Okay, so this is another post about China and imperialism. I attempt to explain the stereotype of Asians in the West, along with their ‘success’, and why ‘success’ isn’t enough.
Most people, of course, have heard about the model minority myth and been told it’s a myth. To non-Asians, this may seem to be a lot of rhetorical posturing for the sake of benefits. For this reason, I go back to history, as I did in considering Chinese cultural pride, in order to seek out the origins of the model minority paradigm among the Chinese.
We begin at the same point as for Chinese pride: the former ‘superiority’ and transcendence of Chinese civilization. With the rude awakening brought by the guns and ships of the world’s uncouth peoples, the world became a different place. Success was now defined on the terms that the West dictated, through a series of unjust treaties: success was modernity. The West’s control of ‘success’, not the mediæval rise of the scholarly class in China, was the development without which there could be no such thing as a model minority.
Power was in the hands of the West, and China would have to play the same game, and be better at it, to win status. In other words, it would have to modernize by Western rules. Though there were men like Chao Yuen Ren (趙元任) who recognized both the need to advance as a society and the importance of developing distinctively as China (see what he wrote on music), the general sweep of the quest for success drove the people with less nuance. The West had greater power because of its technology, not because of its literary arts.
The dominance of science and technology
Technical subjects, then, and scientific knowledge, these were the way of the future, the way of modernity. Indeed, as the West continued to change in the 20th century, society came to elevate science (or things that look like science) over all other methods of enquiry, transforming even the Christian theological discourse and spawning both liberalism and fundamentalism. Stanley Hauerwas claims that the modern West puts priority on science and the scientific disciplines as having ‘overriding veridical (or truth-bearing) status’:
There’s a presumed importance given to these disciplines because in a sense we tend to think of them as ‘really true’ in a way the humanities are not. I think that this veridical status has much to do with reinforcing the idea that the legitimacy of the modern state resides in its responsibility to keep people safe from death just as the sciences seem to offer a way to postpone the inevitable and control the uncontrollable.
Perhaps this appealed to us the Chinese people because it seemed to promise a sure-fire way to succeed. Things could be quantified. The world could be unambiguous. We could win. Partaking of hubris? Maybe.
The drive forward
What, then, are professions Chinese parents try to push their kids into, according to their skills? Medicine. Law. Engineering. Finance. Technical subjects, all of them, with very specialized knowledge and ways of thinking; important in society, all of them, but elevated on a pedestal in the modern world. A major in Classics? but what will you ever do with that? China and the West have both lost their mediæval civilization to become modern, for good and for ill, privileging the progressive myth.
Chinese people hope to win the modern Western game, but this game came into the picture through imperialism, and playing it is inherently just a way to cope with other-domination. If Chinese people still play it, trying to become better at being white than the white people, we’re still bound by that past. We do still play it, and we make movies to laugh at ourselves: I Not Stupid, for instance. Who said the world had to keep playing the modern Western game rather than finding new ways to become a humanity more human, more just, more free, more godly?
With regard to affirmative action, then, those who want to use it to judge between Chinese people and black people, with the attitude that Chinese people have ‘arrived’, are wrong. This is because the very existence of model minority behaviour is due to Western modernity. White guilt here is totally unnecessary, but white satisfaction at the ‘success’ of the ‘Asians’ and the continuation of an affirmative action model that takes the opportunity to discriminate against ‘Asians’ is a triumph of modern imperialism.
Chinese churches, too, must consider what still ails us from our century-long embrace of modernity, which has unbound the feet of many women but also bound the heads of many men. We, at this crossroads of success and failure, have perhaps the greatest power to do good or to do evil.