Avoiding ‘Cultural Arrogance’ With China

The following is a guest post by John Haddad, an associate professor of American studies and popular culture at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. He is the author of America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation.


Sias International U.’s administrative building

On a recent trip to China, I made a stop at Sias International University, in Xinzheng, Henan Province, to deliver a lecture on American popular culture. Sias is a relatively new private university that presents itself as an American-style college. Its founder, a local entrepreneur who made his fortune in the United States, believes in internationalism and in cooperation between China and the United States—so much so that he has infused the campus with this vision.

Street entrance to the Sias administrative building.

Street entrance to the Sias administrative building.

The effect is striking: It feels like a world’s fair. Touring the campus, I passed New York Street, Red Square, European Street, and Spanish Square. I wound up at the administration building, a bizarre Sino-American hybrid. After entering through its neo-Classical front, modeled on the U.S. Capitol, I found upon exiting that the building had morphed into the Forbidden City.

China’s current global turn marks the country’s second opening in the past 200 years. The first took place after the Opium War (1839-42). As someone who studies the history of Americans in China, I find it interesting to compare China’s earlier opening with the current one in the area of Sino-American intellectual exchange. Of course, the circumstances surrounding the two openings are quite different. The first was accomplished by British force and against China’s will; the second amounts to an act of self-determination on China’s part.

That said, China’s earlier opening does offer a lesson that could perhaps guide the numerous China-U.S. academic partnerships that have proliferated in recent years: Teachers should be learners.

Sino-American relations were first formalized in the Opium War’s wake. In 1843, the United States dispatched Rep. Caleb Cushing, of Massachusetts, to secure an American treaty comparable to Britain’s Treaty of Nanjing. In a speech delivered in Boston before his departure, he acknowledged China’s past role in advancing civilization. However, he saw China’s defeat in the war as the dawn of a new era, one in which China must learn from the West. “We have become the teacher of our teachers,” he said. Assuming that China had interpreted the war in similar fashion, Cushing took with him a large inventory of mechanical inventions that constituted a showcase of modern American technology.

The bombast of his speech notwithstanding, Cushing developed a sincere interest in Chinese civilization while abroad. He studied both the Manchu language and Chinese culture, and upon returning stateside he delivered respectful lectures on Chinese civilization. What’s more, one young member of his legation assembled a vast collection of Chinese artifacts, which he later displayed in Boston to public acclaim. Another member, an artist, produced hundreds of sketches of Chinese life, which he later converted into a panoramic painting 12 feet high and one-third of a mile in length.

Nonetheless, Cushing’s tone in his formal communications with the Chinese was patronizing. Though they did work with him to hammer out a treaty, he neglected to exhibit his intellectually curious side, which might have placed China-U.S. relations on a strong footing at the outset.

The problem of cultural arrogance plagued both sides. In China, Cushing worked with Qiying, the Qing official who had negotiated with the British. Though Qiying signed the one-sided Treaty of Nanjing, he did not interpret the Opium War as a signal that the sun had set on Chinese supremacy. Nor, apparently, did he believe the United States had much to teach China. “Of all the countries,” Qiying wrote the emperor, America is “the most uncivilized and remote, … an isolated place outside the pale, solitary and ignorant.” The Americans, Qiying believed, needed to be taught civilization by the Chinese, who should adopt a simple style in communicating to their crude pupils from across the Pacific.

The first high-level Sino-American negotiations, in other words, resembled a classroom with two teachers and no students.  As a result, an opportunity was missed.

What, then, is the past’s lesson for the present? Put simply, the perception of cultural arrogance, regardless of whether that attitude is real, can impede meaningful exchanges between nations. In 2010, Terry Lautz wrote an excellent piece for The Chronicle in which he argued that China needed to do more to institutionalize the study of America. The piece attracted numerous critical comments, few of which addressed the specific points he had made. In fact, I’m not sure that many of the commenters really “heard” Lautz. Having judged him arrogant, they became unreceptive to his arguments.

The perception of arrogance can derail any intercultural communication, but Sino-U.S. dialogues seem especially susceptible.  I don’t know why that is, but I can speculate that exceptionalism plays a role. Historically, China and the United States each has entertained notions of its respective civilization’s exceptional nature. When a nation presents its way of life as the model that others should emulate, it tends to regard any competing model as a threat.

And if one of the nations is reputed to be in decline and the other ascendant, those perceived trends only exacerbate the problem. While I do not wish to comment here on the “decline of America” narrative, it is a fact that this narrative is widespread, and that Americans are growing increasingly sensitive about it. It is also true that, back in the 1840s, the roles were reversed: Energetic America played the rising power, and in China the empire was seemingly in decay.

Back then, it was, ironically, missionaries who grasped the importance of teaching and learning simultaneously. I say “ironically” because missionaries are often dismissed as preachy or maligned as cultural imperialists. Though much of the intellectual exchange they brokered was intended to promote evangelism, they learned about China while teaching the Chinese about America and the West.

They both produced a Chinese-language Bible and translated parts of Chinese classics into English. They published a Chinese-language periodical to teach Chinese readers about the outside world and an English-language monthly to keep Westerners informed about China. One missionary wrote A Brief Account of the United States of America, a Chinese-language textbook on American civilization; another composed The Middle Kingdom, an overview of Chinese civilization that formed the foundation for American Sinology.

One fascinating text, The Chinese Chrestomathy, in the Cantonese dialect, epitomized the two-way nature of the missionary project. This single text both taught English speakers how to speak Cantonese and offered lessons on English to the Chinese. By fusing Chinese and American elements, the book constitutes a linguistic equivalent of Sias’s administration building.

I should admit that, when I first beheld the administration building, I judged its architecture to be over the top.  Looking back, though, I have come to recognize its rhetorical effectiveness. If the building could speak, its message would perhaps be, “We are proudly Chinese, but we wish to learn from America.” In hindsight, I recognize that the architecture’s message favorably affected my mood. I have never felt more welcome in a place where I was to teach a lesson on American culture. And I have never felt more ready to learn from my hosts.

[Photos courtesy of Sias International University]


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