Ngan Shun-kau 顏純鈎 (Yan Chun-gou, born 1948) is a writer, literary editor, and a seasoned observer of Chinese politics. Born in Hong Kong, Ngan grew up in the coastal province of Fujian. Like many of the youth in his generation, Ngan threw himself wholeheartedly into the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and rose to become a leader of a Red Guard group. His latest novel Blood Rain in My Youth 血雨華年 (2019) is based on his experiences during this unforgettable decade, a chapter in Chinese history which he described as ‘painted with blood’.
In 1978, Ngan moved to Hong Kong where he worked his way up the ranks of the local publishing industry, progressing from typesetter to proof-reader and then literary editor. He oversaw many important publications, including a rare collection of photographs under the title The Cultural Revolution Museum 文化大革命博物馆 (1995).
In the following essay, Ngan uses his political acumen to analyse the meaning of two proverbs – yígè bāzhǎng pāi bù xiǎng 一個巴掌拍不響 (literally, it takes two hands to clap, similar to ‘it takes two to tango’) and jiě líng hái xū xì líng rén 解鈴還須繫鈴人 (only he who tied the bell on the tiger can untie it) – invoked on numerous occasions by Xi Jinping and the Foreign Ministry when commenting on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. On the surface, the two phrases may seem like simple clichés in the service of party rhetoric, but as Ngan’s reading shows, they reveal much of the hidden logic of the Communist Party of China (CPC) as well as the deep-seated cynicism rooted in ancient Chinese political philosophy.
— The editors
Glib Talk with Chinese Characteristics Will Never Redeem Characteristically Chinese Pig-headedness
By Ngan Shun-kau, translated by Annie Ren
During his recent ‘summit’ with President Joe Biden, President Xi Jinping pulled off a bit of a sly stunt, using two Chinese proverbs as a sleight of hand. One was ‘It takes two hands to clap’; the other was ‘Only he who tied the bell on the tiger can untie it’. Biden must have been completely baffled by these two proverbs, but he was certainly not at the meeting to be lectured by Xi on the CPC’s position. His goal was to deliver a warning to the CPC, to advise them not to act rashly. So he probably just laughed off this display of ‘proverbial Chinese wisdom’.
Fortunately, I am Chinese, so I can expound the hidden mystery of these two proverbs.
The words ‘It takes two hands to clap’ try to blur the line between right and wrong. When two families quarrel, there must be a clear right and wrong. To ‘side with the one who is right and to oppose the one who is wrong’ is the principle that most bystanders use to resolve conflicts. But the Chinese do not think this way. They think that it is none of my business if your two families are fighting. If I have to step in to resolve the quarrel, I will not make judgements on the right and wrong of it. I’ll simply emphasize that both families must be at fault, since if only one family is wrong there can be no dispute.
This slippery attitude naturally reflects a desire to stay out of conflict. If you say A is wrong, A will quarrel with you next; if you say B is wrong, B will give you a hard time. You stepped in to stop a fight but got dragged into it instead. What nuisance! The safest method is thus not to ask who is right and who is wrong, but to give irrelevant advice to cover up one’s own inaction, and then quickly leave the scene.
But is there really no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Irrespective of how serious the accusations Russia has levelled against Ukraine may be, they are not valid reasons for an invasion. Isn’t the CPC constantly talking about national sovereignty and territorial integrity? Ukraine is an independent nation with its own sovereignty; it does not need the consent of other countries in order to make its own choices. The Donbas region is a part of Ukraine. Regardless of what reasons Russia may have, it absolutely cannot invade another country. This is the most important distinction between right and wrong in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The CPC however has avoided any discussion of right and wrong in the conflict by only looking at appearances, and not tackling the fundamental root of the problem. This is a war. Both countries have mobilised troops and are engaged in combat. In the view of the CPC, both countries are therefore at fault and should be subjected to fifty lashes each. They should be ordered to make compromises and resolve matters peacefully through negotiation.
Does this mean that the CPC has in fact adopted a neutral position in the Russian-Ukrainian war? Certainly not. It supports Russia and is opposed to Ukraine. But supporting Russia is very unpopular in today’s world, and the CPC does not want to be seen doing this in too obvious a fashion. So it resorts to this kind of glib sophistry. In order to let itself off the hook, it chooses to ‘plant a foot on both boats at once’. This may seem like a canny move, but when the two boats concerned are actually heading in opposite directions, one will inevitably end up falling into the water. This is called ‘being too smart for one’s own good’.
As for the saying ‘Only he who tied the bell on the tiger can untie it’, this is also an excuse used by the CPC to shirk responsibility. We did not tie the bell on the tiger, so it is not our responsibility to untie it. It is up to the person who tied the bell to do so. But in reality, why should the person who tied the bell on the tiger necessarily be the only one to take it off? Surely, no matter who tied the bell, anyone can untie it, so long as they have the will to do so. This is another example of the Chinese sleight of hand: it’s none of my business, so just leave me alone.
Anyway, who did tie the bell in the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Ukraine and the West, of course, maintain that it was Russia who started the war and tied the bell. So Russia should withdraw its troops unconditionally, it should recognise Ukraine’s sovereignty, and compensate Ukraine for its losses in the war. However, in the mind of the CPC, Russia sent troops because Ukraine wanted to join NATO and NATO wanted to expand eastward, therefore, Ukraine and NATO are the ones who must deal with it, not the CPC.
The CPC has again managed to dodge responsibility by deflecting blame onto the United States and NATO, like someone who ‘points to the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree’ (to use yet another timeless Chinese proverb). Xi Jinping’s speech-writers must have made their Emperor very happy by coming up with these two proverbs for him to use against Biden. But this kind of glib way of talking has no real outcome; it merely alienates others and provokes their contempt.
This Chinese deviousness is a manifestation of the peasant cunning of the CPC. But it also originates in the cynicism of State Confucianism, for which, as the Odes have it, ‘enlightened wisdom’ consists in ‘protecting oneself.’ Surely this is one of the most retrograde and irresponsible elements in our national heritage, a ‘negative asset’. This cynical outlook has caused us to ‘carelessly go on our merry way’ in the face of reality, never reflecting on our own actions, nor daring to take on any responsibilities, bringing about the tragic outcome whereby our people have lagged behind for more than a thousand years.
This cynical philosophy, along with the CPC’s below the belt political manipulation and the ignorance of the Chinese masses, has led to the perverse practices of the Chinese party-state today and made it the public enemy of democracies around the world.
What will be the outcome if China continues to link its fate with that of Russia? Russia has already lost the economic battle, and once it has also lost the war, it will have to face further sanctions from the world’s democratic nations. Even if the CPC continues to cast flirtatious glances in Russia’s direction and cheers Putin on, can an impoverished and alienated Russia honestly count on CPC support to win the war? I don’t think that even Xi Jinping dares to conceive of such a fanciful dream.
Given that Russia can’t win even with China’s backing, why should the CPC tie itself to Russia and go down with it? This is because the fate of the two dictatorships is already inseparable. When one falls the other will also go down with it. If it breaks with Russia, the CPC will die a slow death; but if it stays tied to Russia, it will expire quickly. Since one way or the other death is its ultimate fate, the CPC has decided to take a chance, hoping that the West may lose its nerve and pull back.
The West fully understands the strategic significance of the Russia-Ukraine war. For the West, this war is also a matter of life and death. If the West wins, the world will head down a smooth and prosperous road; if the West loses, the world will be turned upside down once again. Western politicians may have their own shady and crooked motives, but when it comes to universal values, they all stand in solidarity. Therefore, when faced with China and Russia, the West will exert all its strength, and attack the enemy at their weakest point, without giving it a second chance.
Biden is visiting Europe soon, and the United States and NATO have already figured out what the bottom line is for China and Russia. It is just a matter of deciding what actions to take. By tossing out phrases like ‘It takes two hands to clap’ or ‘Only he who tied the bell on the tiger can untie it’, Xi thinks he’s being awfully clever. In reality, this is just glib talk. We will soon see the repercussions. When the day comes and Putin is brought down, when the Ukrainian army with NATO support, goes in hot pursuit of Putin and he eventually falls, I wonder what other smarmy Chinese proverbs Xi will trundle out.
Given Xi’s habitual pig-headedness, he thinks that at worst he will just tell the Chinese people that ‘a salad-only diet is good for their health’. Namely, he will continue to use verbal trickery to rebut any criticisms, and if this doesn’t work out, he thinks he can just bite the bullet and swallow it. This is similar to the logic used by Mao when he challenged the West with the possibility of nuclear war, saying that even if half of China’s population was wiped out, there would still be 300 million Chinese left. In the end, though, it will be the Chinese people who pay the bitter price.
But when Russia falls, will the Chinese party-state still be able to hold out? Everyone knows the answer to this question.
Originally published on Ngan Shun-kau’s Facebook.
The translator wishes to thank Linda Jaivin, John Minford and Esther Klein for their judicious advice on matters related to translation.