The Anxiety of the Chinaman

Lu Xun, A Madman’s Diary.

Lu Xun, A Madman’s Diary.

Why do the Chinese always call others lazy? Wrapped up in this crass rhetoric, we seem indifferent to the suffering of others. The Westerner hears our words and sees our conduct, and he acknowledges to himself that he simply cannot understand. We have always been creatures of subtlety, inscrutable, and the Westerner is able only to ascribe our strange behaviour to this ineluctable racial essence. But in fact our attitude is quite intelligible with some empathy, even if Westerners cannot share this attitude. This posture of ours is of a piece with our recent and ongoing struggle with the modern West.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the subjects of the Son of Heaven, the people who stood closest to the spiritual pole of the world, the nexus of heaven and earth, had never suffered domination by a non-central (i.e. non-Sinitic) power without doing what Greece had done to Rome: Græcia capta ferum victorem cepit. Nevertheless, we had twice in a single millennium been ruled by northern barbarians, the Mongols (1271–1368) and then the Manchus (1644–1911), both of whom had kept us in an inferior caste rather than assimilating fully to our superior culture. When the Western powers came barging in, we were still ruled by the Manchu dynasty. To then be forced by thoroughly non-Sinitic powers to be one nation among many, rather than the source of all civilization with the imperial Son of Heaven at our head, was the last straw. It was the toppling of a sacred order whose sanctity had never been seriously violated.

When we suffered foreign insult in the nineteenth century, insult that continued into the twentieth, some of our intellectuals promoted social Darwinism as a way of recovering national prestige, and most of us tried very hard to imitate the dominating success of the Western nations we envied, especially by playing up technocracy. If Japan was playing that game, such a people at the edge of the world could not be winning at our expense except by our own decadence. If there was something fundamentally unsound about us, we nevertheless were Heaven’s elect, living where Heaven’s blessing came to earth, endowed with the gifts of civilization. Any failure, therefore, was due to laziness and other kinds of moral weakness. We believed in palingenesis.

Whether we stayed in China or moved on to other lands – lands of mastery – our destiny was the same. Some of us had no God and felt ourselves elect all the same. But God is free, and God is the one who chooses; he is the one who elected to send the only-begotten Son of Heaven to die in our stead, that believing we might live. He alone is our hope. It is that Elect man who gathers up all things in himself; it is that Elect man in whom the Chinese nation must believe; it is that Elect man in whom we are truly the elect of God. We cannot forsake God and wonder lama sabachthani: why hast thou forsaken me? In the end, national destiny is not about industry, nor is it about flesh improving flesh. All things will die. What remains is, Will we be raised?

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3 responses to “The Anxiety of the Chinaman

  1. Don’t know why you say ‘Northern Barbarians’ and calling your own culture above all others, that is an extremely ethnocentric point of view. As for Chinese people being more active than Westerners, well it is usually because opportunities are based upon a the criteria of 10 years ago to have a degree, today it is a masters and it is highly competitive in China and without this constant strain on people, they won’t succeed. That stress is not as pronounced elsewhere in Europe, or it is expressed differently.

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