Monday, March 31, 2008

Nationalism and Chinese DNA

Here's an incomplete and tentative idea that could, were there a truly significant number of people reading this blog, put me in less than good standing with the Chinese government.

Much like the companies about which Umair Haque is worried, China the country (however you define it: the people, the government, the communities, the vaguely unifying culture) has a DNA problem.

Again, this, like most of my thoughts on China, is tentative, but here are the beginnings of what I'm thinking...

We have riots in Tibet. The glory of the Beijing Olympics are in danger. The Dalai Lama is freaking out. The Chinese government is being obnoxious, imperialist, racist, whatever you want to call it. A dominant, "civilized" society is clashing with an ultimately defenseless and outnumbered indigenous culture. And, of course, it's horribly tragic.

And the tragedy, in my opinion, goes far beyond the beatings and imprisonments. It's a tragedy of a poisoned culture.

In a New York Times article today, there's a woman named Meng Huizhong. She's a 52 year old office worker in Beijing, a main stream member of China's urban middle class and a woman whose political opinions are dangerously extreme. She hates the rioting Tibetans for their lack of appreciation for all that China has done for them, and she's disappointed in the Chinese military for failing to execute them all.

Ms. Meng is a very real part of China. She's the kind of person I met often in Beijing, the kind of person that made every day I spent in that city an adventure. She is someone with whom I would work or study or simply talk, someone with whom I could easily connect, and then, somehow, someone that would suddenly drop something totally radical into the conversation.

I'd hear what she said; I wouldn't know how to respond; and the connection would break. Her unselfconscious, hypnotized love for China would push me out of her world. We would become two species almost, creatures of different DNA.

That nationalism is often a huge part of being Chinese. It's totally normal. Ask someone in Beijing if he'd support an invasion of Taiwan tomorrow. He'd tell you yes in a heartbeat. It's scary, but it's real; it's widespread; and it's powerful.

Look at the Tibet situation. Look at Han Chinese reactions. Look at Ms. Meng. Blindness. Anger. Hatred. Inhumanity.

But Ms. Meng is human, and our hypothetical Taiwan invader is human. They connect as well as anyone else. They think similarly. They act similarly. They respond to the same inputs and incentives. But they've adjusted to a different world, evolved tiny differences in their DNA. They are resourceful people coping with the strange realities of the societal conditions under which they live. And those conditions, those constraints, those fleeting and nebulous components of the thought environment in which they've been soaking all their lives, have and produce DNA that, to me, seems bad.

So there you go. That's my rave for the moment. Maybe DNA's the wrong metaphor. Maybe it's my non-nationalistic DNA that's bad. Or maybe it's just time for me to go to sleep and think about this some more tomorrow.

Note: Find a possible cure for bad DNA here and a possible cure for nationalism here. Thurman should be pretty self-explanatory. Abani might be a little trickier. Listen for this line, though, and see where it takes you: "The cause of all our trouble is the belief in an essential pure identity: religious, ethnic, historical, ideological."

Update (Apr 1): Emily Parker at the Wall Street Journal isn't as distraught over Chinese nationalism as I am, but she does know it's a worry.


Sarah said...

DNA is definitely a bad metaphor. DNA implies that something is hard wired into people's genetic code, like they were born that way, like it's an inherent difference. If nationalism is cultural and in large part created and supported by the government in their effort to maintain legitimacy, than it is nurture and not nature making DNA a particularly bad metaphorical choice

Jake de Grazia said...

Totally dangerous and stupid metaphor. You're right.

I used it because I wanted to get at the MAPPING thing. I wanted to conjure a self-perpetuating cultural code.

Our bodies build themselves, molecularly, according to the instruction manual that is DNA. A Chinese baby becomes a Chinese adult according to the instruction manual that is cultural DNA.

And the DNA builds copies of itself (stacks of instruction manuals) into everything it produces.

And I think the government propaganda machine is a product of the DNA, not its cause (it's a self-perpetuating product, though, of course). I think the DNA has roots in the Confucian tradition, in imperial glory, in historical humiliation. The CCP is not steering Chinese culture. History and cultural DNA created the CCP, and the CCP is operating according to the cultural blueprint.

Regardless, though, it's a worry of a metaphor. I was insensitively oblivious to that fact that I was using a genetic metaphor and dealing with something related to race and ethnicity.

I definitely don't mean to imply that Han Chinese have poison in their genes.

I want to say that there's an historically-rooted self-perpetuating poison in the culture, and I think nationalism is either the poison itself or the way the poison manifests itself or something.

But, once again, I'm struggling to express my feelings about China. I'm conflicted and frustrated. I have so much irrational love for everything over there, but, at the same time, the stifling nature of the culture makes me want to kidnap every Chinese baby and carry them far far away from their parents and teachers.

But I guess it's possible to get equally worked up about all cultures when you look at them as huge generalized cultures. I mean the generalized US culture is a pretty big worry too. And there are beautifully nuanced cultural pockets in China of course. Not everyone we know over there carries the nationalism poison.

Anyway, there's my second try at sort of explaining myself (I accidentally erased the first long comment I wrote). Thanks for calling me on it. I threw these thoughts up here hoping people would set me straight. You've started the process.

Peace. Love.