When I first began studying Chinese language and culture I was attracted to the images of the Orient I’d watched in films and studied in my high school history classes. Erhu’s and Guchen’s twanged along to images of dignified men and women in finely manicured study rooms reciting poetry and man’s role in the universe, or laboring under the hot sun cultivating rice in picturesque terraced patties. But most of all, I was attracted to the image of an indomitable spirit that despite being put down and invaded again and again throughout history, had remained cohesive and resilient to the external forces of oppression. I saw in China one of history’s greatest plucky underdog stories.
As I studied East Asian cultures, histories, economics, literature, language, and sociology, I became engrossed by it all. But the deeper I got in the more I realized that my image of Chinese culture was perhaps an overly rosy and incomplete one. Yes, the culture was one of the most resilient ones in history. But it was so because of steps like the brutal Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China who burned countless books and scholars alike in his obsessive quest to unify “all under heaven” to a single cultural and political unit. Yes, Confucianism presented a unified vision for social structures and purpose for all members of society whose influence is still observable in modern day China. But only after dogmatic exam systems enforced more than a thousand years of his canon excluding countless visionaries from contributing competing ideologies for the Chinese people. Today I see that yes, the People’s Republic of China has overcome brutal foreign invaders, and survived near starvation during the long march to build what may be the greatest economic superpower in history. But it has done so sustaining the death of many millions to starvation and many thousands to political oppression and violence.
After 8 years of studying and 10 years of living in China, my feelings towards the place are much more complicated. I watched with great enthusiasm as former president Hu Jintao all but officially condoned the first ever Gay Pride marches in major Chinese cities, fought to win the trust of the middle class through food and product safety reforms, and endorsed some of the most democratic ideological shifts since the Nationalists in the early 20th century. Yet, I also watched from within the country under current president Xi Jinping, as visa policies made it harder for foreigners to enter, stay, and work within the country; queer communities were overtly quashed; social institutions for middle class were dismantled, and the party waged all-out war on its most dissident minority groups. Today, we discover that the largest prison in the world may be a re-education camp in Xinjiang where more than a million Uighur Muslims are stripped of their culture and faith to be replaced by love for their country and the Communist Party. Today, we see pro-Marxist students at the most prestigious university in China go missing after protesting for worker’s rights. Book store owners in Hong Kong disappear without their passports after selling controversial literature about the president’s wife only to reappear in the mainland reading self-criticisms (if at all). Military bases rise from the ocean in violation of international law, and western style Neo-Imperialistic strategies install a string of military base-pearls around the Pacific Ocean as contingencies for 3rd World countries defaulting on their loans from China.
Travelling in Taiwan, I feel the height of conflicted emotions about Chinese culture. The China that is self-deterministic, placing faith above all in rational, scientific, and democratic institutions that nearly won the post WWII ideological war is alive and well in this small island off the coast of Mainland China. One could be forgiven for thinking the place remarkably Western. Afterall, General Douglass MacArthur inflicted American influence upon the island nation for years. However, I don’t think the term is quite fair. Taiwan is modern, consumeristic, and self-deterministic with exciting developments in literature, art, and film. But it’s egocentric to think that the beautiful things coming from Taiwan are “Western” in origin. They are rather entirely Chinese by design. When I stroll the streets of Taipei, I’m filled with a bittersweet sense of what modern-day China could have been.
Instead, the Communists won, expelled the GMT south, and the country in exile has survived purely by the grace of public relations with the rest of the world (with no guarantee that it will continue to do so in the future). The China I see today is filled with the breathtaking fruits of a multi-millenial culture and a people who have seen more conflict than every other one save Egypt. But it is ruled by Autocratic and Technocratic despots emboldened by their recent rise to prominence to oppress and assimilate its people by force. I realize writing this here and now potentially spells out negative consequences for me returning to the place and people I love there by the nature of the party’s tyrannical hold on global affairs and discourse.
I saddens me more than I can say. I love China, its culture, its literature, its spirituality, its legacy, and above all its people. But I don’t think I’ll be able to return there because my sexuality has been outlawed, my contributions rejected, and all that I love there successively perverted, subverted, or outright destroyed by the party. I wish people could know the China I know, love the China I love. But who am I ask? – A disgruntled, Democracy loving American who used to live there, cherry picking the most familiar and palatable pieces of someone else’s culture, perhaps.
Still, the feeling that grips me as I continue to read the headlines is akin to discovering my favorite uncle to be successively destroying their life. What can one do but watch with rapt but distant eyes and sigh? Perhaps my favorite underdog story doesn’t have a happy ending. At least, not yet.