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Are the Chinese really red and yellow working ants?

Otto Kolbl (on facebook), created: 2008-04-28, last modified: 2013-12-23

The Chinese are often described as hard-working, disciplined, obedient, and having a very strong sense of community. This image of the Chinese frightens us. If they are more disciplined and hard-working than us, they can become "stronger" than we are. Being obedient, they can easily be manipulated by a dictatorship into a fight against our values which they don't even know. However, when you travel to China, it becomes very difficult to reconcile this image with what you see.

The Chinese are often described as hard-working, disciplined, obedient, and having a very strong sense of community. This image of the Chinese frightens us. If they are more disciplined and hard-working than us, they can become "stronger" than we are. Being obedient, they can easily be manipulated by a dictatorship into a fight against our values which they don't even know. However, when you travel to China, it becomes very difficult to reconcile this image with what you see.

The first thing which struck me when I arrived in China was the road traffic. It is generally quite free flowing; traffic jams are not as bad as in most European cities. The most striking feature is the complete lack of discipline. Overtaking the one in front of you seems to be their national sport. This can lead on the highway to several cycles of mutual overtaking, in order to get the best starting position as soon as the overtaking lane is free again. Traffic rules seem virtually inexistent and are replaced by a mixture of Get out of my way and First served.

How is it that the Chinese, known to be so disciplined, drive in such a chaotic way? Is it because they don't have as long a tradition in dense motorized traffic as we have?
The rules about the use of mobile phones allow a better comparison. As opposed to cars, mobile phones became popular in China at about the same time as in the West, at the end of the 1990ies. In Western countries, rules soon restricted their use in some circumstances. On the contrary, in China their use is almost universal. If you point out to a Chinese who just arrived in a Western country the mobile phone interdiction panel which you can find in many post offices, he will certainly laugh.

There are many other fields where life in China is much less determined by rules than in the West. When having a meal, there are many habits, but no real rules. In the West, you can easily determine the social background of a person based on the way this person behaves during meal time. In China, I have had meals with factory workers and high level civil servants; they all eat in the same way. Communism has left its mark. For a foreigner like me, this is quite cool. I don't know the local customs anyway. The absence of rules makes it less easy to break them, with all the consequences this might entail.

The more time I spent in China, the more I had the impression that the drive to create rules for everything new is innate to us Westerners, but completely unknown to the Chinese. This would mean that the Chinese are not the obedient and disciplined working ants we are told. Have they ever been like that?

We are often shown Asian martial arts schools where hundreds of students smash the surrounding air to pieces in a perfectly synchronized way. However, this is not in any way part of traditional Asian culture. In ancient times, the master taught only small groups of students, coaching each student individually. If you visit a judo or kendo training, you still find this impression of disorder.

The well organized show you can find in most karate courses and many kung-fu courses can be traced back to the instruction techniques of the Prussian army. Prussia was a kingdom in the north-east of modern Germany, famous for its well disciplined army. In 1968, after a humiliating defeat against the US Navy, Japan decided to modernize its society, economy and army in order to be able to resist Western colonial armies. The Japanese government invited specialists from various Western countries. For military instruction it resorted to Prussian instructors, who taught the Japanese army how to march properly.

Physical education did not exist in traditional Asian schools, but was more and more considered indispensable, mainly for military reasons. Japan and later on China did not want to become westernized. Therefore they started adapting their own traditional sports, namely martial arts, to mass teaching. In this way, Prussian army instruction methods were applied to traditional martial arts in order to provide for compulsory sports education.

karate-web.jpg

Prussian military culture at work. The people shown in the picture have been made unrecognizable in order to prevent retaliation against the author.

Let us take another example of European and Asian culture, music. In Europe, be it at a beer festival or in a symphonic chorus, singing is often done in large groups, where tens or even hundredth of singer will sing in a perfectly synchronized way, literally with one voice. This is completely foreign to traditional Asian culture, where signing was performed (and still is) in the form of karaoke, where one or two people show the other people around what they can perform with their voice.

How is it then that our media show us this image of Chinese working ants? The Chinese are perfectly conscious of the fact that their individualism and lack of discipline has been their week point, especially when they had to face Western colonial armies or the Japanese army, which had learned from the West how to unite a people unconditionally behind an emperor. As a consequence, the Chinese chose an ideology, namely communism, which could bring some sense of community to into their society. It is quite ironical to note that the Chinese chose the ideology of Karl Marx, a German, in order to counter the Prussian military culture imported by Japan. That region of the world would probably be a lot more peaceful if the Western armies had never set foot to it.

Even if the war between China and Japan belongs to the past, the individualism and lack of discipline of the Chinese still cause a lot of problems. A Chinese to whom I owe much of my knowledge about China once told me about the recent history of Wenzhou, a city 400 km to the south of Shanghai. That region has a long tradition in leather and shoe craftsmanship. In the 1980, with economic liberalization, it developed into a fast growing shoe industry. The products were exported into the rest of China and into the whole world. However, the region also started to produce many beautiful shoes which looked like made of leather, but dissolved in the first rain, because they were actually made of cartoon. The person which told me about this commented: "Chinese are great!" The reputation of shoes made in Wenzhou dropped dramatically. Therefore the local communist party set up strict quality rules and enforced them with an iron fist. Slowly shoes made in Wenzhou regained a good reputation and were again trusted by the consumers.

This story shows the relationship the Chinese entertain with the communist party. They are so individualist and flexible that this often harms the whole community, and they know it. Therefore they accept the ideology of the communist party in order to protect their country against themselves. Just compare with the situation in Western countries: did the Swiss government need to set up rules in order to maintain the quality of Swiss watches? No. Therefore the Swiss don't need any communist government. In Western countries, we need much more a liberal ideology insisting on the rights of the individual in order to protect us from the leveling weight of social pressure and rules.

This conflict between social reality and ideology determines the reporting of our media. They show us images of Chinese athletes who declare dedicating all their efforts to the communist party. The communist regime wants us to see these images, but does not realize that they cause huge damage in the West: instead of meeting our admiration, they will destroy any sympathy we might feel for those athletes and the Chinese in general, and frighten us.

The communication between the West and China is in a deep crisis. I don't talk about communication between governments, but between the populations of these countries. In Europe, it has become almost unacceptable to talk in a positive way about China. On the other side, the Chinese who follow the Western media are disgusted by their reporting about China, even though not long ago they considered the Western media to be much more objective and trustworthy than the Chinese media.

In order to get out of this dead end, efforts from both sides are required. The Western media should be able to look beyond the Chinese ideology in order to see what is really behind all this. The Chinese should support this effort by showing themselves to the Western media as they are: individualist, open-minded, undisciplined, flexible and creative. All the Westerners I know who have been able to discover the Chinese as they are loved what they saw.

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