By the time I get back to Shanghai in a couple of weeks, I will have been away in North America for more than three months. But lest I forget what life in that fair city is like, I just read Troy Parfitt’s provocatively-titled book, Why China Will Never Rule the World, which will be published next week. The author is a Canadian native who spent a decade teaching English in Taiwan. As an observer “weary of hearing China being labeled a superpower or a great nation, with those terms seldom being qualified,” he set off on a tour of the People’s Republic to investigate and arrive at the truth.
With notepad firmly in hand, the author travels through seventeen provinces, as well as Hong Kong, and ends the book with a trip through his long-time home of Taiwan. From the beginning, I found myself shaking my head in rueful recognition of his clear-eyed travelogue: I, too, have had many of his experiences, ranging from the unpleasant boat tour down the Yangtze Rive to unhelpful travel agencies and hotel receptionists who don’t even know the name of the street on which they are located. Many are the times that I have been irritated and shouted back at insulting remarks about or aimed at the foreigner (me). And, like the author, I have laughed in puzzlement at many of the hilarious translations of signs in public places, and failed to laugh at the revisionist version of “history” in many museums.
I also learned a lot, as Mr. Parfitt has done a lot of research and has artfully woven his knowledge of history into his travel narrative. In particular, he de-mythologizes both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek, describing how the former searched his groin for lice in the middle of a speech and once took off his pants to cool himself off during an interview, and how the latter hid in a cave during the Xian Incident in 1936. Among the startling historical tidbits of the book: Mao had Lou Gehrig’s disease; the massacre that took place on June 4, 1989, in Beijing occurred not in Tiananmen Square, but a few kilometers away on Changan Street. (In fact, Mr. Parfitt’s account of what happened is rather confusing.)
In an effort to determine what China has to offer the rest of the world, the author discusses the philosophical underpinnings of Chinese culture, as compared to western culture:
Socrates believed that the status quo ought to be continually questioned and challenged. That would make for a better and more just society. Furthermore, citizens are morally bound to scrutinize those in authority. Confucius believed that the status quo must never be questioned or challenged. It may only be altered by those in authority. Consequently, change in a Confucian society occurs incrementally, if it occurs at all. Presently, China and its culture and society are being touted as dynamic, but that is the very thing they aren’t.
Still, the book disappointed in several ways. First is that Mr. Parfitt seemed to lack patience and was often just plain bad-tempered in his travels, quick to ascribe the worst motives to people (many of whom he, a stranger, must have caught off guard with his questions about Taiwan, democracy, and what China offers the world), and also unduly surprised when people were friendly and wanted nothing from him. A larger concern, however, is that the author reaches conclusions to very big questions in reliance on superficial encounters with people, not upon lasting relationships or ongoing conversations with people who have reason to be particularly thoughtful. (I shudder to imagine what one would learn about Canada or the United States simply by driving around from small town to big city and talking to random people in restaurants, at tourist sites, etc., about important issues of the day.) And when the author reaches a conclusion, he rants and exaggerate; one of many examples is: “Traditional Chinese culture is a shackle, and Chinese history is a dungeon from which it is impossible to escape.” Really — Chinese culture has nothing to offer the west? How about the practice of discipline in one’s endeavors…or the strong work ethic, just to begin with obvious examples.
Nevertheless, the author has a point – many of them, in fact. I, too, wince when I hear that this century belongs to China, or that it is now, or is about to become, a superpower – partly because I don’t know what those labels mean or why we need them. I agree that rather than parroting these mindless assertions based on the Pudong skyline or the high speed train system, we need to strive for a deeper understanding, based, in part, on history. And whether or not you agree with his conclusions, at least Mr. Parfitt is asking very good questions.