Sunday, May 1, 2011

Troy Parfitt's "Why China Will Never Rule the World": Book Review

Neither panda hugger nor dragon slayer, Sinophile or Sinophobe, after a decade teaching English in Taiwan, this author took his first mainland tour, three months the year before the 2008 Olympics. This Canadian ex-pat, during his travels, intersperses a sharp, witty, droll commentary on his encounters with a casual yet erudite retelling of the events and leaders who built--for mostly worse rather than better--modern China. His title sums up his thesis. Any talk of a Chinese "hegemon" is just that, rhetoric more than action, for a nation mired in Confucian slogans, incurious outlooks, slavish conformity, and myopic visions.

Parfitt, inspired by Paul Theroux's train journey twenty-odd years before, loops across the south on his first leg. He begins in Hong Kong and Macau. He notes how "houses are akin to Chinese characters; they are fundamentally erect and possess a rough degree of uniformity, yet they are always unique; an infinite array of strokes and angles. Streets run like sentences; neighbourhoods like paragraphs." (45) His pithy knack of observing complexity within compressed prose marks this narrative.

Less aloof (if slightly?) than Theroux, Parfitt also appears less snobbish. He never hides his disdain for so much of a Chinese urban scene made up of McDonalds, KFC (although he dines at both) and of course Starbucks, but when praise is due a tender moment of assistance from however rare a passerby, Parfitt fairly records that encounter as often as the very frequent times when he's gawked at, gawped at, mocked, or snickered at. He as with any foreigner, it appears, but maybe more with him due to his neat beard and bearish stature, also incites contempt, belligerence, titters, and xenophobia.

Luckily, he speaks and reads Mandarin. He can play the fool, the naive tourist, when it suits his camouflage. He even dons an orange hat with a grinning squid emblem so as to both stand out and blend in. Or, he can chat away with the locals. This talent intrigued me. He's neither the old "China hand" weighing in tiresomely on every conversation and fact he compiles, nor is he the ignorant Westerner unable to comprehend the passing jibe or astonished mutter which seem to come in his wake, every fifty meters.

He can't beg a bottle of water, a room key for a hotel, or directions from a cabbie as to a river, a street, a museum in the driver's own hometown, but he does get solicited. Business cards and phone calls after check in offer massages on cue; would-be masseuses accost him. This gets to be a running gag, were it not so tiresome. Parfitt, by showing how these routines grind him down amidst the litter, the stench, the megaphones, the rudeness, the chaos of a pliable, irritating, relentlessly noisy and smugly infuriating populace, remains fair-minded. That is, he's able to explain why what he sees came about the way it did.

The ambition of most of whom he meets to swindle the newcomer, foreign or domestic, evolves from a Confucian mindset. In Guangzhou, he muses how the natives fool not only the outsiders, but themselves: "The Chinese penchant for replication" of fakery, of forced or real naivete, of willed incompetence, safeguards power. (79) Ignorance runs so deep, after thousands of years, that nobody believes anything anymore. Except, it seems, their own dominance. They are heirs to the Middle Kingdom in a Sinocentric cosmos.

One must never get angry at somebody else, for that will cause them to lose face. But, fights and brawls break out in public as Parfitt strolls about, as if daily occurrences. He reasons that the childish nature of his spiteful hosts comes from not saving "face" so much as from their indulgence of "a licence for people to behave however they please." (105)

He analyzes Lu Xun's Candide-like character of Ah-Q and Taiwanese dissident Bo Yang to demonstrate two homegrown critics of Chinese illogic, prejudice, paranoia, sadism, crudeness, petulance, and a dozen or two more such attributes. Yang's quoted: "A Chinese with an inferiority complex is a slave; a Chinese with a superiority complex is a tyrant." (226) Neither quality engenders self-respect, and based on this crippling pair of qualities, Parfitt finds the Chinese unbalanced, unable to accept that their way's not the best way for the rest of the world-- if they even consider the rest of the world. Yang adds that while the Chinese treat foreigners best (which made me wonder, after Parfitt's testimony), that they treat each other "with the gentility appropriate to a blitzkrieg."

Their lack of knowledge of the planet they are supposed to be about to conquer, Parfitt finds, reveals itself in hundreds of conversations. Nobody he talks to, even the head of a Canadian Confucian Institute, can articulate why that philosophy's to be emulated and to be the model for the rest of the globe. They parrot these ancient analects, but they cannot interpret their venerated wisdom or expound upon their proverbial precepts. Parfitt scrutinizes centuries of dimwitted self-satisfaction. He visits a Museum of the Revolution in Beijing, but it's closed, as it nearly always is. The PRC present keeps having to reinvent its past. For, in this Orwellian society (the book's full of parallels which Parfitt inserts from the pages of "1984"), reinvention trumps access to information. Itself a rare commodity, if true, in China.

He shares a wry eye for the telling detail that reveals duplicity. On a poster of a man to be executed for smuggling, Parfitt observes a separate photo of the thief's "contraband: a treasure chest filled with gold coins. It looked like a clip art image that you'd find in Microsoft Office." (237) Legalism from Confucius, the law from the Communist Party, the paradigm of a strong state and a weak people: all combine to dessicate the spirit. Based on feudal custom, no liberalization will accompany China's lurch into free markets. Democracy, Parfitt insists, will not follow automatically from capitalism. Totalitarianism prevents egalitarianism.

The West, he chides, projects its fears and desires upon the East. The pious seek converts, the profiteer exploits labor, the neo-con fears competition. Any boasts by Chinese or Western champions of its global domination, Parfitt argues, keep begging the question of what exactly makes China so great today. Besides their sheer numbers, what's the reason for their top rank? China's own people fail to answer his Socratically argued challenges. They're unable to think for themselves. They cannot prove their own proverbial expertise.

He's driven mad by the tautologies of his interlocutors. "Proponents needn't provide evidence; it was just something they knew. Others were required to either believe or be quiet. Sceptics were heretical, incapable of seeing the light." (263) China's destined for greatness because China has always been great.

But, on the same page, his tone lightens. This book's far from a gloomy catalogue of horrors and cant. "I spent an hour strolling around Nanjing University's campus examining women's underwear, but only because it was hanging in nearly every barred-up balcony I passed." Two pages on, getting out of Nanjing to fly to Xian, he begins a chapter: "In the queue for the check-in counter at the airport, four people took the foot of space between me and the person in front of me to be their own." (265) In the more northerly city of Hangzhou, it's "damp and foggy, and there were no shadows. It was as if I were existing in a Tupperware container." (282)

Despite an horrific time on a Yangtze River cruise, he conveys one of dozens of delicate descriptions within four-hundred pages of frequent glimpses of charm. "The brown enamelled waterway arced gently into the distance where it was pinched by a pair of lush hills. It rippled at the edges, as though an elongated pane of tinted glass had been scratched repeatedly by a diamond. Among these scratches were scissored silhouettes of men in conical hats standing atop uncertain rafts." (144) This typifies the care with which Parfitt assembles his travels for us. He educates while we enjoy our lessons.

His far-ranging (17 out of 23 provinces--counting Taiwan!) journey takes him to Lhasa by plane, if briefly. Rather than the usual sources which lament the Reds and glorify the Buddhists, he cites Ma Jian's lurid tales and Patrick French's sobering, revisionist "Tibet, Tibet" (compare his review to my review). While Parfitt's book lacks an index or illustrations, its accessible content, via such popular sources as Sterling Seagrave's "The Soong Dynasty" about the three sisters connected with Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek's power bids, appeals to me as a general reader. He gives a few footnotes as asides. He includes a bibliography, if not documentation for pages cited. I learned a tremendous amount here, told with verve and efficiency. I wished for more interviews, such as with his expert witness who discounts the standard version told in the West about Tiananmen Square. However, I wanted more follow-through with this episode, given the surprising claims made by journalist Jan Wong.

Parfitt takes a refreshing if idiosyncratic approach to many sights and characters; that is, he likes to second-guess and counter-argue against the received wisdom of a peaceful Tibet, a massive protest at Tiananmen Square that was shot down in its thousands, of a Great Wall, of the Terracotta Warriors, of the Boxer Rebellion, the Opium Wars, or the reasons Taiwan and China became estranged. He visits museums to panda breeding, suspiciously related triumphs, and Japanese WWII vivisection. He relates fluently the sagas of Sun Yat-Sen, Mao, Chiang Kai-Shek, and lesser-known figures in context, as he visits their birthplaces and monuments. He rummages through rumors. He corrects distortions of the historical record, whether from the Dalai Lama, the Cultural Revolution, germ warfare by the Japanese, the Korean War, the rape of Nanking, and many more horrors, it seems, rather than wonders.

Even China's beauty spots drag. Hordes keep visiting Hangzhou's West Lake to marvel at it because it's marketed as a marvel. It reminded me of Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise" with a scene set at the "most photographed barn in America."

After a while, this assault on his senses wears Parfitt out. He circles the north, up to Haiban in Manchuria and then, dashing across even the North Korean border for a tense moment, down the coast's cities. Mostly, he goes from megalopolis to metropolis by train, so you see less of the countryside. Although what he tells from nearer the Burmese border or in his excursions away from a series of endlessly oppressive urbanized monstrosities remains noteworthy if for rare moments of sanity among the relative peace, for a few minutes or miles. The pressure grows, until by the noose of his northern loop, he's given up his goal of a third journey inland to the western realms, along the old Silk Road. This decision comes suddenly, told in one paragraph.

Therefore, it surprised and saddened me. I admire Colin Thubron's reports from the Silk Road and Tibet, so I wished Parfitt had taken this third route. He cites, speaking of Tibet, Ma Jian's iconoclastic stories in "Stick Out Your Tongue" and his 1983 bohemian frontier trek in "Red Dust." Along with these, Parfitt's book inspired me to check out the day after I finished it an existential quest into the south, "Soul Mountain," inspired by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjiang's 1983 trek-- as well as Thubron's 1987 travelogue "Behind the Wall." So, enlightened by Parfitt, you can see the sign of a good book: it made me eager to find out more.

However, Parfitt's alternative makes sense. He's weary of PRC hassles. The last third of his book takes us around the coast of Taiwan. That allows him to compare and contrast the island nation of his past ten years  with its giant neighbor. He finds that while Taiwan's friendlier and more tolerant, it inherits its counterpart's Confucian obfuscation and desire for revenge. The ubiquity of women of all ages sporting Playboy fashions cluelessly, of everyone donning logos of Che, marijuana leaves (they think it's the Canadian maple leaf), and the proliferation of Hello Kitty symbolizes another sort of myopia: "a mindless kitty-cat that has no mouth and consequently no voice." (325) Silliness and schmaltz stand for the Republic of China, reduced and rejected, but still claiming sovereignty over more territory than the PRC.

Taiwan also possesses a frightening penchant for mayhem: all televised whether architectural, political, criminal, judicial, or recreational. A treacherous highway posts signs that warn the traveler to hurry as rocks fall, as if hastening will thwart landslides. The educational system resembles institutionalized child abuse. Its workers match Japan with average hours (72) weekly. Incessant, raucous, inane, despite its own advancements (credit hated Japanese colonizers, KMT capital after the army and refugees fled their defeat, and American aid), Taiwan remains "as close as lips to teeth" with the PRC, as he adapts a saying.

Now returned to teach in the comparative tranquility of New Brunswick, Parfitt realizes he has freed himself from a paternalistic, haughty, rote, and collectively imposed culture. In China, he will not gain full immersion. He knows Mandarin, but he questions authority. China demands myth as an "imperative," given "such a sorrowful, tumultuous, and inglorious past." (393) He values truth, he suspects myth.

His last chapter recounts his Chinese students in Canada doggedly defending their native government's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square twenty years earlier. His charges remain docile, speaking up not only for Mao but for Stalin. The Chinese woman running the Confucius Institute in Parfitt's homeland admits that after three years there, she has no idea about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's news service, unable even to identify its initials. Mrs. Cai demands at the end of his interview that he hand over his notes to her so her boss can approve them before publication. He refuses.

(This review's cross-posted to Cafe Libri at 5-1-11; Amazon US 9-6-11. The book will appear Sept 15th 2011 and can be ordered from the author's website or Amazon; I reviewed an advance galley. As of 5-21-11, I've posted reviews on Amazon US & of "Soul Mountain," "Red Dust," the related "Stick Out Your Tongue," and "Behind the Wall." These appeared in due time on this blog...)


Ipmilat said...

Excellent review, as always. The book sounds fascinating. It looks as though more PRC students will be joining us where I work, maybe outnumbering the Arab students. One thing that surprised me about them is that they are much more organised, independent and adaptable than the Saudis and Libyans, many of whom have not 'tuned in' yet after six months.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

VS, I don't get many Asian students, but recently I've taught (for the first time in my nearly 27 years at it) Turks. I've been impressed by their diligence and language skills (sometimes better than the natives, damned by faint praise as that may be), but perhaps they represent the most driven and accomplished expatriates? I've had some excellent Copts (my doctor's also one!); I wonder at the rate of emigration if any will be left back in Egypt even post-Mubarek.

From your tales, the childishness and complaints of your Saudi & Libyan lot do make me wonder about their competence when nobody's watching. Their petulance reminds me of many outbursts in this book. I've had only one (brilliant) Greek student ever! And he was a Cypriot, again with better fluency than the usual home-grown lot.

Parfitt's own comments prove also enlightening about the near-total lack of initiative or curiosity among his Chinese charges. The impact of rote learning and forced recitals drive many of his critiques as to the PRC; by comparison, his RoC cadres by a slightly Westernized tilt benefit!

As a final note: "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" by Professor X. I have only read the original article (embedded in this NYTBR link); the book got a lot of attention and a lot of flak.

Ipmilat said...

Interesting if rather depressing link. I found some of the comments on the article irritatingly self-righteous - you really cannot make silk purses out of sows' ears however much enthusiasm for your subject you might evince.

John Huckley said...

This author is garbage. There's a reason his last book ranks #2,615,518 in sales on Amazon. Maybe this book can beat his old record by ranking #2,615,517.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

John H., not sure why the vitriol, but I let your comment stand as it indicates a strong reaction. I respect a negative critique, but it needs to be supported by evidence, not emotion. I have no insider's expertise into China, but Parfitt writes for precisely a reader like myself, more than an old "China hand," as he explains early on. He tells it as he sees it, and he strives for balance to play off his own biases, as a close reading of his book shows.

For me, I found the book insightful and it roused me to read right after the four Chinese-themed or authored titles mentioned, certainly by respectable sources, and I reviewed them all on Amazon as well. If Troy Parfitt can spur me to find out more about a subject that interested me far less before I read his account, surely that deserves thanks?

He makes his claims fairly and shares his criticisms honestly. I understand, after his book and the others, more about China that helps inform my teaching and how my students can learn about China and Taiwan as well; I had recent students from both nations to whom I recommended his book. Maybe they can weigh in on whether they think it merits the low sales ranking you claim...

Anonymous said...

Dear author,

While I appreciate your review of Parfitt's book, I must warn you against the gross generalizations that his books offers. For example, the speaking of a Confucian culture in China today is extremely misleading, as much of the old tradition has been altered and transformed during the 20th century. Moreover, what exactly constitutes as "Confucian" remains hotly contested. In addition, like all major thought systems, Confucianism itself is diverse and therefore cannot be broadly categorized as to represent one single, unified, cohesive ideology.

Another point to be made is the Chinese themselves. Like you I am invovled in college education, my own encounters with Chinese students here in the U.S tell me that many of them are far from docile. They can be extremely thoughtful and critical of China as well as many other matters. The same thing can be said of many online discussions one finds on Chinese websites. In fact, one can argue there is no lack of criticism of China (both the government and culture) from the Chinese; more often than not it is way too critical e.g everything in the culture deserves to be smashed. This is a tradition that comes down from the May 4th movement which reached its height in the Cultural Revolution.

In the end, I fear Mr. Parfitt's knowledge of China is limited and superficial at best. I encourage you to read other books concerning China, if you are interested. General histories like Gernet's "A History of Chinese Civilization" can be a good starting point. The same is true with document book like De Bary's "Sources of Chinese Tradition".

Just want to share some of my thoughts. Thanks.