Sep 28

Chinese elitism versus American parochialism (aka Sarah Palin-style “democracy”): Musings on how different political systems function. Part I: The Chinese story.

Written by bianxiangbianqiao on Sunday, September 28th, 2008 at 6:41 pm
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Prologue: On my last trip back to China I brought back some reprints of Republican-era books. The following musings are based on my hasty reading notes.

Abstract: The Chinese society functions well when the stuff of its elite works. The American society functions well when the stuff of its elite works and is embraced by its masses (which is far from automatic). The challenge for the Chinese society is that historically the stuff of its elite (e.g., Confucianism, Legalism and revolutionary socialism) has often failed to work. The challenge for the American society is that the stuff of its elite (e.g., science, education and secular humanism) is often rejected by its masses.

I want to talk about “Enculturation (教化)”, the recursive and reciprocal interaction between a society’s elite and the masses.

Historically, the Chinese, regardless of their social economic status, have believed in enculturation. China observed the first spreading of enculturation from the most elite circles to the masses in the Spring-Autumn (春秋) period, with the appearance of the “lay learning/scholarship (民间学术)” of “the one-hundred schools (诸子百家)”, the pursuit of scholarship outside court-sponsored facilities (i.e., the official learning or 官学, including the works of the royal historians at the Zhou Court and the scholar-officials maintaining the traditional faithfulness of rituals and ceremonial protocols (礼官, see 钱穆, 1952). The tradition of lay scholarship peaked in the Ming Dynasty, with flourishing Confucius institutes (书院) presided over by renowned scholars (讲学之风气) in southern China, such as the prestigious Yue-Lu (岳麓) in Hunan and the politically active and radical Dong-Lin (东林) in Zhejiang.

Traditional Chinese learning, both lay and official, has aimed to achieve and maintain order and harmony in the relations among material objects, between the material environment and people (Fengshui & Yi-Jing), and among people as social/relational beings, therefore has always been intimately connected to ordinary people’s daily lives (刘志琴, 2008).

Lay (民间) scholarship, along with the availability (however limited and selective) of education to the poor but ambitious and intelligent youngsters in the village, has maintained an organic bond and lively communication between the masses and the elite. Knowledge gained in scholarly activities was passed on to the masses, modifying their customs, behaviors and ways of life and aligning them with the current level of the culture’s rationality (所谓移风易俗, 刘志琴, 2008). The Chinese believe in human variability in understanding and other aspects (人之不齐人之性也); they rank people on achievements (牟宗三, 2006). Those who know the truth first have the responsibility to enlighten those who would know later (so that everybody knows) and those who wake up first must waken those still asleep (先知觉后知,先觉觉后觉, 参看熊十力, 关于“圣人 (wise man)”与“庸众 (the mediocre multitude”)。

Another link between the Chinese elite and masses is the social responsibility of the Confucius scholar. Participating in politics and governance is not just a personal ambition, but a duty, a prerequisite for integrity. “Study the books to become an official (读书作官)” is the vulgar rendition of the standard life-path of the Confucius scholar. Learning for the purpose of learning was dismissed as vacuous. Learning was pursued for achieving wise and assured choice of action at the individual, family and national levels (AKA politics). (This was the thesis (知行合一) of Wang Yangmin that had made a significant impact on the Japanese Bushido, especially on the doctrine of courage and decisiveness, 勇气和果敢, see Bushido, by Nitobe Inazo) The theoretical learning of the elite (礼) and the practical acting of the masses (俗) mutually inform and facilitate each other’s growth in a recursive interaction (similar to Marx’s concept of praxis). The elite, as officials and educators, were in charge of ensuring that the masses’ everyday lives were in accord with the natural order of the universe (合乎天道, 刘志琴, 2008). For instance, in the Han dynasty, the local official was also a tutor to the emperor’s subjects under his governance (钱穆, 1952). In the historical periods before written records, the patriarchs/tribal leaders (三皇五帝) were also responsible for enculturating the members of the society. For instance, Shen-Nong-Shi (神农氏) was credited for various innovations in agricultural technologies and passing them to his followers.

At times of existential threat to the nation, such as foreign invasions, it was the Confucius scholars’ (both official and unofficial) responsibility to step forward and salvage the situation, sparing no personal cost. 无事袖手谈心性,临危一死报君王。At the end of the Song Dynasty, we had the Martyrdom of Wen Tianxiang (文天祥) and Lu Xiufu (陆秀夫). At the end of the Ming Dynasty, faced with the crushing Manchu infantry, scholars with no military training such as Wang Chuanshan (王船山), Zhu Shunshui (朱舜水) and Gu Tinglin (顾亭林) rose to the times. They joined the brief resistance movement clustered around an offspring of the Ming royal family, the Southern Ming. When that failed Zhu and Gu, among others, traveled to Japan in an attempt to borrow military forces from the Japanese Sumurai to counter the Manchurians, more than two hundred years before Sun Zhongshan did something similar in nature (although what Sun intended to borrow from the Japanese was not exactly troops, 兵). When the Tokugawa establishment declined the request, Gu came back to China and refused to serve the Qing government, despite repeated summoning from Beijing and recommendations from the local officials. Zhu stayed in Japan since a Chinese resurrection did not seem realistic, and became closely associated with the powerful Tokugawa Mitsukuni (徳川光圀). According to Liang Qichao, “整个日本变为儒教国家,最大的动力实在舜水。后来德川光圀著一部”大日本史”, 专标“尊王一统”之义……舜水……也是日本维新最强有力的导师。(梁启超, 2001, pp84)”

Despite their sense of mission and responsibility, the Confucius scholars had done a very poor job governing China, and they have known it all the time, expressing a pervasive sense of helplessness about their lack of competence and skills in defending the nation from less cultured/civilized but tougher and more aggressive invaders. Their stuff simply did not work and the nation had suffered because of their failure. They frequently terminated their lives in apology. “愧无半策匡时艰,惟余一死报君恩。” The Confucius types were followed by the revolutionaries, Sun Zhongshan, Jiang Jieshi and Mao Zedong, each guided by a hybrid of nationalistic ideologies. Communism and San Min zhu Yi (三民主义) were chosen as vehicles, or means, to serve the nationalistic goal (saving the nation and restoring its glory). In the 21st century things have changed, so has China. Now we have the engineers from Qinghua University, who believe that scientific rationality based on empirical verification (实事求是) and the precision of engineering technologies can serve the same nationalistic goals pursued over the last hundred years. We will see how far they can lead the country. My best hope is that the quality of the Chinese elite’s stuff will improve as more and more people trained in the US return to China. After all, Qinghua and Beida are now the top two undergraduate feeders into Ph. D. programs in the US (ahead of UC Berkley and U of Michigan, in all fields combined, not just in science and engineering).

The unchanging theme of the Chinese society is that the elite leads (or rules). The particular ideologies constituting elitism (Confucius thoughts versus Mao Zedong thoughts) have changed from time to time, but elitism as a tradition has remained as the guiding principle of the functioning of the Chinese society.


梁启超(2001).中国近三百年学术史. 太原: 山西古籍出版社 (based on 饮冰室合集).
刘志琴(2008). 礼俗互动是中国思想史的本土特色. 东方论坛.
牟宗三(2006). 才性与玄理. 南宁: 广西师范大学出版社 (originally published by台湾学生书局).
钱穆(1952). 中国思想史. 台北: 中国文化出版事业委员会 .
熊十力(1947/2007). 十力语要. 上海: 上海书店.

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35 Responses to “Chinese elitism versus American parochialism (aka Sarah Palin-style “democracy”): Musings on how different political systems function. Part I: The Chinese story.”

  1. JL Says:

    How do you explain peasant revolt (another venerable Chinese tradition) with this theory?

  2. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    Peasant revolt is system failure. All systems fail when the conditions goes beyond a threshold.

  3. TonyP4 Says:

    The ancient Chinese system: work and succeed yourself (and family too), then the kingdom, and then the entire world. It could lose something in translation.

    Sarah does not fit the above. Could be her fault in giving birth at that late age for her son’s disease. Her daughter is a teenage mother. Her dealing with firing her sister’s ex-husband…

    There is a big difference between the west and China leaders if you consider the high rate of divorce, infidelity and their other family problems among the US politicians/leaders. How many politicians and/or their children took drugs, got drunk, cheated in college…?

  4. Nimrod Says:

    I don’t see how this is different. In reality, Americans are led by the elites, too, though they pay lip service to the everyman. If and when McCain/Palin wins, you might as well say that is “system failure”, too.

    Besides which, what is an elite? If your definition is having gone to a top university like THU or PKU, then Obama is an elite because he went to Harvard. Not since the early-1800’s have Americans elected what could be called non-elites, and that was only because they were trying to build a nation of farmers. Well that didn’t last long.

  5. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    Yes, Obama is part of the elite and McCain is of above-average intelligence. The US is ruled by the elite, like all other groups. The rule of the elite is a biological inevitability, not just in human groups, but in all social animals. From rodents to primates, all social groups have a hiearchical structure, with the dominant members controlling most resources. The American establishment is the most elitist in the world (see Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray).

    The difference between the US and Chinese system is the lack of enculturation mechanism for the masses in the former. Instead of enculturating and assimilating the parochial and uneducated, the US establishment (the elite, like John McCain) provide them with a pretense of “representation”, with freak shows like Sarah Palin. The uneducated Americans aren’t stupid either; they know they are getting the raw end of the deal all the time. In their frustration they are radicalizing their parochialism. The sympolic significance of Sarah Palin’s political life is the radicalization of the trailer-trash and holy rollers, who are anti-science, anti-education and anti-intelligence. I recommend everybody to watch the up-coming debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Sit back, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the freak show.

  6. Steve Says:

    I’d like to take a more historical look at this very interesting issue. I’m certainly no expert in Chinese history and culture but I’m sure others with more understanding can comment and move the discussion along.

    I think what you might be describing is the difference between theory and practice. China’s history has been defined by periods of great cultural and political advancement, then degeneration into eras of corruption, war and civil unrest until renewed by regime change.

    The great breakthrough politically was the creation of the civil service exam. This insured two advances, the dedication of scholarship in order to advance in society and a government run by talented individuals, the cream of the crop so to speak. Under this system, China was far ahead of other worldwide systems of government, and was able to flourish in just about every endeavor.

    The downside to this same system was the lack of checks and balances to control the elite. Within a few generations of a new dynasty, corruption reared its ugly head and decisions were made for individual advancement rather than the advancement of the society. Then the “mandate from heaven” would be lost and eventually a new dynasty would come to the fore with the energy and initiative to achieve a better life for the people.

    One thing that has always struck me when reading the classic novels is how much corruption of the elite plays a part in each one. They all take place well before the time they were written, but were in fact commentaries of the time they were written. I am referring specifically to Dream of the Red Chamber, The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. An author near the end of a great dynasty writes of a past time when conditions were similar to their own. Mandarins use their power to enrich themselves and their cronies. There is a great separation between the elites and the common man, whose ambitions and dreams can never be fulfilled unless his progeny can excel in scholarship and enter the civil service. But let’s face it; in any culture the children of the elite always have a great advantage in education and circumstances.

    In my opinion, Neo-Confucianism was a manipulation of the initial philosophy in order to maintain the rule of the upper classes, similar to the “trickle down” theory espoused by the American elite in today’s society. A harmonious society was all about not upsetting the apple cart, letting rulers rule and subjects be subject to their rulers, then everyone benefits. Even today, this philosophy is reiterated by the government on almost a daily basis. However, it doesn’t allow a method to correct misrule except by revolution, which is always a dangerous proposition.

    As an historical example, in 1433 at the time of the Admiral Zheng He’s death, China was by far the most advanced country in the world. The progressive administration of the Yongle Emperor had advanced China to the forefront in technology, trading and government administration. But under the next emperor Hongxi who was convinced by his mandarins that China needed nothing from the outside world, China closed its borders, turned inward and eventually lost its technological lead while the Arab and western world developed and advanced Chinese technology. It wasn’t evident for a few generations since China was so far ahead at the time. Because of the sense of superiority of the Chinese educated ruling class, China sowed the seeds of its impoverishment and decline which would allow the west to dominate China from the early 19th century until the middle of the 20th. By this time, other political systems had been created that were superior to the Chinese model of emperor and mandarins, and China just couldn’t compete.

    Even today, Confucian values and the system of education in China are very adept at creating scholars, but discourage creative thought. I was talking with a physics professor at a California university who had some Qinghua students in his graduate program. Though they were very smart and knew their material well, when given access to the equipment to create their own experiments, they had no ideas at all. The American students had all kinds of ideas in mind. For me, this is strictly a byproduct of the Chinese educational system, a system that could not have been around when China invented most of the technology of the Middle Ages, so it can’t be Confucian but must be something else. I have a friend in Shanghai who was one of the top students at one of the best universities in China, the most brilliant person I have ever met, who told me she would never attend graduate school in China because they discourage any kind of intellectual curiosity. When I gave technical training seminars in China and Taiwan, the typical behavior was to take copious notes and ask no questions, since you should never questions the teacher. Fortunately for me, there always seemed to be one or two people who didn’t follow this style and asked a lot of really good questions, and that encouraged others to ask questions so this is not a hard and fast rule, but I was an American so maybe that influenced their behavior.

    Somehow over the years, have Confucian values have been perverted to create this high level but static educational system, which when carried into government encourages elitism and discourages change and reform?

  7. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    I agree with your historical perspective on China’s previous Dynasties. The ancient system was unsustainable; it could not withstand external stress (foreign invasions) or internal pressure (corruption). Lack of checks and balance was certainly part of the problem. I personally feel the biggest problem with the pre-Republican Chinese elite was their retrospective view on history. Their model of ideal society was in the past, specifically, the Way(Dao) of Ruling (王道) of the “three generations (三代, Yao, Shun and Yu, see 熊十力, 1947)”. The dysfunctional retrospective longing for the certainty of the past golden era was finally replaced around the time of the May 4th movement with the forward-looking view of development and progress of society, toward an open-ended, undetermined future that should be more advanced than the past and present. The historical meta-concept of development and progress should be credited for all the improvements in Chinese society over the last one hundred years. Marxism was instrumental in the development of this new historical perspective, despite its limits (mainly in the close-ended progression it prescribes, from feudalism to capitalism, to socialism and communism). I think today’s Chinese intellectuals have gone beyond Marx’s fixed perspective on progress that regards history as governed by physical laws (historical materialism), and come to recognize the future is largely unpredictable. Deng Xiaoping’s “crossing the river by feeling the stones” and “suspending ideological arguments” are the best summaries of this bold view on history.

    I am keenly aware of the limits of Chinese scholars. The sources of these limits are quite complex, not just in the academic training from the Chinese education system.

  8. Nimrod Says:

    bianxiangbianqiao wrote:

    The uneducated Americans aren’t stupid either; they know they are getting the raw end of the deal all the time. In their frustration they are radicalizing their parochialism. The sympolic significance of Sarah Palin’s political life is the radicalization of the trailer-trash and holy rollers, who are anti-science, anti-education and anti-intelligence. I recommend everybody to watch the up-coming debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Sit back, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the freak show.

    Looks like one wouldn’t even need to wait that long. As we speak, they are turning against their own banking system at the expense of the economy. Some even would welcome a depression. Smells like class war right now.

  9. Daniel Says:

    I think Steve’s analysis makes a lot of sense regarding how the past worked with some comparable instances of the present.

    I might like to add that taken in perspective with what our modern institutions and systems are like compared with the past…some, maybe most, of those advancements made in the past were created from almost all walks of society…the peasents, the scholars, courtesans, eunuchs, foreign residents, soldiers, etc. Most of course, were made out of necessity, some were out of pure curiousity on part of the individual’s interests, etc. They didn’t quite have occupations like we do today where people can focus primarily with a particular subject, without having to worry if you can eat, you won’t offend some higher up and lose your title or life, etc.
    I read some theory of the strong emphasis on Confucian values was also a method for uniting the vast territories and related people who were spread out. At the very least, they can unified and make demands from the authorities. In theory, like you all mentioned, the trinkle down process should have done well, but of course, nothing is perfect.

    Since this post is making comparisons with the States, putting it in perspective, that country was technically built and founded on core principles that Change and reform will happen and had ways where it could adopt the changes but not lose their collective sense of authority and identity. Other than possibly a few instances, in comparison the social movements didn’t require overthrowing the government. One can say that, it is probably the biggest experimental nation, something is really hard to compare with other countries. Look around the many differnt civilizations, societies around the world, beneath the superficial layer, you can see many similarities.
    Everyone is really going in cycles, and although I’m very reluctant to say this, but what really progress people is related to religion. There’s a lot that can be said about this ,and why the “elites” in the US still have to “pay their respects, at least give face” to the forces of religion, despite all the public rhetoric and fierce critcisms.

  10. Steve Says:

    Bianxiangbianqiao, thanks for the comments. I was wondering in retrospect, do you really feel that true Marxist concepts have ever been understood by the majority of Chinese people? Since collectivization and public ownership of property ended up shaking the society to its foundations under Mao’s rule, isn’t it discredited these days? Capitalism and communism are diametric opposites so would you say the present system is more traditional based with an authoritarian capitalist economy? And do you believe that the current government bureaucracy, which in a way is an elite body, would like to control as much of the economy and society as in the past, so is at odds with a more free and open society? Where do you draw the line between the two? Do you think the added control they were able to achieve before and during the Olympic Games will be relaxed now that they Olympics are complete, or will they tenaciously hold on to the power?

    I am very interested in your comment concerning the source limits of Chinese scholars. Beyond the academic arena, I have no idea of what influences you are referring to and would very much like to hear what you think. Maybe it might even be its own blog topic?

    Nimrod, I’m also waiting to catch that debate. Between Palin’s “left field” answers and Biden’s foot in mouth disease; it should be a lot of fun. Will Palin get her continents confused? Will Biden refer to her as “missy”? Will Keith Olbermann say Biden “hit a home run” or “hit it out of the park”, since that seems to be the only two analogies he knows for Democratic speeches? Will Sean Hannity announce that Biden is the spawn of the devil? Stay tuned… 

    Daniel, good point on the emphasis of Confucian values being used to unite the populace in the past. I also think the development of a “Han Chinese” race helped unite the society, since DNA studies have shown that there are great differences between northern and southern Chinese. The idea of being one people with a common ancestry is invaluable in the formation of a national identity.

    You might have misunderstood me when I talked about the “trickle down” theory. I actually think it is nonsense, just a way for the elite to justify the laws and lax tax codes that allow them to increase their wealth. It seems all societies have their theories justifying the life of the rich. For Chinese, Buddhists would say that your life is based on your previous karma, so if you are rich you must have led a previous holy life and deserve the riches. Conversely, if you are poor…. well, at least you weren’t reincarnated as a cockroach, ha ha.

    I also wonder how much technology influences philosophy. You can trace the Enlightenment to Newton’s theories, and abstract art, music and philosophy to Einstein’s. These days, China is making quantum leaps forward in their understanding and use of technology as they do business with the rest of the world. Will the interaction between different cultures change the idea of what a true “Chinese” is? It seems to have had that effect in Japan with the younger generation. The American founding fathers were mostly Deists from the Enlightenment, and their ideas were quite liberal for their time concerning God and religion, i.e., the Jeffersonian Bible, etc. I remember when I was working in China, the majority of people I met believed in God but didn’t have a specific religion, many were atheists and a few attended organized religion. The Buddhist and Taoist temples were pretty empty compared to Taiwan, where they were packed. In China, I was often asked what I thought of a certain “cult” religion which surprised me since I thought it was a subject to be avoided.

  11. Daniel Says:

    Come to think of it, yeah…I could see how the trinkle down idea is almost like a scheme for “Help the bosses, they’ll take care of you, more benefits for them will eventually come to you, etc.” So much to think about though.

    Hi Steve, I think your last paragraph is also something good to ponder about. Personally, I think technology and philosophy go hand in hand…both can be open for change and in a general sense, they often do when ideas are applied in real settings. Not sure how much change when there is more cultural interactions to what is Chinese. Sort of goes back to that post of what does it mean to be Chinese, plus many of the major-impacting ideas which are universal+sustainable can in a sense, be applied without cultural interferences. Sometimes.
    One of my Chemistry text books in high school had a passage saying a true scientist should be able to explain what they are doing to a child. Then as it advances, just keep adding on…in a general viewpoint. Similar statements I heard from my teachers of different subjects then, a lot of what we learn nowadays is meant to make our life more convenient, better, etc. If aliens from outer space went down to Earth, they probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the different ideals and dreams of humans. Hmm…for some reason that last sentence reminded me of Voltaire.

  12. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    You have a lot of good insights I would like to respond to.

    Based on my observation, the limits to Chinese Ph. D students and scholars are two-fold.

    1. The extrinsic motivation behind their academic pursuit. Their choice of a research career and the subject of their work was too often not driven by intrinsic interest, a genuine and intense curiosity about the topics they study. Instead, they are driven by a pervasive expectation on them to be “successful”, to “live a productive life”, and to “make something of yourself so that you wont be a loser” from the entire social network they are embedded in. My use of the pronoun “they” does not mean I am exempt from this problem. I have met Ph. D. candidates in biology working on their dissertation and struggling with the fact that they do not feel passionate about biology itself to complete the hard work, after studying the subject for 7 years. In grad school I saw several Chinese quiters from my program after getting their Masters’ degrees, to take a “professional” position in the industry that happened to come their way. I do not mean to belittle “professional jobs” in the industry. The point is Chinese Ph. D. students and scholars under-achieve relative to their talent. Their passion for their topic of research is not strong enough to induce relentless persistence. Upon getting their Ph. D., given the choice of a PostDoc position at a productive lab and a tenure-track position at a small teaching college, a Chinese tend to choose the later, because it is less risky, more stable, allows you to settle down and take care of the family, etc. although not necessarily good for pursuing their research on the subject they have been trained.

    2. The second, equally profound handicap for Chinese scholars is a lack of trust in themselves, their ideas, a timidity disguised as modesty, which breeds evasiveness and intellectual mediocrity. This attitude is best expressed by berlinf,”我们在异国他乡,我看还是低调些,多多学习为妙…”
    If you have no trust in your ideas, you are not going to invest your mental resources to develop them, articulate them, improve them and pursue their empirical varification. You always feel others have better ideas that you need to learn from. If you do not think your ideas can stand on its own in a foreign land (在异国他乡), you are not going to speak out, and subject them to the debate among the experts in the field. You will never go anywhere with your ideas; you nib them in their buds. You are right that “American students are full of ideas.” So are the Chinese. The difference is that American students trust their ideas and passionately defend them and develop them; they make something significant out of their ideas. The ideas of most mortals are pure crap, as a matter of fact. However, if you treat your ideas as crap and insist on being 调些,多多学习为妙, you will never give your rare good ideas a chance of life.

    These are my humble opinions and may not be correct.

  13. TonyP4 Says:

    It is tougher to express your ideas when English is not your native tongue. It may explain why Indians (from Asia) move to management positions more than Chinese in technology companies in US.

    However, it is good for China when more ‘return turtles’ in Chinese than Indians. There are more opportunities esp. in bio tech in China than in the US if you can bear the pollution over there and other family issues.

  14. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    I really do not think language or verbal skill per se is the biggest hurdle for the Chinese. If you control for all other factors, verbal skills are highly correlated (really really high) with IQ. It is not true that the Chinese do not have sufficient IQ to surmont the barrier of using a second language. What really matters is the confidence in using your current verbal ability to the fullest extent, stretch it as far as possible, in order to develop it beyond itself.

    I have heard several Chinese students lamenting about their American peers gaining advancements by making a big fuss over their lousy ideas (能说会道, making mountains out of their moth hills of ideas), while they shy away from the game of articulation. If you want to compete, you need to play the game.

    About your point on more Chinese returning to China than Indians moving back to India, I think we need to look at this issue 采取一分为二的态度.
    Is it more rewarding and self-edifying to compete in an alien culture, at a game with a set of rules different from the ones you are familiar with, or to go back home and compete with your cousins?

  15. RMBWhat Says:

    F*** the elites man. They think they can come up with that IQ b.s. in order to justify whatever the f*** they’re planning… America has the elities, but America also has the don’t-tread-on-me-remember-the-alamo-

    I don’t give a f*** !!!Gangsta rap made me do itattitude that no elite can mess with.

  16. RMBWhat Says:

    wrong link above:

    I don’t give a F*** attitude that no elite can mess with.

  17. Steve Says:

    Bianxiangbianqiao, you raise some really good points. It seems no matter what field of study you prefer, your parents are going to push you towards being an engineer, scientist or doctor. In the States, lawyers, dentists and formerly investment bankers are also big fields. Don’t you dare major in history or philosophy! I wonder about the preference for teaching at a university, though. From what I’ve seen here in San Diego, the teaching profession is held in extremely high regard by other Chinese and Asians in general. When they are looking for an emcee at a Chinese function, they almost always pick a college professor. They never address them by their first name but always as “Professor Liu” or “Professor Zhang”, so do you think the increased status also drives them to this choice?

    Why do you think Chinese students have a lack of trust in themselves? Where does the timidity come from? Do you think some of it might be from constantly being taught that the west humiliated China and kept her down for so long? I’ve often wondered about that. For instance, India wasn’t just indirectly controlled by the west, but was actually a colony for hundreds of years and kept in a state of servitude. Even today, India doesn’t have as developed an economy as China yet I’ve never heard an Indian apply yesterday’s colonization to today’s circumstances. Might this attitude cause a xenophobic reaction that affects the confidence of overseas Chinese?

    I definitely agree that here in the States, if you are not willing to fight for your ideas then people would think they are not worthwhile. After all, if you won’t fight for them, why consider them? And when you develop them, if you don’t have the confidence to carry them through in the face of adversity, then the time and money would have been wasted. Passion for one’s ideas can be very effective in getting them implemented!

    Daniel, your chemistry teacher example really hit home. I used to sell process control instrumentation and some of it was very sophisticated. I figured out that if I could understand the basic principle, the one part of the device that really did the work, then slowly added the rest of it I could always figure it out. There’s a simple principle underlying every complex idea, and the rest is adjustments and fine tuning. I’ve actually explained certain basic aspects of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (drawing pictures) to elementary school kids and they had no trouble grasping it.

  18. Daniel Says:

    I hope this is useful.

    I bought a book titled China’s New Confucianism;Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society bu Daniel A. Bell, professor of Tsinghua University.
    I’m still reading it, and so far, I believe it’s quite informative. One of the points I read was that the some people think that the strong authoritarian attitudes were mostly attributed to Legalism. Overtime, as with many systems, things change, articulate, get absorbed or absorb other beliefs. I remember hearing similar sentiments from people regarding that in comparison with other ideologies, Confucianism had more of a “feminine nature”.

    To touch up on my last comment regarding cultural integration…there’s a lot of theories and sentiments by many people who study this area, either professionaly or purely-self-interests. Then there’s the occasional quesitonable motives, but usually people can tell which is which.
    If we’re talking about material topics, some figures suggest that it was more like the late 1800s where one can really distinguish the visible differences between societies. I’m aware of the “humiliation” slogan, but there’s a lot more to it than what many people usually hear and express about. Of course, that period in history was built upon centuries of discoveries and other feats of knowledge prior to that time. Before the turn of the century, although there were significant differences in quality and availability, there were comparable items and methods which offer similar levels of competition between China and other places during those eras.
    If we’re talking about philosophical ideals and basic beliefs, from the book I got and other works, some people think that if you dig deep enough, you’ll see the same in the Chinese ideologies (and folk-tales) and elsewhere. It doesn’t have everything of course, but quite a lot. Like, several fundamental ideals exists, it’s there but education and other pursuits weren’t accessible for all. In a sense, there’s not much that we can speculate on what is Chinese with more global integration. I want to go in detail with the examples of overseas Chinese but I can tell that some readers on this blog may think it’s not relavent or it’s un-welcome. I understand the reasons though.

    Actually, last point…sorry…there was opportunities for China during the last 2 centuries to integrate globally and much cultural-national exchanges could have occur in respectable amounts but some people think that whether or not the government was different–monarchy, KMT, CPC, etc. there was too much going on internaly and externally, to bring out the best and applied to national levels.

  19. Daniel Says:

    Pardon my grammar:
    *there was opportunities to there were opportunities*. I know that there’s a lot of mistakes but that phrase stuck out for me too much.

    I concurred that the status thing (mostly education or wealth, sometimes both) is a big issue for a lot of these communities, but I’m a little puzzled at times. There were instances where in a social function, it was the one(s) with the biggest mouth(s), who could speak the particular dialect(s) of many, or the flashy person who stoled the mic that superseded the status holders. Then, there’s the chaos or dis-organized factors which add in a lot of those events, hosted by Mainlanders and/or non.

  20. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    “….if you dig deep enough, you’ll see the same in the Chinese ideologies (and folk-tales) and elsewhere.”

    I think there are commonalities in human nature, but differences in the ideologies among societies.
    The most certain commonalities in human nature is the basic pursuit of survival and reproduction. The scene start to vary as you gove your analysis above this biological level. People from different societies have elvoved different strategies for improving their chance of survival and reproduction. The most crucial strategies (adaptations, as evolutionary biologists call them) are for regulation of inter-personal relations, both within group and accross different groups. Ideologies are for the purpose of encoding the rules of interpersonal relations (between individuals and collectives, e.g. social classes, the elite and the masses). There are suggestions (maybe even some strong evidence) that human intelligence (along with the big brain) has evolved to cope with the social aspects of production and reproduction (organization, competition and cooperation, which Marx calls “relation of production or 生产关系”). The practical skills of hunter-gather societies would not have required the highly developed cognitive capcities observed in modern humans. In other words, “ideologies” would not have been necessary if not for the complex human sociality.


    The notiona of humiliation and victimization may be associated with an aspect of the Chinese group identity. In my limited understanding of the literature, group identitiy, i.e. the characteristics one gets from association with different groups (race, nation, social class, occupation) is one of three types of identities under investigation. The other two are individual identity (one’s uniquenss and specialty) and relational identity (one’s relation roles in associating with others, e.g. being a husband, father, son, supervisor etc.) In the academia the most important (the most frequently activated) identity is the individual. Your work is about creativity and originality, your idea. No matter how privileged or deprived your group has historically been, it is yourself that gets held responsible for formulating, articulating and defending your ideas.

    The cultural roots of the timidity of Chinese students and scholars in defending their ideas might be related to extrinsic achievement motivation. There are some interesting cross-cultural findings on this topic.

  21. Daniel Says:

    Well, as usual, there’s a lot to learn and digest.

    I agree in part that there are basic commonalities, and maybe I should have worded it better, although it’s basic point is similar to what bxbq said.
    Speaking of the early Republican era, while it’s admirable that the revolutionaries had recognized and struggled for what could move China forward (and to be globally integrated….I’m sort of leaning using that term instead of the usual “westernization” or “modernization” for several reasons, although I understand why they’re used) some of them, I read, had a few purposals and ideals which seem a bit far out and if they had tried to implement them it might have produce some unpleasent results.
    Like, I forgot whom exactly, but some wanted to change the family institution others wanted to get rid of certain rituals. However, the rituals they wanted to rid of wasn’t the typed that held people back per se, but like personal ones like the ancestorial shrines, celebrations, etc. I think they were probably more like suggestions rather than “an absolute must for progress type of statements.”

    I was going to buy another book about Chinese peasants which the title claims to be a banned book somewhere, hoping that it might reveal anything relating to this topic about elites, but I’ll save it for another time. However, the book’s summary made me think about them…

  22. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Once again, navel-gazing at its finest.

    Does it always revolve around finding an angle to suggest that the Chinese way is better than the US/western way? Can the goal not be to one day be able to say that the Chinese system is good, or excellent, and mean it? And to do so without feeling the need to compare it with something else. The irony, of course, is that those who set the standard don’t need to compare; it’s the ones who are not yet to standard who constantly seek such against which to measure itself.

  23. Daniel Says:

    I don’t quite understand what you are saying SK Cheung.

    If this is about the post, then yeah, why must there be a comparison…if it’s about the comments, I’m not sure, because they’re sort of touching on several subjects, some which may or may not be related to the post.

  24. GNZ Says:

    there are always people in power and people without power, and elites, and the elites are always the smart people in some sense. If you ere to create a system where low intelligence people ran the system you would find it didn’t function, and if you tried to create one where there were no elites you would find the harder you tried the more forcefully new elites would pop up – like trying to make something disappear by squeezing it.

    I think one should focus more on getting a system that makes good decisions rather than one without elites.

  25. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Daniel:
    “I want to talk about “Enculturation (教化)”, the recursive and reciprocal interaction between a society’s elite and the masses.
    Historically, the Chinese, regardless of their social economic status, have believed in enculturation.” – that’s from the post.

    “The difference between the US and Chinese system is the lack of enculturation mechanism for the masses in the former. Instead of enculturating and assimilating the parochial and uneducated, the US establishment (the elite, like John McCain) provide them with a pretense of “representation”” – BXBQ #5.

    So I’d say a bit of both, in response to your question. If you say that I can’t pass judgment on the first part of a multi-part post, i concur. If you say I’m nitpicking since there’ve been 21 comments preceding, I would also concur. Suffice to say that IMO, the author has certain proclivities. I’d be happy to read Part 2 and be proven wrong.

  26. Steve Says:

    Chinese way? Western way? This keeps getting brought up in these comments sections. Let’s look at it another way…

    Draw a horizontal line. Place “Freedom” to the left of the line and “Order” to the right of the line. If your society is all the way on the freedom side, you have anarchy. If all the way on the order side, you have totalitarianism. In Singapore, the point is more towards the order side since they are willing to give up a certain amount of freedom to maintain a high degree of order. In most countries, liberals are willing to give up some order to increase freedom, and conservatives are willing to give up some freedom to increase order.

    If people give up order and don’t get more freedom, they revolt. If people give up freedom and they don’t get more order, they revolt. Some countries have very little freedom or order, and are failed governments and societies.

    Most Chinese I have met prefer to move the point more towards the “order” side than we would in the west. If that is the preference of the society, it’s fine with me. It’s not a matter of comparing one country to another since each country has its own set of circumstances and really cannot be compared. We can borrow this from one culture and that from another, but in the end it has to fit our society. Early American society took French ideas and applied them to British culture, and it worked for us. The vast majority of countries have borrowed the British parliamentarian system of government rather than the American presidential style. Both can be successful depending on the circumstances. But remember, the point on that line is constantly shifting in all societies since not all people see eye to eye. Each side will tend to condemn the other, but it’s really just a matter of preference.

    In the Republican days, there was a feeling among the intellectuals that China would have to undergo a massive change to their culture in order to compete in the modern world, but those changes never took place. Japan tried to adapt to modern times and managed the technology, but could not manage the change from feudalistic/imperialistic thinking to a modern world concept, and the rest of East Asia suffered for it.

    Right now China is trying to adapt the Leninist/Communist one party system to this stage of their development, but that system is inherently difficult to change, so there are a lot of hiccups. Taiwan has been adapting the same system (believe it or not, the KMT was originally based on the Leninist party model) with some success. Yes, it’s natural to compare but let’s not do it on a good/bad basis, or we’ll all begin to sound like Japanese corporations, i.e. “Japanese way good, Chinese/American/German/Taiwanese/Korean/French/English/Indian/Italian, etc. way bad.”

  27. Daniel Says:

    I’m re-reading the comments again but for a good part, everyone appears to be repeating the same basic outlines. I agree that it’s natural to compare and we do not have do it on a good/bad basis. Actually, except for a few statements and the post itself, I could say that we’re doing ok for the comments on this particular thread. Like that one comment regarding US politicians;I’m pretty sure infedelity, drug usage, happens with a lot of people everywhere, just many may try to keep it as private as possibly.
    Unless I’m missing something. Though everybody is aware of the issues for all the other threads.

    Japan is an interesting case though. From what I’ve read from other forums/sites…some people have argued that that country is an example where one can adopt and advanced technology without having to change their ways. However, that’s just part of the sentiments I read and there’s a lot to it. I heard similar statements from people trying to applied it to the other cultural realms as well .

    Actually, this is one thing that bothers me about this blog. How far do you all want to go in having very well-informative—critically analyzed posts and comments?
    I don’t mean to belittle anyone and there’s been plenty of comments-mainly that are just that. However, a lot of times, we’re just generalizing, expressing whitty remarks and/or try to out-whit each other. Or be down right ugly.

    The reason why this site attracted me was that I do want to understand Modern China. There’s plenty of places for discussing history, culture, geography, etc. However, virtually every site I’ve been to regarding the many details I would like to learn about Modern China has turn into an ugly “us vs. them” battleground or they resembled more like tabloids…which for personal tastes, its too awkward to take it seriously. I know many ugly instances that are quite horrible out there in the world yet won’t see it in the news type of deal…but if I would create a website to displayed that, I would have a hard time making a title which pretty much puts an entire society towards judgement with those particular instances. You can, but like I said, it’s akward to take it very serious, especially if the subject matter is.
    While this place isn’t perfect, “comparably” you all have been quite mild than what I’ve been exposed to.

  28. RMBWhat Says:

    you mean Chinese elitism like this:



  29. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    S. K. Cheung,

    Yes. I do have the habit of bringing up a few positive things about the Chinese culture. Some criticism of the Chinese system may (or may not) be warranted, but that is your contribution. You get applauded for that. Why do you insist that I abandon my position and switch to singing your song, just to make me a better person? I thought you were promoting democratic expression of opinions and pluralism.


    “the rituals they wanted to rid of wasn’t the typed that held people back per se, but like personal ones like the ancestorial shrines, celebrations, etc. I think they were probably more like suggestions rather than “an absolute must for progress type of statements.””

    This is the tradition of Chinese Enculturation, which means modifying the masses’ behavior and customs to align them with the “natural order”. The same tradition is apparent in the current government’s effort to eradicate spitting, promote forming lines at bus stations and milk drinking “每天一杯奶,健康中国人。” This is 移风易俗. The fact that the elite often promote the wrong type of new customs demonstrates its limits. The quality of the elite has been the major problem in the Chinese history. The ordinary folks have been let down repeatedly.


    The “order” versus “freedom” dichotomy has limits just like Eest vs. West cultural distinction. Like you said both are necessary for all societies. Right now the Chinese society has less order than the US. The American society has a very effective and efficient (and brutal, if you think about it) way of maintaining order, using two vehicles, (1) religion and (2) a gap in the level of cognitive development between the elite and masses (if you have studied/worked at both an accademically selective university and an open-admission state college, you will understand that the American education system is a cruel machine for the reproduction of social classes). In the US, by far the best predictor of a person’s income is his/her parents income and people are fine with that for decades.

    The transmission of all knowledge, habits, customs and behaviors take place in the culture, via Enculturation. The human family life is different from the parenting of other mammals in that it provides not just physical protection and nourishment, but serves as an institution of socialization.

  30. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To BXBQ:
    I don’t insist on you abandoning your proclivities. I’m not even asking you to do so. I’m just asking “why” they are what they are? But whether you have reasons, or not, is immaterial to me. By all means, write as you please, and I will do likewise.

  31. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Steve:
    once again, well said. On your horizontal line, I’d like to live somewhere in the middle one-third. Basically, that’s my motto in life.

  32. Shunjing Says:

    China believes it is under threat from neo con in the west who wants to see a less successful China. With this as an excuse they clamped down on dissent. Bush containment of China has backfired b’cos it made China more paranoid and more dangerous. Militarily it can ‘t kill the US but can cos serious injury. If China fears can be placated I wonder if China would spend so much on defence and allow dissent.

  33. Scooby Says:

    Having lived with the Han Chinese for 10 years your writings are interesting from the armchair.

    Yet boots on the ground I observed that China is bound by intense Class social networks(Classes) which promotes, integrates and create boundaries enforced by Authoritarian Cultural Social arrangements. Another point is that Confucius would abhor what China has become. The classes I observed (And Met most of them.) were the Elite (Political, Capitalist, Military Elite), Worker Class (Petite Bourgeoisie, Govt City Workers, Peasant City Workers, Farmers ), Enforcer Class (Red Army, Secret Police, Wu Jing(National Guard Reserve Equivalent),Local Police).

    Those that work, those that enforce and those that lead. You get three broad classes.

    Or you could say it was, those that produce products, those that produce compliance and those that produce leadership. (Yes to the Chinese leadership is the most important product.)

    Brave New World Anyone? (Alphas, Gammas and Epsilons?)

    In general my list is in order of power. Han Chinese Governmental Control of everything(Minds, Ideas, Industries and practices, blood pact (Han Chinese)) being #1 Goal. Remind anyone of Nazism?

    Did I say Capitalist??? Yes as in overall the Chinese Government is Communist by label but Fascist in implementation there is a highly protected Capitalist Class who’s job is to carry out government business sector plans, copy any useful manufacturing, design and steal production methods from other countries. It can be said that the Chinese Capitalist class is most exposed to Western Ideas in their business pursuits, this makes them even more watched by the government and ARE all intense Communist loyalists as(By practice or Title) Active Communist Business leaders. Fascism always has a very important Capitalist sector, Communism does not.

    Think of China like Nazi Germany. Nazi’s or Fascists would mind control and enforce upon anyone that opposes authoritarian control(Either publicly(Enforcers) or with private pressure(Secret Police Intimidation) or social networks. The only link the Nazi’s had with the outside world was through their Capitalist Class (Oskar Schindler Anyone?)…Hmm Except this time the Jews are the Farming Peasants, and their is no one willing to get them out of Nazi China.

    China is in fact and in practice a Fascist State, no other way around it.

    1. They teach that the Fascist State is what saved them from the evil Western Countries. (Shame Culture)
    2. Most of their people will never, and have never been to any school.(Need to Farm not think. Literacy?)
    3. The only redemption is to give yourself to the motherland, the Fascist leaders, and the Han Chinese(Uber-racism).

    I Lived it and All Ancient Chinese Scholars would be very upset at this arrangement.

    As for Science. The Chinese only think of it as means to an End. It is a tool like Capitalism to communicate with the outside world, and exploit it for the motherland. (Eh hemmm… Fascism?)

    Science must produce results. Even if they lie to do it.

    Facts never Matter.

    That is right. Facts about anything are abhorred and must be avoided unless communicated through the “proper” ways. (Typically intermediaries who are party loyal, not scientists, and usually full of lies) Achievement does not matter, only Face to achieve Control.

    So how can the Scientific method and fact finding be important to the Chinese?

    It isn’t if it were copying of products would not be their specialty.

    A nation of lairs and cheats is easy to rule(Once again Facts are NOT important.) Truthful populations and the search for Truth is the most expensive form of any society or government.

    Big cost savings if you are not worried about searching for Facts and Truth, Justice or Freedom.

    That Brings me to my final point. Human Rights.

    Rights are expensive to discover, create and to keep. There are heavy costs for these too, we frequently forget. “Freedom Isn’t Free,”
    Too expensive for Fascists to worry about.

    I love China, it is probably the most beautiful country in the world, but not its Government, I love the Chinese people, just not what they have turned into in the last 60 years(I would say they are really no longer even Han Chinese, but a just a shell of what they once were as a people), and finally Chinese Society and Culture was once very beautiful, but today I argue that it has been destroyed and replaced with corruption.

    Just my $.2 From 10 years of experience.

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