Chinese Whispers was once a party game. A message would be relayed in hushed tones through a long line of people and emerge at the other end amusingly garbled. Most of us have found alternative amusements nowadays, but the name survives as a figure of speech; an idiom used to signify how facts or a story tend to get twisted over time and distance.
Why ‘Chinese’ though? There seem to be no concrete answers. One theory has it that messages relayed between the lonely watchtowers of the Great Wall suffered this kind of distortion. Another is that China was once a byword for misunderstanding and confusion in the West, something to do with the supposed ‘inscrutability’ of the Chinese. It doesn’t seem to be a very old usage, with the first references only appearing in the middle of the 20th century. But whatever the provenance of Chinese Whispers, there’s something rather appropriate about the name.
China has always loomed large in the Western imagination because it provides a handy screen on to which we can project our dreams and nightmares. First the dreams. The Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century projected China as a country in which men like them achieved, promoted as councillors to emperors, ignoring (or perhaps ignorant of) the fact that the ostensibly meritocratic, imperial exam system was riven with corruption and nepotism. That tradition of wishful projection continues today.
Many executives of Western multinationals talk of China as a new capitalist Jerusalem, a land of eternally high GDP growth, the biggest untapped consumer market on the planet, the place where the state sees its proper function as to help the private sector to make money. Of course, occasionally they will come up against an awkward fact that challenges this dream – reports of baby milk formula adulterated with a harmful chemical by a Chinese manufacturer, for instance, or a corruption scandal – but these are seen as tests of faith to be overcome. They cannot be permitted to interfere with the glorious vision.
Then there are the China nightmares. The French philosopher Montesquieu, in the 18th century, reviled China as a country where there reigned “a spirit of servitude”. In a similar vein, the Victorians projected China as a place where intellectual progress had come to a pathetic stop. What they were both doing was imagining China as the very antithesis of everything they wanted their own nations to be: free, vigorous and expansive.
China has sometimes been Caliban’s mirror, too. The most common 19th-century Western complaint about China was that the country had an overweening superiority complex. The sixth US President, John Quincy Adams, placed the blame for the Opium War on “the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China”. But it was, of course, Britain that took gravest offence. The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, bristled at what he called Chinese “assumptions of superiority” shortly before dispatching some gunboats to blast some inferiority into them.
This talk of arrogance comes across like psychological projection in the sense described by Sigmund Freud – attributing one’s own unacceptable impulses to another. For in a contest between China and Britain, one might argue that Britannia had the more exalted sense of its own superiority. When Lord Macartney sailed to China to persuade the Qianlong Emperor to open his kingdom to trade in 1792, it apparently came as an immense surprise to the British delegation that the mechanical contraptions, from clocks to telescopes, that were brandished to impress the hosts did not lead to an instant acknowledgement from the Chinese of the Western nation’s ascendancy.
There’s a similar kind of negative projection taking place today. As we have seen, China is often presented as an aggressive and nationalistic monster, intent on taking over the world. Here is a short list that gives a flavour of the books about China that have been published over the past 15 or so years: The Coming Conflict with China; China’s Plan to Dominate Asia and the World; The China Threat; Why China Wants War with the United States; Communist China’s Military Threat to America; China: 1,000 years of Bloodshed.
One would imagine from this flood of paranoia that China had some uniquely terrible history of colonial aggression. True, China has been no pacifist Shangri La through its history, but it wasn’t the Middle Kingdom that sailed to the other side of the world in the 19th century, blasted its way in to another culture, and proceeded to carve up a distant empire into spheres of influence. That was the West.
One might describe it as an intellectual pathology. We keep getting swept up by the same currents of thought, the same dreams and fears that have always attended our encounters with China. In my new book, I delve into the stories that we whisper to each other about China. I show how ideas about the Chinese have historically been warped when passing through the long chains of people that have mediated between China and the outside world – and how they were often twisted once again when they arrived. The tradition continues to this very day. In our interpretation of China and its people, powerful currents in the waters of our thoughts seem to keep yanking us in the same directions. Often, just as in a game of Chinese Whispers, we end up hearing what we want to hear.
Ben Chu is Economics Editor of The Independent. His book ‘Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong’ is published on 10 October by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
China is the world’s oldest civilisation
The myth: Open any travel guide, history book or newspaper that takes China for its subject and one will read the same assertion: this is a country with “5,000 years of history”.
Why we think it: Romanticism. In 1922, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote: “Since the days of Confucius the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman empires have perished; but China has persisted”. We seem to find appealing the idea that the people of an ancient empire are still walking among us.
The truth: The claim that China has 5,000 years of history is predicated on the existence of a so-called Yellow Emperor, a god-like founding father who is supposed to have taught his people how to grow crops, domesticate animals and even to clothe themselves. There is no evidence for the existence of such a figure. It is the stuff of legend, not history.
The claim of 5,000 years of history is also relatively recent. Until the late 1990s, the Beijing authorities tended to talk of 3,000 or 4,000 years of Chinese history. But when former president Jiang Zemin went to Egypt, he found a state that could claim even more venerable origins. So Chinese leaders unilaterally awarded their own country an extra thousand years of history in an act of international one-upmanship.
The Chinese have an indomitable work ethic
The myth: In the 1930s, Carl Crow, an American journalist and entrepreneur, described China as a “land of unremitting industry”. He went on: “If it is true that the devil can only find work for idle hands, then China must be a place of very limited Satanic opportunities.
Why we think it: Because we seem to see the evidence. Visitors to Chinese cities are often astonished to see construction crews working through the night. Newspapers show images of workers napping at their positions on the production line during a brief break on an 18-hour shift. Chinese immigrants in the West also seem to be frighteningly hard workers.
The truth: Working hours in China are nothing remarkable by the standards of other developing nations. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Social Development think tank (OECD) show that Mexicans do slightly more paid work per day. Other data suggests the Chinese work fewer hours than Bangladeshis, Thais, and Indonesians.
China has an unstoppable economy
Why we think it: Because the story of Chinese growth over the past three decades is awe-inspiring. In 1979, the economy was smaller than Britain’s. Since then, it has doubled in size roughly every eight years and is now 22 times larger than when it began its reforms. In 2009, China overtook Japan to become the second biggest economy in the world. It is expected to surpass the US in 2017.
The truth: In order to continue growing, China needs to enact fundamental economic reforms. That means a massive expansion of public health care and pensions. It means land reform, to prevent farmers being swindled out of their rightful profits. It means a liberalisation of the financial sector. It means higher wages and an end to the one child policy. Every one of those reforms will be fiercely resisted by powerful vested interests. And it is far from certain that the reformers will prevail.
Chinese students are the cleverest in the world
The myth: According to the British Education Secretary, Michael Gove: “Schools in the Far East are turning out students who are working at an altogether higher level than our own”.
Why we think it: Because we see so many smart Chinese children coming to Western universities. And also because the statistics seem to back it up. In 2009, 15-year-old children from Shanghai came top in reading, maths and science in the international standardised tests run by the OECD. They outperformed children from richer nations such as the US, Britain and Germany.
The truth: The OECD tests were also taken by children in nine provinces across China. Yet the Chinese government has not permitted the OECD to publish the full figures, casting doubt over how representative the Shanghai results really are. Some Chinese are also voting on China’s education system with their feet. A 2012 survey by the magazine, Hurun Report, found that around nine out of 10 wealthy Chinese intend to send their children to universities abroad. A third also want to send their children abroad for high school.
The Chinese all speak the same language
The myth: “Chinese, regardless of whether they live in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, are essentially the same,” according to the Shanghai-based advertising executive Tom Doctoroff.
Why we think it: Because it makes this vast and complex land feel easier to understand and perhaps less intimidating. Also, the Chinese regard linguistic unity as one of the pillars of the country’s modernisation. The father of the Chinese republican movement, Sun Yat-sen, proclaimed that the Chinese have a “common language, common religion and common customs”.
The truth: Hundreds of millions of Chinese cannot speak to each other in a common tongue. China’s education ministry reported in 2007 that only around half of the country’s population could communicate effectively in standard Mandarin. The figure in cities was 66 per cent, while in rural areas it fell to just 45 per cent. Most Chinese use local dialects, and even different languages from Mandarin, for everyday communication.
China is buying up the world
The myth: According to the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, China is winning the global “race for resources”. She argues “other countries seem to be asleep while China is making a concerted effort”. Others claim that China is engaged in neo-imperialist behaviour in Africa.
Why we think it: Because China’s economic growth has truly shaken the world. The country is the world’s largest importer of copper, rice and (pretty soon) oil. China is also now a considerable lender to African states and is attempting to use its $3.5 trillion war chest of foreign exchange reserves to buy up companies in the West.
The truth: China’s investments in the developing world are straightforward transactions: they build roads and factories in return for long-term commodity contracts. And China’s mountain of US foreign exchange reserves are signs of weakness, rather than geopolitical strength, since these investments are gradually falling in value as the Chinese currency gradually appreciates against the dollar.
The Chinese are a biological race
The myth: The late Sinologist, Lucian Pye, said that it was “self-evident that the Chinese people share the same blood, the same physical characteristics, the same ancestry”.
Why we think it: It appears obvious since many Chinese people share phenotypical trait such as black hair and high cheekbones. And the Chinese do nothing to discourage it. One of the most popular Chinese pop songs of the past 40 years is Hou Dejian‘s “Heirs of the Dragon” with its lyrics: “Black eyes, black hair, yellow skin, forever”.
The truth: There are at least 56 different minority ‘nations’ who live mainly in China’s borderlands. These range from the Mongols of the grassy steppes, to the Manchus of the Korean border. Like ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or ‘Hispanics’, the Han Chinese constitute a purely imagined biological community.
China is a dangerously nationalistic power
The myth: The political scientist Robert Kagan tells us that China is “filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments, consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty”.
Why we think it: Because we assume that a rising China will behave like Western states did in the 19th century. Also, China itself sometimes throws off belligerent signals. In 1996, a group of Chinese academics produced a collection of polemical essays entitled China Can Say No. In its pages they argued that China was sufficiently economically developed to start imposing itself on the rest of the world.
The truth: Popular nationalistic sentiment in China is often the flipside of the political reform movement – and a source of deep concern for the ruling Communist Party. One nationalist blogger, Li Chengpeng, wrote recently of how he became disillusioned with his own government when he learnt that schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing hundreds of children, had been constructed to poor standards due to the corruption of local government officials. Li called for a new kind of patriotism, one that put political reform at home first. “Patriotism is about allowing people to move freely in our country and letting our children study in the city where they wish to study,” he said. “Patriotism is about speaking more truth. Patriotism is about dignity for the Chinese people.”
The Chinese are all Confucians
The myth: “It is still impossible to understand modern China without understanding Confucius,” according to the BBC journalist Andrew Marr.
Why we think it: It makes China feel more comprehensible. And Confucianism is still certainly a strong influence on China. In 2007, a book called Confucius from the Heart by a Beijing University literature professor, Yu Dan, shifted more copies than any printed work since Mao’s Little Red Book.
The truth: There is, actually, a long Chinese intellectual tradition of repudiating Confucianism, stretching back to the radical May Fourth Movement of 1919. The Chinese writer Jiang Rong, in his bestselling 2004 novel, Wolf Totem, contrasted the traditional values of China unfavourably with those of the nomads of the Mongolian steppe.
China: what else don’t we know?
“May you live in interesting times” is not a traditional Chinese saying, contrary to popular belief in the West.
The mother of Kublai Khan (the Chinese emperor who received Marco Polo in the 13th century) was a Christian.
There are twice as many Mongolians in China as there are in Mongolia itself.
When Zhou Enlai said in the 1970s that it was “too early to say” what the consequences of the French Revolution would be, he was referring to the events of 1968, not 1789.
The first mosque in China was built in 627 by Muslim traders, five years before the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Chinese population tripled between 1700 and 1850 following the introduction of corn and potatoes from the Americas.
The Beijing authorities allow only 20 foreign films to be screened in Chinese cinemas every year.
50 per cent of Chinese dollar millionaires are considering leaving the country.
100,000 Chinese labourers worked on the Western Front alongside the British and French in the First World War.
‘Gung-ho’ was a phrase invented by an American soldier who had been inspired by the Chinese resistance to Japan’s occupation in the Second World War.
From 1882 until the 1940s, the US banned all immigration from China.
Poor air quality in China causes 300,000 premature deaths a year.
A Chinese-Jamaican, Randy Chin, helped to popularise reggae.
Many Peking ducks are imported from Britain.
China became the first democratic republic in Asia in 1911.
Rickshaws were invented in Japan.
Tea drinking did not become widely popular until the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century AD.Source: The Independent – “Dazed and Confucius: Nine common myths about China”
- History shows that Japan and China have very different futures (chinadailymail.com)
- A Century of American Dreams and Nightmares of China (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Chinese consider moving holiday to honor Confucius (upi.com)
- China to move Teacher’s Day to Sept. 28, Confucius’ birthday (wantchinatimes.com)
- Confucius as Contemporary Art (uselesstree.typepad.com)
- The nation’s top calling card (chinawatch.washingtonpost.com)
- What is your idea of China? (nafigate.wordpress.com)
- Chinese Whispers (uclmuncrisisa.wordpress.com)
- Qufu, China: a tour of Confucius’s home town (telegraph.co.uk)
- Confucius Institutes are not about Confucius (uselesstree.typepad.com)
- Top 10 Ridiculous Myths About The Chinese (toptenz.net)