Friday, November 5, 2010

What is China? It's all in the name.

I've had little time for blog posting recently as I face the pressure of looming dissertation deadlines. But today I cannot hold my tongue as I observe the incredible audacity of a China that either does not understand the impact of its behavior on the rest of the world, or has simply decided it no longer cares.

I have been a scholar and watcher of China for a couple of decades, so by now, very little China does really surprises me; however, China's recent (over)reaction to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize has caught me off guard. It caught me off guard, not because I never expected this kind of behavior from China, but because I just didn't expect it so soon. The latest news is that China's Foreign Ministry has delivered letters to other foreign embassies in Oslo, warning the representatives of other countries not to attend the awards ceremony for Liu Xiaobo.

Yesterday, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai made the warning even more explicit (from BBC website):
The choice before some European countries and others is clear and simple: do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China's judicial system or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people? ... They have to make the choice according to their own judgment. If they make the wrong choice, they have to bear the consequences.
Excuse me? Is this the same China that constantly rants about people intervening in its internal affairs? Whatever happened to the China that was clever and reserved, the China that was supposed to be, according to Deng Xiaoping "concealing its capabilities and biding its time"?

What happened was that China decided the current recession affecting the West was the signal that China may now return to its rightful place as the "central kingdom".

Central kingdom? Yes, central, not middle. For years I have been trying (apparently ineffectively) to convince people that "middle kingdom" is not the proper translation of 中国. While the 中 may be translated as "middle", as in a physical location, it may also be translated as "central," as in importance, as in 中央政府 (central government).

This may be difficult for non-Chinese to understand, especially non-Chinese speakers, but to the Chinese, the name of the country has a meaning: it's not about a place, it's not even (primarily) about a race, it's about importance. When one is taught from the earliest age that the country in which he was fortunate enough to be born is the world's central kingdom, that means something.

To the rest of the world, it's just "China", a word applied
centuries ago to a far way country due to one of its valued talents -- making really nice pottery.

I mean no disrespect for China. If anything, my respect for China has only grown over the years as I have spent much time in China and as I continue to learn much about the place and the people on a daily basis. My purpose today is to say that, if you, like me, are surprised at China's latest hubristic display, don't be. China is simply being what it is: the central kingdom. And that will never change, not as long as its name is 中国.

The difference now is that China's 150 years of misfortune at the hands of foreigners is over, and it is no longer the "central kingdom" in name only. And if the rest of the world refuses to recognize that, well, "
they have to bear the consequences."


  1. While I agree with your main point that as China's power grows, it is reviving its ancient hubris, I think you stretched a few arguments too far.

    "When one is taught from the earliest age that the country in which he was fortunate enough to be born is the world's central kingdom"
    - This is just not true. Chinese people don't consider themselves lucky to be born in a country where per capita GDP is just over $3000, and their personal and judicial rights are easily trampled by the authorities. That's why most people would emigrate if they had the chance (there is a poll on this somewhere on the Internet if you're willing to search for it--it's something like 70%). If a child in China is taught this, they would be cured of this illusion in a few short years. The leaders might be fortunate, but most people are not.
    - Not to point fingers or anything, but Americans are more likely to be taught this, and they have better reason to believe it.

    A minor quibble--China is not named after porcelain, it's the other way around (think "chinaware").

    I guess I am somewhat confused by your conflation of China's name with its sense of self importance. It makes for great symbolism, but superficially so, and does not explain China's "chest thumping". China has been called Zhongguo for quite a long time, and only now has started to assert its own interests in recent history, but only because it has the power to do so.

    The name "America" doesn't mean anything, but that doesn't prevent ideologies of grandeur such as Manifest Destiny, "American exceptionalism", and being "the indispensable nation". I would argue that the name has only historical relevance, and it only matters as much as it affects the psychology of the people, and nobody in China wastes much time thinking about what it means. It's just a name for a geographical location. Just like nobody really thinks of France as the "lawful country", Germany as "the virtuous country", or heaven forbid, Japan as "the origin of the Sun".

    Since the Chinese language has such a long history, it has many euphemisms for itself. More revealing about modern China is the name Shenzhou, now used only ironically.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. You make some good points, which I will address in order.

    I suppose the objection in your first point is my use of the word “fortunate”. My meaning there is that the history taught to all school children is one that inculcates the idea that being Chinese is about the best one could hope for in this world. I am well aware of China’s poverty, and did not mean to imply that everyone in China feels rich. That would be preposterous.

    Obviously I am not Chinese, so I didn’t experience this education first-hand, but I have heard enough about it from native Chinese that I have no reason to doubt it.

    Your final sentence of that paragraph in which you state that “the leaders might be fortunate” is really the key here. While others may not be wealthy, the leaders certainly are, and they are the ones in charge of China’s foreign policy.

    As for your arguments about America… If you’ve read other posts in this blog or followed my twitter stream, you know that I am pretty critical of the US as well. Today’s post wasn’t about the US.

    I am not attributing China’s recent “chest thumping” to some sort of newly discovered sense of self, and I think I alluded to that in the first paragraph. The surprise to me isn’t China’s behavior as much as the timing of it. I simply expected the Chinese to hold their tongues longer.

    The purpose of this post was to say that I think the attitude driving a lot of China’s recent behavior is far more deeply rooted than the sudden realization that China has the second largest economy.

    You are, of course, welcomed to disagree with my “conflation”, but this is not some idea that just came to me on a whim. I have been turning this idea over for a number of years, and I have discussed it with quite a few native Chinese to get their reactions. Of course, these had to be people who also spoke English pretty well as they needed to understand the difference between “middle” and “central”. While I will admit that some seemed a little skeptical, an overwhelming majority of the Chinese I have discussed this with told me it seems about right.

    Mind you, I’m a scholar too (I’m assuming you’re a scholar, based on your depth of knowledge), so I am, as a rule, hesitant to just throw a theory out there until I am satisfied that it has merit.

  3. you know my mystical bent, so i won't be too embarrassed just to throw this into the discussion ... in short, mystics say that "the yellow race" was one of the first root races on the planet (a couple of earlier ones evolved on to other arenas). there is a luminous energy within the culture, and this will flower as a layer of fear is peeled away during the next couple of decades.

    this nyt article about the return of taoism is very superficial, but i could feel the spiritual renaissance that is coming to china in my first days there two years ago. it is the auras of the 20 year olds in shanghai that was the first clue.

    social, and human, and cultural evolution is a centuries long process, we only get about 80 years within our view. probably the way to deal with china is the same as dealing with any other country in the world. emphasize the good, play down the dysfunctional. and anyway, what doesn't serve the large rhythm evolution can't last.

  4. one more point ... i see china's recent stance as the actions of someone who actually does want to fit into the global world, but doesn't understand the rules. and probably, to me, they are indeed right to see the nobel "peace" prize as a purely political event.

  5. Relative to the bureaucrats who occupy the Central Government, three simple questions, namely, (i) have they yet declared the war against the West to be over?, (ii) if so, was there a declared winner?, and (iii) if so, from their perspective, who won?

  6. Thanks for your comments, gregory. Since you know I'm a political scientist, you also know that I'm puzzling over what to make of your comments. :)

    I don't want to discount the mystical, but I have to admit that it is beyond my understanding. I struggle enough to make sense out of what I can see and measure. On the other hand, I have sat in grad seminars and watched my classmates wince when I mentioned cultural differences as significant factors in explaining political phenomena. I guess we're all at different places on our paths to enlightenment.

    As to the political nature of the peace prize, if that wasn't in doubt before, I think that doubt was removed last year as they handed the prize to Obama before he'd had a chance to lift a finger toward furthering peace.

    As to whether China wants to "fit in", I have my doubts. From their perspective, this world was already theirs (they being the center of it and all). We barbarians just had the run of it for a brief time (150 years or so), but now they're back.

    I think they've been willing to play by the rules to an extent as they followed Deng's instructions to "bide their time", but I believe the ultimate intention is to reshape the world according to their needs. And who could blame them! That's what all great powers have tried to do throughout history.

    They'll keep the institutions they like, reform the ones they can, and kill the rest. Or, at least that's the plan. The US and Western Europe have no intention of making it easy for them.

  7. Thanks, Mao Ruiqi. You pose some interesting questions!

    My first inclination was to say "what war? They never declared any war." But having thought about it a little more, perhaps there has been an undeclared war similar to the Cold War in which there was a battle of ideologies.

    In the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama essentially declared the Cold War over with his, "The End of History and the Last Man." And, of course, the world's liberal democracies were more than eager to swallow his logic.

    Along the same lines, perhaps, as you suggest, a similar "cold" war has been waged between democratic and state-led capitalism for the past 30 years or so.

    All of that is to say that, yes, I agree that, from the perspective of *some* Chinese, there may have been a "war" of sorts over which kind of capitalism would triumph.

    As to whether the bureaucrats have declared a winner, I have little insight. I feel more comfortable speculating about what the politicians may be thinking, and my guess is that, yes, there are probably at least a handful on the politburo (maybe more) who think China's "win" is in the bag. Certainly the senior leaders of the PLA seem to think so.


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