World » Asia » China

The best books on China and the West

recommended by Orville Schell

The changing relationship between China and America will be one of the defining foreign policy issues of our times. To understand its dynamic, says sinologist Orville Schell, we must take account of China's lingering sense of victimhood.

Interview by Alec Ash

Buy all books

You recently organised a cultural exchange in Beijing that brought the likes of Meryl Streep to engage with Chinese audiences. Tell us a little about it.

We brought a whole group of American cultural figures to Beijing. Meryl Streep came, and we showed The Iron Lady for the first time in the world. We had 15 people, all from different parts of the arts – Yo-Yo Ma and so on. Alice Waters cooked a meal for 250 people in the US embassy, with organic food. The Coen brothers showed True Grit. Mark Danner came, and the novelist Amy Tan. But in the aftermath, the insanity of finding a place of convergence between the two sides that were in collaboration was a poignant latter-day reminder of the terribly difficult time the US and China have always had finding congruence.

In the eighties, especially leading up to 1989, many Chinese were very much in sway of American culture. Is that less the case today?

I think there is a paradox. China is probably equally in sway to American culture, but also much more self-confident in an almost arrogant way – but in a way that doesn’t speak of true self-confidence. So there is the admiration and feeling that, as the Chinese say, the moon is rounder in the West. On the other hand there is a recognition that China has risen, but psychologically China does not quite believe in its own equality, much less supremacy.

This historical sense of China’s inferiority and insecurity in the face of Western wealth and power is so deep that even as the playing field levels off, psychologically speaking, China still doesn’t quite believe in its own resurgent wealth and power. So that psychological sense of well-being – of being comfortable in your skin and relaxed around other cultures and powers – is something that lags, I think, quite far behind the reality of wealth and power.

At the same time China is ever more vocal in its soft power, with the Confucius institutes and its burgeoning English language media.

China confuses propaganda and public relations with cultural power. I think it has the idea that if it only tries harder, and engages its PR and propaganda machine more forcefully, then everyone will see China’s glories and will appreciate China more. But of course that’s a very strange notion of what soft power and true cultural self confidence is. It’s not something you can create, it arises naturally out of society. I think that speaks of a lingering insecurity and uncertainty about just how substantial China really is.

What is your first book recommendation?

The first book that is worthy of note is Jonathan Spence’s To Change China: Western Advisers in China. It’s the first book he wrote as a young professor. It really is about the discontinuity between China and the West, and efforts by various Westerners – largely Brits but some Americans – to change China from 1620 through 1960, starting with Adam Schall way back in the Ming dynasty, Peter Parker and the missionaries, then Chinese Gordon during the Taiping rebellion and various other people like the Russian Mikhail Borodin.

What’s interesting is that all of them failed in some significant way to inoculate China with whatever it was they were seeking to evangelise for – whether it was Christianity, science, a better tax system or military technology and strategy. They all had a very frustrating experience. China has always been such a fickle mistress. It is so large, interesting and dense that it defies any kind of remedial actions to change it. It has been so other, so isolated and so unto itself in many ways.

The paternalism of early foreigners presumably didn’t help.

I think the West, because we had a scientific and industrial revolution early, viewed ourselves as having something to teach. And we’re always evangelistic anyway about our political system, our religion, even our culture, our civilising effect. So it was a toxic cocktail that worked pretty well in the Ming dynasty but after that started to go haywire. Ever since then, we have had various permutations of this insolubility to cultures and worlds that have tried to find some common interface.

Do you think that this idea of the West having something to teach China is somewhat discredited now?

Yes. And I think China finds no small measure of satisfaction in that notion of the discreditation of Western supremacy. However we have 150 years behind us where Chinese have presumed Western superiority, and sat in a very ambivalent but nonetheless slavish and worshipful relationship to the West – even those who were anti-Western. And that brings me to the second book.

Which is?

In Search of Wealth of Power: Yen Fu and the West by Benjamin Schwartz. This is all about a wonderful translator and philosopher at the turn of the last century, Yen Fu, who went to Britain. He had one question that he really wanted to answer: Why is the West so possessed of dynamic, Promethean energy, and why is China not?

He got to England and began to read Herbert Spencer about social Darwinism. He concluded that the industrial revolution, and European and American dynamism, came from the fact that the West was open to challenge and kept having to supercede itself in a Darwinian survivalist dialectic. He felt on the other hand that China had been closed to these very forces, obviated the Darwinian process and thus denied itself this process whereby the strong survive and the weak perish.

Is this an answer to the Needham question, as it’s sometimes called, of why China was overtaken by the West in the scientific revolution – that it was too insular and hierarchical?

I think it’s part and parcel of the same argument, that China did not welcome and open itself up to conflicting perspectives and viewpoints, which had to struggle against each other until one triumphed over the others. It was like a hermetically sealed room. You know that great Lu Xun metaphor of people trapped in an iron house. They’re asleep and the house is on fire. But the question is if you should bother waking them, because they can’t get out.

Well China did wake up in the end, although it took some time.

Yes they did, and they have had a pretty good run since then in a sense. But the question is ultimately one of identity and whether they believe in themselves, after this long century and a half of viewing themselves as second rate and wondering why they were not strong, powerful and dynamic. China is still living in the syndrome of being the victim, and we don’t know when that syndrome will finally be cured. It’s going to take a while.

Modern China has gone through such dramatic changes and renunciations of its past that it’s hard to draw a connecting thread through the last 150 years of its history at all.

That’s right. I think the rejection of its own past has created a kind of self-loathing that we’re paying for now, because people who are self-loathing tend to be extremely defensive. And the self-loathing was I think the other side of the worship of Western dynamism and power and wealth. It’s an extremely complicated basket of sentiments.

What’s next on your list?

Well, one book I really love is Hermit of Peking.

About the gay foreigner who reinvented himself as a lover of Cixi, Empress Dowager at the end of the Qing dynasty?

Exactly. Sir Edmund Backhouse was a gay man who set himself up as a kind of Caucasian emperor in China. What’s so marvellous about the book is that here was a guy who really did become Chinese – just as convoluted, contradictory, secretive and opaque, with this incredibly elaborate world of deception around him. It was one of the rare and strange cases of a Westerner who became Chinese in the most unlaudable respect, for complicated reasons.

What wider points can we draw out of this story about foreigners in China or foreign conceptions of China?

It’s such a wonderful story of how the East and the West merge but never meet. China is so indirect, which allows for so much deception and shadow-play. It gets to the point where you just don’t know what’s real and what’s not real – whereas Westerners pride themselves on being honest and getting to the bottom of what’s really happening. The Chinese are constantly trying to maintain face. If you need to save face, you do whatever you have to do. The famous Chinese expression is “pointing to a deer and calling it a horse”.

Is your point that even now, with ever more communication between the West and China, we can’t get at that kernel of what China really is and fully understand it?

Yes, absolutely. The complexities are Byzantine – the shadow-playing and the protecting of people’s face and sensibilities. It’s the utter absence of what Americans are at their very best. Their worst is another thing, but at their best Americans are guileless, naive, open, honest. While the Chinese are this incredible snarl of indirection, aversion and all these things.

There’s a saying that if you’re in China for a month, you think you know it completely; for a year, you think you know it partially; for 10 years, you don’t know it at all.

All I know is that it’s completely enigmatic.

Let’s go onto your fourth pick.

Another great epic of misunderstanding is Thunder Out of China by Theodore H White and Annalee Jacoby. This is about Chiang Kai-shek, the failure of his experiment, and the corruption and complete unravelling of China under the pressures of Japanese occupation and war.

Why did America tie its hopes for China so fervently to Chiang Kai-shek?

Chiang Kai-shek was a stand-in in a way. He was a Chinese version of his hybrid wife [Soong Mei-ling] who was very negotiable in America, a Christian and a Chinese that Americans thought they understood. And she had Chiang Kai-shek – this Confucian, imperial sort – in her wing. I think Americans felt a particular connection through Christianity (Chiang Kai-shek converted). That helped us believe that at long last China was coming around.

But as it played out, Mao won the civil war and things turned out very differently.

There was a period in the thirties and forties when it looked like the metal would bend. There was a group of Chinese who were sophisticated, Western-trained, very versatile and conversant with both Western and classical Chinese culture. They centred around Shanghai and Beijing, and it looked as if this new cosmopolitan world would run China and integrate it into the larger global enterprise. That was incredibly gratifying, because it was enough like America but it was also Chinese.

Then all of a sudden it went south and Mao Zedong took over. He didn’t speak any foreign languages, he wasn’t a Christian, he was a peasant – rural and inland not coastal and cosmopolitan. And he was communist to boot, the Russians got hands on him. So he was the antithesis of all the hopes and dreams that the West had for a convergence of China and the West. It was a brutal shock to have that snatched away from us after we’d put in a hundred years of missionary work, war aid, education, medical assistance, all of this stuff.

What in your view is the legacy of Mao in 21st century China?

I think there’s more of Chairman Mao in the Chinese bloodstream than often we, or the Chinese, like to admit. It was a protracted period where several generations of Chinese grew up on very vigorous anti-imperial, anti-foreign, anti-American sentiment – this idea of China being bullied, encircled, contained and suffocated was not to no effect. I think there’s still a good measure of that in the bloodstream, and it gets played upon from time to time by elements in society and even in government.

Just as traditional Confucian culture resides in China as an almost autonomic response, rather than as a high cultural form with calligraphy and painting or whatever, I think that the Mao era continues to reside within the inner being of China in a somewhat unconscious way. It manifests itself in nationalistic and chauvinistic responses, sensitivity to slights and slurs, a constant awareness of China’s comparative standing and a lingering uncertainty about its own strengths and whether it is still a victim or not.

And is it?

No it’s not. The world has changed. The victim culture that defined China for so long is obsolete, and yet it still gets played upon. That’s an obstacle to China feeling comfortable in the world, with a rightful part in the world.

What’s your fifth selection?

Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys. He is a marvellous writer, and was one of those people who dared to say things. The book came out in 1977, as interest in China was beginning to incubate. He was in Beijing and he looked at the toll that had been taken on Chinese culture, archaeology, religion – he looked right down the barrel of the gun and described [the Cultural Revolution] in all its horrific dimension. He’s very Western, an undying humanist, and unrepentant about his humanism.

What were your own impressions of China when you first visited at around the same time, in 1974? – a trip you describe in your book In The People’s Republic.

Well, unlike Pierre Ryckmans or [his pen name] Simon Leys, who was living there as a diplomat, I was coming in for the first time. I was very confused by what I found, and I don’t think it’s adequately reflected in my book. I thought I knew how to feel comfortable around Chinese, because I’d spent a lot of time around them in America, but when I got to China I felt tremendously uncomfortable and insoluble. Of course one understands it now, but the Cultural Revolution was going on.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Simon Leys looked at it from the perspective not so much of trying to understand China but just of what he saw, and whether this was a violation of some basic, fundamental human principles. And it was. The Cultural Revolution was a political seizure of catastrophic and savage proportions.

When you visit China today, what are the most striking differences to that first trip which take you back every time you get off the airplane?

It’s the contradictions that exist in parallel. On the one hand China has changed dramatically. Unbelievable amounts of high-speed change. But on the other hand there’s so much beneath the surface that blunders on and remains the same, undisturbed – whether it’s the structures of government, the ways Chinese interact with each other, or the ways they look at the outside world. These things are very deep and in many ways unyielding.

And looking to the future, how do you picture China and China-US relations in 20 years?

I think it’s going to be a very long, hard slog. Our best hope is peaceful evolution. It’s a kind of terrible wager what the best way forward is, and I don’t know the answer to it. But I do know that if we’re looking at this interaction between East and West, we have to ask what is the best policy, the best angle of repose for the West to seek in relation to China. How do you influence China most instrumentally and effectively and constructively? That’s a really hard question. In a way it is the only question, if you’re interested in American foreign policy.

Do you have any hint as to the answer?

The answer is not forthcoming. I guess I would say that pressure has a positive effect and a negative effect. One constantly has to be adjusting and recalibrating the mix. And as one can see from the books I’ve cited, China is extremely neurotic about comparison, about having its weakness, its insecurity, its lack of confidence put before it.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

That’s what happened in [the Tiananmen square protests of] 1989, and it induced a massive epileptic seizure of control afterwards. And we’re still paying for it. That doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to people exercising their rights. It’s just a simple observation that within the context of a Communist Party that’s still got a lot of chops, you have to be very careful with your judgements about what can work and what can’t work.

Interview by Alec Ash

January 5, 2012

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

Orville Schell is a writer and activist working on China. He is Director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, and was previously Dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His books include In the Peoples Republic and Virtual Tibet

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

Orville Schell is a writer and activist working on China. He is Director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, and was previously Dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His books include In the Peoples Republic and Virtual Tibet