Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 1, Issue 1
A Note from Andrew
Welcome to my first "Andrew Singer Talks About China" Newsletter!
My goal is to share my lifelong study and passion for China and Chinese culture and the Chinese people in order to be a bridge between America and China and to help with cross-cultural understanding and communication.
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Who are the Chinese who have created the second-largest economy in the world? From the tatters of a broken society, the People’s Republic of China has risen to incredible heights in forty, short years since relations were normalized with the United States in 1979.
Approximately 1,400,000,000 people live within the boundaries of modern-day China. There are approximately 328 million Americans and 446 million inhabitants of the European Union. Together this is just over half the population of China. And these numbers do not include the Chinese diaspora.
The Chinese know more about us than we know about them. @David Moser puts it in perspective. He notes that “[t]he result of the digital and Internet revolution in China is that Chinese citizens are afforded a front row seat to our domestic debates and culture wars. Information-savvy Chinese have not only studied our history, our politics and our language, they have also, in a virtual sense, spent time in our lecture halls and living rooms, overhearing our conversations, listening in on our arguments, and observing how we think about the rest of the world. But most of all, this means that Chinese have spent much time listening to Americans talk to other Americans about China. After countless hours of hearing presidents, politicians, academics, talk show hosts, news commentators and other public figures talking about their country, the average culturally aware Chinese person has a reasonably good grasp of the range of opinions in the US. By contrast, most Americans in general know little about China’s history and culture, and have spent virtually no time exploring China’s media world. The inevitable result is that Americans tend to know scarcely anything about China, and even less about what the Chinese think about America” (“A Fearful Asymmetry: Covid-19 and America’s Information Deficit with China,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, July 2020, Page 3).
We must understand the Chinese in order to understand how to move forward with them and perhaps to understand ourselves better.
China measures her history in millennia. America measures hers in terms of a few centuries. Just as America’s boundaries grew as the country developed, so too have China’s boundaries regularly contracted and expanded over time. The China we see today assumed this basic configuration in the late eighteenth century.
The people ruling what was known as China from time to time throughout history have been both native Chinese and foreign powers. Often there were competing claims of “We are the true China.” However, notwithstanding whatever China was geographically, for much of history that which was called “China” was more often than not the leading power in the world.
To many Chinese today, they are reclaiming their rightful position in the world, a position that was most recently lost in the nineteenth century. This fundamental frame of reference drives much of current Chinese thought and action. @Michael Schuman hammers this point in his new book, Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World (2020):
“The Chinese have never been comfortable living under other peoples’ rules or cultures. Their civilization was at the center of everything; they set the terms of their engagement with the rest of the world, not the other way around. Chinese ideas, products, and institutions flowed outward; the world came to China seeking its wealth, its books, its philosophy, and its wonders. The Chinese self-perception of exceptionalism, that their civilization was superior and thus deserved to be on top of a world hierarchy, had not faltered for nearly all of its lengthy history. Only when China was weakened did the Chinese grudgingly accept the dictates and norms of others….Each time, the Chinese watched and waited for their moment to set the world right-side up, and as soon as they regained their usual strength, they began reasserting their own world order, where China again reigned supreme” (Page 308).
This concept of the Chinese ruling over 天下, tian xia, what @Howard French translates as “Everything under the heavens,” was historically central to the Chinese mindset in dealing with the world and the barbarians who dwelt outside of the Middle Kingdom (“Central Lands” in Michael Schuman’s words).
The past forty years have seen the United States and China transition into strategic competition. In these troubled times, it is not hard to envision us becoming “strategic enemies,” but this is not preordained. Though competitors may not be the best of pals, a healthy dose of mutual respect can facilitate peaceful co-existence.
Views of China run the spectrum. I have an American friend who has lived in Asia for more than three decades. He believes that China and America will likely be enemies at some point (and possibly sooner rather than later) because the current rulers of China have staked their leadership on forcefully reclaiming the heritage described by Mr. Schuman and now is that time.
I have another American friend in the United States who asks why China is not in fact seen as a friend to the U.S. since normalization through their purchasing and holding of more than one trillion dollars of American debt, through providing factories and workers to allow Americans to power their consumer economy with inexpensive goods, and by generally not complaining about social and cultural issues that rock American society.
For the moment, let’s take all three positions at face value--we have been and can continue to be friends, we are in competition, we will be adversaries. What do they have in common? In all three, a clear-eyed and sophisticated understanding and awareness of who the Chinese are and what they want is critical to the analysis.
Chinese Today (Redux)
Just as all Americans are not their government, so too all Chinese are not the Chinese Communist Party. This does not mean, though, that these Americans and these Chinese think the same, want all of the same things, and will act (and not act) the same. We often won’t. But even when we do, we may not.
We do all want:
A good life for ourselves, our families, and our societies.
But our different histories, cultures, and priorities color how we conceive of each of these desires.
In seeking these goals, Americans by and large focus on individual freedoms in large part unfettered by government rule, regulation, and dictate. Our tradition is grassroots. Americans believe that our form of societal structure and governance is the best and can serve as a model to others.
In seeking these same goals, Chinese by and large focus on societal stability and collective effort. The Chinese tradition is top-down. The Chinese believe that their form of societal structure and governance is the best and can serve as a model to others.
We say we want many of the same things, but how we view them and act on them often come into conflict. This potential for conflict and for conflict that may unravel escalates if we do not have a mutual understanding of each other.
Communications and connections should be encouraged.
There are Chinese-language podcasts on current American and world affairs produced in the West that have both Western and Eastern audiences.
There are also English-language podcasts that discuss Chinese culture, society, politics, language, history, and more.
We need to pay attention.
Chinese snuff bottles come in a myriad of materials, shapes, colors, designs, and symbolism. One form consists of enameled glass bottles from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries known as 古月轩, Guyue Xuan (Ku Yueh Hsuan), Old Moon Pavilion.
Universally esteemed as being exquisite and rare (and thus expensive), they are also mired in myth and mystery. Opinions on what Guyue Xuan is and means are rife. To make matters more confusing, there is also a form of elegant porcelain ware known as Guyue Xuan, which was likely an imitation of admiration after the original glass bottles.
Here are four theories on why the elusive Guyue Xuan is so named (with thanks to the @International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society):
When you combine Gu and Yue, you get Hu (胡). There was an accomplished glass artist by the name of Hu who worked in an Imperial glass factory in Beijing. He made these bottles in a studio that he cleverly named for himself.
But wait, Hu is also a homonym for fox and the component parts of the word for fox can also be interpreted as old moon. The fox (spirit) is a mischievous, cunning character who, like Lord Voldemort, cannot be named. This theory has it that Guyue Xuan is a sly allusion to the secret spaces (known as “fox chambers”) in which Chinese elites stored their most secret possessions.
Forget Mr. Hu and that-which-cannot-be-named. There was in fact a pavilion named Guyue Xuan located near the Qianlong Emperor’s eighteenth-century private residence in the Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace northwest of Beijing (which was destroyed in 1860). This Pavilion was surrounded by water that reflected the moon like mirrored glass. And there happened to also be a glass factory in this Palace. The name thus represents the final destination of these snuff bottles.
No, that’s not it. Guyue Xuan was the name of a private, commercial studio in Beijing separate from the Palace which produced high-quality porcelain and glass snuff bottles that had a distinctly Imperial flavor to them, even if not attributed formally to the Imperial Court.
Asian Digital Library. A site in both French and English, this is a treasure trove of digital books and a researchable database (dissertations, periodicals, films, soundtracks, and more).
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