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China’s golden age depends on openness – Hu is wrong to wall off foreign influences

A few weeks ago a Chinese friend told me what worries him the most: a form of Nationalism that asserts China’s natural position is “glorious” and that the country only falls from this status when “outside forces” limit its growth. Equally concerning to him was that these ideas were predicated on a kind of racial superiority, sometimes referred to as Han nationalism (大汉族 DaHanzu Greater Han Ethnic group).

This small group of people maintain that not only was China weakened in the 19th century by western influence, but was susceptible to these forces specifically because they were being led by Manchurians. The ultra-nationalists take this misreading of history to illustrate that China can only be strong when Chinese (Han) culture is purified of foreign influences and resists all outside forces (not a surprising ideology from a country whose symbol is a wall).

Given my friend’s fear as he described this small movement, I read this quote from China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, with great trepidation;

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration. We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.” (link)

Ironically, the time in the past that this DaHanzu  group sees as the apex of China’s/Chinese potential is the Tang Dynasty, which was China’s greatest period of openness.

The Tang Dynasty boasted the largest population in the world at the time, with over 90 million citizens. It’s culture spread throughout Asia, with influences in Korea, Japan and Vietnam that are still visible today. Poetry, art, and literature flourished, as the Chinese created works that are still considered to be among the finest ever made in the Middle Kingdom.

Central to China’s ascendance were a few key factors: the re-opening of the Silk Road (which allowed trade with distant countries on a scale that China hadn’t enjoyed in four centuries), and a tolerance for the ideas and customs of the people that came with that. Foreign populations swelled in many of China’s cities.

Chinese cultural products like silk, porcelain and other products became highly sought in foreign countries. Meanwhile the new foreign goods lead to a cosmopolitan lifestyle that has rarely been matched in China since then.

Perhaps the best example of the Tang Dynasty’s attitudes can be seen in religion. At this time, Buddhism flourished as a result of expanded contact with the Indian sub-continent (the tale of one journey is captured in the Chinese epic Journey to the West). Instead of seeing it as an external force undermining China’s traditions of Confucianism and Daoism, the then confident superpower engaged with these beliefs, leading to the founding of Chan Buddhism (known in the West as Zen). This form of Buddhism is now the only form practiced by Han Chinese, and spread to many neighboring countries as well. In this same period, the first Mosque was constructed in Guangzhou, and Christian missionaries established a congregation in Xi’an under the auspices of the Emperor.

Note: Shortly before the downfall of the Tang, the gov’t tried to suppress religion, the motivation for this seems to be that many temples had amassed great wealth from pilgrims and the gov’t’s own treasuries were failing.

Somehow China seems to have forgotten that the key to greatness is not how strongly they command artists to create great works and guard against foreign influences. The last time China shut itself off from the outside world, it suffered Mao’s reign for over 25 years. Before that the Qing Dynasty shut themselves off from foreign powers, missing the benefits of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Prior to that the Ming Dynasty destroyed their own fleet of treasure ships and reinforced the Great Wall in an unsuccessful attempt to keep out foreign influence. At no point in Chinese history has the country benefited from isolation, cultural or otherwise.

The key, according to China’s own history, is to confidently embrace foreign ideas in a way that gives space for artists to create works that shine for millenia. It seems only natural that if the Tang Dynasty’s cultural power is the aspiration, Tang Dynasty cosmopolitan openness is the blueprint for how to achieve it.


37 Comments

  1. sinostand says:

    Great piece. I’m trying hard to think of any great power in history that shut itself off from foreign influence. I’m finding it quite easy to think of horrible powers that did so. When a government has an interest in keeping foreigners at arms length, that generally seems to be a warning flag.

    • Tom says:

      I can’t think of a country that managed to reach greatness by shutting itself off, let alone an already great country that felt the need to guard against foreign culture.

    • Tom says:

      I can’t think of a country that managed to reach greatness by shutting itself off, let alone an already great country that felt the need to guard against foreign culture.

      • Huax says:

        And I can think of many cultures that became great by accepting foreigners with open arms, like the American Indian.

  2. Just as China began to really ascend as a business heavyweight after WTO accession, success in the global “culture wars” will only happen when the barriers to competition are relaxed. The reactive view which seems to be ascendant in China today holds that culture must be defended from outside influences, when in reality, culture can only be robust and thus influential when it has been exposed to outside influences. Outside of the petri dish of the “socialist moral system” Chinese culture can survive and thrive.

    For more on the fallacy of clamping down domestically and closing up internationally, see …
    http://www.fire-brands.com/blog/general/china-gears-culture-wars-old-ordinance

    – Chris

    • Huax says:

      Like how Persia, Egypt, Anatolia’s cultures were enriched by being open to Islam? Or how Europe was made more culturally diverse by the spread of Christianity?

      Some cultures simply don’t play fair. Hu isn’t arguing for total isolation, he’s arguing for moderation and control. Of course, as whites, you will never understand. Try talking to some native Americans or Canadians and ask them how they feel about their languages and people vanishing.

      Also, as whites, you seem to not realize that closing yourself off to “Westernization” is not a rejection of all foreign influence.

      • Chopstik says:

        I find your response here interesting on two counts. First, on an internet board where you have no idea of the people to whom you are responding, your first assertion is that everyone is white and therefore unable/unwilling to understand your assertion. (Nope, I’m sure that’s not racist as I suspect you would agree with the “erroneous” assertion that only whites are racist and I suspect you are not – ably determined from the anonymous internet.) Second, before casting stones, perhaps you would do well to see the situation in a more complete manner. Most Americans understand what happened in their history and recognize their mistakes and errors – they are not hidden from them by the government seeking to impose “moderation and control”. Perhaps you should have a conversation with some of the minorities in China (the Uighurs, Tibetans and Hui would be a good start) and ask them how they feel about their languages and cultures vanishing.

        And, to some of your final point, I agree with the idea that closing oneself off to “Westernization”, as you put it, is not necessarily a rejection of all foreign influence. Certainly there is more to the world and to learning than “Western” thought and influence. However, closing yourself off to all “Westernization” could potentially be short-sighted and no less bigoted than you have accused others of being.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Despite the heavy tone, I think that @Huax does make a couple of good points, @Chopstik. First, I think he’s right about Hu’s focus, although we really ought to pay attention to when and whom Hu was speaking when he made these comments. Party rhetoric is bound to sound alarming and downright strange to outsiders. Second, he’s right that as “whites” we might not be well positioned to understand, although it would be better to say something like “as anglo-americans” or “europeans” or some such thing. Unless one is, for example, Irish, it is likely that the more insidious and destructive aspects of colonization are likely to be missed. It’s never arrived as the kind of benign gift we see it as in hindsight. On the other hand, I think @Huax overstates his case below in saying that “absorbing a foreign culture simply makes one weaker.” The Chinese approach in the past 30 years has been more gene therapy than heart transplant.

      • Chopstik says:

        Lorin,

        You’ll note I didn’t necessarily disagree with Huax’s assertion that Hu was not arguing for complete isolation. He may be right. But some people are bound to interpret it in that fashion and that cannot be prevented. Hopefully Hu is indeed not arguing for complete isolation but a more nuanced approach – though history does not offer a great deal of hope in that regard when it comes to tyrannical leaders shutting out competing influences. And the ideas of “moderation and control” seem to be opposing ideals but perhaps that was unintentional.

        Second, the argument that “whites” are culturally incapable of understanding is an idiotic and racist swipe against those who don’t agree with him. Those who are willing to assume the mantle of white guilt are, of course, free to do so. And there is certainly no limit to the mistakes that “white” people have made – and I’m sure that non-whites have never made similar mistakes. But to paint with such a wide brush only diminishes whatever point he (or you or anyone else) wishes to make. I do not think that anyone here is attempting to glorify aspects of colonialism in any way so not sure how that seems to have been the first place he (or you) seems to have gone in the responses. But using that to discredit someone else’s argument points to a stunning inability to provide more logical and rational reasons for one’s beliefs. I’m not suggesting that he or you are wrong in your assertions as both of you are free to believe as you wish (at least outside of China as it relates to the government in China) but that the threat of colonialism or being a puppet of foreigners seems to be a favorite whipping boy of the government to be wielded against any who raise questions about it.

        Finally, I think we do agree that he (I keep making the assumption that Huax is a male just as he keeps assuming anyone who thinks Western ideas in China are not a bad thing must be white) overstated his opposition to foreign influence in China. That does not mean that it must become a culturally-Western country to become better but to disregard any ideas because of their source is short-sighted and potentially fatal. After all, even diamonds started out in dirty coal.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        @Huax can defend his position himself, as that wasn’t really my intent. You may be overstating my case, though. My point is simply that those who identify practically from birth with a particular conception of the good life are not best position to notice the negative effects, whether these be material or emotional. This is equally obvious in the case of Mainland Han Chinese who have a hard time understanding the complaints of Tibetans. Mine is an analysis of the structure of power relations and standpoint. Nothing to do with White guilt.

  3. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  4. Great post – really interesting. China’s definitely here to stay on the global scene now and that means absorbing some foreign influences into their culture, like it or not in the future.

    • Huax says:

      “Absorbing” foreign culture simply makes a nation weaker. Most successful nations take in knowledge from abroad, apply their own interpretation, and reject what’s unnecessary.

      The West’s knee-jerk alarmism to Hu’s speech don’t reflect this. All they want to do is turn China into a West-worshiping, nominally Christian cultural wasteland completely stripped of indigenous character.

  5. M says:

    yeah, westernization on them my imperialist friends! maybe after all they will start shaving at least their armpit hair 🙂 and maybe one day they will wait in subway to let people first leave the train…

  6. Good post Tom. The smart people in charge at the CCP should be listening to you. Learn from past successes, not from blind attempts filled with greed and selfishness.

  7. Lorin Yochim says:

    I have to say that there is a lot of…what’s the word…knowing nodding going on in this post and the comments, a lot of remember the lessons of history kind of talk. So, precisely what do these knowing nods mean and what are these lessons of history? Has @M unwittingly cut to the core of what we should all be worried about by bringing up armpit hair?

    • Tom says:

      I think M has jumped to his own conclusion from this post. If I had written this about the Qing Dynasty, it’d be more inline with what he might be looking for. M though is talking about 文明 (civilized) not 文化 (culture). Tang Dynasty’s power laid in its ability to absorb and adapt foreign cultures without fearing for cultural purity. Things that became a part of the culture during that time, like Buddhism, have become so radically changed that we think of them as indigenous.

      • Huax says:

        I would say the Tang Dynasty was successful because it tolerated foreigners to the extent necessary to ward off their greed and hostility, but Tang was ultimately destroyed by ungrateful and entitled foreigners like An Lushan.

  8. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I heard on BBC Radio 4 news at 5pm that China is cutting it’s television programmes on talent and dating shows by two thirds! I start to wonder if this is connected to the subject of Tom’s Post. What do you think? Is it a manifestation of purging the Chinese culture of foreign influences?

    • xl says:

      Well I don’t know if those shows are frowned upon because of foreign influence but rather because they promote materialism unabashedly, in a way that makes old party cadres nostalgic for the days when everyone had nothing. Personally, I don’t think the government is against materialism but it seeks to establish a fine balance between just enough to make people feel like they have economic freedom but not too much emphasis as to make poor people despair. In China where guanxi overrides individual ability and where there are vast gaps in income btw salaried workers and entrepreneurs, its easy for a factory worker to watch and think “none of those women will ever pick me bc I have zero chance of affording my own house and car. Those sentiments, when shared by many, can lead to social unrest, and so, the government is trying to limit these shows’ influence by calling them vulgar and not promoting good socialist morals.

      As far as isolation and resisting foreign influence, I think that’s Hu just pandering to their nationalistic base. China’s economy is so intertwined with global connections that there’s no way to return to a Mao-era type isolation.

      • Tom says:

        Very well said XL.

        I don’t think that Hu is arguing for physical isolation, but I think that there are many in China who do want to cleanse the culture of foreign influence. I doubt that this a result of Hu being involved in ultra-nationalist groups, but it is concerning that he is pandering to them.

  9. Yaxue C. says:

    This is Not a joke: Someone tweeted that Hu Jintao’s resume has been updated today, the only change being that, under “achievements”, a publication citation is added and the title of it is “Oppose the Infiltration in the Cultural Sphere by Western Hostile Forces”.

    Between Orwell’s Oceania and our China, I must say I like the latter infinitely better, for I don’t remember I laughed so heartily when I read 1984.

    • Chopstik says:

      I believe it’s something akin to “I’m laughing so hard at this stupidity that I’m crying inside”. Now that you mention it, I might have to go back and re-read 1984 again. Been close to 15 years since the last time I read it…

      • Yaxue C. says:

        Chopstik, I challenge you to find a paragraph or page in 1984 that can cause me to laugh so hard. If not, you’ll have to rewrite it 🙂

        “I’m laughing so hard at this stupidity” but I’m not crying inside–I am saving my precious tears for better use 🙂

      • Chopstik says:

        I’ll bear that in mind when I do get around to re-reading it again… 😉

  10. Chopstik says:

    When using the term “nationalism” as it relates to China, are we discussing ethnic or state-level nationalism? For the government wants to use it in terms of state-level nationalism but I have sensed it on a more personal level as ethnic nationalism, particularly as it pertains to the Han ethnicity (this can be most clearly seen in some of the far-western regions of China and in dealings with some of the minorities and their relations with Han Chinese inside of China). Either way, nationalism can be a good force for bringing together disparate peoples at a state-level but can rip people apart on the other level. And it’s not just in China that it has occurred – world history is replete with examples on both sides.

    The problem lies at least in part with the Communist Party. With the failure of Mao’s policies to create a better situation for China, the party was forced to reconsider its legitimacy after his passing. Deng recognized that allowing for some capitalist input would help to raise the country and thus his “doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” aphorism. But it also began a recurring theme that China has been abused by foreigners and “we” are a Chinese government – in short, China is run by Chinese, even if they are tyrannical. This allowed for the fostering of the nationalist movement that has shown its ugly side at times (demonstrations against Japanese entities in particular, not to mention more recent events such as the fights between Han and Tibetan/Uighur/pick your minority at various locales throughout the country). And, because the government hopes to co-opt that sense of nationalism to bolster its claim to continued rule, it finds itself pandering to some of those same sentiments in order to maintain its rule. Heck, such actions can be found in the US, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and almost anywhere else there is more than one ethnic group.

    However, the Chinese government has now placed itself as the standard bearer for nationalistic ideals while at the same time struggling to find its place in an international structure that generally does not hew to such ideals. While there are many who hope to see the Party fall and be replaced by a “democratic” leadership, it is worth bearing in mind that whatever replaces it may be even more antagonistic to Western ideals of leadership based on the rise of nationalism in China and its citizenry. In other words, can the government continue to foster and control the nationalism that it sought to create in order to maintain its power in the first place or will it be replaced by the monster it has created?

  11. Heiney says:

    Hu’s Quote:
    “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration. We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”

    Change ‘China’ to ‘Germany’ and it sounds a lot like 1936 all over again.

  12. Yes, let’s try another Cultural Revolution to counter the influence of the dastardly Western countries who are trying to keep China down. Because the last Cultural Revolution worked out so well.

    • Huax says:

      Yes indeed, another Cultural Revolution is exactly what the West wants to impose on China. Destroy the Four Olds! Bring in New Western Culture!

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        The rhetoric of both of these responses is a bit heavy, but reading @beaufortninja my first thought was that one would be hard pressed to have planned as thoroughgoing a cultural r as has occurred over the last 30 years. The means are different, but the result is the same. My sense is that revolution in this sense is Hu’s target. I think others here have made this point in other words.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Oops. Make that r?evolution

  13. […] about the US, by Damien Ma. Counters the coverage of Hu’s speech earlier this week (my take on it). While I agree with his point that Hu’s speech is targeted at Party members instead of […]

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