The various petty deceptions that have come to light at the Beijing Olympics — the computer-generated “fireworks”, the bogus “ethnic minority” dancers, the little girl who lip-synced because the kid with the voice wasn’t cute enough, the suspiciously preteen look of some of the “16-year-olds” on the gals’ gymnastics squad … What’s going on here? Or, the question I’m getting asked a lot: How much of this is totalitarian, how much is, well, Chinese?
The first thing that should be said is that some of it is just plain human. Greeting rituals, into which category the Olympic Opening Ceremony kitsch-a-thon can, I think, reasonably be squinched, are insincere everywhere, among all human cultures. When I greet a stranger with “How are you?” I expect him to reply “Fine, thanks,” even if he is suffering from terminal cancer. If he were to reply: “Well, thanks for asking. I have this inoperable tumor …,” I should think he was eccentric and ill-mannered. His tumor is none of my business. If we eventually become friends, or if I am an examining physician and he a patient, then the rules are of course different. As it is, though, this is not a truth-salient situation. The purpose of malign lying is to deceive. Since we both understand what’s going on here, and nothing is at stake, the deception has no weight, the lie no malignity.
The problems arise when Culture X, which allows only a narrow scope for insincerity in these everyday exchanges, encounters Culture Y, which allows a wider one. Imperial China was definitely a Y, and Western travelers in the Heavenly Empire from the sixteenth century onwards often expressed disgust at the exaggerated flatteries and self-abasements that were routine in the everyday courtesies of well-educated Chinese. When I started mixing with Chinese people forty years ago, some of these norms were still in force among the older generation. To the polite query Gui guo shi na guo? — “What is your precious country?” — uttered by some retired Mandarin, I knew to reply: Bi guo shi Ying-guo — “My worthless country is England.”
Things got so out of hand in late-Imperial China, there were stock jokes about it among expats. Here is one told by the great Swedish sinologist Bernhard Karlgren in his 1923 book Sound and Symbol in Chinese:
A visitor called, clad in his best robes, and awaited the arrival of his host seated in the reception room. A rat, which had been disporting itself upon the beams above, insinuating its nose into a jar of oil that had been put there for safe keeping, frightened at the sudden intrusion of the caller, ran away, and in doing so upset the oil-jar, which fell directly on the caller, striking him a severe blow, and ruining his elegant garments with the saturation of the oil. Just as the face of the guest was purple with rage at this disaster, the host entered, when the proper salutations were performed, after which the guest proceeded to explain the situation. “As I entered your honorable apartment and seated myself under your honorable beam, I inadvertently terrified your honorable rat, which fled and upset your honorable oil-jar upon my mean and insignificant clothing, which is the reason of my contemptible appearance in your honorable presence.”
It hasn’t been that bad for a hundred years, but the sincerity-meter is still differently calibrated, causing bumps and abrasions in minor social exchanges. Here is a story of mine from the early seventies.
The lady of the lower-middle-class Chinese household and her mother, who lives with the family, are sitting down to dinner. The man of the household is working late. They’ve decided to go ahead and eat, leaving enough for the husband when he comes home. Also at the table are the lady’s niece and her round-eye boyfriend — that’s me.
In usual Chinese style there are four or five dishes on the table, from which we help ourselves. One of them is a dish of prawns cooked with beans in a delicious sauce. I compliment my hostess on this dish. She urges me to have more, and scoops some up with a serving spoon to deposit in my bowl. The prawns are really good. I express my appreciation again. The lady urges me to eat more of them. I decline, saying that her husband will want some when he comes home. “No, no,” she insists, “My husband doesn’t like prawns. Eat as much as you want. Come on, eat more!” Thus encouraged, I pretty much finish off the prawns.
Walking out afterwards, my girlfriend is furious. “What were you thinking of? You ate all the prawns. Hardly any left for my uncle.” I point out that the aunt had been practically cramming the prawns down my throat, and that, by the aunt’s testimony, her husband didn’t like prawns. The girl shakes her head in exasperation. “That’s just politeness. Prawns are his favorite dish.” Oops.
So yes, I’d say that by custom the Chinese allow a wider scope for insincerity in social exchanges than a European or American is used to. This seeps into other areas, too. One of the vexations of living in China is that you are constantly being asked to pose for photographs. I mean pose: “Hold this book! Pretend to be reading! …” (This one may be just me, though. I suppose I have my own instinctual poses — don’t we all? — but I just can’t pose to order.)
Communism of course made this tendency much worse. Lying is an expected norm in Marxist-Leninist societies. Here is an English correspondent (Timothy Garton-Ash in the Spectator, 1983) writing about the old Yugoslavia:
Imagine sitting round a table with four apparently sane and civilized men, the senior of whom suddenly remarks: “Of course, the Earth is flat.” You expect the others to demur. But no. “Flat,” says one. “Very flat,” agrees his neighbor. “How else could we walk upright?” exclaims the third. And they all smile at you, challenging dissent.
Far-fetched? If you travel to communist countries as a journalist this is a regular experience. You are ushered into a large government office, greeted with elaborate politeness by the minister or party secretary, seated at a glass-topped table under the marquetry plaque of Lenin. A middle-aged secretary brings in cups of coffee, a plate of small cakes, perhaps a round of schnapps. And then they start quietly telling you these whopping lies.
It is a credit to human nature that people schooled in public lying like this none the less manage to hold on to integrity in their private lives. In personal relations, I have never found Chinese people any less truthful, on the average, than English or American people. Even in the public sphere, in fact, China has brought forth numerous stubborn dissidents, determined to speak the truth even in the face of ferocious penalties for doing so. (I am just now reading a very good book by one such: Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker, and I recommend it to your attention. There was an extract in the March issue of Harper’s.)
In dealings with the apparatus, though, lying becomes a necessary habit, a basic survival skill, for the citizen of a communist country. When teaching college in mainland China, I had a student who got into some fairly serious trouble with the “leaders” — that is, the college authorities. (The actual expression for “leaders” in Chinese is one of my favorite metonymies: “collars and sleeves.”) He came to me for advice. After listening to his story, I said I thought the best thing would be for him to just tell the truth to the authorities. He looked at me with numb incredulity.
“Tell the truth to the leaders? You’re crazy!” He laughed at the outrageous absurdity of the idea. When dealing with the apparatus, the trick is to find the most acceptable lie, that’s all. Everybody knows that! I still think he would have been wise to just tell the truth, but he wouldn’t even consider the idea.
In such an all-pervading atmosphere of expected dishonesty, and with so much national prestige at stake, it’s not surprising that the Chinese Olympic authorities have been telling us little pork pies. (That’s Cockney rhyming slang.) Personally I’m surprised there haven’t been more.
If it were to turn out, for example, that some Chinese gold-medal winner was in fact a laser-generated hologram, or that the entire population of Beijing has been swapped out for twelve million Wal-Mart-trained greeters, or even that flights into “Beijing” are being diverted to a replica city built in the Gobi desert in hopes of clearer air, the actual Beijing invisible under its thick blanket of smog, well, any of that would be right in line with the historical record of the Chinese Communist Party. These, after all, were the collars and sleeves who bamboozled a huge swathe of the Western intelligentsia for a quarter of a century into believing that they were “agrarian reformers” creating a paradise on earth for the common people, while the common people were starving to death by the millions.
So even if you subtract out all those cultural differences in notions of sincerity and courtesy, which no doubt exist, it remains the case that mainland China today is ruled by exceptionally unscrupulous liars. I tagged Guy Sorman’s excellent book there, but it’s far from the first to expose the Great Lie that is modern China. The first, and still one of the best, came out more than thirty years ago, and I have named this column in its honor.