The Ugly Chinaman

by Bo Yang
Bo Yang, writer from Taiwan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bo Yang, writer from Taiwan.
Source: Wikimedia

Bo Yang is the pseudonym of Guo Yidong (1920–2008), a controversial Taiwan writer who was born in Kaifeng, Henan. Guo moved to Taiwan in the late 1940s and, under the pen-name Bo Yang, began writing essays dealing mainly with Taiwan’s social problems and the Chinese national character. His penetrating exposés of corruption and special privileges soon won him a reputation as a leading social critic in Taiwan and among Chinese communities overseas. The influence of Lu Xun is evident in Bo Yang’s acerbic style. Like Lu Xun, he inevitably incurred the displeasure of the Nationalist Party authorities. In 1967, he was arrested and jailed for ten years on charges of ‘defaming the leadership’ and ‘complicity with the Communists’.

The Ugly Chinaman (Chouloude Zhongguoren 醜陋的中國人), from which the following translated extracts by Don Cohn are taken, was originally given as a speech that Bo Yang delivered at Iowa University on 24 September 1984. Subsequently published in the Hong Kong Pai-shing Fortnightly (Baixing banyuekan 百姓半月刊), it set off a small-scale ‘battle of the pens’ among the magazine’s readers. A translation of one of the more negative letters Pai-shing received in reply to Bo Yang is appended to the abridged translation of the speech.

The Ugly Chinaman appeared in book form along with a selection of Bo Yang’s essays and readers’ letters in Taiwan; it was subsequently also published in the People’s Republic and has gone through numerous reprints. Such critiques of the Chinese national character, frequent from the late nineteenth century, have become something of a cottage industry in recent decades.

Cover of a recent edition of The Ugly Chinaman, first published in 1985. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cover of a recent edition of The Ugly Chinaman, first published in 1985.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For many years I’ve contemplated writing a book called The Ugly Chinaman. When The Ugly American was published in the United States, the US State Department chose it as a guide for policy making. But when the Japanese ambassador to Argentina published The Ugly Japanese, he was swiftly removed from his post. This is a good example of the difference between the Orient and the Occident. In China, however, things could be one step worse. If I wrote a book called The Ugly Chinaman, before long you’d be bringing me my meals in jail; that’s the reason why I haven’t written it yet, though I’ve been looking for an opportunity to talk about the subject in public for a long time.

How Hard it is to be Chinese

On the Chinese mainland, the Anti- Rightist Campaign was followed by the Cultural Revolution, an earthshaking disaster without precedent in the history of human civilisation. In addition to the terrible loss of human lives, the Cultural Revolution caused incalculable damage by destroying humanitarian values and defiling the nobility of the human spirit, without which there remains very little to separate man from beast. Those ‘Ten Years of Devastation’ turned many people into animals. How can a nation whose morality has degenerated to this level ever regain its self-respect?…

Everyone’s talking about the Hong Kong question nowadays. When a piece of a country’s territory is snatched away by another country, it is always a cause for shame. And when that territory is finally returned to its rightful owner — like a child returning to its mother’s embrace — the event becomes a cause for celebration on both sides. You must be familiar with France’s ceding of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. The original loss of the two states was extremely painful, and the reunification a cause for great rejoicing. In the case of Hong Kong, however, no sooner was the news out that the territory would be returned to the motherland than people panicked. How do you explain this? In Taiwan, a number of young people — both native Taiwanese and Mainlanders — support the idea of an independent Taiwan. This is the so-called Taiwan Independence Movement. I recall thirty years ago when Taiwan was restored to China by Japan, we were all overjoyed; it was as if a lost child had found its way back to the arms of its mother. Thirty years later, what is it that has brought about this change of heart, this child’s desire to leave home and try to make it on its own again? Chinese people share the same blood, the same physical appearance, the same ancestry and culture, the same written and spoken languages; only geographical differences divide them. How, then, has the present situation come about?

Even among the Chinese in the United States you will find the absurd situation wherein leftists, rightists, moderates, independents, left-leaning moderates, moderate-leaning leftists, right-leaning moderates, and moderate-leaning rightists can’t seem to find a common language and are constantly at each other’s throats. What does this imply about the Chinese people? What does this imply about China itself? No other nation on earth has such a long history or such a well-preserved cultural tradition, a tradition which has in the past given rise to an extremely advanced civilisation. Neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians of today bear any relationship to their ancient forebears, while the Chinese people of today are the direct descendants of the ancient Chinese. How is it possible for such a great people to have degenerated to such a state of ugliness? Not only have we been bullied around by foreigners; even worse, for centuries we’ve been bullied around by our own kind — from tyrannical emperors to despotic officials and ruthless mobs…

Chinese People are the Same Everywhere

During my incarceration I spent a lot of time contemplating my fate. What crimes had I committed? What laws had I broken? I continued pondering these questions after I was released and began to wonder whether mine was an abnormal or special case. On this trip to Iowa, where I have been able to meet writers from the Chinese mainland, I have discovered that God has predestined people like me for jail, whether the jail be in Taiwan or on the Chinese mainland. These mainland writers told me: ‘Someone like you would never have made it as far as the Red Guards or the Cultural Revolution. You’d have been lucky to survive the Anti-Rightist Movement.’ Why must a Chinese person with the courage to speak an iota of truth suffer this sort of fate? I’ve asked a number of people from the Mainland why they ended up in prison. The answer was invariably, ‘I spoke the truth.’ And that’s the way it is. But why does speaking the truth lead to such unfortunate consequences? My answer is that this is not a problem of any particular individual but rather of Chinese culture as a whole. A few days ago I had a discussion with the Party secretary of the [mainland] Writer’s Association. He literally made me speechless with anger. I used to think I could hold my own in an argument; but this guy knocked the wind clean out of my sails. I don’t blame him though; in the same way, I don’t blame the agents who handled my case in Taipei. If you were in that environment and conversant with its ways and means, you would very likely act as they do, because you would believe that what you were doing was right. I would do the same, though I’d probably be even more obnoxious than that Party secretary. I often hear people say: ‘Your future is in your own hands.’ Having lived the better part of my life, I don’t believe that any more. Actually, I should say about one half is in your hands, while the other half rests in the hands of others.

The Inability to Admit Error

Chinese people’s inability to co-operate and their predilection for bickering among themselves are deep-rooted, harmful traits. These behaviour patterns do not stem from any inherent weakness in the moral fibre of the Chinese people, but rather from a ‘neurotic virus’ which infects Chinese culture, making it impossible for us not to act in certain ways in given situations. We may be entirely aware of the fact that we quarrel among ourselves, yet it is beyond our control to stop it. ‘If the pot breaks, no one can have anything to eat; but if the sky falls, there’ll always be someone tall enough to prevent it from falling on me.’ This tendency towards internecine struggle is associated with a terrible reluctance to admit mistakes… .

Chinese people find it hard to admit their mistakes, and produce myriad reasons to cover up for them. There’s an old adage: ‘Contemplate errors behind closed doors.’ Whose errors? The guy next door’s, of course! When I was teaching I had my students keep a weekly diary in which they were supposed to record their own behaviour for the week. The entries frequently read like this: ‘Today XXX deceived me. I’ve been good to him in so many ways. It must be because I’m too honest and simple.’ But XXX’s diary revealed that he also believed himself to be too simple and honest. If everyone thinks himself simple and honest who does that leave to be dishonest? Chinese don’t admit their mistakes because somewhere along the line they have lost the ability to do so. We may not admit our mistakes, but they still exist, and denying them won’t make them disappear. Chinese people expend a great deal of effort in covering up their mistakes, and in so doing make additional ones. Thus it is often said that Chinese are addicted to bragging, boasting, lying, equivocating and malicious slandering. For years people have been going on about the supreme greatness of the Han Chinese people, and boasting endlessly that Chinese traditional culture should be promulgated throughout the world. But the reason why such dreams will never be realised is because they’re pure braggadocio. I need not cite any further examples of boasting and lying, but Chinese verbal brutality deserves special mention. Even in the bedroom, where Western couples address each other as ‘honey’ and ‘darling’, Chinese people prefer such endearments as ‘you deserve to be cut into a thousand pieces.’ And in matters of politics and money, or in power struggles of any kind, the viciousness can be out of all proportion. This raises the additional question: What makes Chinese people so cruel and base?

Many Westerners have said to me, ‘It’s hard getting to know Chinese people: you never know what’s really on their minds.’ My reply is: ‘You think you have problems? When Chinese people speak with other Chinese, it’s nearly impossible to know what’s going on.’ One way of communicating in these situations is to observe people’s slightest movements and changes of expression, and to cultivate the habit of beating around the bush. You ask someone, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ and the answer is ‘Yes.’ But this person is actually ravenously hungry. You can hear his stomach growling … .

Stuck in the Mud of Bragging and Boasting

Narrow-mindedness and a lack of altruism can produce an unbalanced personality which constantly wavers between two extremes: a chronic feeling of inferiority, and extreme arrogance. In his inferiority, a Chinese person is a slave; in his arrogance, he is a tyrant. Rarely does he or she have a healthy sense of self-respect. In the inferiority mode, everyone else is better than he is, and the closer he gets to people with influence, the wider his smile becomes. Similarly, in the arrogant mode, no other human being on earth is worth the time of day. The result of these extremes is a strange animal with a split personality.

A Nation of Inflation

What makes the Chinese people so prone to self-inflation? Consider the saying: A small vessel is easily filled. Because of the Chinese people’s inveterate narrow-mindedness and arrogance, even the slightest success is overwhelming. It is all right if a few people behave in this manner, but if it’s the entire population or a majority — particularly in China — it spells national disaster. Since it seems as if the Chinese people have never had a healthy sense of self-respect, it is immensely difficult for them to treat others as equals: If you aren’t my master, then you’re my slave. People who think this way can only be narrow-minded in their attitude towards the world and reluctant to admit their mistakes.

Only the Chinese Can Change Themselves

With so many loathsome qualities, only the Chinese people can reform themselves. Foreigners have a duty to help us, not in the realm of economics, but through culture. The Chinese ship of state is so large and overcrowded that if it sinks many non-Chinese will be drowned as well.

One last point: China is seriously overpopulated. China’s more than one billion mouths can easily devour the Himalayas. This should remind us that China’s difficulties are complex and call for awareness on the part of each and every Chinese person. Each one of us must become a discriminating judge and use our powers to examine and appraise ourselves, our friends and our country’s leaders. This, I believe, is the only way out for the Chinese people.

Developing a Personal Sense of Judgement

In the last 4,000 years, China has produced only one great thinker: Confucius. In the two-and-one-half millennia since his death, China’s literati did little more than add footnotes to the theories propounded by Confucius and his disciples, rarely contributing any independent opinions, simply because the traditional culture did not permit it. The minds of the literati were stuck on the bottom of an intellectually stagnant pond, the soy-sauce vat of Chinese culture. As the contents of this vat began to putrefy, the resultant stench was absorbed by the Chinese people. Since the numerous problems in this bottomless vat could not be solved by individuals exercising their own intelligence, the literati had to make do with following others’ ways of thinking. If one were to place a fresh peach in a soy-sauce vat full of putrescent brine, it would eventually turn into a dry turd. China has its own particular way of transforming foreign things and ideas which enter within its borders. You say you’ve got democracy; well we have democracy too. But the Chinese form of democracy is: You’ve got the demos (people), but I’ve got the kratos (power). You’ve got the legal system; we’ve got one too. You’ve got freedom, so have we. Whatever you have, we have too. You’ve got pedestrian crossings painted on the street; we have too, but ours are there to make it easier for cars to run pedestrians over.

The only way to improve the situation of the Ugly Chinaman is for each of us to cultivate our own personal taste and judgment. If we’re poor actors, we can at least enjoy going to plays. Those who don’t understand what’s happening on stage can enjoy the music, lights, costumes and scenery, while those who do understand can appreciate drama as an art form. The ability to make such distinctions is a great achievement in itself. …I have my freedom and rights, whether the government gives them to me or not. If we had the capacity to make proper judgments, we would demand elections and be rigorous in our selection of candidates. But without this capacity, we’ll never be able to distinguish a beautiful woman from a pock-marked hag.

One Ugly Chinaman
Wang Yiling

I am a Chinese and I readily acknowledge that I have numerous faults and imperfections, but I certainly am not an ‘Ugly Chinaman’, nor can I countenance an accusation that decries all Chinese as ‘ugly’. I am not sure whether Bo Yang still thinks of himself as Chinese or not, but if so then he is quite free to say he is ugly. But that doesn’t give him the right to lump everyone else in with him.

I am in total disagreement with the basic tenor and argument of ‘The Ugly Chinaman’, although this is not to say there is no merit in the speech whatsoever. A few of the things Bo Yang says are correct, for example his statement that ‘the Chinese are indeed one of the most intelligent nationalities in the world …’ .

This speech raises one important question: what is actually so ugly about the Chinese? Bo Yang certainly doesn’t avoid this issue, he rambles on at great length and cites many examples in his attempt to prove that the Chinese are ‘filthy, disorderly, noisy and quarrelsome’. I am sure that Bo Yang isn’t the kind of person to like slandering others, but even if what he says is true, just what does it prove? What race or country on earth is completely noise-free or unmarred by disputes? Aren’t American hippies dirty? Isn’t the New York subway system chaotic? Are politics in the US, Europe and Japan free from vociferous debates and shameful infighting? Is there, in fact, anywhere in the world where people don’t fight with each other? According to Bo Yang’s logic, we should be speaking of Ugly Humanity, not just the Ugly Chinaman.

Why should an outstanding writer … who has consistently claimed that he loves his people and his country use scraps of unconnected and specious ‘evidence’ to slander his compatriots? The truth of the matter is that Bo Yang has a distorted view of traditional Chinese culture, and that his faulty perceptions have led him astray. Perhaps he himself has fallen into the very ‘soy-sauce vat’ that he so delights in vilifying? Its poisonous virus has obviously befuddled his thinking and paralysed his nerves.

The world of Chinese culture is vast and profound. Within it one may find numerous examples of benevolent government and tyranny, humanity, justice and virtue. There are thieves and whores, honesty and probity, as well as the ‘wind, flowers, snow and moon’ of the effete literati. All of these things have been refined to perfection; it is a world that has something for everyone. There are cesspits and germs aplenty in Chinese culture, besides the ‘soy-sauce vats’ and viruses. When a person uses the filth he dredges up to attempt to prove that the whole of Chinese culture is a pestilent cesspit he unwittingly reveals himself to be a smelly turd beyond redemption, while in no way detracting from the glories of China.

… It depends entirely on what you are looking for in the corpus of Chinese culture. Our culture can be used to cure and heal, or it can be used to kill; it can even become an instrument of suicide. It is easy for anyone bent on talking of extremes to find the world of traditional Chinese culture bursting at the seams with ‘soy-sauce vats’ and viruses … .

Bo Yang never tires of talking about his nine years and x number of days in prison. He acts as though it has given him some sort of special dispensation to carry on as he does … .

To sum up what I’ve been saying: the Chinese are not necessarily ugly; but there is no lack of contemptible wretches among them.