It's hard to see China from Madison Avenue

I could not believe my eyes. Yes, it was the New York Times, and those were Chinese characters, set in beneath the English letters CHINA. And below that a full-page artist's drawing of a slinky, reclining female figure, with dragon-lady eyebrows and fingernails, partially attired in a clinging silken slip, and attended by what could only be a small slave girl wearing a headdress not to be seen anywhere but on the stage since the last dynasty fell.

Presently, from the same reliable source, I learned that "junior travelers" were "welcome" at the Friendship Store. This message was reinforced by another wonderful dream picture, this time an ambiguous Mongol-like figure, wearing a goose-down coat, more suited to the ski lifts of Aspen than the saddles of Mongolia. He or she was clutching a small citizen of never-never land, a sheltering arm, terminating in horrendous nails, thrown about another slant-eyed child dressed in a costume reminiscent of the Han scholar's ceremonial coat and cap in the late Ching period. Now, the fine print:

"Yes, it's just as if you'd been touring China itself. As a foreign visitor, you'd be invited to shop in the Friendship Store. . . . If you've ever wondered what China might be like, come see us now. We think we've captured it." And the resounding call summing it all up: "Come, awaken to a country steeped in 40 centuries of ritual and opulence!"

The Times, needless to say, cannot be held responsible for this most recent expression of the American-Chinese dream. In spite of tourism, scholarship, common sense, and commercial and political self-interest, Americans cling to their fantasy of China as a distant land, living in a remote romantic past, where everyone is inscrutable, mysterious, polite, where all the clothes are made of fabulous silks, and where all the curiosities one wants to buy are available at special reduced prices.

And, alas, in turn, many Chinese (that is, among the infinitesimal minority of those with any contact with Americans) cherish a dream, too. They think of a land where the wealth is so great that it overflows upon all who stand with open hands to receive it; where science, tamed, has produced miracles of productivity; and where, by some juggling trick with mirrors, it is possible to grasp the gains of the industrial revolution without its social upheaval and of scientific inquiry without the emergence of political dissidence.

Dazzled by these self-deceiving fantasies, the two nations grope toward each other hopefully in this present phase of Sino-American relationship.

Certainly it is better for them to grope toward each other than to remain in mutual ignorance. Certainly, in the course of time, real contact will help clarify understanding and lead toward the establishment of a more reliable base for the future. I would like to contribute the little I can toward that improvement in understanding by commenting briefly on some of the dream phenomena in that eye-catching ad in the Times. (My qualifications for offering my opinions rest on my having lived for more than 40 years in China, as a private individual, not a missionary, not a merchant, not a political "fellow traveler.")

First, as to the dream-world images reinforced by the drawings of stereotype Chinese faces. With the abundance of photographic evidence available, why continue the dragon- lady myth? The faces shown in these pictures are only to be seen on the operatic stage. Those slanted eyes, claw-like nails, inscrutable masklike mouths are not what anyone is going to see when "touring China itself." China is continental in size, and its people vary in physique from husky six-footers to the dainty and diminutive. Their eyes are not slanted slits, nor are all eyes alike. It is amusing to note that Chinese often complain of the difficulty in distinguishing foreigners one from another, because they all look alike, just as many Americans subscribe to the notion of the existence of indistinguishable millions of slant-eyed Orientals. And nowhere nowadays in China can long fingernails, the mark of the nonworker, be seen except on the stage presentations of historical dramas. Chinese hands today, even those of scholars and officials, are more likely than not to be calloused from manual labor.

The costumes shown in the ads, besides being historically and ethnically impossible, are also misleading as to certain important Chinese realities. Chinese women today are more nearly liberated both economically and sexually than their American sisters. Their dignity as citizens and workers would be affronted by the kind of exploitation of sexuality common to the advertising in the media in America.

Even such a comparatively conservative display of feminine beauty as we have here points out a deep difference in cultures. Traditionally in China, physical modesty has been honored, sometimes to an extreme. Today, under the impact of the Western culture that is flooding in, this modesty may seem to be on the wane , but still Chinese women resent the exploitation of their physical attractions to sell goods. Chinese girls today appear to be perfectly comfortable in their one-piece swim suits, leotards, jogging shorts, in situations which make them appropriate, but they are very effective in expressing their resentment of what they consider poor taste.

American tourists in China make a great point about the "baggy trousers" and the drab, faded, unironed "Mao suits"; they express great satisfaction at the sight of women wearing bright print blouses, almost imputing a political significance to change in styles. Perhaps they had been expecting to see dragon ladies in the rice fields and factories and are disappointed to find that their dream costumes are only visible on the opera stage. The dream and the reality are in conflict, and there is generated a kind of resentment against the reality.

The reality is that for years there has been cloth rationing in the PRC (People's Republic of China) for the purpose of making it possible for everyone to buy at least the minimum of essential cotton cloth to make the minimum needed clothing. It is hard for Americans to realize that a whole new suit, even of baggy cotton, once a year, represents a rise in living standards for millions. Perhaps it is difficult for the $3,000 tourist to identify respectfully with the man or woman whose annual income of 600 yuan ($400) represents improvement over a very recent past.

It is notable that the first to benefit by the improvement in the cloth market are the children. Every visitor comments on the contrast of their bright little smocks and jackets with the grownup uniforms. Given the material to work with, Chinese women make it plain that the skill and artistry that produced the dream costumes are by no means extinct.

The beautiful silks, cottons, grass linen -- and modern synthetic fabrics, too -- can be found in the touted Friendship Stores. There foreign tourists can buy them, but the local Chinese, without special permission, cannot enter. It is a well-understood political fact that Friendship Stores exist for a political- economic purpose to provide the opportunity for foreign tourists to spend their needed foreign money in a situation safely insulated from the general public. It is an essential part of the almost instinctive Chinese policy of keeping outsiders outside.

The "wai-guo ren" or "outsider," the foreigner, when welcome for whatever reason, will be treated as an honored guest, but he will not be a member of the family. Among foreign visitors there are many delicate shades of acceptance by the Chinese hosts, and frequently great skill and tact are shown in providing different classes of foreign tourist with contact with the most appropriate opposite number.

Hospitality is a fine art in the East, and the Chinese know how to make guests happier when visiting than they may be at home. The ceremonial welcome, the feast, the privileged purchases, the symbolic gifts, the general sense of being bigger than life size that the average tourist enjoys are all part of the Chinese dream experience that blinds Americans to the real life of the people. At the feast he enjoys famous and indeed delicious dishes which his rotating series of hosts and guides may sometimes share; but for the most part the smiling, friendly guides eat at a different table, of much more economical fare. Although meat rationing is no longer in force in Peking, there is certainly not enough meat in all China to permit every deserving citizen to eat the kind of meals provided for guests; this can cause real annoyance. Yet the hospitality of China is real, sincere, and a deeply rooted aspect of Chinese culture. It is unfortunate that it does both host and guest a disservice in the way in which it prevents their knowing each other's day-in day-out problems -- and values.

"Awaken to a country steeped in 40 centuries of ritual and opulence!" It is not entirely clear at first glance what the writer of this cry had in mind as "ritual" or "opulence," but "steeped" surely suggests something static, the willow plate (or teapot) dream world again. Modern China is not like that, even though tourists sometimes complain ruefully of being nearly drowned in the tea of ceremonial briefings.

Even when they complain, though, the American visitors would feel cheated of a part of their expected dream experience if they did not meet with more ceremony (let it be "ritual" then) in China than they would find at home. It may surprise some Americans to learn that visiting Chinese find "ritual" in America. Each culture has its own body language, its own social ceremonies.

The things to be expressed are universal, but the actions differ from place to place, from time to time, from class to class. The dream-Chinese tucks his hands up his sleeves and bows in greeting and farewell, while the dream-American slaps his guest on the back and pumps his hand up and down. both pictures are true and untrue. One has seen the commune peasant chairman resolutely offering his hand to the delegate from Kansas, who is self-consciously drawing back and bowing as he beams the good will both are trying to express.

The use of the word "opulence" in connection with modern China, however, is the most astonishing error in fact imaginable. For the last two centuries China has been devastated by invasion, famine, flood, earthquakes, civil war, and every form of political oppression and corruption known to man. The comparative stability from 1949 to 1966, when the Cultural Revolution erupted, has encouraged the hope that all problems would soon be solved, since so much improvement was apparent. The American dream persists in the hearts of some dazzled entrepreneurs, hoping against all common sense that a billion Chinese will add one inch to their coattails -- to enrich American pockets.

"Awaken" is the key word. Let both Chinese and Americans do some hard thinking about each other, and stop dreaming. It is time to see clearly what China wants of America, what America wants of China, and what is really there in both cases. China needs, and wants, American money, to finance the modernization essential to physical survival. China needs and wants the American technology that underlies industrial development, not the products of that development. It does not feel any need for American culture as such. America needs and wants trade expansion. But even a billion customers, with no cash to spend, offer a dubious kind of market. Obviously, a good many Americans feel an urgent need to know more about the People's Republic of China -- witness the flood of tourists. A lot of Americans want to buy Chinese handicrafts and traditional wares. But these things themselves are by no means essential to American life. They are symbols of opulence to their American buyers but no index to Chinese prosperity.

What China has that America needs is not commodities nor a market. It is experience. America has much to gain by thoughtful evaluation of allm aspects of the Chinese experience, the reality, not the dream. Let the exchange of goods go on; let the tourists romp happily through the Friendship Stores. Let the Chinese earnestly study the industrial system whose benefits they hope to absorb to help them win their desperate battle for physical survival. But let it be in the sunlight of understanding realities, not in the disco glare of a Madison Avenue fantasy.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.