In the days of the Boxer Rebellion, when Chinese wore pigtails and exposure to foreign values was compulsory, they knew that Westerners were Chinese upside-down. As Yang remarks in The Miraculous Pigtail, which is set in that period: 'Chinese shave their heads, foreigners their faces; Chinese write from right to left, foreigners from left to right; Chinese call the compass the "needle for fixing the south", foreigners call it the "needle which points north"; Chinese have their tea-cup lids on top, foreigners have their, tea-cup lids underneath.' Since 1900, time has removed some of these oppositions and introduced others, but that perception endures. To the farm hands in Mimosa, set in the early Sixties, America is 'an outlandish, promiscuous, immoral country, but so rich that no one worries about food or clothing'. When six years ago one of my Chinese students described a Westerner's day, he was succinct: his Western businessman rose at six o'clock to take his two snakes for an airing in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes; they stopped at a pub en route, emerged blind-drunk, and crashed the car into a scholartree. Sarah Lubman recently explained in the Washington Post that Chinese students are the victims 'of an educational system which presents limited - and biased - information about the West', but my student at least had merely been reading some American magazines donated by a foreign visitor. Among the advertisements for drink, expensive cars and sexual aids, I remember finding one for a cat's four-poster, complete with curtains and fur underlay. In the context of that Beijing institute where even hot water (for all purposes, especially drinking) was rationed to one thermos per student per day, his account seemed inaccurate in details, not essentials. According to Sarah Lubman, the way to counter such misinterpretation is cultural exchange: then Chinese travelling abroad can see what Western democracy really is, while those at home can receive unbiased information from foreign experts. As in the days of the Boxer Rebellion, 'exchange', it seems, is not a two-way process.
LRB 22 February 1990 | PDF Download