Canadian Troy Parfitt, an English teacher in Taiwan for ten years, believes passionately in the title of his new book, Why China Will Never Rule the World. “China, China, China: it seems it’s all you ever hear these days,” he laments. His book, part travelogue, part tome, argues, at times persuasively, that a country that clings to Confucianism, Legalism, totalitarianism (his claim, not mine) and education by rote memorization can never, ever be the word’s No. 1 superpower.
As I read the book, which Parfitt sent to me, I had all sorts of thoughts.
Thoughts like, Oh my god.
And, What the fuck?
And, Is he really saying that?
First let me say that despite all my problems with this book, I recommend you read it, if only for the beautiful writing, attention to detail, the delightful anecdotes and some thought-provoking questions it raises about China’s future. On the other hand, I was appalled at Parfitt’s attitude toward both China and Taiwan. In spite of his finding some things to praise about each, it is more than clear from the very start that he harbors a good deal of contempt toward both countries.
Let’s look at the book’s attributes first. It’s written as a travelogue of the writer’s extended trip through China. Wherever he goes, Parfitt recreates the scenes with large frescoes that then go into the finest details, giving you such vivid imagery you feel like you’re there, and the pages turn by themselves. It immediately brought to mind Simon Winchester’s travel diary, The River at the Center of the World (which I reviewed some years ago here). Like Winchester, Parfitt is a wonderful spinner of yarns; the book is really a string of anecdotes laid end to end, but Parfitt is a good enough writer that it all holds together quite well.
Here’s an example of his writing, a depiction of a cruise up the Yangtze in a boat with 40 tourists.
The immense hills that guide the river grew dim, becoming featureless masses which rose up at intervals to lick the thinning strip of hazy blue which hovered just above. Overhead, the sky drained itself of color. It turned wine dark and offered a pair of glistening stars for consideration. Before long, we were moving atop an onyx slate dotted with visual echoes of extinguished suns. Lengthy stretches of nothingness were punctuated by towns and villages that appeared in the distance as bracelets and pendants. Our searchlight remained fixed on the southern bank, illuminating man-made bits and pieces (a window pane, a guardrail) within a circle of murky green. When the horn sounded, 80 hands shot up to cover as many ears.
Nice. And that’s just a random paragraph. He has also done a remarkable job researching every location he visits, and offers an engaging overview of Chinese history that the layman will find quite useful.
The problem is that Parfitt can find practically nothing in China that he admires. In most cities he sees squalor, drudgery, poverty and backwardness. Now, those things certainly exist in many Chinese cities, but there is much more to China than that. Parfitt seems to seek out and dwell on the negative. He has some nice things to say about Nanjing (it’s “pleasant” and “attractive”) as well as Xiamen, where he enjoys visiting the island, but the praise is lukewarm at best and is totally drowned out by his hostility toward the PRC. He finds nothing to admire in Qingdao (quite the contrary), and says of Hangzhou that “it wasn’t beautiful at all when I went there.”
As for the lake itself, it was just a lake; steel grey and surrounded by dim brooding hills that were marked by pagodas. Having grown up minutes from a whole host of lakes that were much finer, not to mention free of man-made objects, I failed to see what all the fuss was about.
I suppose we all have our own opinions. My own is that Xihu is one of the world’s most gorgeous, enchanting natural wonders. And it’s not “just a lake.” It’s some of the most lush and beautiful scenery on earth, surrounding a magnificent lake with breathtaking hills behind it, creating a perfect and serene balance of nature. Does he want to see Hangzhou’s beauty?
Unsurprisingly, upon arriving in Beijing, the first things he deems worthy to comment on are the spitting, a car that nearly hits a pedestrian and the brawl that ensues, and the people’s general unfriendliness.
Beijing residents, or Beijingren, are not the world’s softest, most cuddly people. China, after all, represents the cultural center of China. The capital’s inhabitants are notoriously conceited, strident, aggressive and obtuse. They seem to be in constant possession of a horseradish temper and appear to like nothing more than a good argument. They absolutely have to have the last word, and they smoke and spit like there’s no tomorrow.
Alright. This so flies in the face of everything I know about Beijing, I simply can’t understand where he’s coming from. I and all my friends in China love Beijing in large part because the people are so wonderful. They are nearly the exact opposite of Parfitt’s description. He then spends a lengthy paragraph telling us how popular and gruesome public executions in Beijing used to be, how awful the audio tour of the Forbidden City is, and how Beijing taxi drivers don’t know where anything is. This is a recurrent theme in the book; wherever he goes in China, no one knows where anything is. And no one wants to be responsible for anything.
Certainly this rising superpower, this fearsome dragon, this nation that was supposedly shaking or on the cusp of shaking the world, had a slogan, this would be it: meiyou banfa. There’s nothing that can be done. You can actually see people mentally moving toward it. It’s like a goal that, once attained, alleviates one from all responsibility.
There’s some truth to this, of course. Anyone who’s worked with Chinese companies, for instance, knows that there’s a natural inclination to pass the buck and avoid responsibility. Better someone else be accountable for it if something goes wrong. But there’s much more to the Chinese than that. My friend Lisa and I recently traveled through Guizhou and when we got lost and asked for help, people didn’t just tell us where to go, they took us there. These sweeping generalizations about the Chinese, all negative, every single one, soon wore on me.
And then we get to politics. I thought I used to be hard on the CCP. I can’t hold a candle to Parfitt. In arguing there is no shred of evidence China will ever become a democratic state, he writes:
China was, pure and simply, a totalitarian state, and those who advocated an alternative tended to deny the obvious: communism fit China like a glove. It was Legalism, Confucianism, feudalism and the teachings of Lao Tsu all wrapped up into one, which is to say it represented a potent and frequently lethal blend of a number of native ideologies that were in and of themselves highly toxic and remedies for disaster.
The essence of his argument is that China’s future will be determined by its past, and that that past precludes China from ascending to international leadership. China cannot integrate with the world, cannot give up its obsession with harmony and control of its people’s minds through rote memorization and propaganda. He comes to the conclusion that China does not want change.
Along with Lu Xun, one of the author’s heroes is Bo Yang, the Nationalist Party member who believed China’s only path to greatness was to embrace Western civilization and who wrote The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture to stake his claim. In one of the most outspoken parts of the book, Parfitt delves into Bo’s worldview.
Chinese history is not glorious at all, he argues, but rather thousands of years of uninterrupted warfare, carnage, violence, oppression, mayhem and misery…. Crucially, he points out that the Chinese notion of a harmonious society revolves around the quote-unquote harmonious relationship between inferiors and superiors. Beyond that, harmony does not exist… Bo Yang goes on to argue that China has contributed virtually nothing to civilization. He characterizes the Cultural Revolution as entirely normal; the Tiananmen Square Incident as “back to normal.”
It’s hardly surprising that Bo Yang is Parfitt’s hero — this is coming from the mouth of a Chinese intellectual, not an obnoxious foreigner, and it’s much harder to dismiss it as “anti-China” propaganda.
All of this makes for compelling and thought-provoking reading, mainly because Parfitt makes his argument so well. For all my irritation with his negative tone and broad generalizations, there were definitely many times when I found myself agreeing with him, especially about education and propaganda and the lack of eagerness to embrace meaningful change.
One of the things I liked least about this book was a little game Parfitt enjoyed playing: approaching Chinese people, engaging in discussion with them and then ambushing them, asking what China, or Confucius, have to offer the world. He seems to enjoy putting these people on the spot and watching them squirm. One of these discussions takes place with a director of Canada’s Confucius Institutes, and I truly felt for her.
When he asks her, “What does Confucius have to teach non-Chinese and non-Asian people?” she responds, somewhat predictably, with a single word, “Harmony,” the reason why China was able to enjoy “5,000 years” of peace and stability. Why is he doing this? He already has come up with his own answer to the question, which is Nothing.
In Nanjing he walks up to some young people, strikes up a conversation and then asks, “What’s an aspect of Chinese culture that the West ought to copy?” (Isn’t this kind of rude?) They had no answer, which is the answer Parfitt wanted them to have. But here I need to throw in another “On the other hand…” And that is, Is there another answer to Parfitt’s question? What should the West copy? It’s not an invalid question; I just don’t like the way Parfitt asks it.
In the last section of the book, Parfitt’s animosity toward China reaches over the Straits to embrace Taiwan, his home for ten years. He praises much of Taiwan’s natural beauty and does not deny the many charms of living in Taipei. But he spends far more time on the negatives – the Keystone Cops-like Taiwanese police, the political fistfights, the bad driving, but especially the education system, which he sees as nearly as awful as the Mainland’s. (Which begs the question, “What was he doing teaching there for ten years?” He never tells us.) While he acknowledges Taiwan’s huge strides forward since the 1980s, he still seems to delight in making fun of the country.
This is not Parfitt’s first book, and looking at the reviews of his earlier book, Notes from the Other China, it seems he is entirely consistent. The book deals with Taiwan, and the Taipei Times had this to say:
What Troy Parfitt comes to sound like…is a bad traveler, an insensitive loud-mouth ranting on about the absurdities of life “abroad.” As his epigraph he quotes a sensible sentence from Samuel Johnson that points out that travel allows you to modify fantasy by exposure to the real thing. The assault on Asian ways of life that follows – and the same treatment Taiwan receives is handed out, at lesser length, to the other Asian countries the writer visits – consequently comes as an even greater surprise.
(Michael Turton, a blogger in Taiwan who I admire, had far kinder words for the book.)
Finally, let me make one point about Parfitt’s premise that China will not shake the world: It already has and it always will for the rest of our lives. This effect is economic, but what in this world matters (sadly) other than economics? China’s thirst for industrial metals like copper and steel and silver creates huge ups and downs in the markets, and Chinese labor has changed the face of the workforce across the globe. China’s purchase of our debt makes it joined with the US at the hip. China’s investment in resources in Africa and elsewhere is creating whole new spheres of influence and changing the balance of power. And due to the sheer size of the Chinese market, there is simply no question that Western businesses, like automakers and producers of luxury goods, see it as the planet’s Last Great Hope — and it really is, at least for some industries. No matter how much you might dislike the CCP, and no matter how convinced you are they will not rise to be No. 1, China’s economic might and influence are undeniable. It is not for nothing that you keep hearing, “China, China, China.”
By this point, if you’ve managed to make it this far, I suspect you’re wondering why I’d bother to write such a long review of a book like this, and why you should ever bother to read it. The answer is, as I said at the beginning, that Parfitt has done an amazing job in collecting and tying together hundreds of great anecdotes, combined with a good deal of history and political analysis, to create a highly readable and even enjoyable book, despite the parts that caused my blood pressure to rise. I actually think you would find it worth the time (I finished all 400+ pages in two days), and you’d definitely find yourself laughing at his trials and tribulations in China. A most interesting experience. I’m glad I read it.
You can see a video of Parfitt discussing his book here.
And yes, I know, this post is much too long. Apologies.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.