Common Misconceptions

China’s present is the same as its past: “Confucianism is Communism.”

Some textbooks try to suggest that China never changes, and so reason that if China’s government under Mao was oppressive, that must mean that China’s government always has been oppressive. Likewise, because England is democratic today, then England must always have been egalitarian, democratic, and individualistic. This is an appealing way of thinking because of its simplicity, but it is not hard to find reasons why such an assumption is unreliable. Supposing someone from Japan walked up to an American and said, “We Japanese make excellent cars, so it must be that the automobile was invented in Japan!” Just about any American would reply that mass-produced automobiles were first invented in America and perfected by Henry Ford. Then, if your Japanese friend replied, “But if the automobile was invented in America, how do you explain the fact that such fine cars are made in Japan today?”, what would you say?

The weakness of this argument is clearly obvious, but this very same argument has been used to convince millions of people for more than a century that China was never concerned about law, justice, or human rights. After all, if people were concerned about justice in China before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, then why would there be so many human rights’ violations during the twentieth century?

In reality, history is full of flip flops; societies almost never evolve in a gradual, linear fashion. In the 1950s, most products made in Japan were shoddy and cheap, but Japanese products are now known today for their high quality. In 1970s in Taiwan, women had almost no role in high levels of government. Today, about one-third of Taiwan’s legislative representatives are women! In eighteenth-century and even nineteenth-century Europe, nepotism (i.e., the practice of appointing relatives to important government positions) was legal and common practice, but it is not the case today. In China, free speech is a problem today, but, on the other hand, we find arguments for free speech throughout China’s pre-PRC history, beginning about the fourth century BC. As late as the eighteenth century, Europeans like Francois Quesnay were astounded at the Chinese custom of writing criticisms of the government, as such practices were rare in Europe before that time. There is also a long tradition in China calling for equality under the law. Slaves were given legal rights in China about the time of Christ. By the twelfth century, Chinese “slaves” could sue their masters, and even royal relatives could be executed for murdering slaves. In fact, the principle of equality under the law had been stated early in Chinese history and was cited repeatedly throughout history. Yet, under communism, China’s earlier legal system was swept away.

Returning to the present, China’s government and economy today are vastly different from what they were even 20 years ago. If China never changes, and Confucianism is just the same as Communism, then how can the same past give rise to almost opposite practices? So don’t fall for the argument that the present is a guide to the past, or that the past is the same as the present. Look at the facts and decide for yourself how one relates to the other.

China’s past doesn’t matter: “I’m only concerned about what’s happening now.”

This is the other side of the argument that China’s past is the same as its present. It looks as if this is the opposite argument, but actually it takes you to pretty much the same conclusion.

Everyone has to have a narrative, a kind of story that they keep in their mind about how the world became the way it is. What your story tells you about the past will determine what kind of future you can imagine for yourself and others. You can’t imagine a future without a past, even if it’s a false one. Of course, the false ones tend to steer us toward a more risky future. When a person tells you the past doesn’t matter, often they want to replace your narrative with theirs, and you’ll soon discover that their narrative has its own “past.” By erasing your past, they can fabricate a story that suits their own purposes.

In seventeenth-century France, for instance, most people believed that the aristocracy were intrinsically better than the common people, which explains why the aristocracy held most of the highest positions in government. If you were a talented commoner at that time and believed this story, then your future would be very directly affected because you (1) would accept your low status as natural and (2) would not try to compete for high-status positions because you couldn’t imagine someone like yourself in the role of an official. But supposing someone told you that, during the past 50 years, most of the aristocracy holding high government positions performed abysmally? You might then begin to wonder whether you should question your low status.

With regard to China, the possibilities for future cooperation would look very different depending on the story that you believed. Is it really the case that no one in China ever thought about human rights? If that were true, there would be problems in developing a consciousness of human rights in the future, but what if there are many examples of historical precedent for human rights concerns? What if China has a long history of student demonstrations, social activists, and advocates for free speech? Would the range of future possibilities not be considered to be different? But then someone might come along and say: “Whatever happened in the past doesn’t really matter; I’m only concerned about what’s happening now.” If you believe that one, there’s a really nice bridge I’d like to sell you in Brooklyn, very cheap. Let me know.

“Chinese people have always valued hierarchy, so the only way to convince them of what you want is to speak with authority or via some authority.”

This might be a good guide to action if it were true, but unfortunately this is not the case. Therefore, many Westerners find themselves frustrated in China because people do not behave according to the stereotype. Even so, they’re unwilling to give up the stereotype.

Let us start with basics. Hierarchy is a necessary feature of all advanced social units. Corporations are very hierarchical. Government is hierarchical. Schools are hierarchical. But modern hierarchies differ from traditional ones in a very important way: modern hierarchies are supposed to be based on merit, whereas feudal hierarchies are based on personal factors, such as heredity (Dad was a duke, so I’m a duke) or personal connections (nepotism). The personal factor never really disappears and can exert a lot of influence, even in modern democratic nations. But, in the West, hierarchies were mainly based on personal factors until well into the nineteenth century. In China, merit had been established as the appropriate criterion for political authority as early as the third century BC and became the chief criterion for social and political hierarchies after the tenth century. The most important means for determining merit was a national examination system, in which the graders were not aware of the examinees, not unlike the SAT exams that are so important in the US today.

This tradition of valuing merit and holding examinations has had two effects on the way people in China are able to view hierarchy and authority:

  • People in China early on learned that a person’s assigned rank was not always a good guide to their real merit. We first find an awareness of this occurring around the fifth century BC, and complaints about high-ranking people lacking the proper qualifications are common from the fourth century BC onward. This is even a common theme represented in Chinese art. This means that people in China early on knew that a fancy title did not necessarily entitle you to their respect.

  • The condition described above made it possible for people with no official rank to acquire very high esteem in public opinion. In fact, many of China’s greatest celebrities were people who had been exiled—criminals from the government’s perspective—but heroes in the public eye.

  • Because of the above two, an ethos developed of making up your own mind about a person’s worth based on what they really know. In other words, hierarchy was not an absolute guarantee of respect and obedience in China. One can recognize the consequences of this history in Chinese society even today. For example, in Japan, a person’s academic pedigree is probably the most important factor in determining the amount of respect you get. If you have a degree from Harvard or Berkeley or Columbia, and if they have heard of your teacher, you are in pretty good shape. In China, although this would be taken into consideration, people tend to be more interested in learning how well you really know your stuff. If you are serious and well-informed, you can go a long way in China, even without the best pedigree.

This also means that, if a person is very accomplished but happens to have a low rank, they will still have a lot of respect for themselves and may or may not listen to their superior. Many people from China may come to the United States with degrees in medicine, science, or education, yet many will have to take lower-ranking positions in the US because of their poor English. Even so, they might not assume that their worth is lower than their bosses. Many people in the West are confused by this, but if you know a bit about Chinese history, it makes sense.

“Portraiture is unimportant in Chinese art because the individual was not as important in China as in the West.”

This is an example of what is called an “intuitive analogy” argument. In these arguments, you try to imply that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a society’s basic structure and some random object or practice associated with that society. The portraiture argument says that, since portraits isolate and glorify one, single person, then portraiture must be an expression of an individualistic society. In early modern Europe, portraiture was a major genre, whereas, in early modern China, landscape was more important. Some argue that this is because the Chinese immerse the individual in nature, whereas Westerners emphasize the individual.

Intuitive analogy arguments are by nature fallacious (i.e., logically false), but, if we look more closely into both Chinese and European history, we also find that this argument is without foundation. Most of us would admit that twentieth-century society in the United States was more individualistic than sixteenth-century Italy, yet portraiture as a genre declines with the rise of modern art, which emphasizes individual expression. Although modern artists claim that their paintings are expressions of their own feelings and thoughts, relatively few modern artists expressed themselves in portraits. In sixteenth-century Italy, on the other hand, portraiture was important because the nobility wanted people to see how great they were. Artists did not paint the portraits of noblemen to express themselves, but because the nobility told them what they should paint, and the nobility wanted paintings that were flattering to themselves.

In China, we find the same pattern. During the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), artists primarily worked for the nobility and Buddhism. During that period, portraiture was a very important genre in China. By the twelfth century, the more radical Chinese artists refused to work for the nobility and claimed to paint only to express themselves. At this time, portraiture naturally declined because artists were unwilling to be running dogs for the nobility. Therefore, landscape and other genres permitting expressive brushwork became dominant.

Below are a couple more intuitive analogy arguments. See if you can find the fallacies in them.

  • In America, most city streets are designed on a rigid, gridlike plan, whereas, in Europe, streets meander in all directions without having to obey any particular order. This indicates why Americans are rigid and unimaginative, whereas Europeans are more creative.

  • In China, the floor plan of buildings was usually laid out on a symmetrical plan, reflecting the rigid, hierarchical nature of the Chinese family.



After reading an article, ask yourself if it could reasonably be re-entitled “Why Westerners are So Much Better than the Chinese [or Africans, Arabs, whatever].” It is unlikely that a balanced account of the facts would yield any argument for ethnic superiority so, if that title fits, you should probably be skeptical about the author’s true intentions.

  • Focus on facts. Isolate opinions.

  • No society is monolithic. Beware of sweeping generalizations like “The Chinese believe such-and-such.”

  • Always look for the range of possible debate from both ends of the spectrum, and not only the “characteristic” opinion. This is a better gauge of any society.

  • If you compare two societies, first compare societies that are historically comparable. Either work in the same period (twelfth-century China and Europe) or societies at a comparable stage of development. Then compare the kinds of institutions each has in support of individual agency: legal systems, publishing, public forums, social mobility, and so on.
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