports are describing not people but pathogens. Or parasites.
Chinese hackers burrowing their way into American bank accounts and into classified US military servers. The rise of Chinese “birth tourism,” in which pregnant Chinese women are flown to the United States so their babies, born on American soil, can claim citizenship here and gain access to all the benefits of that status. Chinese nationals seeking placement in American corporations and research centers, waiting patiently to steal our secrets. Chinese investors using innocuous shell companies buying up distressed properties and businesses across the United States. Chinese international students paying full freight at cash-strapped state universities across the United States, thus taking up slots for deserving in-state residents.
Now, try to stop the thought experiment.
Now, look at a Chinese American.
“Chinese people have a strong feeling of comradeship toward overseas Chinese,” a Japanese observer told the
New York Times
a few years ago. “Overseas Chinese have a long tradition, and they remain Chinese even after generations have passed. Japanese regard second- or third-generation overseas Japanese, even though they are of Japanese origin, as âpeople from that country over there.'”
It's certainly true that the Japanese do not have a mythology of Overseas Diaspora the way the Chinese do. Indeed, they make sharp distinctions between Japanese from Japan and Japanese not from Japan, distinctions in some ways as sharp as those between Japanese and non-Japanese. Alberto Fujimori, the ethnic Japanese Peruvian who rose to the presidency of Peru and then was deposed, landing in exile in Japan, was throughout his public life named in the Japanese media using
âa form of written language that signifies foreignness rather than Japaneseness
In the late 1980s, Japan was facing a labor shortage as its export boom began. A labor shortage in Japan is not just an economic challenge; it's a civilizational one. Japan, with its ingrained sense of racial purity, does not embrace immigration or immigrants. There have long been guest workers from other countries in Japan, but business and government leaders, uncomfortable with the idea of bringing in more Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, came up with a new idea in 1990. Why not invite back “overseas Japanese”âpeople of Japanese lineage who'd been born and raised elsewhere? They would be foreigners by passport, the planners assumed, but Japanese at the core. So programs and incentives were created for Japanese Brazilian workers to come be laborers in Japan.
The experiment had at best mixed results. It turns out those people with unbroken lines of Japanese descent had been changed by their families' many generations in Brazil. They had become, for lack of a better word, Latin. They stayed up late socializing, and they liked to samba. They barbecued meat in their cramped apartments, causing smoke damage. They didn't separate their garbage in the Japanese manner. They weren't particularly strict about rules, deadlines, timetables. The irony is that the Pakistani workers who'd been displaced by all this had, during their time as guest workers, been more Japanese than the Japanese Brazilians. The Pakistanis had been conscientious, diligent, respectful of communal norms.