Understanding China

eating dog in China

Two great, absolutely must read posts over at The Useless Tree Blog. One is Understanding China — or not and the other is More on Understanding China. Both ask whether it is possible for non-Chinese people to understand China and both answer in the affirmative:

The point is that there is no one perspective, inside or outside of a culture, that will yield uniformly valid and reliable knowledge.  Knowledge is always a product of the interaction and collision of multiple sources and perspectives.  That is why it is so important, insofar as the production of knowledge is concerned, to try to maintain as open and free-flowing an environment as possible.  Distortions and obstructions are inevitable; the only way around them is through access to more information, more analysis, more points of view.

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If there is a problem with knowledge about China, it is less a matter of how some Americans get things wrong (which is obviously true: some Americans do get some things wrong; and at times many Americans get some things wrong); the much larger problem is the limitations on knowledge within China itself.

These are two very thoughtful posts and I urge everyone to read them.

And if you want to read more on somewhat similar issues, check out Looking Out Airplane Windows In China Is For Grizzled Old China Hands ONLY.

What do you think?

22 responses to “Understanding China”

  1. Read them both and they are great. I ended up reading about 50 more articles on the same blog. You have got me addicted. Professor Crane is awesome!

  2. The main reason Chinese say foreigners cannot understand China is because they themselves do not understand China. So when a foreigner says they understand China they simply conclude the foreigner is simple minded and most of the time they are absolutely correct. How much more have they studied it’s history compared to the average foreigner living in or out of China while speaking the language? Yes, a foreigner can understand China. Is it easy or common? Certainly not, especially when most humans lack the skill of objective self reflection let alone accurately mirroring a foreign culture as different from their own as China.

  3. Any foreigner who understands the many reasons why Chinese people say “foreigners cannot understand China” has a pretty good understanding of China…

  4. Also, 1) it is by definition that a foreigner cannot understand China which keeps the dialogue internal, 2) a lack of openness with regard to subjects, bredth, depth and who you speak your mind to limit understanding and knowledge, 3) it a convenient tool to say “You don’t understand China” in order to fit the facts to the story or the story to the facts when confronted, i.e. You’re not going to like what is about to happen or is happening and you would do better if you understood China yet that is impossible because you are a foreigner. Thanks for playing, and 4) many times these statements made by dignitaries (“Americans are simple minded”) are for the mass Chinese public. It is internal dialogue made in a public setting which is a misnomer because everything is internal to China.

  5. “So, he is right in one way: we should all be humble in recognizing that none of us will be able to understand it all. But he is wrong in another way: he should not presume that he, as cultural and, more importantly, political insider, somehow knows best. ”
    And this is why the CCP will fall. Because they think they know best and there is no one holding them accountable. They will drive this train right over the cliff because they think they are endowed with omnipotence and that “no one can understand China”.
    Just wait, its coming

    •  To a Nobel Prize winner in physiology, nobody understands what he or she is doing.  Understanding is a matter of degree and perspective.

  6. Quite a provocative article and I feel I must add some comments:
    First it’s a problem of translation. When Chinese say “you don’t understand China”, “understand” is not just about knowing the facts and a rational analysis, it also includes an element of compassion. Just like when a girl says to her boyfriend “you don’t understand me”, she does not mean that he should memorize her curriculum vita.
    “Americans can understand China just as Chinese can understand the USA”. Well, there is a difference. China has a culture of several thousand years and the different schools that developed during that time still have a strong impact on the daily live of Chinese. But what did the philosophers who lived 2000+ years ago really want to say? Expressions in classic Chinese is very fuzzy and leaves much room for interpretation (people 2000+ years ago lived in a totally different environment, so their way of thinking was totally different than that of modern people). To “understand” old philosophers you need more intuition than logical analysis. Chinese who grow up with these ideas have a totally different way to grasp the essence of Chinese culture than foreign sinologists.
    America had its ancient culture too, but it was radically wiped out by the early colonialists.
    Very obvious: many Chinese learn English, very few Americans learn Chinese, if any foreign language at all. Most Chinese are very interested and well informed about the outside world. In the USA (except the east-cost and the San Francisco area) ignorance about international affairs is shocking.
    Personal experience is always limited, this is true both for Chinese and for foreigners. When comparing Chinese and western politicians, Chinese politicians are regularly traveling through the provinces, speaking with all kinds of people, don’t hesitate to meet even the poorest people and hear their grievance. This is much more important than to be surrounded by highly intellectual “thing tanks”.
    Though the author admits that foreigners may be biased because they grew up in a different political system, the article itself is the best example for such a political bias: “the intellectual environment in China today is seriously restricted, and getting worse”, how does the author come to this conclusion? I don’t know any other country that is discussing so lively and so full of energy about its future like China. A day like a year.
    For what reason ever, American China-watchers like to focus on “dissidents” like Liu Xiaobo who don’t find support in China and are looking for a foreign audience instead. It is not a good approach to understand another country when focussing on extremists.
    Finally, sometimes I think that I have completely understood a certain aspect of China. Then I sleep one night, and when I get up the next morning I have to admit that my knowledge was that of yesterday, that China has completely changed over night.

    •  I live in Los Angeles since 1986.  Ignorance itself is not a deterring factor for an American to express an opinion.

  7. When Wang Qishan writes that Americans are simple people, he misunderstands America. The relevant dichotomy is not between simplicity and sophistication, but between honesty/fairness on one hand, and duplicity/amorality on the other. Sure, Americans may look like dunces to the duplicitous, but he’s missing the point.
    The original quote is below: “It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the Oriental culture. The United States is the world’s number one superpower, and the American people, they’re very simple people.”

  8. I love this topic! The Useless Tree makes a good point that ‘China’ is escaping the Chinese in modernisation – but which culture has not experienced this?
    What does it mean to say ‘you don’t understand China’?
    1. You don’t share our values, so you don’t agree with us, so you don’t understand us. You’re either one of us, or one of them. This is the superficial argument and it is very frustrating to meet. It is unanswerable and always right. You don’t support the CPC, so you’re not Chinese. But is this the end of the story? I have heard the ‘you don’t understand China!’ claim made in many situations where this analysis simply doesn’t apply (namely, when discussing family).
    2. In the mind, us Westerners usually place great value on propositional knowledge (I know that Beijing is in China). Experiential knowledge (I know how to get to Beijing, as in I actually can do it) is valued in material terms but not in the mind. You don’t understand China because you can’t think like a Chinese – I know X, Y and Z so I know China. No, because despite your knowledge of facts, you can’t understand China. Chinese thinking is different.
    3. The West has a tradition of Aristotelian logic – X = not Y. Therefore X and Y cannot exist together. We have a problem understanding how a particle can be a wave at the same time. China does not have such a tradition. Ying and Yang coexist inside each other. Contradictions and opposites go together to make China. ‘Love me, love my family’ – the good and the bad are a whole, ascending into the mirky depths of history. They are not good or bad until you judge. When you judge, you reveal your position.
    ‘China does not do enough to help its poor’ – so you think to judge for China? What is enough? Do more to help, and the problem is solved? How can you be so condescending to judge who is poor? Instead, examine the trajectory, look at the whole and the parts, where do you fit in?
    I commented in a previous post about the lack of narrative in Chinese culture (http://www.chinalawblog.com/2011/05/on_the_difficultiesinjustice_of_china_business_have_at_it.html) – does a trend explain anything? It may be a useful prism, but it cannot be separated from everything else. Can you explain China? Is there a totalising concept or narrative for such a culture? It’s own cultural products suggest not.
    You think to understand China. You claim to understand China. Anyone claiming to understand China does not understand China.
    I think this position approaches truth.
    You protest that this makes no sense? Saying you don’t understand China implies that they do? I refer you back to the Chinese lack of obeisance to Aristotelian logic.
    4. Americans (Westerners) are simple? It is not controversial to claim that exteriority is valued extremely highly in the West (not to say it isn’t too, in China). But compare Chinese with Western positions re. lying/truth telling, family/friends, sex, work, and justice. There is a ‘funny’ video (on a Chinese website I couldn’t hope to reach again if I tried!) of Jiang Zemin being asked by a Hong Kongese reporter on his support for the HK leader at the time of the handover. Jiang went crazy, refusing to be drawn, stating ‘you are too naive!’ Were he drawn, he would be trapped by his words. Words are still important in China. You can’t say something rude, then say ‘only joking!’ and expect to be forgiven.
    5. To really understand China requires a process similar to the one I have gone through above – comparing China with the West. Comparing Chinese positions with your own. Many, many comments are made and articles written about China without a reflective criticism of the West.
    When criticising China, think first whether your thoughts and values are institutionalised, patriotic or tied to Western concepts and tropes. If so, you will only be able to judge China from the outside. Western culture has some excellent criticisms for China, but if these criticisms are offered blindly with no thought or criticism of their foundations then they will be dictarorial and offensive.
    An example – the Chinese government imprisons and tortures large numbers of people for various reasons, some justifiable some not. This is the exercise of arbitrary authority. Western governments (America in particular) imprisons vast numbers of people for various reasons defined in law. These people are imprisoned for legally defined reasons – on the exercise of reasonable authority. Our laws are made by elections, but is the power exercised in any less arbitrary fashion than in China? Is the right to bear arms a rationally justifiable law today? Is adherence to it rational or arbitrary? Is the ‘three-strikes’ rule arbitrary?
    The Chinese will look at the result and say that America is a violent police state where no family can feel safe and many feel obliged to be armed. Americans will look at the process and say that justice is done in America but not China. Both positions have much to offer each other – is a just process worth the imprisonment of millions? Does the result of a prosperous and stable China justify the means?
    Many Chinese and Americans will legitimately disagree on these questions, the problem is to create the possibility of an honest and intelligent debate around these positions. Have you done all you can do?

    •  It is an often encountered reaction that among chinese who live in Mainland China, if they disagree with you and you don’t live there, their reaction like Pavlovian Reflex is:  you don’t understand China.

  9. I will agree that there are many foreigners who do not possess a strong understanding or meaningful insight into Chinese culture, history, politics, philosophy, or language. However, that does not mean it is not possible for foreigners to achieve the same understanding of China as that of a native Chinese person.
    Essentially, to contend that no foreigner can understand China is to operate from this premise: there exists a mystical and entirely unquantifiable “understanding” that is readily accessible to 1.3 billion people by accident of birth and cultural osmosis, but this same “understanding” is completely beyond the grasp of everyone else on Earth.
    That is the contention one makes when one argues that foreigners cannot understand China. If one disagrees with that contention, than one must admit that some foreigners CAN understand China, which of course must mean that an understanding of China is accessible to those outside of China’s borders.
    Of course, I’m sure there’s no place for my “Western logic” in this argument…

  10. which Chinese knows more than which foreigner? I am a person of Hong Kong chinese origin. Am I a foreigner when considering knowing China? Many of my mainland chinese friends consider that I don’t understand China. Are they right? I consider many Pekingese don’t understand Chengdu. Many Shanghaiese don’t understand Fukien. In a nutshell, knowing or understanding is a matter of degree. Some foreigners understand China better than the chinese. Some chinese understand America better than the Americans too.

  11. There have always been a few non-Chinese that understood China better than most. One example was Sir Robert Hart who lived and worked in China from 1854 to 1908. Lin Yutang mentioned Robert Hart and a few others that understood China in his book, “My Country and My People”, which is worth reading if you want to learn more about the Chinese.
    In fact, Harvard University Press published Robert Hart’s journals and letters to help others gain a better understanding of the Chinese and China.
    In addition, the Queen’s University of Belfast, where Hart earned his BA, has a Website on Robert Hart and offers some of that information online.
    China scholars consider Hart the godfather of China’s modernism.

  12. In Dynastic China, the Jesuit priest who came to China were the best documentary compilers about China. Later, the European scholars came. Then the Americans and Japanese. Most scholastic researchers who are not ideologically biased have been written by non-chinese or those Chinese educated in the western fashion. Are their observations influenced by their orientation? Of course. Now there are Mainland scholars who are either trained in the west and stay in the west and produce literature about China. They are good in the chinese language and don’t rely on translations. How good their research have been? It varies. I do believe a good understanding of the language leads to credible research. Can you trust the research of somebody who doesn’t speak a word of English to tell you that he or she is an expert on Shakespeare?

  13. A foreign scholar who writes about china, he may not have the same linguistic ability as a native chinese speaker. It is expected. His contribution to scholarship is that he can use a comparative perspective to analyze and present the issues of china in a manner the indigenous scholar is not able to do. I am based in the USA but I regularly lecture in Mainland Chinese universities and professional society like lawyers and accountants. I was interviewed by Xinhua many times. I asked the interviewer the difference between a Mainland scholar who is educated in the west now returned to china to live and a westerner scholar is based overseas and only visits china, how do they differ. His view is refreshing. He said: When you live in china, even though you are educated abroad, there are things you dare not mention or say with the same kind of candor. I also remember that remark.

  14. Understanding china is not the same as being recognized in certain circles to understand china. Many an academic person or journalist write about china but their knowledge is superficial or distorted. I usually compare books written by foreign scholars who write on subjects equally covered by Chinese scholars. I am amazed even those big names in most prestigious universities who earn a good living on the trade are so inadequate or unqualified. I am glad that I don’t have to share the same platform with them since I have always been an untenured adjunct professor who teach as a hobby. I just smile when they profess to know things they don’t. After all I am ethnically Chinese and need not be unnecessarily confrontational.

  15. there is a difference between those who understand china and others who are recognized by certain circles such as the academia as who understand china. There are people who know a lot about china but never make any public statements. There are others who know very little and say a lot. I have met business people who know a lot about what goes on in china but never make known to the public what they know. I seek their advice frequently. Likewise in China, if one goes beyond the coastal cities and meet with local people, they will tell you in private what china is really like and what you learn can be very different from what you read or review in the media. With the internet and blogs now, people are ready to reveal more.

  16. There are a substantial number of Chinese, whether in China or even living overseas, who believe that whoever isn’t Chinese and writes about China is not worth reading. I once recommended Frank Dikotter’s book, Mao’s Great Famine, to a Chinese person living in Australia. He said whatever is written by a non-Chinese about China he would not read. this is not the only time I have heard that said.

  17. China studies is in a sense unique. I have not heard people say that you are not British therefore you shouldn’t comment or study British affairs or history. Not even another major country or culture like the Indian have the same kind of hang-up like China studies.

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