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The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture Paperback – October 1, 1992
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If a Westerner had penned this book, they would have been branded a racist, or been accused of not understanding "the real China," a common Sinophile charge. But because Bo Yang was Chinese - born in China and later a resident of Taiwan - and because he was a well-known historian, writer, journalist, etc. (he headed the Taiwan chapter of Amnesty International and was an advisor to the Taiwanese government after he did a spell in prison as a dissident) nobody can say boo about this book, not least of all because every sentence is lethally accurate.
Because of the title, I had thought The Ugly Chinaman was a sort of angry tirade, but it is not. It is a well argued denunciation of the ills of Chinese culture. But a neophyte likely would not understand; it helps to live in Chinese society for a while before reading.
TUC begins with a dialogue between a doctor and TB patient. The patient accuses the doctor of fabricating the diagnosis and says it is doctors like him who harm the motherland. The patient barks, "It's people like you who are to blame for China's problems. You make foreigners look down on Chinese people because you give them the idea that we're all suffering from TB. Traitors like you suck the blood of the Chinese people and kiss the arses of the barbarian devils. God will strike you dead! Imperial court guards! (coughs) Take him away!"
It's a reference to the lack of introspection and the proclivity to deny and ignore serious problems. We see examples of this all the time in the news. Villagers say their water has been contaminated by a nearby factory, and local officials accuse them of treason. Recrimination is commonplace. Problems snowball. No one wants to see them; others are afraid to speak up.
The book ends with a series of refutations, too. Bo Yang published a series of angry responses written by other "academics" in opposition to his thesis that Chinese culture is, and I quote, primitive, and that Chinese people need to Westernize for the benefit of all. The book's format, then, is very clever: an angry denial, a series of propositions and examples that outline a damning thesis, and more angry denials. Bo Yang knew that no matter how well-reasoned or well-supported his argument, Chinese culture is, to many, beyond reproach. By criticizing Chinese culture, you are only shaming your ancestors, who created it.
The Ugly Chinaman is a very bold and interesting book. It is a brave man who can look at his own culture in the eye and say, "You're sick. You need help." Apparently, when this book was published, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in East Asia. Anyone who has spent time in Chinese society ought to read it.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
Bo Yang had a particular purpose in his mind when he wrote the book. His target audience was his fellow Chinese, especially those living in Taiwan, who at the time were still lulled in the belief that Chinese culture (or at least as it was preserved in Taiwan) was the best among all civilizations. While everyone acknowledged that the West was technologically superior, many felt that spiritually and culturally China still triumphed over the decadent West. No one disputed that Chinese society had severe problems. But prior to Bo Yang's work, it was customary to blame these ills either on Westernization or a departure from China's true values. Bo Yang turned the tables by arguing that the culture itself was the source of these ills. It is as earth-shattering as William Bennett coming out and identifying Judeo-Christian values as the source of much that is wrong with the West.
When Bo Yang's work crossed the seas and entered the mainland, the effect was somewhat different. Mainland China had always blamed China's evils on the "feudal" (whatever that term means) culture of ancient China, so in many ways Bo Yang's criticism of Chinese culture resonated with what the communist government and mainland intellectuals believed at the time (this anti-tradition stance had reached its height in the 1919 May 4th Movement, and continued ever since on the mainland. In Taiwan, however, the ruling government returned to a staunchly pro-tradition, neo-conservative stance). In recent years, as nationalism gradually replaces Marxism Leninism as China's new orthodoxy, Bo Yang's work might be viewed in yet a different light. Would he be blamed as the unpatriotic quisling? Only time will tell.
It is difficult for the reviewer to gauge this book's impact on a Western audience. In so many ways Bo Yang assumes an intimate knowledge of Chinese matters, and uses satire to debunct many time-held notions. A Western reader certainly should not use this as a primer on Chinese culture, but it does offer a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a very influential writer in the Chinese speaking world. Nor should a Western reader use this book as "evidence" of the total failure of Chinese culture, any more than non-Westerners should understand America by reading only "The Ugly American". Bo Yang's work could instead be viewed as one attempt by a still very vibrant, living culture to come to terms with what it means to be modern yet true to one's sense of self. Ironically, thus far it has arguably been the more "Westernized" Chinese societies (Hong Kong, Taiwan, to an extent Singapore) that has been better able to preserve "Chinese" values.
Bo Yang is a very good writer of Chinese prose, and has made excellent (although sometimes rather carefree) translations of the seminal Chinese historical work "zizhi tongjian" from the original classical language. I hope English speakers enjoy "the Ugly Chinaman". It will probably not generate the range of emotions among non-Chinese as it did in the Chinese speaking world. Read it lightheartedly.
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