Chinese national character has long been tied up with the issue of “face,” and how best to “save” it. The idea that what is important in any situation is not so much the actual outcome, but the way the situation looks to outsiders.
This concept has been an enduring one from the feudalist imperial system that ruled China for two thousand years throughout its turbulent 20th century history of civil war and communism.
It is a contributing factor to most of the major political and historical events that have taken place there, such as the Cultural Revolution, the annexations of Tibet and Xinjiang, the attitude towards Taiwan, the Tian’anmen Square Protests, and even the economy that grows at an average of 10% per year for over fifteen years.
It is also well represented in China’s literature and cultural life. Many authors from the late Qing Dynasty onward have tried to define a Chinese national character through their works. One of the most successful of these was Lu Xun.
Born in Zhejiang province and educated in Japan, Lu Xun dedicated his works, both fiction and non-fiction, to the goal of defining Chinese qualities and healing the spiritual and moral needs of the Chinese people. His most famous story was The True Story of Ah Q, published in a newspaper beginning in late 1921.
It features a village loser who does nothing notable and is looked down upon by all who encounter him. This story, however, has become ingrained in the Chinese culture and scholars such as Lee Ou-fan maintain that it holds influence even today.
One of the major ways the story portrays saving face is in the way Ah Q relates to his defeats. When he does something wrong, such as insulting someone for no good reason by not holding his tongue, he gets beaten up, but he then justifies it by claiming it to be an outrage that people like his “sons” could beat him up.
His psychological victory is enough for him to justify anything, no matter how pathetic it seems to the other villagers. When he loses his gambling money in a mob, he justifies it by slapping himself so that he’ll have something to feel victorious over (Lu).
This relates to Chinese mentality in general, from government actions to individuals. The way China deals with any situation is to put a good face on it or to cover it up. Passing an anti-secession law, such as the one the Party Congress enacted in 2005 for the show effect it would have on Taiwan, is only one in a long line of examples.
Refusing to re-evaluate their currency in relation to the dollar, the lack of acknowledgement about SARS and AIDS, the blocking or censoring of websites such as google, wikipedia, and the BBC, the banning and rehabilitation of filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and now Jia Zhangke-each contributes to the argument that Chinese character has not changed since Ah Q’s time.
Another enduring aspect of Chinese mentality skillfully depicted here is that of the mob. We see mobs in everyday village life, such as the gambling mob that steals Ah Q’s money, and also when he teases the nun. While most people are at least respectful of religious individuals, no one in the crowd does anything but laugh as Ah Q disgraces the nun in order to get attention.
He touches her bare skin and insinuates that she sleeps with a monk, both of which are extremely insulting, but no one does anything but laugh (Lu). This kind of onlooker crowds can be found anywhere in China when there is a fight or traffic accident.
They reached the peak of their violence during the Cultural Revolution, in which many people were denounced before just such mobs of jeering onlookers.
Mobs also come into the story near its end, when the sweep of history enters the quiet village in the form of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Here the mobs try and loot the homes of anyone who is not “revolutionary,” meaning those of the wealthy.
In the end, Ah Q is caught and executed as a scapegoat for the looting. The end of this character is as unspectacular as the rest of his life had been.
Through telling the story of this kind of small man, Lu is expressing his concern that the “average” Chinese person is becoming too much like Ah Q, and will be too afraid to participate when the real revolution comes around.
That real revolution is still around the corner, and it remains to be seen if the growing Chinese middle class will ever be so discontent as to make a real change to their totalitarian government.
The people today still need to take Lu’s message to heart and realize that the actions of their government are viewed by the outside world the way a reader views Ah Q, as idiotic praising of past and hoping for future while neglecting the present by worrying more about “saving face” than any concrete action.
Beijing can move all the Han people it wants into Tibet and Xinjiang, but it will never eradicate or assimilate these two different ethnicities completely, and will only require more “saving face” in the future when the never-ending sectarian violence escalates.
Lu was very observant in pointing out these weaknesses in Chinese character, and the PRC would do good to take on his message as well, instead of just celebrating his image because Mao had him declared a communist hero.
His true ideas were much more individualistic than what he is reduced to, and maybe someday China will truly see the significance of this great writer and thinker.
Lu, Xun. “The True Story of Ah Q.” Trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1960, 1972. Ah Q! Performance Project. 16 Apr. 2007 <http://www.wac.ucla.edu/cip/ahq/ahqstory.htm>.
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