Thor's China Diary

  Horse Horse Tiger Tiger

@10 November 1999
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Navigating by stereotypes is a form of cloud-walking. Stereotypes about a culture are a long way up in the air, you have to be pretty rarefied yourself to live safely in their company, and at any moment you're likely to fall through a hole in the next woolly stereotype and plunge a long, long way to the ground. For airheads they might be, but let's face it, we couldn't live without our fragile caricatures. If I say "most Chinese think this..." I have every chance of being wrong, but to function at all in a Chinese world I have to gamble on any number of such heuristics: "most Chinese fudge", "most Chinese are very emotional people" ... etc. Tonight I put some of these signboards into the lap of HB,  who is Chinese to the core, and also reflective...

1. Most Chinese, I had noticed, actively dislike a logical, analytical approach to issues. They prefer a holistic, intuitive style: crash or crash through. This was graphically evident watching so-called computer experts in the Luoyu Road shops trying to handle even such relentlessly logical situations as computer problems. They will press every button randomly, with an expectant flourish. They live in the confident assumption that something will happen to give them a clue to a solution. He picked it up immediately. There has been a very strong proscription, he noted, in traditional Chinese culture that discourages analytical thought. Confucius, an intensely analytic person himself, thought it dangerous and unwise for the mass of people to think critically about the world and their place in it.

2 "Mama huhu", (horse horse tiger tiger) is an old proverb describing sloppy work, the "near enough is good enough" attitude, comes closer to describing the daily condition of life in China than anything else I know of. HB agreed. It was a chronic national trait. [Yeah, you are wondering about the horses and tigers... The strange etymology of expressions like this would take us too far afield here].

3. Then there is "front". This is a society where appearance is everything. Well, almost everything. It manifests in many forms. In Wuhan you can find any number of imposing restaurant and hotel lobbies, often with distinctly modest, even shabby places for actual operation behind the facade. Then there is the endless procession of new projects, launched with great fanfare, windy speeches. When the tinsel is taken down on Monday morning, most become little more than an employment prospect for a moonlighting night watchman. That is, unless they qualify for a committee, in which case twenty people will become plenipotentiaries for the cause, complete with gold lettered business cards. They will be assigned to a shabby office, and find lifetime employment in a forgotten corner of the city, then spend their careers maneuvering to remain invisible, but on a payroll.

Yes, there is a proverb for this process too: Hu3 tou2, she2 wei3  -- tiger's head, tail of a snake ...

I tried to make HB feel better by describing the urban cowboys of Sydney and Los Angeles, in their lumbering, massively expensive four-wheel drives, which never make it out of the suburbs. We all live in glass houses.

"Horse horse tiger tiger" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved
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