Happy Learn from Lei Feng Day!

On this date in 1963, Mao Zedong launched the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign, which is great because the most important lesson I’ve learned from Lei Feng is to look out for falling telephone poles, but maybe I’m not the target audience.

In case you missed it (or have recently been hit on the head by a large wooden object) Lei Feng was a young soldier in the PLA whose selfless devotion to his brother troops, to the people, and especially to Mao Zedong and his country, made him a role model for young Chinese. If you want to think of him as a cross between a boy scout, GI Joe, and “Opie” from the old Andy Griffith Show, go ahead I won’t stop you.

How did he die, you might ask?

Fighting the dastardly American imperialists? No.

Sneaking across the Himalayas to beat back Indian encroachment into the Motherland? Not really.

Mortal combat with Soviet spies? Not so much.

He was directing one his fellow soldiers to back up a truck (Possible last words: “Dao! Dao! Dao! Ooomph…) when the truck knocked down a telephone pole right on top of poor Lei Feng.

After his death, Lei Feng’s Diary was, erm, discovered and lo and behold it turns out that he was quite the young man: always helping others, assisting old ladies, living a frugal life, darning socks for his platoon mates and of course diligently studying Mao Zedong thought.

It was almost too good to believe.

Actually, it was too good to be believed.

“Learn from Lei Feng” exhibits sprang up like mushrooms through the PRC, moving tributes to exhort the people to follow Comrade Lei Feng’s example. Generations of students in China have ‘learned from Lei Feng’ starting at a young age, even as the soldier’s image has been updated and revised to suit the times and political climate. (Lei Feng the homeowner. Lei Feng the entrepreneur. Lei Feng in an Audi A6 clutching a man purse. Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.)

The fact that the diary was fictitious and a product of the propaganda department doesn’t necessarily rob Lei Feng of his significance. It’s nice to be nice to others, and as political campaigns go, urging people to help each other and be frugal definitely has its merits.

So, today let us all learn from Lei Feng: Help your fellow citizens, assist the elderly whenever possible, and, for goodness sake, watch out for large falling objects.

Originally published March 5, 2010

Image courtesy of Stefan Landsberger’s website Chineseposters.net.



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.


On Lamas in the White House…

I gave YJ a llama for Christmas this year. The venerable organization Heifer International allows you to sponsor various animals as a fundraiser for their worldwide relief efforts.  In  a moment of altruism, I bought a llama for YJ and named the llama “Dolly.”

When she got the card, she stared at it for a moment.

“Why ‘Dolly’?”




“You’re an idiot.”

Yeah, I am. To prove it, I probably laughed at my own stupid (and completely unoriginal) joke for like…five minutes.  Sometimes my own idiocy amuses even me.

Tomorrow President Obama welcomes the real Dalai Lama to the White House.  Not the Oval Office of course, but the Map Room: The sleazy “No-Tell Hourly Motel” of White House diplomacy.

Despite the official White House position on meeting the Dalai Lama (To paraphrase: “It’s a kiss on the lips but no tongue!”) the Chinese government has no choice but to respond to this horrendous interference in China’s internal affairs.

From Reuters:

“The United States’ arrangement for its leader to meet the Dalai would be a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

“It will seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations. We urge the United States to take seriously China’s concerns, immediately cancel plans for the U.S. leader to meet the Dalai, do not facilitate and provide a platform for Dalai’s anti-China separatist activities in the United States,” she added.

Spokeswoman Hua then did a pirouette, jammed a yak-horn knife into the upper thigh of New York Times correspondent Ed Wong, and smeared Ed blood on her face while dancing the Unity and Loyalty Dance right there on the carpet of the MOFA press room.

(Apologies to Reuters. I may have invented one of those paragraphs.  In my own defense, I’ve been breathing a lot of air in Beijing today and I’m currently down to two living brain cells.)

Most long-time China watchers roll their eyes when the subject of Tibet comes up. They know what it brings. The shouting and name-calling back and forth. The insane zealots on both sides of the argument.

Last week Central Committee member and go-to guy on ethnic issues Zhu Weiqun wrote:

“As China becomes more involved in international affairs, and as Tibet and Xinjiang further open to the world, more and more Westerners will have an understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang that better accords with reality,”

Of course, Zhu followed that up with:

“We can only push the West to change its way of thinking if we let them understand that China’s power cannot be avoided.”

As a former student wrote on my Facebook page: “I don’t think he really gets what ‘win over’ means.”

Looking at it from another perspective, I tend to agree with something Kaiser Kuo wrote on his Facebook page last week: Demonizing Han Chinese for “their” treatment of Tibetans does little to foster any kind of mutual understanding.

Most Chinese are well aware of the “Western” perspective on Tibet and are understandably prickly about the kinds of epithets used to describe Chinese control over the region.

I’m not advocating that we (as in the “West”) need to sugarcoat what is happening in Tibet so that our Chinese friends can feel warm and fuzzy, but the habit of talking AT the Chinese about Tibet is likely no less productive in the long run than the Chinese PR ‘strategy’ outlined in this article.

I think the first place to start is acknowledging that the “Chinese” perspective, no matter how stridently stated, is a valid perspective. They invaded it. It’s theirs. That’s the way the game was played.

Even the ahistorical argument that “Tibet has since the Yuan Dynasty been an inseparable part of China” has, with some quibbling over the timeline, a certain validity. The Qing Empire conquered Tibet. The ROC and then the PRC claimed (whatever you think of those claims) the most expansive definition of the old Qing imperial boundaries as their own and, for the most part and with the important exception of the USSR getting involved in Outer Mongolia, the world acquiesced or at least failed to care sufficiently to stop them.

Now that narrative is highly selective and lacking appropriate nuance. I don’t personally buy those arguments, either. But I understand why somebody would. What happens though is that “Chinese” and “Westerners” call each other names like “Imperialist” and “Brainwashed” without even trying to acknowledge that the other’s arguments have any validity whatsoever.

In terms of the Dalai Lama, however, I think China is missing an important opportunity.

Whatever the world thinks of His Holiness, to the Chinese government the Dalai Lama is  Yasser Arafat.

I’m not comparing their careers. No matter what the CCP says, the Dalai Lama is not a terrorist and is–in almost every measurable way– a  better human being than Arafat ever was. But China feels the same way about the Dalai Lama that Israel felt about Arafat. He’s their arch-enemy. Their bête noire. The figure they love to hate and whom they can blame for almost anything.

(The difference is: Yasser probably did it, whereas the Dalai Lama didn’t but here reality matters less than perception.)

When Arafat died there were few tears in the Israeli government. Flash forward  a decade later and in their darkest moments I think there are people in the security establishment who miss Yasser a little. Why? Because they may have hated the PLO Chairman with the white hot burning of a supernova but they knew him. He was a known quantity.  They could, after a fashion, work with him.

Compare then to now. Israel’s attempts to reach accommodation with the groups and leaders who have emerged since Arafat’s death have yielded, at best, mixed results.

China faces a similar dilemma. They may hate the Dalai Lama but they know him. He knows them and, a little bit like Arafat, this incarnation of the Dalai Lama is relatively moderate compared with what is waiting in the wings.

Moreover, just as Arafat had the stature and the credibility to compromise with Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton, it is possible that this Dalai Lama is the only figure in the Tibetan community who could work with Beijing and then sell a deal to the majority of Tibetans.  He may only be the head of one sect of Lamaism, but his stature looms larger than that, and it definitely overshadows any possible successor.

If the Chinese government is serious about moving forward and forging a truly multi-ethnic state, it needs to walk back the rhetoric of unity over all and recognize a plurality of perspectives on the past and present.

China needs to work with this Dalai Lama  while it has the chance. This Dalai Lama preaches non-violence and there’s good evidence that his leadership has kept more extreme elements in check.  He is moderate. He is a known quantity. He has expressed an interest in meeting with Chinese leaders.  The time is now. Is China ready?

A Qing historian reads the newspaper…