Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few months becomes a folk etymologist. Look: the Chinese character for “good” combines “woman” and “child”! China must be a society of patriarchal homebodies!
Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few years tends to give it up. The history and evolution of Chinese characters is such a messy accretion of historical sediment and false cognates that even scholars of Chinese take its etymology with a grain of salt.
But language is telling, and as I translated a novel about official corruption over the past year, one character began to emerge as the linchpin of the book’s discussion of power and those who wield it. That character is 管, pronounced guǎn, with a “scooping” tone.
Originally meaning “pipe” or “flute” — the feathery bit at the top is the bamboo radical, indicating a section of bamboo culm — guǎn later evolved into a verb meaning “to manage” or “to be in charge of.” If I were given only one word to capture Chinese society, guǎn would be it.
Guǎn appears wherever authority is wielded. Besides its base meaning of being in charge, it shows up in “jurisdiction” (管辖, guǎnxiá), “management” (管理, guǎnlǐ), “supervisory control” (管 制, guǎnzhì, sometimes a euphemism for a police lockdown) and “butler” (管家, guǎnjiā).
He goes on to give other common uses for the word guan in everyday life, ending with this conclusion:
Hovering over guǎn and all its permutations is a gentle anxiety about a society ungoverned. “No one’s in charge!” (没有人管, méiyǒurénguǎn) is a phrase spoken in tones of disapproval, even horror. It’s not only Jackie Chan who believes that Chinese society needs watching over. To a certain mindset, in China everything is someone else’s business.
As they say, click on the link and read the whole thing.
Oh, and getting back to my original question — what one word do YOU think best describes Chinese society?
In order to understand China today, it’s helpful to understand this simple rule: nothing is as it seems. In fact, I would say this rule applies when observing and analyzing nearly all segments of life in China: politics, economy, social relationships, and even religion. To put it another way, whatever China seems to be at any given moment, it is in fact, the opposite. This can be difficult for westerners because we tend to be dichotomist in our thinking, wanting something to be either this or that. We don’t do well with this AND that.
Rob Gifford, in his book China Road expresses well the confusion and bewilderment that await those engaged with China when he writes, “China messes with my head on a daily basis. One day I think that it is really going to take over the world and that the Chinese government is doing the most extraordinary thing the planet has ever witnessed…The next day it will all seem built on sand and I expect it to all come tumbling down around us.” (China Road, p. 17)
To illustrate this principle, I would like to highlight 8 myths or misconceptions that abound regarding China today.
Myth # 1: China is a communist country.
What I mean here by communism is a Communist or Marxist belief system. Although the Communist Party of China (CCP), with its 72 million members, remains firmly in power, the reality is that communism is no longer a unifying ideology. China today is essentially a consumer society. Every human being is hard-wired to want more stuff, and the Chinese are no different. The economic reforms of the past 30 years have significantly raised the standard of living of most Chinese, and China’s participation in the global economy means that anything can be purchased for a price. Most Chinese today are concerned with the bettering their economic condition and/or the accumulation of wealth.
Myth # 2: China is a capitalist country
Capitalism here of course refers to a particular economic system, where the means of production are in private hands. While private enterprise is flourishing in China, there are many sectors that remain under state control. These include key sectors such as education, media, resources, and transportation systems. The official term that the Chinese use to describe their system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” When queried about this Chinese friends usually say “it means capitalism, but we’re still uncomfortable with the word.” What it really describes is a system where the economy is increasingly ordered along free market principles, but the political system remains authoritarian.
Myth #3: China is a wealthy, modern country
Since most visitors to China spend their time in cities, this is usually the overwhelming impression. To be sure, many cities are extremely wealthy and modern. However, trips to the rural areas of China reveal a different reality, namely that China is still very much a developing nation, where millions of people live in poverty, and have lifestyles that differ little from their ancestors of a hundred years ago. Recent statistics indicate that only 24 million people in China earn more than RMB 2,000 per month (approximately USD 300), the minimum tax exemption threshold. In other words, more than a billion Chinese still make less than RMB 2000 per month.
Myth #4: China is a poor, backward country
The reality is that China has many characteristics of an emerging modern nation. There is extreme wealth, with China now lagging behind only the US in the number of billionaires. There is a sophisticated telecommunications system, with more than 900 million cell phone subscribers. China has an ambitious space program that includes putting a man on the moon by 2025. These are not typically characteristics of a poor and backwards country.
Myth #5: People live under severe oppression.
While there was a time when fear was the dominant feature of the lives of Chinese people, the reality in China today is quite different. As the state and party continue to back out of personal lives (not entirely, mind you, as evidenced by the one-child policy) people today have many choices that were not available to them 10 or 15 years ago: choosing majors and jobs; buying homes and cars; traveling abroad. In some ways the government has made a bargain with the people: we’ll give you space and freedom to prosper economically, and you leave the politics to us. “So long as you don’t challenge the authorities, you can say and do anything” is how a friend has described it to me. It’s also important to remember that people in China are very patriotic, and they love their country deeply.
Myth #6: People live in freedom
While Chinese people enjoy many personal freedoms today, they do not extend to the political sphere. Freedom of expression is severely limited, with no room for criticizing the government or the Communist Party. Citizens do not participate in choosing the leaders; rather they are appointed and selected within the personnel system of the Party. Further, since China’s legal system is still weak, and the Party sits outside (and above) it, people are often subject to the whim of local political leaders who are accountable to no one.
Myth #7: Religious persecution is the normal experience for believers of all faiths
Many people have the false impression that no religious activity is permitted in China and that believers (particularly Christians) are severely persecuted. While there was a time when that was true (1950’s to 1980’s), persecution is not the normal experience for most believers in China today. Religious belief has made a significant resurgence in the past 30 years. There are 5 “approved religions” in China: Buddhism, Daosim, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but Buddhism claims the most adherents, with Protestantism being second (perhaps 50-70 million). Christianity is the fastest growing religion, with that growth taking place in both the registered and unregistered churches. In addition, the church’s role in society seems to be expanding, with opportunities for church involvement in meeting social and humanitarian needs. In addition to the approved religions, Chinese traditional folk beliefs and superstitions are also common, especially among the rural population.
Myth #8: There is religious freedom
While the government says it offers “freedom of religious belief,” it reserves the right to set the boundaries within which religious activities can be practiced, and those boundaries expand and contract in response to the political environment. Religious activities are under the supervision of the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Self-Funding, Self-Governing, Self-Propagating). All religious activities must be registered and approved, and unregistered groups are often harassed and/or shut down. The government is fearful of allowing space for competing ideologies and belief systems that may pose a threat.
If you find all of this confusing then consider, once again, this quote from Rob Gifford: “If you’re not confused than you simply haven’t been paying attention.” (China Road, p. 274)