Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu

In Chinese Whispers, a Brit with a British/Chinese family background tackles seven commonly believed myths about China:

  • China has an ancient and fixed culture.
  • The Chinese are irredeemably racist.
  • The Chinese don’t want freedom.
  • China has the world’s finest education system.
  • The Chinese live to work.
  • The Chinese have re-invented capitalism.
  • China will rule the world.

Unlike many Western authors who write about China, Ben Chu doesn’t think China necessarily poses an alarming threat to the West. Even if his conclusions turn out to be wrong or based on incomplete data, it’s healthy for someone to be out there countering the fears that spring purely from ignorance. The mob always says, “We don’t like what we don’t understand; in fact it scares us,” not just in Beauty and the Beast. This book can help us understand.

See below for what stood out and when and why I read the book.

What Stood Out
When I Read Chinese Whispers

I already knew that I don’t have the Buddhist inclination to meditate; I didn’t know that my attitude could be considered Confucian:

Confucius argued that contemplation, in the absence of extensive study, was useless. “I once spent all day thinking without taking food and all night thinking without going to bed, but I found that I gained nothing from it,” as he put it. “It would have been better for me to have spent the time in learning.” (28)

I already knew that there are blond Italians; I didn’t know that there are blond Chinese. They live in a city called Liqian (57).

I already knew that the US had too many college graduates for the available jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees (thus the overqualified coffee barista); I didn’t know that China has this problem too, or that it calls the graduates the “ant tribe” (114).

I already knew that education is highly respected in Chinese culture, but I thought that the style of education in which students memorize facts and essays and merely regurgitate them during exams was “Confucian”. Perhaps not:

Confucius made it quite clear he believed understanding, not just the acquisition of knowledge, ought to be at the heart of scholarship. “Those who think but do not learn  are in danger,” he warned, “but those who learn but do not think are lost.” It is a warning the architects of the imperial exam, which tested an ability to recall massive chunks of classic text, ignored. (119)

We are told that the Chinese economy is strong, getting stronger, and may overtake ours. After all, the Chinese are “so hardworking”, right? However:

[W]orkers in developed nations are still vastly more productive than the Chinese. What this means is that the typical worker in Europe or America delivers more output for each hour worked. Indeed, this is why we have higher incomes than the Chinese. We are more productive because we are better ‘capitalized’ than the average Chinese worker —we have more physical capital (machinery), human capital (education) and technological capital (computers). (160)

I saw the word “cynosure” on page 216, and, not knowing what it meant, looked it up. It is a noun meaning “that which is the center of attention”.

I suspected that the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” was not actually Chinese; the author says it is “not a phrase known in China” (237) but is perpetuated as a “Chinese curse” because it fits our misconceptions of Chinese culture.

I had heard of Social Darwinism, but I did not know that the man responsible for the theory was Herbert Spencer or that “We now reject Spencer’s Social Darwinism” (238); the concept of the survival of the fittest culture seems far from dead.

When and Why I Read Chinese Whispers

I know a lot more about China than I used to, but in a lot of ways it’s still a black box. This book (which when I first saw it I thought was a novel) is devoted to busting some common myths that circulate in the way that the message does in the game of ‘telephone’—or, as the game is sometimes known, ‘Chinese whispers’.

Genre: non-fiction (economics, politics, China)
Date started / date finished:  20-Dec-16 to 23-Dec-16
Length: 249 pages
ISBN: 9781780224749 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2013
Amazon link: Chinese Whispers