In search of 'Chineseness'

Attempts to define the Chinese character often lead to lazy stereotypes and a failure to engage with the complexity of this vast nation

October 03, 2013
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“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 parenting style as typically Chinese. “Compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children” she wrote. In fact, Chua said her own approach was mild compared to what goes on in mainland China.

Now this all seems to me to be a parade of misleading stereotypes. There are certainly some neurotic and overbearing parents in China. But not all of them. Some Chinese prefer “defence over offence”. But others I’ve known have been pretty damn direct. Do all the Chinese believe themselves to be “unique”? I don’t think so. Some do, undoubtedly. But so, in my experience, do some Americans. Does that make Americans somehow Chinese? Or maybe it means Chinese are really Americans?

What interests me is why China is one of the few places in the world about which it’s still acceptable to throw out these kinds of lazy generalisations. Is it because China remains relatively new to us? Having been shut off for so long during the disastrous Mao era, are we, perhaps, still feeling our way, groping towards an understanding of the complexity of the country?

Actually what I found interesting when researching my book, Chinese Whispers, was how persistent some of the stereotypes of the Chinese have been throughout the ages. Take the superiority complex. “I think that at bottom they almost all believe that China is the greatest nation in the world, and has the finest civilisation” said Bertrand Russell. That was 1922. Or the preference for knowledge over might. “Those who aspire to be cultured frown upon war and would prefer the lowest rank in the philosophical order to the highest in the military” wrote the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in the early 17th century.

What about that unique connection to the past? “They have continued the same with regard to the attire, morals, laws, customs, and manners, without deviating in the least from the wise institutions of their ancient legislators” said Jean-Baptiste Du Halde. In 1738.

These observations were as tendentious when they were first made as they are today. So it’s not that China is a far away land of which we know little. There’s been contact for many centuries. Rather, it’s that Westerners traditionally fail to engage with China on its own terms. Like the well-meaning Western protagonists of Lucy Kirkwood’s fine play Chimerica they look but we don’t really see. Often – too often in my view – people formulate a conception of Chineseness that they already had in their own heads.

Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard About China is Wrong by Ben Chu is published on 10 October by Weidenfeld & Nicolson