IT IS REMARKABLE, indeed unbelievable, how the global perceptions of China have changed in the past 50 years.
Throughout the 1970s, China was considered a strange and mysterious land practising a Marxism-Leninism that was quirky, if not a bit crazy. I remember occasionally tuning in to English-language broadcasts of Radio Peking on my short-wave radio and listening to the amusing rants delivered in a strange accent. These were full of vitriolic abuse against both ‘American imperialist dogs’ and the ‘revisionist Brezhnev clique’—which I initially misheard as ‘revisionist Brezhnev pig’. In our mind, and despite all the Maoist propaganda centred on barefoot doctors and the stupendous Great Leap Forward—actually an unmitigated disaster, China seemed a country full of absolute nutters. The Mao suits, the fanatical Red Guards and the unceasing bouts of denunciations and mob violence were symptomatic.
Travellers to China were few and invariably so ideologically driven that their glowing accounts of happy millions were treated with a mountain of salt, except by the left-inclined. The only exception was the Belgian Sinologist Simon Leys whose books published in the late-1970s indicated that all was not well in the communes of the workers’ paradise. Alas, to the leftists, Mao Zedong was a cult figure who had even swum across the fast-flowing Yangtze Kiang. To others, he seemed more like the leader of an exotic religious cult. There was always a difference between those infatuated by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when fascism posed an alternate challenge, and the Maoists of the 1960s and 1970s. If the idealism of the former was misplaced and based on selective indignation, the zeal of the latter always struck me as abnormal. The present-day romanticism associated with the Naxalites, particularly in West Bengal, is difficult for those who lived through the great mess to comprehend. The detailed histories of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution by historian Frank Dikötter quite clearly reveal that Maoist China was nothing short of a nightmare. Yet it managed to draw in many thousands of what Lenin used to call ‘useful idiots’.
Maybe the attraction had something to do with the images of the exotic Orient—personified by paintings of emperors and mandarins with long, drooping moustaches and the ubiquitous pigtail—that defined China. Recently, I read a fascinating book that I was drawn to by its cover. Written by an English historian, Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia details the caricatured portrayal of China that prevailed in the West—but not exclusively in the West—till fairly recently. A passage from his book is worth repeating, if only to underline the disdain that greeted China in what Beijing now refers to as its ‘century of humiliation’.
‘In Britain, we preferred to keep our memories alive in the maybe too casual use of language: from the ‘Chinese burn’ in the school playground (with the comic book reaction of ‘aiiieee’) to bowling a ‘Chinaman’ on the cricket pitch—a sneaky, left-arm unorthodox spin… ; from the ‘Chinese wall’ of silence—with a ‘chink’ in it, of course—to untrustworthy ‘Chinese whispers’… In television circles, a filming appointment at 2.20 pm was until recently known as ‘Chinese dentist’, as in ‘Tooth hurtee?’… An order for ‘fly ry’ still seems popular with students on a boozy evening out—a legacy of pidgin English as spoken by Chinese people around Guangzhao who had difficulty pronouncing certain words… ’
Grayling also suggested that ‘Most Americans’ knowledge of ‘Confucianism’ seemed to be confined to the pedantic aphorisms of the philosophical, fictional, asexual Hawaiian-Chinese detective from Honolulu, Charlie Chan: ‘Hasty conclusions easy to make, like hole in water.’ ‘It is difficult to pick up needle with boxing glove.’… Often, Charlie Chan’s fortune-cookie aphorisms were prefaced with the words ‘old Chinese proverb’, ‘ancient Chinese philosopher say’ or—of course—‘Confucius he say.’
Today, few will care to revel in the stereotypes. China has ceased to be a laughing matter or the butt of jokes. On the contrary, there is now a mad rush among Sinologists and other China experts to try and seriously pierce the Chinese mind. This in turn has generated a huge body of pseudo-analysis by ‘experts’ with a slightly more than nodding acquaintance with conversational Mandarin. The tendency to either over-interpret or miss the wood for the trees is widespread, not least in India where we are still struggling to understand the adversary. I seriously recommend Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order by the Portuguese writer Bruno Maçães to gauge that we are dealing with a terrifying enemy—another Dr Fu Manchu, but multiplied by 20.