Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Two conversations

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Last month I had a couple interesting conversations within a few days of each other, about how the Chinese think. Frustrating, but interesting.

The first was with an old friend (Chinese), and we covered one of my favorite areas of complaint: why the Chinese think that hypothermia is “healthy”. My friend’s position was that Chinese people “just feel” that “fresh air” is healthy (i.e., that opening all the windows in sub-zero temperatures is a good thing), and that Westerners “just feel” that being warm is healthy. (She said this through a hacking cough that she assured me wasn’t bad, but was, in a freezing apartment where she refused to turn the heat on.) This is a typical Chinese conversational tactic — they are not even slightly concerned with arriving at the truth, they only want to find “harmony”, that state in which, by the mysterious and complex calculus of “face”, both sides lose as little face as possible. (This is someone with a science degree who spent over a year in the US, by the way.)

I broached the idea of insulation (another hair-brained business idea) and witnessed another dance of evasion. I explained the concept to her, and immediately she said it would be too expensive for the Chinese people. I said it was, in fact, cheap, and she responded that it must not work very well, then. (As she poured hot water out of a 12 RMB thermos.) This is another maddening tactic, refusing to credit any positive connotation whatsoever to something that the Chinese culture has not already adopted. If the Chinese do it, then it’s good. If they don’t, then it cannot be. And no matter how many reasons you come up with to support your side, they will find something that lets them disbelieve you, no matter how far-fetched or ignorant.

Two days later I had a chat with the Architect’s wife, who was born here, but just got her Australian citizenship. One of the topics we discussed was the philosophical difference between East and West. I thumbnailed the Primacy of Consciousnes vs. the Primacy of Existence for her, and her reaction to it was most interesting. She agred China was the former, and America the later, but it didn’t even begin to occur to her that the two principles are antithetical — she spke ser5iously of finding a middle ground. Furthermore, she didn’t see either one as good or bad, and didn’t get (or at least didn’t acknowledge) that I did. Granted, I was far from blunt about it.

Another topic covered was my constant agravation at not geting an answer to even the simplest questions I ask. She said that a Chinese person will never answer until he knows why I am asking. Here’s a good example of the passive agression that underlies Chinese culture. I generally ask questions for one of two reasons — usualy it’s because I want the answer, though sometimes I do it to make a point (like “see? You do know this piece of information, but didn’t give it proper consideration”). That’s about it. But to the Chinese, conversation even among friends is all about combat at the level of The Unspoken.

A third point she made, going back to philosophy, was Westerners are always looking for “the essence of things”, where the Chinese don’t believe in “essences”. I didn’t have time to probe her on this to clarify what, precisely, she meant. I tried to draw a distinction betwen platonic idealism and Aristotelian non-contradictory identification (ick, what’s the proper name for this?), but she treated the difference as totally unimportant.

Taken at its most obvious, her statement could be read as meaning that the Chinese are (in general) anti-conceptual, but that’s clearly not right. The Art of War, e.g., is an example of brilliant high-level abstract though. On the other hand, the only people who have ever answered my questions in terms of essentials have been Western-educated, and even with them, it’s usualy a wrestling match to get to that point. (There have been a few exceptions. Very few.)

The more I learn about Chinese culture, the more I despair of ever seeing it transforming into the good that it has the potential to be. Not in my lifetime, it seems.

No, that doesn’t mean I’m leaving. Quite the opposite, in fact.


Written by [IMH]

17 April 2006 at 10:58 am

Posted in Culture, Life in China

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  1. China has had a cultural “Not Invented Here” complex going back centuries. It’s gotten them into trouble before.

    Steven Den Beste

    18 April 2006 at 11:39 pm

  2. Try asking your question in Chinese next time. Or try to carry a conversation with a Frenchman in French and see how far/deep you can go yourself.


    19 April 2006 at 11:19 am

  3. Steven: Indeed — the first encounter between a Chinese emperor and British merchants was marked by such an attitude, and gave rise to the first use of “arrogant bastard” to describe the clash between Western and Chinese cultures.

    Brian: My Chinese is, alas, still quite wretched. Posing philosophical questions in it is untenable at this :)time. And I speak no French at all, and don’t plan to start. I can read Hugo and Dumas in translation, thankyewveddymuch.


    21 April 2006 at 12:00 pm

  4. To put it bluntly, Chinese culture is full of “social metaphysicians”.
    Lu Xun got the essentially cannibalistic nature of Chinese society right, symbolically, in his haunting short story “Diary of a Madman.”

    See also the philosophical comparison between western and Chinese thought in the following paper I wrote a few years back:


    4 May 2006 at 8:44 pm

  5. I must track down that story. Lu Xun’s pretty big in Shanghai, especially translated into English.


    5 May 2006 at 10:13 am

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