The “We Chinese” Problem

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2020

By Conal Boyce, Century College

Eighth century poem by Li Bai 李白. Source: Baidu.

It’s just the evil Chinese Communist Party (CCP), right? Not so fast. It has been said that we Americans ‘deserve the government we have’; but could it be that the Chinese, similarly, deserve the government they have? Let’s have a look at a phenomenon that I call the ‘We Chinese’ syndrome. It speaks of a psychic illness that runs far deeper than any one regime, such as that of the Pooh-Bear.

In the Chinese media and in Weibo tweets, the phrase ‘Wǒmen Zhōngguórén 我们中国人’ (“We Chinese”) occurs often. By convention, it is translated blandly as ‘[the] Chinese [people]’ but what it actually says is this: ‘We Chinese’. Lest you imagine that ‘We Chinese’ is a term focused on things primarily cultural rather than racial or jingoistic, please consider this closely related phrase that occurs with equal frequency:

Zhōngguó tóngbāo 中国同胞

This latter phrase is regularly translated as ‘overseas Chinese’, but what it really says is the following:

“[Those of us] Chinese [from the] same womb
[who are temporarily abroad, not on the mainland of the Chinese motherland, hence ‘overseas’].”

For context, here is some related vocabulary: zǐgōng 子宫 meaning uteruswomb; tāipán 胎盘 meaning placenta; bāo 胞 meaning placenta or womb, but also afterbirth when read as an abbreviation of bāoyī 胞衣. Let’s say the literal reading of tóng 同胞 is ‘same‑womb’, although it could be taken other ways, less savory. Regardless of where exactly we place it in semantic space, the term tóngbāo 同胞 is further evidence of a psychic illness that is built into the very bedrock of the culture, so that all Chinese are joined at the hip by a shared Same‑Womb fetish that underpins their We‑Chinese fixation, a notion that must rise to the surface every time one of them looks in the mirror and sees ‘a Han Chinese face.’ (Thinking like a Chinese, one might refer to these as the 3Fs: Fetish, Fixation, and Face.) A related item: bāoxiōngdì 胞兄弟 means ‘blood brothers’.

And what about the numerous phrases such as Táiwān tóngbāo 台湾同胞, for which the usual translation would be “[our] compatriots in Taiwan.” That use of ‘compatriot/countryman’ as the definition of tóngbāo 同胞 glosses over its racist/chauvinist flavor, which is mainland-centric, with or without the CCP hovering over it to emphasize that aspect. Why racist? Don’t the citizens of all countries use parallel phrases, such as ‘We Peruvians’ and ‘We French’? Yes, they do, but in most nations or ethnic groups, the corresponding phrase is used only in special situations (“Do you see? That’s just the way we French are”), whereas the Chinese use the term ‘We Chinese’ in a way that feels, by comparison, promiscuous, routine. Routine but with tentacles capable of reaching across the Pacific, and trying to hook even an American Born Chinese, for instance, to see if s/he might be willing to recast one’s ABC‑ness in that way, and come home to the coziness of the One Womb.

Another term to know is Wǒguó 我国. It is prevalent in Newspaper Chinese or Headline Chinese, so to speak. Its literal meaning is: Our Country, where Wǒguó 我国 may be taken as a condensed form of wǒmen de guójiā 我们的国家, ‘our nation’ or ‘our country’, or as a snippet of [semi]‑Classical Chinese if you like; in any event, it is a synonym for China. Now on its own, Wǒguó 我国 meaning ‘China’ might seem unremarkable, but when we understand its resonance with the phrases “wǒmen Zhōngguórén 我们中国人” (“We Chinese”) and Zhōngguó tóngbāo 中国同胞 (“Chinese Same‑Wombers”), we begin to inkle its special flavor, which goes a good deal deeper than one will have assumed at the outset.

Thus, when the Chinese complain that others are displaying xenophobia and racism toward them — e.g., in the context of the 2020 Wuhan pandemic — the situation becomes problematic, not to say ironic and hypocritical, because entrenched in the bedrock of their own precious Chineseness, there is a kind of de facto, every-day chauvinism that colors every moment of their lives. Recently, the racism of the Flowery Kingdom came bubbling to the surface in the form of betrayal of their ‘African friends’. (Everyone is a Friend‑of‑the‑Chinese, even when reviled.) Nigerians are being put out on the street with nowhere to go. Why? Oh, because “they’re HIV‑rapists and COVID‑carriers”, as seen in “Coronavirus: China’s Racist Attacks on Black Foreigners”.

How will 1.438 billion people cure themselves of this psychic malady? Not easily.

Yes, a thousand years ago there was a thin slice of time in which their culture produced some remarkable poetry and paintings. (And to that I devoted a good chunk of my life, roughly during the period 1957‑1980. Even today, if I were to be ‘put under’ for surgery, I would carry a scrap of paper with this written on it, something to recite while going into the operating room, just in case I didn’t make it:

zhāo cí Báidì cǎiyún jiān
qiān lǐ Jiānglíng yī rì huán
liǎng’àn yuán shēng tí bù zhù
qīngzhōu yǐguò wàn chóngshān

朝辭白帝彩雲間
千里江陵一日還
兩岸猿聲啼不住
輕舟已過萬重山

That’s from the eighth century, a poem by Li Bai 李白 that I regard as surely one of the three or four best poems ever written in any language; untranslatable, however, in the very points that matter.) For those who do not know any Chinese and want to get a rough idea of what the poem means, it’s available here.

But China’s remote artistic past makes a thin reed for the Woke Dragon to lean upon. This Dragon popped its eyes open prematurely, and needs to go back to sleep for another century or two — enough time to get sorted on the We Chinese problem, as well as other questions such as:

  1. In the first two syllables of the Misa Criolla by Ramírez (‘Se-ñor, …’); in the first two notes of Webern’s Opus 10 (trumpet, harp); in a single note from the violin of Nicolae Neacsu performing ‘Balada Conducatorolui’ in Latcho Drom; in the very first chord of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Children of the Night’; we hear something profound. But in Chinese performance art, down twelve long Dynasties? The vapidness of someone prancing with her twirly‑streamer.
  1. Why do the Chinese have no word for ‘nice’? (To be fair, no language except English truly has the word. Look closely at its supposed equivalents in foreign-language dictionaries and what you find are words such as likeable, friendly, pleasant, etc.: close but no cigar. The word exists primarily in North America, for a simple reason: It is chiefly [certain] Americans who are nice. Other cultures don’t get it. In the Hausa language, ‘nice’ is treated wisely as a foreign loan-word.)
  1. Oh, I almost forgot. As a handy diversion from their Vanity Lab Fail (or doomsday lab fail), there was the ‘wet market’ next door which assaulted the sensibilities of foreigners, and which leads to my final question: Why did it take that to have a law passed against eating cats (but for the city of Shenzhen only, alas)? Who eats cats?

Dragon, go back to sleep, and grow a brain and a soul, then you might be an actual, grown-up ‘Dragon’ when next you awaken. In the vernacular, “You’re not ready for Prime Time.”

Conal Boyce started his Chinese studies at age 14 and received his Ph.D. in Chinese language and literature from Harvard in 1975.
He is the author of Chinese As It Is: A 3D Sound Atlas (2010). His articles have appeared in Sino-Platonic Papers, including “On the Varieties of Factoid: New Ones Bred of Phantom Polski and Snarky Deutsch, Old Ones Engendered by the Quirks of Gertrude Stein and Mi Fu”, and in Hyle, “Mendeleev’s elemental ontology and its philosophical renditions in German and English.”