Saturday, June 26, 2010

The China syndrome

My undergraduate adviser in history (I had one for French, too), was a specialist in East Asian history, particularly 20th century Chinese history, with an emphasis on China's nationalities policy.* In some ways, this professor was one of the best I ever had. He introduced me to Chinese history (he taught all periods of Chinese history, not merely the 20th century) and his writing assignments were quite challenging and forced me to hone my thoughts.

In other ways, however, his teaching left something to be desired. His lectures at times, but only occasionally, contained apologias for some truly questionable practices that were done in Chinese history, such as the practice of footbinding, which resulted in the mutilation of countless numbers of women, and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of millions. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that he gainsaid the Tiananmin Square massacre, in which "only" hundreds of people were killed.

His goal wasn't malicious, and in some ways he was only trying to introduce us to seeing things from the perspective of those in power and those in the Chinese culture, on the very plausible assumption that someone growing up in that culture might have different conceptions of the state and human rights from those that Westerners might have. He also aimed at challenging some of the snobbery that, allegedly, has for a long time been inherent in Western scholarship on China.

Yet, he elided some serious problems. I now realize that he was a committed Marxist, although I wasn't quite aware of that at the time. Surely, Marxism had evolved by the mid-1990s to include serious discussions of "counter-hegemonic" cultural practices by the lower classes. What I mean is, even if Chinese culture encourages people to have a deferential attitude toward the state, that does not mean they do not "resist" this power in some ways.

That "problem," which I have undoubtedly oversimplified and only roughly explained, is only theoretical. There were specific items that in retrospect are questionable. On the subject of footbinding, the professor insisted that we ought not judge another culture by Western standards. After all, didn't the social norms of Victorian England virtually require upper-class and upper-bourgeoisie women to wear body-damaging corsets? In this case, he didn't particularly note the irony of comparing Chinese culture with Western culture in order to argue that we shouldn't compare Chinese culture with Western culture.

To this professor's credit, he did assign two textbooks from different perspectives. One was by Jacques Gernet (who, I believe, was a Marxist); the other was by John King Fairbank (who, I wager, could be considered an American liberal academic who had once been more left-leaning). The professor, however, made very clear which historian he agreed with. He derided Fairbank as an "elderly man" (indeed, Fairbank had written that book shortly before his death), as if the professor would have agreed with Fairbank if he had been younger. (My guess is that Gernet, in the 1990s, was no spring chicken either.)

Fairbank's crime? In a chapter section on footbinding, he criticized the tendency of mostly Western, non-Chinese historians (my professor was French) to adopt a "second nationalism" and write about China as if it could do no wrong. As an example, Fairbank humbly cited an article he himself had written decades earlier, in which he contended that the Glorious Revolution was one of the greatest things that ever happened to China.

I took four classes with the professor in question. I confess that I, too, developed a sort of second nationalism toward Chinese history, but on a more modest scale than my adviser had. In short, I ignored what should have been my better intellectual judgment and refused to challenge what even then I should have seen as holes in his statements.

This post is not meant as a diatribe against China or against my adviser. Perhaps my adviser's teaching style was defensible in many ways. It just gives me pause.

*China is approximately 90% ethnically "Han" Chinese, but the other 10%, while present in almost every province, are concentrated in strategic, sparsely populated areas that China would like to control, such as Tibet, northwestern China (the Xingjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region) and the land north central border (the Mongolian Autonomous Region.) China therefore had to develop a "nationalities" policy to prevent these people from revolting. Authoritarian regimes, no matter how brutal, cannot live on force alone.

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