Magazine article The Spectator

Chinese Puzzle

Magazine article The Spectator

Chinese Puzzle

Article excerpt


by Martin Jacques Penguin, £30, pp. 550,

ISBN 9780713992540 . £24 (plus £2.45 p&p)

0870 429 6655

This long and repetitive book is exactly about what it says on the cover. Unlike Martin Jacques I hesitate to say the same thing again and again, but his point is that the Chinese have a very long, tenacious, unified, and enduring culture that is overtaking the 'West' - he means the United States, a country of recent origin compared to the 5,000-yearold Chinese civilisation-state. Some time in the mid-term future the Chinese will be global masters.

Jacques, a well-known journalist, onceeditor of Marxism Today and now a columnist for the Guardian and the New Statesman, lived for some years in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. In his introduction he thanks dozens of friends and colleagues, some of whom, he says, saved him from 'mistakes and indiscretions'. I don't know what he was saved from, but what remains is peppered with basic errors of fact so serious that they mar the reasonable things he says. While not original, these include a potted account, repeated many times, of China's post-Mao economy, an overview of China's traditional technological developments that I assumed owed much to Joseph Needham's multivolume study of that subject, but there is no mention of this in the bibliography; China's recent entry into the multi-state system; its influence on the rest of the Third World; the recent loss of status, economically and in reputation of 'the West', by which, as I say, he usually means the US; Chinese cultural-physical racism. If you know nothing of these matters and pick your way through Jacques' assertions and judgments there is something to learn.

But what weakens this book fatally in my judgment, and makes it another revelation that editors don't edit much any more and experts called in to vet a text either don't care or don't bother, are the mistakes, large and small, which disclose, from their absence in Jacques' bibliography, what he doesn't know.

A few small but emblematic examples: the Chinese written language is not 'pictographic'; Shanghainese is not a variant of Mandarin; China has not resisted alphabetisation - there is a useful alphabetical form of the written language, 'pinyin', which most Chinese children and plenty of foreigners learn first; the influence of the Tiananmen killings was not limited - there were related uprisings, large and small, in several hundred Chinese cities, and using the word 'Tiananmen' on the internet can bring a knock on the door; the Olympic opening ceremony was not a total success - it was marked by fakery, including the dubbed little girl singing, and the Games themselves were marred by the arrests of dissidents and the prevention of any public criticism.

The fundamental flaw in this book, however, is Jacques' swallowing whole the lowest common denominator of the Chinese self-image, available from taxidrivers and the four students Jacques quotes at length. That is, that China has existed more or less in essence for 5,000 years, and even alien conquerors, like the Mongols (the Yuan, 1280-1368) and Manchus (the Qing, 1644-1912) adopted Chinese ways as soon as they could. It is true that there are some Chinese who say this but it is no longer the unquestioning notion of educated people inside or outside China. None of the present scholars on the Manchus, notably Pamela Crossley and Evelyn S. Rawski, are listed in Jacques' bibliography. These historians emphasise how malleable the 'alien' rule was; sometimes alien, sometimes 'Chinese', depending on what seemed needed. For example, Manchu women could not bind their feet Chinese-style, and Chinese men were forced to wear the Manchu pigtail. Manchu rule varied with the part of China in which it was exercised, using different languages to issue commands, and using different modes of bureaucracy.

Nor did Confucianism start in the Qin, several hundred years after Confucius, and far from it being the state ideology, as Jacques says repeatedly, what emerged in the Qin was a very tough, controlling, punitive ideology that Confucius would not have recognised. …

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