- Paperback: 162 pages
- Publisher: Allen & Unwin (October 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1863731164
- ISBN-13: 978-1863731164
- Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,110,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture Paperback – October, 1992
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
But Taiwanese journalist Bo Yang showed me that the problems go much deeper than any woes created by the present regime in China, or the ending of British protection in 1997. Bo Yang argues the problem goes back centuries, a long period of repeated stultification within Chinese society - a combination of repressive leaders, static social systems and a reverence of doing exactly what your ancestors did, nothing more, nothing new.
I felt I understood China and Hong Kong a little bit better after reading this. The crowds along Des Voeux Road in Central, Hong Kong, may still be one of the most offensive social phenomena in the world; people may still laugh when old ladies slip in the blood of the Wanchai Wet Market; spitting, belching and wind-breaking may still be dealt out with nonchalance, but Bo Yang showed me there was a very good reason for this. A very moving, sad and poignant reason. I couldn't stay angry or annoyed after reading this.
As someone who lived in Hong Kong, I rank this book up with Timothy Mo's The Monkey King, Paul Theroux's Kowloon Tong, Austin Coates' Myself a Mandarin and Jan Morris' Hong Kong as the books that helped me most understand that intersting city, which is (or was) both a local financial center and an oasis for all the millions of Chinese refugees who tried to eascape from the mainland, from what Bo Yang so sharply calls "the putrid vat of soy sauce," (his phrase for the unpleasant side of China's otherwise fascinating culture).
Terribly sad story, brilliantly told in a unique Chinese way.
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