On the multiplicity of individuals in China

James Fallows got worked up over David Brooks’ ignorant musing about Chinese and Asian collectivity. The product was this excellent paragraph, which follows part of Brooks’ words.

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

This is the kind of thing you can say only if you have not the slightest inkling of how completely different a billion-plus people can be from one another. Beijingers from Shanghainese,  Guangdong entrepreneurs from farmers in Sichuan, Tibetans from Taiwanese, people who remember the Cultural Revolution from those who don’t, people who remember the famines of the Great Leap Forward from people who’ve always had enough. The guy across the street from his brother. His daughter from his wife. People hanging on in big state enterprises from those starting small firms. People who stayed in the villages from those who came to the city for jobs. Christians from Buddhists. Hu Jintao from Jiang Zemin,  Olympic weightlifters from Olympic tennis players, Yao Ming from Liu Xiang, Wen Jiabao from Edison Chen  — and while we’re at it, Filipinos from Koreans,  Japanese from Chinese, Malaysian Chinese from Malaysian Malays. Lee Kuan Yew from Kim Jong Il. People from Jakarta from people in Seoul. Hey, they’re all “Asians”.

1 thought on “On the multiplicity of individuals in China

  1. D.

    Thanks for the article. I’ve always been suspicious of how Western scholars parse the supposed individualism-collectivism divide, as if whole masses of people could be split into a simple duality. I feel it’s just one group trying to define another culture by defining it against their own culture- or what they believe it to be.

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