Interpreting China: Whimsy, where are you?
1999 … and now?


This snippet is clipped from my foreigner’s understanding of China in December 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium. At the time I was teaching at a university in Wuhan.(See Thor’s China Diary). The writer has mellowed a bit, older if not wiser. Noways in China they have bullet trains, and much more varied consumer choices than in 1999. Buildings are painted. There are signs that patches of the Chinese landscape are trying to slip out from beneath the grey smog of mass control. Real winds of change? Judge the weather for yourself.  

The recipes that make up those strange amalgams we call cultures seem, in each instance, to be unbalanced in some vital ingredient. Each time I return to Australia I am amazed and dismayed to rediscover that Australian culture is not, after all, Nature's human utopia. A different set of doubts assails me in China. I notice particularly that when god made the Chinese, she forgot, in an absent-minded moment, to add a large enough pinch of whimsy.

My waiban (foreign teacher's dogsbody) was most excited yesterday to be rushing off for practice in a choir of seven thousand. That is roughly half the population of the university where I work. For a few orgasmic minutes these seven thousand will sing a song about the Yellow River for a Hubei television station. The idea, he tells me, is to sing in the new millennium, although they won't actually sing it on New Year's eve. "The Idea" will have been approved by a shoal of committees and vetted by the provincial and national propaganda chiefs. Mass displays on television are a celluloid variation on that old imperial game of building a great wall, but they also blend with the conditioned tastes of the waiban and his compatriots.

Hmm, a new millennium. Now if Mr Curley planted a flower where the sun rises over East Lake, and recited a poem to charm the birds and fish, well, they'd lock him up. .. Actually they'd send him to a re-education labour camp to join the tens of thousands of wrong thinking prostitutes (or women who slept with the wrong man), the truck loads of little old ladies arrested for doing breathing exercises in the wrong park, the factory workers who complained when their boss skipped with the wages, and the occasional eccentric student who put the wrong wall poster on the wrong wall. None of his friends would ever talk about Mr Curley again, and if pressed might deny that he ever existed, for after all, the destination that he'd been disappeared to didn't "exist" either.

You might think from all this that the place called China ticked like clockwork, with all the little human cogs turning precisely together in their allotted places. You might think that every workplace produced goods of superb, even quality; that the cities were models of effective, though sterile planning; that everyone shared the goals and values of the gents who pulled what they thought were levers of power in Beijing...

Yet if you arrived in China with such thinking, you would quickly be thoroughly confused. You would stumble, then trip on the thousands of gimcrack devices, solutions and practices that litter the Chinese landscape. You would notice city after city of dirty grey, derelict buildings, mouldering in dirty grey, polluted air. You would find any number of department stores and shops, all selling the same weary range of products that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Your apartment would sometimes have hot water and sometimes not. The electricity would fluctuate in strange ways. The newspapers would sometimes almost tell the truth, but often not. And so on.

Then, you might ask yourself, was all this confusion the result of 1.3 billion whimsical minds? No, you would finally realize, it was the outcome of 1.3 billion minds who were not permitted a little whimsy. For whimsy, when you think about it, is the product of a mind that dares to be free. And when our minds are not given room for a certain amount of whimsy, a certain latitude to generate unique behaviours, then they don't become superbly tuned components in a vast human ant-heap. They become dispirited, timid, uninterested in excellence and unable to innovate. That is the nature and design of human minds, a fundamental that neither "scientific socialism" nor "modern management theory" (a.k.a. personnel practices in the large institutions of "capitalism") have ever come to terms with.

Ah well, words are treacherous things that never capture more than a hint of life on the ground. If these paragraphs were all the clues you had to China, then your mind too might be filled with images of an illusory culture that the Chinese friends you made could never recognize. It is not that the arguments above are wrong. I think, or at least I hypothesize (in the struggle to understand the world around me), that they put a pinpoint of light on one, sad part of the Chinese universe.

But human beings are an extraordinarily adaptable species. The displays of mass glory that my waiban enjoys do not mean that in his heart of hearts he shares, or even respects, the slogans and values blasting from television channels, and inscribed in school text books. Rather all Chinese know that there is an idealized public face on things (which seems perfectly proper to them), and then a private reality which is entirely different. In these private worlds, the real values of Chinese people show tremendous variation and change. There is little consistency, just the ferment of a society in private transition. It is this huge disparity between public and private values which makes the future directions of Chinese cultures (for they are a plurality) so unpredictable, even to the Chinese peoples themselves.

Postscript 2015

Pehaps China, two generations out from blue boiler suits for everyone, is showing some whimsy at last. At least, that's what it looks like to foreign eyes with a recent example of 萌萌哒 (meng meng da, "cuteness"), as per this web story:

Buckley, Chris "Let a garden grow - China's new flourishing headgear". Brisbane Times online @


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

" Interpreting China: Whimsy, where are you? - 1999 … and now?" copyrighted to
Thor May 1999; all rights reserved

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