Reader on China expresses much that is lovely and winsome in Chinese civilization, as well as not a little that is annoying and even scary.
First, the pretty part: The book itself serves as a showpiece of Chinese visual arts and the lyrical, even lush, writing (largely captured by the translation); lavish illustrations; lovely quotations from Chinese literature; lofty ideals; and evident learning of the author make it a volume worth reading and pondering, as well as slowly enjoyed. I intend to read it again.
With evident pride and delight in his country’s long history and impressive culture, Su introduces us to the land, ethnic groups, history, written language, worldview/ethics/morals, way of life, art & literature, military culture, and contributions of China to the rest of the world.
Along the way, he tells the ancient myths and legends; quotes many proverbs and poems; and offers a wealth of information about all sorts of things. This is a treasure-trove of material about Chinese culture and civilization that foreigners will read with profit. At the end of several chapters, I was eager explore in greater depth the riches whose existence he had pointed to from a distance – such Chinese literature, art, and philosophy.
The book centers around a few themes: The beauty and enduring achievements of Chinese civilization; the Chinese love of harmony and order; the centrality of Confucianism, with its emphasis upon benevolence and righteousness; and the necessity for China to keep absorbing the best from other cultures.
The whole secret of the endless prosperity of the Chinese nation lies first in the rationality of the mainstream traditional Chinese culture, second in its adeptness in fusing disparate Chinese subcultures into one, and third in its ability to accept, absorb a reform foreign culture…Now what China needs is not to abandon its part or its Culture, nor to indiscriminately accept the ideas of the west. It should, in the process of facing the impact of different civilizations, examine itself, abandon things no longer useful, and while maintaining its advantage, adopt the useful aspects presented by foreign cultures, in order to create a new Chinese civilization. 247
So far, so good. Sadly, however, the book is seriously marred in form and content, so that its many and real virtues are obscured, especially for non-Chinese readers.
Su’s poetic prose would require the cooperation of a team of Chinese and English scholars to produce a version that does justice to the original. Instead, the translator apparently chose to work without the help of an English editor. The result features non-native English, including consistent misuse of the definite article and the comma, as well as other grammatical mistakes, not to mention repetitive and clumsy – sometimes even juvenile – writing.
Perhaps the translator was blinded by the ethno-centric tone of the content. Maybe I am mistaken, but I see the translation as a reflection of the attitude underlying the entire work: A self-confidence that borders on bravado; lack of awareness of what one does not know; and an apparent blindness to the way in which others might perceive reality, including this book and its main thesis.
Which, simply put, is: China is better in almost every way.
Thus, Chinese civilization is the oldest continuous culture in the world, precisely because it is the best. Chinese written characters, literature, art, architecture, food, music, military doctrine, philosophy, way of life – all are superior, or at least not a whit inferior. Whatever of value we find in other cultures – especially western – was discovered by the Chinese, at least in embryonic form.
Not a few statements leave the non-Chinese reader with a question or two. For example:
The Chinese nation is a large and harmonious family, and there are 56 brothers and sisters. (55)
Shang was the leading civilization in the world of its time [1700 - 1027 B.C.]. (70)
The revolution [of 1911] once and for all put an end to the reign of emperors on the Chinese continent. (103)
First the Chinese civilization is the only civilization in the world that has an unbroken history of development. (105)
What about Greece? The Jews?
The history of China is a history of constant internal merging and fusing…It was this open and harmonious characteristic of the Chinese nation that ensured its continuous regeneration and development. (105)
How, then do we understand the assertion which follows shortly afterwards? Namely,
Though China’s history is replete with accounts of war, turmoil, barbarism and cruelty, it never resorted to wars, oppression or force when dealing with the outside world. The external advances of the Chinese nation were carried out by peaceful means. (107)
So, all the unpleasantnesses of the past were merely domestic quarrels? And what about the surprise attacks which China has launched against India, Viet Nam, and Russia since 1950?
Possessing these outstanding values and morals is one of the reasons why the Chinese nation has never been conquered … by another. (107)
But hasn’t the author told us about the conquests of the Mongols and the Manchus? And what about the Japanese occupation of much of China until America dropped the atom bomb?
The idea of philanthropy had as its banner-carrier Mozi, in China, more than 2000 years ago. (138)
In 1920, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell visited China. He used characteristics of Chinese ways of life – peace, steady advancement, industry and frugality – as a disproof of the ways of western countries. His observations did not cover the entire spectrum of the Chinese way of life, but correlates (sic) fairly closely with China’s historical traditions. (147)
Chinese painting has theories, techniques and styles unrivaled in the art history of the world, and has made unparalleled achievements. (175)
The sheer number of works of Chinese poems and poets probably tops the world… While the exquisiteness of the poets’ word choices and sentence construction also lead the world; no other language could be equal to the task. (182)
The Chinese military philosophy first evaluates the moral standard of a war, and focuses on to ‘justice’. But western military thought uses ‘gain’ as their standard and this is the biggest difference between the two of them. (207)
Foreigners reading this book should restrain the impulse to giggle, for the author is expressing convictions held to be true by millions of his compatriots. This preening (over-)confidence can be seen as a reaction to the previous sense of inferiority which tortured educated Chinese for almost a century. It can also be a symptom of a nationalistic fever which could burst into anti-foreign violence and even war. At the very least, we need to understand a world view that harks back to the days before China was humiliated by the West.
This volume reflects a reversion to nativism, founded partly on a distorted view of history and an alarming ignorance of other civilizations, especially western.
In the midst of frightening social change; the unraveling of society; the breakdown of the family; endemic corruption; boiling popular resentment against local governments; simmering “splittist” tendencies among Muslims, Tibetans, and Taiwanese, this rosy picture of a happy, harmonious, consummately superior, and powerful China gives voice both to a nervous government and to restless intellectual and military leaders wishing to re-establish their nation to its “rightful” position as sole hegemon [ba guo - superpower] in the known world.
I highly recommend A Reader on China, therefore, as a useful source of information about Chinese culture, a window into the soul of a growing number of educated Chinese, and a chilling foretaste of what might be on the horizon.