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Chinese Students and the Burden of the Past

ISSUE:  Summer 1990

Just hours before the tanks and armored personnel carriers clattered and blasted their way down Changan Avenue and into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, loudspeakers in the square crackled into life, and, as in Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles,” a “voice without a face” began repeatedly to declare, “in tones as dry and level as the place”:

Go home and save your life. You will fail. You are not behaving in the correct Chinese manner. This is not the West, it is China. You should behave like good Chinese. Go home and save your life. Go home and save your life.

According to British journalist John Simpson, whose translator rendered these Big Brotherly remarks into English, “it was a voice the people of China had been listening to for forty years, and continued listening to. . . .” Only this time, “no one moved.” And the rest, as the vulgar saying goes, is history.

Both the disembodied voice of authority and Simpson himself make keenly interesting assumptions that help to express my sense of how stiflingly incubus-like the history of China sits upon her people, and to put into perspective my own recent experiences as a university teacher in Beijing. As for Simpson, caught up in sympathy that I entirely share, and wanting to give the confrontation a sense of historical urgency, he apparently assumes that the voice on the square was the voice of communism with a capital “C.”

I wonder, however, whether he doesn’t inadvertently take something away from the students in talking thus, if the notion of virtue involves the notion of struggle, acknowledging the magnitude of the opponent. For this voice on the Square was an ancient Chinese voice, not one that has droned on for a mere 40 years. To turn its speech into an Imperial edict, practically all that is wanted is the characteristic valediction, “Tremble and Obey!” In calling for democracy, or even dialogue with the government, the students in a sense proved right the government’s fear that they were being influenced by the West. China, as David Bonavia has written, “has no significant tradition of institutionalized political opposition, either parliamentary or feudal. Historically, to go into active opposition meant raising a rebel army. . . .” Despite its turbulent history, the “Chinese political world by nature is conformist.” Perhaps this at least sketches an answer to the poignant question of student leader Wu’er Kaixi, who is understandably “so envious of what’s happening in Eastern Europe. . . . Why couldn’t it have been that way for China?” The current Chinese leadership has shown not one flicker of favorable response to the kinds of political reform that Gorbachev has instituted or allowed. Tradition weighs heavily against any change that does not come violently or by fiat.

A second expressive assumption—or small set of assumptions—underlies the authoritarian appeal of the voice itself. For although it may strike us as contemptible and ludicrous to talk about “behaving in the correct Chinese manner,” or to point out that “this is not the West, it is China,” as if that were an argument, I venture that these rigid polarities of “correct” and “incorrect,” China and the West, make perfectly good sense to the Chinese. The implied appeals to authority, social conformity, cultural identity, and the unambiguous definition of terms tug powerfully on the Chinese people, including the students that I taught in Beijing. To stress this is not to condescend in a quasi-racist way to the Chinese, among whom I still live and work, now in Hong Kong, nor to hint at some imagined superiority to the protestors in Beijing, but to articulate cultural differences worth exploring. At the very least, exploring them may make some sense of my sometimes laughable failures in class; and at most, it may help American readers to know the intellectual situation of Chinese students and see a little more clearly what many have struggled with, not only in the streets but in their history and in themselves.


At first I had no idea of the range and amplitude of the cultural differences that I encountered in dealing with my students at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. I knew only that I was deep trouble. We were not far into my first hour of teaching. My students were candidates for Master’s degrees in English at one of the finest universities in China; the course was “Modern British Literature”; the matter in hand was Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing”; and I was besieged by silence.

“Channel Firing,” written on the eve of World War I, is a peculiar, sardonic poem, narrated by a corpse. In it, gunnery practice out at sea literally wakes the dead, who sit upright, wonder if Judgment Day has arrived, converse about the futility of hope for moral progress, and hear from God that the living should consider themselves blessed that this is not indeed “”the judgment-hour.”” “”For if it were,”” God says, “”they’d have to scour/Hell’s floor for so much threatening. . . .”“

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need.)”

This poem, I thought, had something in it for everybody: history, politics, religion, and distinctly odd attitudes or tones of voice. (How do you, for example, read God’s “Ha, ha”?) And yet my every attempt to encourage a discussion failed. The students sat upright, but they had less to say than Hardy’s corpses. Unlike their American counterparts, my Chinese students did not even feel obliged to summon Importance into their faces. Nor did they shift uncomfortably in their chairs. I felt as if I were teaching to an oil painting. Finally, when I called on one student by name and asked him to say something, anything, to describe the attitudes towards war in the poem, he said, smilingly, “Sir, I think you could explain it better.”

This, then, was the deliciously ironic, I want to say “Hardyesque,” upshot of my having wanted to go where I would feel appreciated: my students wanted me to tell them everything, to give them reams of notes that they could memorize, reproduce (even as footnoted sources) on essays, and teach from in years ahead. Outside of class, my students and I had lively, friendly conversations about all sorts of things, including politically sensitive subjects. In the classroom, however, the closer we got to the material, to the subject in which I was considered “expert,” the more nearly impossible it became to draw them out.

Far from wanting me to raise critical issues, discover ambiguities, and encourage them to take some pleasure in the freedom that interpreting ambiguous works can enhance, which is a kind of self-realization, my students typically assumed that the “discussion” was a kind of solemn guessing-game: everything had one correct, unambiguous interpretation—the one, certain meaning that it really and truly had—and my not telling them right away what it was seemed to them a little tiresome and ungenerous. Sad to say, this was perhaps especially true in my graduate-level “Literary Griticism” course, where the ultimate aim was to encourage some flexibility or pluralism in interpretation. And it never ceased to strike me as pathetic, although I learned to call it “very Chinese,” that my students seemed to think that whatever they themselves might say about a novel, a poem, or a play could not possibly have interest or value. In short, they effaced themselves completely, and took with more seriousness than I had ever imagined possible my status as a “Foreign Expert,” an official title conferred on a great number of persons who work in China, and usually uttered by the foreigner in question with a self-deprecating roll of the eyes. I remember seeing an irreverent foreign student, shut out of a large party for “Foreign Experts Only,” shouting through the glass doors at the impassive Chinese bouncers: “I’m an expert! Just ask me a question!

When considering Chinese students’ extreme deference to authority and intolerance of ambiguity, someone from the United States, and not even a markedly jingoistic someone, might be inclined to mutter against the inhibited freedoms of people “living under Communist rule,” as current cant expresses it. Perhaps this would be especially true now that the world has seen how harshly the Chinese government is capable of treating those students and others who do not defer. As a Japanese maxim expresses it, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Yet as I have suggested in trying to draw the massacre in Tiananmen Square into relation with my sense of the Chinese people and their culture, I am inclined to believe that in many realms of Chinese life, the burden of pre-“liberation,” “feudal” history weighs heavily upon the people and their institutions, and that especially in the realm of education Confucian tradition sits so heavily on them that they can barely breathe. Communism, to change the metaphor, has not extirpated the past so much as grafted itself onto the past. And I’ve found that making some sense of my experiences as a teacher and observer in China has constantly required an inductive, historically minded tracing of things backward toward their roots in Confucian thinking, and ultimately into the ground of all Chinese thinking, the language itself.


In the educational system of the People’s Republic nowadays, all children are entitled to receive nine years of schooling: six years of primary school and three years of “Junior Middle School.” In “Senior Middle School,” should they carry on, there is a marked division in the curriculum between those who are headed for jobs or vocational training and those who are headed for college. Although exact figures are unobtainable, it’s certain that many Chinese children drop out of school even before they reach the “Junior Middle School” in order to work, especially in the countryside, where 85 percent of China’s people live. These children will probably never learn to read much Chinese, and learning a foreign language is out of the question.

At another extreme, a relatively few urban children attend special “key” schools, where even in the primary grades students may study a foreign language, usually for the sake of joining the Chinese foreign service. By far the most common situation, however, is for Chinese students to begin a mandatory program of studying English when they are 11 or 12 years old, in “Junior Middle School.” This program will continue for at least three years until the curriculum divides into arts and sciences “streams,” and those who do not drop out choose to enter one stream or the other, or have the choice made for them by the head teacher or by an impersonal manifestation of the State such as a “work unit”— anything from a brick factory to the Ministry of Culture—that may depend upon a particular “Middle School” for a certain number of new workers every year.

In teaching English, the method of instruction consists largely of “intensive reading.” At the end of the line, for all students who have any hope of entering college, and for many others besides, is a national exam in which English figures prominently. At the college level, instruction by “intensive reading” persists, although it may be diversified by courses in composition and conversation; and once again, the end in view is a large exam, the content of which to some extent shapes the teaching, much as high school teachers here in the U. S. feel the pressure to “teach for the S. A. T.” Indeed, the whole of Chinese education is exam-oriented and regarded by typical modern students as a disagreeable process akin to our Western notion of “cramming,” although it is more sustained. In 1980, when David Bonavia published his delightful, popular portrait, The Chinese, he remarked that the phrase students were using for this cramming was “gong du,” or “assault by reading.” Nowadays, more disparagingly and amusingly, the students call it “stuffing the duck.”

“Intensive Reading” could just as well be called “The Lemon-Squeezer School of Language Learning.” The lesson typically consists of a paragraph or so in the “target” language followed by page after page of grayish pedantry in the native language explaining the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the passage the students are to learn. And learn it they do, verbatim. At my university, on any morning at any hour after six o’clock, you can see dozens upon dozens of students standing away from the sidewalks, near the shrubbery, preparing for class by memorizing and declaiming their passages for “intensive reading.” Especially in the early morning, they mingle inadvertently with people practicing the martial arts: the slow, balletic tai jiquan, like kung-fu in molasses, and wu shu, which involves menacing, slow-motion sword-play against imaginary combatants. The students, with their books open on palms outspread, their faces alternately lowered and raised, look like people preparing to be executed. Perhaps the reality is closer to choir practice, for in class they will recite their passages repeatedly and go over them word by word with the teachers, who not only aim to explain each lexical and structural item, but also to give background information that a nice appreciation of the vocabulary or content may require.

The method has results that are at once predictable and bizarre. On the one hand, students taught after this fashion know their grammar, have vocabularies studded with unusual words, and can read closely to discriminate relatively fine shades of meaning. (One of the more tedious kinds of conversations you may find yourself in with a Chinese student could begin, “please tell me: what is the difference between “travel” and “journey?””) On the other hand, largely because they are taught the structures but not the functions of the language, and partly because their teachers do almost all of the talking—in Chinese, if they are “Middle School” teachers—the students typically can say very little, and can hear even less. Once, walking near the banks of the Mekong River, in the southernmost region of China, 20 miles from the border of Laos, a friend of mine and I came upon a couple of girls standing in a field, in the choir-practice pose, reading from their English texts—the same ones, by the way, used in Beijing and throughout the length and breadth of China. After we coaxed the girls back—they had shrieked, laughingly, and run away—we learned that the lesson for the week was “How Karl Marx Learned Foreign Languages,” in two pages that included relatively complicated language, with subordinate clauses, the subjunctive, and so forth. “What is your name?,” my friend asked one of the girls. She knitted her brow for a reply. And again, kindly, distinctly, “What. . . is . . . your name?” The girl brightened. “Thirteen!,” she said.

The method of intensive reading yields results at once predictable and bizarre in still another way, more obviously related to my theme: students are at least implicitly taught, on the one hand, that learning consists of rote memorization, and, on the other, that they are not to suppose they understand what they have memorized until the teacher has intoned the magic phrase, “The meaning is as follows. . . .”

To generalize from informal polls taken by the English Department at my university in Beijing, contemporary Chinese students at the college level frankly despise the method of teaching I’ve been describing, however much they are under the sway of it intellectually. And not only at this university, but in most major Chinese colleges and universities, pressure for change has been coming from foreign teachers, most notably British Council teachers involved in teacher-training and materials-writing, who seem to be far ahead of Americans in the theory and practice of teaching English as a foreign language. Yet the British Council teachers and all reform-minded teachers in China face great obstacles, best summed up in a phrase foreigners will sometimes hear when in their zeal they forget themselves, grow animated or hot and bothered, and verge on losing face: the reforms proposed are, well, “not Chinese.”

And it is so. I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese invented the method of intensive reading more than 12 centuries ago, when they invented the idea of the written examination for which reading would be done. Furthermore, they invented the idea of the written examination for the sake of determining who would join the bureaucracy—another Chinese invention—which has never been known, in any incarnation, in any time or place, for its readiness to change the rules by which it has filled its ranks.


The imperial examination system arose somewhat after 600 A. D. and persisted until 1911, when revolution overthrew the Manchus and established Republican China. During this vast stretch of time the system unquestionably contributed to the flourishing of Chinese culture by giving talented persons opportunities, indeed almost their one and only opportunity, to pursue meaningful work, status, and prosperity—provided, of course, that they were from families already elevated and prosperous enough to educate them, full-time, from about the age of five onwards. John King Fairbank, the dean of American Chinese studies, has remarked in an essay on “Self-Expression in China” that “the main achievement of the massive examination system was to produce a ruling class conscious of its prerogatives and cultural role, but above all obedient to the state on which it depended for major employment. The scholars who did not secure official positions remained subordinates and hangers-on of the scholar-officials who held office.” These latter formed an elite group “from which through further examinations officials could be selected with some assurance that they would know the rules, remain loyal to the system, and have the wit to keep it going. . . .”

Happily, since “liberation” in 1949, the inspiration of communism has changed all this—sort of. Now boys and girls alike, from all ranks of China’s supposedly classless society, enjoy the benefits of education, and levels of literacy have risen enormously throughout China. Yet, as in the old days, working for the state is still in a sense the only upshot of an exam-based system. And more strikingly parallel are the methods of teaching and learning, then and now.

In some ways like the students of today, only more completely, the Chinese students of the past learned texts by rote: for the purpose of passing their examinations, they would have to memorize passages from classics of Confucian tradition, sometimes a thousand characters at a stretch, and be able to recite them perfectly, even backwards. This was intensive reading indeed. According to Alasdair Clayre, in The Heart of The Dragon, this sort of teaching was called “the bei shu (back to the book) system.” And at every mistake, “the teacher, cane in hand, might deal the student a blow.” This sort of muscle-bound “back to basics” seems rather unlikely to encourage discussion.

But what’s to discuss, anyway? Confronted with a canonical text, the Chinese student throughout much of Chinese history was helpless without his master. Until the master, depending upon commentaries themselves canonical, intoned the magic words, “The meaning is as follows,” the student would have almost no inkling of what he had been memorizing, a thousand characters at a stretch. The classics are written in what amounts to a second language for the Chinese: wenyen, or the “literary language,” which is about as remote from the spoken tongue as Chaucer’s English is from contemporary usage. In short, the habit of looking for The Answer—the one, certain meaning that a piece of language really and truly has—and the habit of depending upon an authority figure to determine it, were for at least 12 centuries reinforced by scholar-bureaucrats who had a stake in keeping the study of written language difficult and exclusive, just as in profoundly ancient dynasties, going back as far as 1300 B. C. , when the Chinese language first appeared, language and its prophetic powers had been the esoteric secret of the priesthood.

So now I try to hear differently those echoes in memory of students asking me what, say, Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” “really” means, and to see differently in my mind’s eye those pages so crammed with inky, interlinear translations and comments in Chinese that they appear like great massacres of ants. I try harder than I did at first to suppress my arrogant selfhood, half in love with the ambiguities and uncertainties of this age, and try to use the eyes and ears of historical imagination.

Doing so has involved recognizing essentially two things, the first of which distills what I have said so far. First of all, to a greater extent than in any place I know anything about, history itself in China is not just a set of facts but a value, with tremendous authority. In a thorough yet wonderfully suggestive article exploring her experiences as a writing teacher in China, Carolyn Matalene has pointed out that in urging Chinese students to “be original,” “avoid clichés,” and otherwise avoid traditional or merely “stock” responses, the Western teacher, from the Chinese point of view, would be “counseling her students to write like uneducated barbarians.” Our Western sense of rhetoric “as an exploratory technique for approaching the truth,” “as an arena for combatants,” or as an “avenue for the individual to achieve control by saying something new in a new way” is a culture-bound sense of rhetoric. “For the Chinese, the primary function of rhetoric is to preserve the general harmony and to promote social cohesion; and, therefore, its appeal is always to history and to tradition and to the authority of the past; its technique always the repetition of maxims, exempla, and analogies presented in established forms and expressed in well-known phrases.”

During the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and created a truly terrible “Ten Years of Turmoil,” as this period is now more or less officially called, the violence with which the Chinese attacked almost all vestiges of their history and traditional figures of authority was nothing if not a confession of the power that such things have over them, a rattling of chains. Under siege were (among other things) “The Four Olds”: old social thought, old customs, old culture, and old habits. Probably all of us have memories of newsreels we have seen from this time when thousands of people in Tiananmen Square would hold aloft and wave Mao’s Little Red Book. For those present, being “revolutionary” meant in part being able to recite Mao’s text, sometimes even backwards, to demonstrate a perfect mastery. Therein people could learn how to interpret things, learn the one, certain meaning that they really and truly had.

A second idea that may help to comprehend the contemporary scene is simply that Confucius, who was born in 551 B. C. and died in 479 B. C. , has cast a very long shadow indeed. The vicissitudes of his reputation since the fall of the dynastic system in 1912 make an interesting story in itself, too long to be told here. Nothing if not traditional, Confucius has of course been often and perhaps justly criticized by revolutionaries. But once again, the violence of the response is paradoxical: the violence, that is, with which Confucius has been repudiated from time to time as an embodiment of China’s feudal past betrays the firm grip that his teachings have on the Chinese mind. During the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, for example, Lin Biao plotted against Mao, fell from power, suffered vilification for supposedly reactionary thinking, and eventually disappeared mysteriously in Mongolia. To vilify him, slogans appeared everywhere saying “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius.” The oddness of this may show up plainly in even a half-serious attempt to transpose such a scene. For all of his virtues, one of our remote intellectual forefathers, Plato, a hundred years more contemporary than Confucius, was a fierce believer in The State, was he not? Imagine being in Washington and seeing placards pasted on buildings or carried on signs saying “Criticize Ollie North and Plato,” or “Poindexter or Plato: Go to Hell!”

For good or ill—and there have been times when the present regime has found it good, or at any rate expedient— several related traditions to which Confucius gave life still have much vitality. Perhaps from the first, they have at once supported and threatened the growth of Chinese civilization, like great vines on an old tree that could never be cut away entirely: the tradition of laying great stress upon the value and authority of history; the tradition of interpreting things rigidly, as it were “by the book”; and the obviously related tradition of depending for interpretation upon the received opinion of some Master or authority figure. In a word, Confucius was to traditionalism what Falstaff was to wit: not only traditional in himself, but the cause of traditionalism in other people.

Let’s hear something of his voice, in a composite quotation taken from several chapters of the Analects: “To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learned, is that not . . . a pleasure? I believe in and have a passion for the ancients. I venture to compare myself with our old P’eng,” a patriarchical figure like Methuselah, Noah’s centuries-old ancestor, or like the aged Nestor, who spoke from the depths of his experience to advise the Greeks at Troy. “Sometimes,” Confucius said, “I have gone a whole day without food and a whole night without sleep, giving myself to thought. It was no use. It is better,” he concluded, “to learn” to memorize those lessons of the past that reveal the ways and the will of heaven. “There may be some who create things without knowledge, but I am not of that type. After being taught much I selected the best and followed it; I observed much and remembered it. I am a transmitter, and not a creator. He who does not tread in the tracks [of the Ancients] cannot expect to find his way into the Inner Sanctum.”

By the second century B. C. , Confucius himself had acquired the status of an Ancient, the “Supreme Sage and Foremost Teacher,” the “Teacher-Standard of All Eternity (Wan-shi shi-biao),” in whose tracks all would have to follow to enter the corridors of power toward the Forbidden City, the imperial Inner Sanctum. Confucianism was declared the official creed of the nation. Not only his own sayings but also those texts that he venerated and, according to tradition, edited in his old age, became virtually the only study of all scholars and statesmen. By the seventh century A. D. , when the Confucian classics both inspired and provided much of the subject matter for the imperial examinations, Confucius was the patron saint of the status quo. To preserve a stable, hierarchically ordered society was, after all, the general tendency of all of his teachings—teachings about the value of remaining loyal to established authorities, of studying history, and of performing rituals to assure, as rituals of all kinds are supposed to do, that the future will take predictable form. In Confucian thinking, something done in a new way that nevertheless succeeds is considered “gou“—a fluke.

To get a firm sense of how Confucius’s teachings could be pressed into the service of virtually any kind of authoritarianism, consider that one of his favorite metaphors was harmony, in which the whole chord sounds false if a single note is out of place. In Chapter I of the Analects, for example, Confucius remarks that the works and deeds of the venerable “Former Kings” derived their beauty from harmony. “Both small matters and great depend upon it. If things go amiss, he who knows the harmony will be able to attune them. But if harmony itself it not modulated by ritual, things will still go amiss.” How this sort of talk differs both in matter and spirit from the metaphor of “The Way” (Dao) in Daoism! The “Dao” in Daoism defines the path of the good life, which one may be on at some times and wander from at others, with no special sense of urgency or peril. The Daoist, consciously at odds with Confucianism throughout history, is the fellow who is “on the outs” with the system, has flunked his exams, and gone fishing. The typical figure of interest and devotion in Confucianism is the ruler, the prince; in Daoism, it is the hermit. Even today, on Emei Shan, one of China’s five “sacred mountains,” the Daoist temples don’t appear on the official map and aren’t prominently marked.

Anyone touring traditional “sights” in China, such as Emei Shan, will often see carved upon a boulder, painted upon a post, or fused into a ceramic plaque a few characters that tell the viewer not only the name of the place, but also the proper emotion to have in its presence: “Heart-Leaps-Up Pavilion” or “Solemn Tranquility Reflecting Pool,” or whatever it may be. The labeling bears witness to one last, profound tendency of Confucian thinking that helps to characterize in some small way “the Chinese mind” and to make sense of the difficulties I had as a classroom teacher. The tendency I refer to is that of believing that everything has A Right Name, a correct label (sometimes literally carved in stone), that captures the essential reality of the object.

Outside the office of an American colleague is a Gary Larson cartoon in which an angry, middle-aged man, holding a can of paint and a sloppy brush, has just painted labels on the objects of his world: on his dog, the word “dog,” on the cat, “cat,” on the house, “house,” on the tree, “tree,” and so on. The caption reads: “Now! . . . that should clear up a few things around here!” To be amused by this, I suppose, is partly to have some feeling for the painter’s anxiety about the atomistic flux of the world—how things won’t stay still, won’t do what they are supposed to do, won’t be what they are supposed to be. To be amused, however, is also to share the cartoonist’s sense of the differences between words and things. My point in this context is that Confucius and most contemporary Chinese as well would not even understand that in Larson’s cartoon a joke had been intended. “Let the prince be prince,” Confucius said, “the minister be minister, the father father and the son son.” “Excellent!,” said the duke to whom he was speaking. [“Now! . . . that should clear up a few things around here!”] “Indeed, if the prince is not prince, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, then with all the grain in my possession shall I ever get to eat any [for will not the country be entirely ruined]?”

Underpinning the Confucian project of establishing harmony, or a stable social hierarchy, was the need “to rectify names,” as translations commonly express it: to make words and realities correspond, so that there would be no disparity between what men claimed to be in title and what they were in fact. What consternation and perplexity lie a mere 2400 years ahead for the “Foreign Expert” who expects students to brighten and take more interest for being treated as equals! The expert is, well, the expert. What’s he doing asking questions?

In its widest application, the effort to fuse reality and names goes in the West by the name of “Philosophical Realism,” and has descended from Plato. Its opposite is “Nominalism,” a cluster of beliefs tending to affirm that only individual things, not labels, have reality, and that labels or “universals” are nothing but collective names, common designations for different things, mere sounds, “flatus vocis.” In these terms, Confucius and my contemporary Chinese students have acted and spoken entirely as “philosophical realists”—naturally, in no way culpably or contemptibly, eager for an end to ambiguous discussions, for right answers, for correct interpretations, for the one, certain meaning that things really and truly have.


If Confucius sowed the seeds that contemporary Chinese in many fields still reap, the fertile ground for them has been the Chinese language itself. Or so I am tempted to speculate.

First of all, and most simply, the written word has always been the recourse for solving ambiguities in this nation where people speak many dialects but all write the same and where the prevalence of homophones not clarified by context readily brings out the pens, pencils, or fingers making brush-strokes in the open air. I dare say almost every foreigner in China has had the experience of not understanding what has been said in Chinese, then seeing the Chinese person say, in facial expressions and gestures, “Wait a second, you’ll get it now,” and start writing characters in his palm with the tip of his finger. “Now that’s clear enough, isn’t it?”

More complexly, the habits of mind I have grouped under the term “philosophical realism” may owe something to the profound veneration with which the Chinese have always regarded the written word. They have treated the written word as if it literally embodies its meanings and therefore has a status approaching that of a living thing. Tradition used to forbid people to step on writing, for example. And as a notable contemporary calligrapher, Chiang Yee, has pointed out in his Chinese Calligraphy, “in every district of a Chinese city, and even in the smallest village, there is a little pagoda built for the burning of waste paper bearing writing,” called the “Pagoda of Compassionating the Characters.” The Chinese character, almost any Chinese character, comes close to being in itself a full-blown symbol, in the High Romantic sense: an “organic,” seemingly living thing that inseparably fuses matter and spirit, the abstract and the concrete, meaning and reference. To begin to appreciate in any way the importance that the Chinese have traditionally placed upon calligraphy, one has to grasp the notion that for the Chinese, the way a person writes out characters—actually realizes them on the page—expresses his grasp of their meaning, and his own nature besides. Text and texture become indistinguishable. “A good Chinese character,” Chiang Yee says, “is an artistic thought.”

Finally, the origins of the Chinese language in pictographic representation, carved upon bones and tortoise shells more than 3000 years ago, have surely reinforced the Chinese tendency to identify word and thing, to believe in the inherent lightness of names, and to suppose that ambiguity is somehow an accidental and regrettable concealment, like clouds on a landscape. Philologists are always quick to point out what Ezra Pound, enraptured with what he took to be the inherently poetical character of Chinese, chose to forget: namely, that only 10 percent of the living Chinese vocabulary is actually pictographic and that the other nine-tenths has arisen according to other, nonrepresentational principles. But what is philologically false may be poetically true; and the Chinese are even readier than half-baked foreigners like Ezra Pound to invent fanciful, pictographic etymologies for characters, as if constantly to reaffirm a basic correspondence between the Chinese language and the natural world, between their naming of things and the way they certainly, really and truly are.


I would conclude a little sadly and ironically, with no trace of mockery, by observing that if I have said a number of things that the Chinese would consider unforgivable, in stressing the persistence of the past in China’s present, they would be unforgivable not because they are “Reactionary,” “Counter-Revolutionary,” or the like, but because they sin against the central Confucian ideal. During a year in most ways truly wonderful for me, the Chinese treated me uncritically, generously, even reverently, and brought me thereby within the Chinese sphere of moral values, where I have violated the code. “Do you suppose,” Confucius asked a disciple, “that I merely learned a great deal and tried to remember it all?” “Yes, is it not so?” “No, I have one principle that runs through it all.” When Confucius had left the room, the disciples asked together, “What did he mean?” And a favored pupil, a better student of Confucius than I’ll ever be, replied: “Loyalty and reciprocity.” “Our Master’s teaching is simply this: loyalty and reciprocity.”


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