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Change in China must come from within

Its people have plenty to draw from in their own culture to force reform.

November 27, 2009|By Robert Louis Chianese

In his Nov. 22 Times Op-Ed article, “Understanding China,” Martin Jacques writes that we in the U.S. should not expect modern China to Westernize despite recent overtures of friendship and cooperation. He cites a long tradition in China of people seeing the state "as the guardian, custodian and embodiment of their civilization." Jacques writes that because the government is nearly synonymous with Chinese civilization, the people do not feel a natural antagonism to the state, as we do in the West.

Our Western system of checks and balances has a built-in suspicion of government. The Chinese, on the other hand, presumably accept the legitimate authority of the state as one would an ancestral father or family.

I think, however, that modern China will adapt this Western "antagonistic" model to reform its own system. The Chinese state will have to face more antagonisms as the whole country opens up to the world and people see that the authority of the state can be illegitimate too.

As we learn from reading Chinese American author Maxine Hong Kingston's novel, "The Woman Warrior," the impulse for change in Chinese culture must come from within rather than from outside. Women in this fictional work gain power not through modern Western feminism, but through the heroic exploits of an ancient woman warrior. The outcome is similar: women's empowerment.

As pressure for new freedoms arises in China, ancient figures of dynamic change will be sought and used. A basic text and philosophy in China is the "I Ching," or the "Book of Changes," in which small variations produce major transformations. I found this out for myself recently while I was a Fulbright scholar there.

I taught university students of American literature in Shanghai in 2007 and introduced an ecological approach to literary study. When it came to referring to modern ecological problems in both our countries, and how they enter literature, I mentioned L.A.'s iconic smog, which appears in works by Raymond Chandler and Thomas Pynchon. I drew silent stares when I mentioned the obvious and oppressive smog in Shanghai. It's notorious, debilitating and undeniable. Yet the students would say nothing about it, let alone name a Chinese work that deals with it.

I tried one more example: the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Surprisingly, they had plenty to say about the dam and its tearing apart of cities, towns and families through extensive flooding of the Yangtze River. Millions of gallons of waste and toxic material flow into the river behind the dam; plus, it's cracking! The government and the people are now willing to admit all this.

Why was this crown jewel of Chinese engineering open to criticism in and out of class? Because it was championed by former Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, and he is now widely discredited.

That's an instructive, we might say dangerous, model -- the key previous leader-liberator and his grandiose plans are open to serious criticism. That is a major step toward a healthy antagonism between the state and its people. I was even given a copy of the film "Still Life," by Chinese director Jia Zhangke, which dramatizes the plight of average people swept away by Yangtze flooding.

Whether China can contain the growing internal dissent against its restrictive policies is unclear. Oppression and self-suppression are practiced on a large scale everywhere, which suggests a people not so accepting of the state as the legitimate power derived from ancient traditions, as Jacques would have it.

The solidarity and obedience in Chinese culture stem from tight control by the government, its homogeneity and deliberate isolation. That wall kept the rest of the world out for centuries. Today, travel, trade, education and the Internet breach that wall.

As the Chinese confront problems typical of modern societies, they will likely find the roots of a governmental checks-and-balances system in their own rich and luminous past, as well as plenty of antagonistic social conflicts that long ago called out for compromise and balance, a key Chinese value. With millenniums of their own history to draw from, the Chinese won't need to borrow from the West to get to our system and culture of contentiousness and off-setting powers. But they will get there -- or sink in their own swirling currents of change.

Robert Louis Chianese is an emeritus professor of English at CSU Northridge.

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