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On cultural hybridity, ambassadors, and other low hanging fruit

Last week, an op-ed published by the China News Service referred to outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke as a “banana.” It was, I suspect, meant to be satirical, and was a crude take-off on a famous essay written by Mao Zedong to celebrate the departure of another US ambassador, John Leighton Stuart.

The article was in bad taste and it brimmed with the kind of chickenshit pettiness that characterizes the more strident wings of the Chinese state media.

The term “banana” is an offensive term, especially when directed at an US Ambassador, but I’m not going to dwell on the epithet. I’m not Asian. I’ve never been called that. In fact, I’ve never been on the receiving end of any racist epithet.

As Mike Wilbon said on PTI last week when discussing the NFL’s decision to ban another provocative epithet from the football playing field, “Tony Kornheiser is my good friend of 35 years but he doesn’t get a vote in this.”

I’ll let others better qualified than I discuss the nature of that particular term.

But crude or not, the use of the term was just the most glaring example of how the writer of this essay completely fails to grasp a concept central to Chinese history: Cultural hybridity.

What somebody looks like, their DNA, their genotype, is of course irrelevant to somebody’s cultural make-up.

“Ethnicity,” “Race,” “Culture,” are all shifting and unstable ideas…except in China. Here ethnicity, race, culture are fixed constants. Hence, Xinjiang has always been “Chinese.” History books speak of a “Han” race which dates back millennia. Or, as in the case of Ambassador Locke, if you look Chinese, you must be—at heart—Chinese.

As Kaiser Kuo wrote as part of an excellent and insightful discussion on the subject at China File:

The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship.

But looked at another way, Chinese history is filled with cultural hybrids and liminal figures. In his 2012 book Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, Norwegian historian Od Arne Westad argues that cultural hybrids, those figures with the ability to operate in both East and West, were central to the development of a modern China.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine recent Chinese history without the likes of Sun Yat-sen (born in Guangdong, educated in Hawaii), Hu Shi (educated in the United States), or Chen Duxiu (educated in Japan). Overseas Chinese communities  made the first sizable private investments in developing China’s industrial and commercial sector. Many of the same overseas merchants, who often became wealthy despite native mistrust and hostility toward the Chinese diaspora in places like Indonesia, Malaya, and California, funded Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities.

Then there is Robert Hart, who was the head of the Maritime Customs Bureau for the Qing Empire for nearly a half-century beginning in 1863. Born in Northern Ireland, a place not without its own tricky terrain of identity, Hart operated a hybrid organization with both foreign and Chinese staff, often acting against the interests of his fellow foreign nationals in his service to the dynasty.*

Even those foreign nationals angry at Hart for having ‘gone native’ were often at a loss as to their own identity. British historian Robert Bickers and others have written about the “Shanghailanders” of the 19th century who saw their community as something separate from their home nations, all the while maintaining their superiority distinctiveness regarding the local “Shanghainese.”

Perhaps the greatest cultural hybrids were the Manchus (Yes, I can find a way to work the Manchus into just about any argument). The early Manchu rulers grafted foreign notions of Central Asian empire onto a Chinese state and in so doing were able to expand that state into something much larger than any previous “Chinese” Empire.  They did so as well without losing their own identity, even as markers of that identity gradually gave way to local ways of living.

Even today, cultural hybrids fill important roles in China’s academic, business, and artistic worlds. There are Chinese educated abroad. ABCs “returning” to a place they’ve never been. White dudes from NH teaching in a Chinese university. African migrants seeking a place to settle down.

There was a recent video celebrating Beijinger’s ability to be “Happy” even when having to take slow, shallow breaths under a polluted sky. What struck me was how diverse Beijing appeared in the video. Obviously, Chinese still outnumber foreigners, but what do those terms even mean? If identity isn’t fixed, isn’t it possible we all exist on some kind of sliding scale of hybridity?

And yet, as the op-ed crudely lampooning Ambassador Locke shows, and Kaiser alludes to, hybridity is also something which is still misunderstood and feared. 汉奸 hanjian (“race traitor”) is a common epithet used against Chinese who take a nuanced stand in regards to Chinese government policy, those Chinese who marry or date outside their race, or anybody who fails to live up to the most calcified idea of what it means to be “Chinese.”

In the same post above, Kaiser makes the fair point that foreigners are not immune from this. The vitriol given to Mark “Da Shan” Roswell for appearing too cozy with the Chinese establishment is but one example of a modern-day Robert Hart.

Gary Locke was an excellent ambassador for the United States. He was also an excellent example of somebody who, in a global world, showing what it means to transcend narrow national identities. Some are searching for roots a world away from where they are born born, some are searching for homes far away from our roots.

Those who cling to narrow and fixed notions of identity often do so for their own narrow reasons.  Liminal figures who have always been at the center of momentous change. Maybe that’s why repressive regimes seem so paranoid about those who don’t fit in any  neat little box of identity.


*Although it should be noted that Hart himself never quite got over his multiple identity crises. He ditched his Chinese mistress and their children in favor of a “proper” British wife midway through his career. Eventually, one of his Anglo-Chinese children ended up suing him.

2 Comments on On cultural hybridity, ambassadors, and other low hanging fruit

  1. Steven Schwankert // March 4, 2014 at 10:41 am //

    Da Shan doesn’t appear cozy with the Chinese establishment, he is cozy with it, that doesn’t deserve to be in quotes or written as if it is alleged.

  2. I stand by writing it as alleged, in that I’m not sure how cozy Da Shan really is with the establishment, but I used the quotation marks because I thought I was quoting Kaiser from his response. Made a mistake in that he doesn’t actually use that phrase (at least in the post, I think I’ve heard him say it before) so I’ve taken the quotation marks out.

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