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The crisis of Chinese culture

Corina Zhang 2017-01-22 14:20:34

I read this book after seven or eight years of living in Taiwan. I had known about it for a while, but Taiwanese bookstores, usually well-stocked with English language books about China and Taiwan, did not carry it. No wonder. I finally found someone with a copy and then took it to a printer to get my own copy - the Taiwanese way. The Taiwanese believe, not in copyright, but copyleft. Get it? I underlined so many passages in the thin volume it looked like it had been in the custody of a chop-wielding Chinese bank teller. Nearly every assertion and anecdote resonated. Bo Yang said what I had been thinking, but was too afraid to say it, except to other Westerners.
If a Westerner had penned this book, they would have been branded a racist, or been accused of not understanding "the real China," a common Sinophile charge. But because Bo Yang was Chinese - born in China and later a resident of Taiwan - and because he was a well-known historian, writer, journalist, etc. (he headed the Taiwan chapter of Amnesty International and was an advisor to the Taiwanese government after he did a spell in prison as a dissident) nobody can say boo about this book, not least of all because every sentence is lethally accurate.

Because of the title, I had thought The Ugly Chinaman was a sort of angry tirade, but it is not. It is a well argued denunciation of the ills of Chinese culture. But a neophyte likely would not understand; it helps to live in Chinese society for a while before reading.

TUC begins with a dialogue between a doctor and TB patient. The patient accuses the doctor of fabricating the diagnosis and says it is doctors like him who harm the motherland. The patient barks, "It's people like you who are to blame for China's problems. You make foreigners look down on Chinese people because you give them the idea that we're all suffering from TB. Traitors like you suck the blood of the Chinese people and kiss the asses of the barbarian devils. God will strike you dead! Imperial court guards! (coughs) Take him away!"

It's a reference to the lack of introspection and the proclivity to deny and ignore serious problems. We see examples of this all the time in the news. Villagers say their water has been contaminated by a nearby factory, and local officials accuse them of treason. Recrimination is commonplace. 

Problems snowball. No one wants to see them; others are afraid to speak up.The book ends with a series of refutations, too. Bo Yang published a series of angry responses written by other "academics" in opposition to his thesis that Chinese culture is, and I quote, primitive, and that Chinese people need to Westernize for the benefit of all. The book's format, then, is very clever: an angry denial, a series of propositions and examples that outline a damning thesis, and more angry denials. Bo Yang knew that no matter how well-reasoned or well-supported his argument, Chinese culture is, to many, beyond reproach. By criticizing Chinese culture, you are only shaming your ancestors, who created it.The Ugly Chinaman is a very bold and interesting book. It is a brave man who can look at his own culture in the eye and say, "You're sick. You need help." Apparently, when this book was published, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in East Asia. Anyone who has spent time in Chinese society ought to read it.Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World

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