Old and New...

China as Center, China as Weak – Power Plays in Intercultural Communication

Ever since the Western gnashing of teeth over Japan’s rise, I had been wondering about international/-cultural relations.

Rising Sun (book cover)
Rising Sun (book) and DVD

I was a high school student then, had just gone to the USA for a year at school there, and went from Latin being one of the usual languages to study to having an opportunity to learn Japanese. National Geographic was full of articles on what Japan does well, TIME Magazine maybe even more so, and the book market had lots of volumes on Japanese management techniques and business etiquette.

You couldn’t beat them, so you had to join them – but would they even let you?

It was the time of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and the movie based on it. It was not only playing on all the fears of America being taken over by Japan and losing ground, but also reflected the notion that dealing with Japan meant dealing with an ancient and somehow mysterious culture that, even as it opened other markets for itself and took over influences and (product) ideas from around the world, remained closed and inscrutable to the outsider…

One thing was particularly noticeable: For all intents and purposes, it seemed rather obvious that it was Westerners learning how to do things the way Japanese would expect, whereas Japanese – aside from English study – had rather little interest in most of Western behavior.

Turned out that same time was also when Japan’s lost decade started.

Now, some 20 years later, Japan is still considered weak, and it is still the third-largest economy; and it is China that everyone is concerned about and wants to make money with/from, and Chinese language and culture with which Westerners try to come to grips.

Old and New...
Late Imperial and Modern Superpower Architecture

In the case of China, the situation is easily even more complicated, though.

On the one hand, there is an openness to outsiders , and certainly a curiosity about other cultures, that is quite unlike the reservedness found in Japan. In this same vein, one can even find what Chinese themselves call “Western worship,” the idea that civilization and modernity is things and behavior that are Western. No spitting, no slurping, no going outside in one’s pyjamas… the themes of many a campaign for making China more “harmonious”, well-behaved, and appealing to Western eyes.

At the same time, the undercurrent of Chinese exceptionalism and “Middle Kingdom-think” – not just assuming but knowing that China is really the center of the world and the civilization the magnificence and cultivatedness of which all others aspire to – is not just strong, it is a gulf stream.

Or maybe, given the switching between the two streams, the better metaphor would be the Southern Oscillation (El Niño/La Niña)…

I’d love to suggest a simple way that this tension will resolve itself, or at least a way of always dealing with it appropriately – but the only way to deal with it is to deal with it.

In some cases, it goes the way of Chinese adapting to their foreign guests / vaunted business partners. No alcohol and pork if you want to entertain and make deals with Middle Eastern or other Muslim partners.

In other cases, as with most Europeans and Americans, lavish banquets of the more usual Chinese variety, meaning with lots of dishes with pork (if that isn’t too humdrum for the occasion) and freely flowing, copious amounts of alcohol, are the sine qua non of happy business relations.

What is particularly interesting from a cultural anthropological perspective, though, is less that this can make life in China – or even just thinking about China – rather “interesting” (especially in times like these right now, with anti-foreigner rhetoric running high), but that there are power plays at work.

Han and Tu - all Chinese, all different
Another case for another time: Chinese ethnic groups

China’s oft-heard talk of a “weak culture” speaks to an awareness of that, even as its constantly mangled “soft power”-campaigns belie any notion of China understanding (how to deal /talk with) “the West.”

When you study English, learn Western etiquette, dress in Western business attire, lust after European luxury brands and aim to be a world player, there is some implicit notion of the “other/Western” being of a higher quality (which, in China, can not only be applied to products, but is also and very much an idea applied to people, particularly so on the marriage market).

It not only gets criticized as “Western worship,” though. Much of it is simply part and parcel of the (supposedly, and in part really, prototypical) East Asian adaptation of behavior to fit circumstances. Bow down and speak deferentially to your superiors, kick at and command your underlings… which is what even foreign politics sometimes looks like.

China still is the middle kingdom which, if not now, then in the future, will again be (recognized as) the pinnacle of civilization – and that does not even have to be aspired to. If you want to join, learn and make yourself a part, you are quite welcome to do so (rather more so than in many other cultures/civilizations). It’s also enough to remain a barbarian but acknowledge the glory of China, though – and at heart, those who are not really, ethnically, Chinese will never quite be a part of this world.

This mixture of weakness and strength, chauvinism and self-consciousness, essentialism as regards identity, possibilism when it comes to learning and becoming civilized, and contextualism informing behavior, is ultimately what one deals with when interacting with Chinese. We all do that to some extent, in integration debates, thinking about ourselves and others, and interacting with different people in different situations. These patterns do seem to take on a whole new level of meaning in the context of China, though.

It often seems like the irresistible force meeting the immoveable rock… and it is an issue that cannot be solved. In fact, it is not a problem to solve, but it can be understood and dealt with successfully.

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