My Mother Calls Me an American Bully

By Chenyuan Snider Published on November 12, 2021

In his recent articles published on The Stream, Dr. David Marshall expresses deep concern about current theories and policies regarding the Sino-America relationship. A long-time China resident, he attempts to debunk the view that “the coming collapse of China” is imminent, deeming this position as “wishful thinking.”

Neither does he agree with Senator Tom Cotton’s China policy proposal based on the belief punishing China economically would beat the Asian giant. As Dr. Marshall points out, Senator Cotton fails to grasp the immense size of China and the complexity of the Chinese culture which varies substantially from American culture. He laments that, “we are fighting China stupid.” Lacking a basic cultural and historical understanding, we are “turning potential friends into enemies.” He calls for a different approach based on a better understanding of China.

As a person who was raised in China and has spent half of my life here in the States, I’m sympathetic toward Dr. Marshall’s concern. I’ve observed that America and China often talk past each other. This lack of mutual understanding likely has produced policies that are counterproductive.

America’s China policies must take Chinese culture into consideration.

The way Chinese view themselves and the outside world differs fundamentally from the straightforward manner of Americans. In this article I hope to explain certain features that are unique to the Chinese culture in order to counterbalance the existing American China policies that have not respected these peculiar elements.

Familial Fidelity in China

Traditionally and contemporarily, family has been the bedrock in China. Few dare to violate this basic social structure. Familial fidelity is obligatory for every member. Men may have concubines, openly (before 1949) or secretly (today), but seldom seek a divorce to break up the family. Further, the line between an individual and the family is obscure and interchangeable, which is typical in a group-based culture.

For instance, a Chinese man may disagree with or dislike his brother, but once an outsider publicly criticizes his brother, whether fairly or unreasonably, he would view it as if he himself is being publicly humiliated. He is therefore obligated to rise up and come to his brother’s defense. To do otherwise would bring shame to the family and to himself. In China, the same practice pertinent to a family also applies in a larger context, a company, a city, a province, or even the country.

I once explained this Chinese cultural phenomenon in a class setting during my graduate studies in the States. A few American students, responding to my presentation, insisted that Americans, too, would do the same to defend a friend, a company, or the country. I did my best, but my classmates still totally missed my point. That incident reinforced my long-held belief that, by and large, a person reasons only within their cultural framework.

Individualism in America

American culture is in fact ultra-individualistic. Each person is responsible for his or her own conduct judged according to moral standards. The line between an individual and the group to which the individual belongs is clear-cut. Consequently, when non-Americans criticize the U.S. government, few American citizens would take it personally. Americans in general do not tie their identity to their government or to any group they belong to (unless it’s their favorite athletic team). When a member of a group is criticized, others in the group will defend them only after deciding for themselves if the criticism is reasonable or unwarranted. In my observation, they will stand up for their friend if they deem the criticism is unjustified, but seldom simply because of group identity.

“Face”: Social Standing, Reputation, Dignity, Honor

Chinese, too, are principled people and hold many of the same universal moral convictions all peoples hold. In addition to the complication caused by group identity, however, the concept of “face” can muddy things up even more. “Face” represents a person’s or a group’s dignity, worth and reputation. “Losing face” refers to the situation in which shame or humiliation is issued. “Saving face” is a reactionary effort when one is threatened with losing face.

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For any Chinese, be it government officials or ordinary citizens, “face” is always the first thing to consider before one takes action. It plays such an important role in daily life that under certain circumstances it trumps moral conviction. For instance, publicly criticizing someone is viewed as an act calculated to cause the person to lose face. Thus, irrespective of the soundness of the criticism, it would would drive the person into a corner, so he would do anything to defend himself to save his face and the face of his group. The other members in the group are obligated in joining the effort of fighting to save face.

Even after living in the States for many years, I still cannot help but feel shamed when non-Chinese talk negatively about China in front of me. At those moments I have to pinch myself to remember that I’m in America, so the person criticizing China has no malicious intention towards me personally.

Foreign Affairs

In terms of China’s relationship with foreign countries, historically, before the Communist Party took over in 1949, China had repeatedly lost face to foreign powers, signing numerous unequal treaties and suffering a great amount of national humiliation. Consequently, when facing foreign nations, every Chinese, young and old, educated and unlearned, is supremely conscious of their history of humiliation. They tend to be suspicious toward foreign nations and sometimes overreact even to benign situations.

On April 1, 2001, a United States Navy aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy fighter jet collided in mid-air 70 miles away from Hainan Province. The cause of the collision was highly disputed. In the end, the American government produced a document with vague language allowing both countries to save face and thus deescalating the boiling tension between them. Right away, though, I received a phone call from my mother from China. She was shouting over the phone, calling Americans bullies (me included) as if I was directly responsible for the collision. She also assured me that she and my father would not eat in a McDonalds there. It was an American company, so they were boycotting it.

Carefully Crafted Messaging

This is not the place for me to argue for or against the Chinese culture. My purpose here is entirely practical. I use concepts of a group-based culture versus an individualistic society merely to illustrate and not to indicate a superiority of one over the other. When dealing with China, the way a message is presented can be far more important than the message itself.

The phrase, “China virus” serves as a good example. To the ears of the ordinary Chinese, this expression would suggest that every Chinese is responsible for the outbreak of the virus, and force them to back their government in the fight against America in order to save face. A more sensitive statement which separates Chinese people from their government would be a better choice.

In the Chinese culture, a constructive criticism aimed at improving a relationship usually is done privately to avoid public shaming and cause the person or the party to lose face. Under-the-table negotiation is always a preferred method.

America’s China policies must take Chinese culture into consideration. Group identity and the concept of “face” should remain near the top of the list. In light of China’s unfortunate history of repeated humiliation by foreign powers, to ignore those cultural elements could push ordinary Chinese citizens, who otherwise hold a positive attitude towards America, to side with their government.

 

Chenyuan Snider was raised in Communist China and majored in Chinese language and literature in college. After immigrating to the U.S. and having studied at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, she became a professor and taught at Christian colleges and seminary. After March of this year, she sensed God was leading her to use her unique voice to provide a warning about various kinds of Marxist influences in our society. She lives in northern California with her husband and has two grown children.

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