Blog Post

How Not to Teach China in America

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I

     Some critics characterize the U.S. not as a nation but as an empire. Although it is difficult to convince anybody loyal to the empire that he may be an “imperial subject,” I find much evidence of what may be called the “imperial attitude.” “Imperial” does not simply mean superior or number one; it simply means my culture is all under heaven. Although Cola-Cola or Hollywood may sound like “world culture,” it is thoroughly American and hence national in origin, a product of a particular place and time. Yet this is precisely what eludes the imperial attitude, which assumes that what originates in America is not only American, but a universal norm. This mentality resembles an airy, all-under-heaven mindset criticized by Liang Qichao, the most important Chinese thinker at the turn of the 20th century. Liang charged that Chinese, in the long shadow of the dynastic empires, did not know who they were as a people who badly needed to become a nation and a state. They knew their families, kin, and communities, all under the mandate of Heaven, but they did not know themselves as a people. For the imperial attitude, there is only genealogy, no history; there is the patriarch, no political representative; there are private affairs, no public good.

     Today, American students indulge in this pre-political, imperial mentality, which is utterly at odds with the image of the citizen. This attitude affects their understanding of a foreign culture. As a professor, I tell stories of Chinese culture to students. The culture in question is dubbed Chinese, which has national character and is not easily equated with “international culture.” Understood in the sense of a certain national origin, of public activity, of a narrative of political events and a collective drive to forge a people’s destiny, the idea of national culture may be extremely alien to the imperial attitude. Writing against the self-advertising spectacle of pan-African culture, Franz Fanon argues that every culture is primarily national, rooted in the political struggles of a people on the ground. American Marxist thinker Fredric Jameson also contended in regard to China that an individual’s fate in a third-word culture points to a collective project. But culture, defined as a collective project of a people, is being replaced by a denationalized, cosmopolitan flatness, and so when “Chinese” is brought up, you may be accused of being a bloody nationalist.

     In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom diagnoses the obsessive inner-directness of American students under the rubric “self-centeredness.” Students are preoccupied with their relationships, sexuality, and career prospects, and “the affairs of daily life rarely involve concern for a large community in such a way so as to make public and private merge in one’s thought” (84). Students are free from the constraints of country, religion, family, politics, and ideas of civilization, which to them seem to be tragic, burdensome entanglements of the past. American culture is not “experienced as a common project but as a framework within which people are only individuals, where they are left alone” (85). Dropping all cultural belonging, all communal ties “external” to the individual, they only worry about making it economically in the marketplace and about seeking personal fulfillment, success and status in society. Culture, true to the concept, cannot be so individualistic and are is the bottom of the identity of a human person. But individualistically performed culture regresses to a realm where the human person resides in a naked state of nature, stripped of all cultural and national backgrounds and memories. In treating other cultural traditions, this stripped down attitude leads to a bland globalism that permits anything as long as it does not infringe on the individual’s rights and privacy. If the individual can freely shed his own culture and history, he also stands at an equal distance from other cultures, because culture is now regarded as nothing but a playground to project personal choices and give vent to self-expression. My teaching experience tells me that Bloom’s diagnosis, written in 1987, of this cultural narcissism is very much alive, but this feature has taken on the guises of multiculturalism, globalization, hybrid ethnicity or other labels that exacerbate the individualization and trivialization of culture, hollowing out the political realm premised on a public of concerned citizens, which is anchored to national tradition and history.

     This imperial, de-nationalized stance treats China in five ways. First, China is a commodity; it may be a flavor of food in a multinational buffet or a source of pleasure, like the pleasure derived from dating a pretty Chinese girl. Secondly, students may act like a connoisseur of national geographical exotica, seeking to satisfy his touristic wanderlust. Thirdly, utilitarianism may also motivate him, prompting him to see China in terms of market value and profit in global capital expansion. The questions of China’s own way of socio-political development, its historical trajectory, and its national identity are of no concern. Fourthly, students may view China in the capacity of a therapist, believing that as a pathological case, China is a maladjusted country that needs to receive shock therapy for it to become normal. Finally, still absorbed in his personal self-interest, he may contemplate China as a canvas to project his own ego, his attitudes, feelings, and preferences.

     This self-absorption shuts students out from geopolitical events of the day and immures them from the ongoing drama, narratives, and traumas that keep Chinese studies scholars focused on Chinese history and culture.

 
Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.