Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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how to destroy a five thousand year civilization in ten easy steps: part two

Reading about the past few decades of Chinese history, I've always felt a little bit powerless. 華僑 (American-born Chinese) in Taiwan are bound to an unhappy double standard: as Chinese people, they're expected to conform to all the expectations of Chinese society, including the complex social rules regarding obligation and favors, and be proud of them--they do not have the option of not participating even if they move abroad--yet, as foreigners, it is out of their place and even racist to criticize it, advocate any sort of change, or even voice any sort of opinion besides polite approval. Citizens in their duties, yet guests in all other aspects, they are expected to play by the rules, but are voiceless to change them. As such, I had little interest in Chinese history in high school, and did poorly in the subject. Why even bother? It was all either falsely academic exoticised bullshit in English by some French guy who visited China on an adventure in the early 1900s, or an endless list of details on events that had no relevance to my life or identity in Mandarin. What's the point of learning the Confucian justification for tax policy in the Qing Dynasty when you're never going to have a say in Chinese tax policy now? It was all excuses by other people to treat third culture people like me, these inconvenient, regrettable, insignificant minority outliers in every contemporary model of national identity, the way they did. Chinese history didn't have a place for me, so I didn't have a place for it. It was a given that I would inherit no part of the political legacy of China and Taiwan, not even as a citizen or subject. Western history and politics fascinated me intensely--they were the world I'd grow up in, and be a part of. But Chinese history? I didn't even have the language skills to articulate interest in the subject, much less find my part in it. Not that my opinion would have been welcome, anyway. For nearly a century Chinese people have blamed pretty much everything awful that happens in China on foreign influence, no matter how farfetched the explanation. Taiping Rebellion? The fault of Christian missionaries and their evil death cult religion. Tiananmen Square? CIA agents provocateur. The Sino-Japanese War? Don't even get me started. If what I was reading in the English-language papers was true, the moment I opened my mouth there would be a flock of people telling me to sit the fuck down and shut up. I was getting really tired of all this talk of pure, nativist Chinese ideology being tainted by minds, even Chinese minds, poisoned by foreign influence. I was born in America and found Taiwan's political atmosphere (circa 1999, it's much better now) abhorrent. I am foreign influence. My say in anything counted for worse than nothing, and the entire NEHS system is geared towards fostering apathy and non-participation outside of the professional world (somewhat ominously, I suspect that may be one of the main objectives of the program), so outside of the American born Chinese community I said nothing.

All of that changed last year, when I bought books on Sun Yat-sen--books in English, published by genuine cross-Pacific academics from a variety of backgrounds, for educated adult audiences in America--and discovered that he was a Chinese-American.

Granted, regardless of what his documents say, he was not an American-born Chinese. (He applied for a naturalization certificate in Hawaii to avoid persecution by the Qing, as laws protecting foreign nationals would apply to him. Chinese birth records, however, establish that he was born in the village of Cuiheng, in Guangdong province.) But his education in Hawaii, a mirror image of my own experiences in Taiwan, left a profound effect on him. Unlike some of his colleagues, and later allies and supporters, he could never see the West as a mere conglomeration of faceless, imperialist, oppressive powers. He had a genuine interest in their history, philosophy, and ideology--what led them to subject China to the neo-colonialism it struggled under in his youth, even as prominent voices in America and Britain and Germany objected, and how they had become so powerful in an era when China was so weak. He admired Abraham Lincoln, as many American fifth-graders do, as a liberator of the oppressed and a symbol of national unity, and observed China's need for a Lincoln of its own. The China he came back to, incidentally, was a huge disappointment to him. The rigidity of the Chinese education system was in stark contrast to the open-minded debate he had been taught to cherish in Hawaii. People considered him ignorant because he had not memorized the poetry of Du Fu and Li Bai and the teachings of Confucius. They saw him as dangerous, because his mind had been poisoned by foreign influence, and they were afraid he would sell out to foreign interests like so many did after the West forced open the Qing's barriers to trade--but also a good friend to have, because of his 關係 with the West. He became a doctor in Western medicine, but did not practice for long, in part because the Qing's policies kept much of the necessary technology out of his hands. Against his brothers' wishes, he converted to Christianity, and was fairly devout; an amusing and possibly apocryphal story tells of him being chased out of a village for breaking the nose of a statue of one of the village gods in a fit of outrage. He was undoubtedly Chinese, and China was his home, but something about his Western experiences had left him profoundly uncomfortable with life in China. There were so many things he just couldn't write off as universal human nature, as some people did. He had lived in a place that was not technologically backward, whose economy had not been crippled by drug addiction, where corrupt officials were the exception and not the rule. He didn't passively accept life in China as it was. He knew things could be better. Pre-revolutionary Sun had had a taste of the American Dream, and didn't understand why China couldn't enjoy the same rights and privileges, or that same prosperity. And while his friends and colleagues judged him, all around, and criticized him for what they saw as brainwashing and ignorance, he saw a China run by people that exemplified the things he was criticized for failing in, a country in slow, stubborn, backward, angry decline. Unlike me, he didn't have the privilege of cutting himself off from Chinese civilization entirely and running abroad. He couldn't just sit by and watch China do this to itself. He had to do something.

What did he do when his attempts to reform the system from the inside inevitably failed? He went back to Hawaii. He went to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. He went to the continental U.S., to universities in California and Kansas and Washington, D.C. When his own people would not listen, too corrupt and stuck in the old ways to change, he went to all the places where the descendants of his countrymen had tasted the prosperity of the West, and talked, and listened, and learned. The Wuchang Uprising, widely accepted as the opening event of Sun's rebellion (and celebrated as Taiwan's most important national holiday, on October 10), happened when Sun himself was in the United States campaigning for his cause. His famous Three Principles speech was given in British-controlled Hong Kong. His revolution was fought with foreign ideas, funded with foreign money, and motivated by foreign idealism. Sun called overseas Chinese "the mother of the revolution," and this moniker, it seems, is no exaggeration.

This wasn't the first time a foreign-educated, foreign-backed native had turned China upside down. No wonder they had ostracized him so much. They hadn't cast him out because he was an outsider. They cast him out because they knew what he was capable of.

And though all this happened long before the Chinese Civil War--long before the KMT-CCP split, and long before Chiang Kai-shek and the remnant of Sun's legacy were banished to a little island off the coast of Guangzhou...this is who we are. The heritage of that movement, as an emphatic counterpoint to the attitude I held in my younger days, is the legacy I, and every Taiwanese-American, and every non-Taiwanese descendant of every supporter of Sun, has inherited.

Are we not, as are our Taiwanese friends and family, the descendants of Sun's followers in exile?

No wonder the Chinese Communist Party barks at us in their press, and shouts down our academics, and throws international press conferences to announce the existence of an ever-increasing arsenal of ballistic missiles pointed at our relatives. No wonder, when a tiny number of us go to Taiwanese schools, and take places in Taiwanese science and culture and industry, there's that odd mixture of camaraderie and polite disrespect, and those constant reminders that we are outsiders and have no business interfering in what is not ours. Our parents' people treat us as if we are dangerous because they are right. We are dangerous.

The last time they let a Chinese-American loose in Chinese politics, he tore the country to pieces, and it took them decades to make everything back-biting, corrupt, and brutal and oppressive as it was before, and enough blood to paint all of China red from the Himalayas to the Khingans.

Sun was one of us.

(part three)
Tags: china, history, politics
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