Public pundits have made copious noise recently about how the West must prepare for the day, probably within our lifetimes, when we will accept second-class status to mainland China. In the last decade, China supplanted Germany as Earth’s third largest economy, then quickly surged past Japan for number two. In less than a generation, this former colossus, pushed to the brink of ruin a century ago, stands poised to knock America off the economic peak.
Troy Parfitt doesn’t buy it. As an international English teacher, this Canadian has watched China for years from his perch across a brief swim in Taiwan. In Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas, he investigates this debate from the ground level. By combining travelogue, journalism, and editorial commentary, he provides insight into a country many Westerners still consider opaque and mystical.
He also calls into question what values make social and political judgments possible.
Parfitt uses the P.J. O’Rourke technique of cultural inquiry. This approach involves getting a hotel room in the nation under question, wandering the streets, talking to locals, and offering personal observations. Like O’Rourke, Parfitt relies on wiseacre comments and stand-up comedy narrative to create a story. Despite journalistic purposes, Parfitt is no dispassionate reporter; he inserts himself into a story still unfolding, narrating from the belly of the beast.
This technique requires an essential trade-off. Parfitt’s immediacy and human touch necessarily incorporate his bias into the story. He says in his introduction: “In spite of my prejudices, I honestly tried to approach the experience with as open a mind as possible.” To his credit, Parfitt does a better job than O’Rourke’s Shanghai chapter in Eat the Rich, which reduces China to broad “Inscrutable Orient” stereotypes.
But when Parfitt says of a group of domestic tourists, “I have seen brighter-looking ostriches,” I wonder how reliable I can consider his narrative. Sure, it’s a funny line. But can I really draw meaningful conclusions about all of China from such observations? I lived in Hawaii many years ago, and I know that domestic tourists’ wide-eyed passivity is by no stretch a Chinese characteristic.
Parfitt exceeds O’Rourke in his depth of investigation. Where O’Rourke stays in posh hotels for a week or two, bankrolling guides and translators while mocking locals from a secure balcony with minibar, Parfitt actually moves among the people he investigates. He took the time to learn Mandarin before entering the country, and circulates among the population for three months. This lets him get a broad cross-section of Chinese culture.
And unlike O’Rourke, who comically hates everything, Parfitt concedes that he likes a lot. He admires architecture, relishes local cuisine, and has a brief romance with a winsome Chinese lass. He presents China, not as a series of xenophobic ethnic clichés or abstruse economic statistics, but as a place occupied by real humans.
Unfortunately, he also sees them as real humans who primarily fail to uphold his Western standards. He wants swift service, smiles all around, and cab drivers who can negotiate Hong Kong streets in English. He wants standards of professionalism that didn’t even exist in the Western world a century ago. And he looks down on Chinese who don’t snap to. Though I can’t call Parfitt racist (he denigrates everyone equally), he certainly sees the world through his own particular lenses.
Parfitt concedes his own prejudices, and I have mine. One of mine is summed up in a quote from anthropologist Wade Davis: “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” Parfitt sees China’s peculiarities as shortcomings. I suspect China is different because it’s different. It manifests a unique interpretation of human potential.
If Parfitt sees dirty sushi bars and locals who resent outsiders as signs that China is a nation of missed opportunities, I’d offer him a tour of the shabby side of any North American city. If he considers China politically moribund because it honors Chairman Mao decades after his death, I defy him to explain American politicians’ appeals to the Founding Fathers. Anyone can find the lousy side of anywhere, if they look hard enough.
Parfitt’s book provides an interesting look at a certain aspect of Chinese culture. And it offers a valid dissenting view in what may be our generation’s most important debate. But it presents only one facet of a complex value judgment, and it must be read as such. Otherwise, it only serves to muddy an already murky debate.