A Travel Narrative That Tried to Be More
How much you will like Troy Parfitt’s book depends on how much you like long, profusely detailed travel narratives mixed with cultural and historical tidbits. After having spent a decade in Taiwan teaching English, and getting rather sick of the ceaseless hyping of China as the next world No. 1, Parfitt set out to examine it for himself. He wrote a long book about it.
The book has a simple formula that is repeated over its 424 pages: Parfitt goes somewhere, explains its history and describes the scenery, then goes around meeting people and asking them lots of questions. He says that he never meant to be obnoxious, but the effect of thoroughly quizzing the sense of the casual assertions of strangers seems a close cousin.
His point in most cases seems to be that people say things that they can’t really substantiate or explain properly, and he weaves such examples into his critique of modern China and criticism of China generally.
The result has been attacked as racist and bad tempered, and to some degree it is easy to see why. His argument appears to be that there are deep cultural factors that underlie modern China and its current state, that these have not been evaluated properly in the extant analyses of the country. He argues that these pre-modern, ancient tendencies will forever be a drag on China’s modernization.
The problem is not primarily that this is a racist claim, but that it doesn’t really make sense. The desire to wrap up everything about China—the China of 60 years ago, the China of today, the China of the ancient past—into a neat historical narrative, misses core pieces of the puzzle.
Parfitt is able to articulate his key points much faster in a telephone conversation. His core claim is that if China hopes to modernize, it’s not enough to build an economy and produce things and make money. The country needs the rule of law and fundamental freedoms—in short, to westernize.
To some degree though that is to say that to modernize, China needs to modernize. The problem is not old Chinese tendencies that are holding China back, but current Communist Party exigencies, like maintaining its dictatorship. For someone that set out to burst the grand myths surrounding China’s rise, it’s a shame that Parfitt missed this one.
Parfitt seems to assume that the current system of rule in China is genuinely Chinese to begin with. Communism was a Soviet import and communist ideology could be no more thorough a repudiation of everything that was traditional China.
The Cultural Revolution was not Mao “using the Confucian paradigm against his own people,” as Parfitt claimed during our telephone discussion. It was Mao’s bid to regain control of the Party after his power waned in the wake of the Great Leap Forward—and the unrestrained, savage methods used in the Cultural Revolution could not be more different from the philosophy of Confucius.
We had the chance to get a glimpse of pre-communist modern China during the 1920s and 1930s, as masterfully documented by Frank Dikotter in his Age of Openness. For all its upheaval and uncertainty, there was freedom of the press, a flourishing of ideas, local and community empowerment, and a rich and vibrant public sphere.
Then, in 1949 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began destroying everything and erected its own terrible edifice of propaganda and terror. But to confuse the latter for something with Chinese roots, simply because it is authoritarian—and because China of old was ruled by an emperor—would be to make a grave mistake.
At several points during our telephone conversation, Parfitt retracted a previous statement that he made after being challenged with the same techniques of mini-interrogation he documents in his book.
Parfitt also says things that don’t quite make sense, or that he can’t back up. For example, that the labeling of classes of people, as seen in the Cultural Revolution and in other campaigns, is somehow redolent of irrational Confucian tendencies; or that China now is the “most stable” it has ever been; and so on.
But aside from the common conceit, the conflation of China new, old, and communist, the most important and valuable contribution Parfitt makes to the discourse on China is to remind journalists, scholars, and the public that the country cannot and will not truly rise to its proper place in the world without the institutions that enable the normal operations of government, commerce, and a healthy society (all these, of course, won’t be found under the CCP.) In reminding us of this, Parfitt provides a welcome antidote to the general discourse, which ignores those inconvenient facts.
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