Attempts to define the Chinese character often lead to lazy stereotypes and a failure to engage with the complexity of this vast nationby Ben Chu / October 3, 2013 / Leave a comment
“Chineseness”. What is it? Don’t ask me. I’m half-Chinese myself but I confess I find that an impossible question to answer. If I close my eyes and think about my Chinese family members, friends and acquaintances I still can’t see a clear picture. Indeed, the more Chinese people I see in my mind’s eye the harder the job becomes. They’re all different you see: different ambitions, different natures, different personalities. I can no more describe the typical Chinese character than I can define the typical British character.
And my uncertainty is based only on the “Han” Chinese people that I’ve come across. This is a land with at least 56 different ethnic “nations” ranging from Manchurians in the North East, to Uighurs in the far West to Miao in the South. If you can sum up what all these people from manifestly different cultures have in common you’re smarter than me.
Yet a remarkable number of people feel that they’re equal to the task of nailing down Chineseness. Tim Clissold, a British businessman who worked for many years in the country and who wrote a lively tale about his experiences in 2004 called Mr China, tells us that Chineseness is “innate, something that you are born with”. Apparently “it can’t be changed by something as ephemeral as a passport or a mere lifetime spent abroad.” So what exactly is it? Of central importance, according to Clissold, is the character-based writing system that provides “a link with the past quite unlike that provided by European languages”.
Others suggest Chineseness means a kind of superiority complex. “Believing themselves to be unique, the Chinese find it almost impossible to empathise” says Prospect’s own Mark Kitto. Others see Chineseness as a special moral system and a practical approach to life. “Their mindset emphasises knowledge over might, defence over offence, skill over brute force, concentration over impulse” according to the Shanghai-based advertising man Tom Doctoroff.
For many people, Chinesenesss is defined by an obsessive attitude towards education. The Chinese-American scholar Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother described her own aggressive…