Losing Face, Leaping Forward

Joseph Kahn in The New York Times:

ChinaAs told in the magnum opus of ancient Chinese history, “Records of the Grand Historian,” King Goujian knew how to nurse a grievance. At the start of his reign in the fifth century B.C., Goujian’s archenemy attacked his kingdom, captured Goujian and made him a slave. The king was granted amnesty after three years and allowed to reclaim his throne. But Goujian swore off the trappings of monarchy, eating peasant food and living simply. He slept on a bed of brushwood and dangled a gallbladder from the ceiling, licking it to taste its bitterness every day. A Chinese aphorism, “sleeping on sticks and tasting gall,” celebrates his determination to remember the shame and humiliation he suffered — and to draw strength from it.

In “Wealth and Power,” their engaging narrative of the intellectual and cultural origins of China’s modern rise, Orville Schell and John Delury note that the story of Goujian was a favorite of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who united China under his rule before being forced into exile in Taiwan. They might have called it the defining theme of contemporary China. From Wei Yuan in the early 19th century, the first major intellectual to insist that the mighty Chinese Empire had fundamental flaws, to Xi Jinping, who became China’s top leader last year, the humiliations China has suffered at the hands of foreigners over the past century and a half are the glue that keeps the country together. Many nations revel in their victories. America has its War of Independence. The British still churn out documentaries about World War II. But even $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves has not healed the psychological trauma of 1842, the year of China’s defeat at the hands of the British in the first Opium War. After that conflict, China was dismembered, first by the European powers, then, more devastatingly, by Japan. Chinese troops expelled the Japanese, and the country was reunified more than 60 years ago. But it is determined to keep the memory of the abuses it suffered from fading into history.

Shame often acts as a depressant. But through the 11 biographical sketches that constitute their book, Schell and Delury argue that for generations of influential Chinese, shame has been a stimulant.

More here.