Either you are sorting it out, or you are full of it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

5000 years? Really?

I’m really uncomfortable with the non sequitur often batted about to justify a foreigner’s frustration when coming into conflict with Chinese culture – that it’s 5,000 years old.

I suppose the thinking is that Chinese culture is radically different, and the reason for its difference is that China is the longest surviving culture in the world. (Whatever that means.)  However, I fail to see how the length of time that a culture has had to develop is in any way indicative of its depth or its difficulty to be understood. There are plenty of people all around the world who find subcultures based around musical genres less than 50 years old such as hiphop and drum and bass absolutely inscrutable. Of course, it’s also important to note the reciprocal difficulties that many Chinese encounter with American culture, a somewhat radical off-shoot of European culture with a little over 200 years of history. (To be fair, this has gotten easier for many Chinese in recent years due to the constant inundation with American culture during their education.)

I would argue that the difficulty in understanding any culture has very little to do with how long the culture has been around per se. The difficulty in assimilation and understanding is a relative relationship having to do with the proximity that two cultures have in terms of their thought processes, values, etc. This could be related to the physical or temporal proximity of the cultures being compared (ex. China and the West), but it doesn’t have to be.

When people say something like “Don’t feel bad that you’re frustrated. China’s culture is over 5,000 years old!,” I’d like to think they are saying:

“China and the West have been developing as cultures relatively independently of each other for several thousand years. No wonder you feel frustrated!”

However, most of the time the statement is not used to alleviate or explain someone’s frustration, rather, it is used to diffuse argument and act as a conclusion, blocking further discussion. A foreigner might say, “Why do the Chinese have this social practice? I don’t understand.” And they’ll get back, “Take your time. You’ll get it. Chinese culture is over 5,000 years old.”

Although on the surface, the questioner seems to be reassured by their interlocutor that it’s just a matter of time. But what they have actually done is refused to justify or try to explain their values, thinking that at some level no explanation is possible or even worse, that the foreigner couldn’t understand, even if they tried.

Put simply, the idea is:

“Chinese culture is 5,000 years old. It is very complex. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

Really? I beg to differ.

posted by ferret at 8:15 pm  

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