food for thought

March 21st, 2009


In fact, if you don’t go and understand the other side, how could you know that you understand yourself?

That’s from Yang Hengjun’s excellent and thought-provoking post on walls. Well worth a read.

And he’s fair about it, too. Although he starts with a conversation with a Chinese researcher who doesn’t seem to comprehend why it might be a good idea to go check out what people outside the notorious gfw are saying on his subject, he looks at it the other way, too. There are plenty of people outside China- and, in my experience, foreigners inside China- who have plenty of academic knowledge of China but zero understanding of the Chinese point of view.

Nor is this simply a China/The World problem. I would say it applies everywhere, to any particular pairing you may choose. And to throw in a note of pessimism: I would say most people in this world don’t ever bother to see things from The Other’s (or any other’s) point of view. It’s not so much that people “lead lives of quiet desperation” as that they lead lives of willful ignorance.

Not that I claim any particular understanding for myself- of myself or any others. I’m no different and just as quick to retreat into my tribe when confronted with something different. But I do think it’s worth remembering Yang Hengjun’s words and making the effort to go and understand the other side, if for no other reason than to expand your own mind and understanding.

2 Responses to “food for thought”

  1. Arctosia Says:

    nicely said. However, I do feel that a lot of laowai, especially you people have a fairly good understanding on Chinese point of view, government just doesn’t want to admit that because as outsiders, laowai tend to be fair and see more things (Lookers-on see more than players, or as we Chinese say, 当局者迷,旁观者清), well unless they got their own political agenda, which some of people do.

    And GFW is also a barrier for outsiders to understand China. It is a two way censorship, don’t know if you ever tried to access Chinese sites from NZ, you still can experience “connection reset” when trying to access pages with “sensitive words” located at another side of the wall…

  2. wangbo Says:

    I think perhaps I could’ve gone into the laowai (and I think we should define “laowai” as anyone born and raised in a country other than the one they currently inhabit, as I’m sure the same principles apply everywhere) thing in more detail: There are those who make an effort to integrate and get to know their host country, and there are plenty who do not. As for politics, there are those who come with an agenda, but we all come with our own set of assumptions and preferences.

    I disagree that the laowai view of China is any fairer than the local view, though. I have heard laowai who’ve been here years say the most amazingly stupid, unfair things, and even the fairest-minded still approach the world from their own particular set of assumptions and preconceptions. But an outsider does benefit from a particular point of view that offers valuable insights (as you said: 当局者迷,旁观者清- thanks for teaching me a new saying).

    I had no idea the GFW could affect what people outside looking in can access- but my only experience of the internet outside the GFW since Christmas 2002 has been very quick checks of the email when I’ve been on visa runs to Hong Kong. The GFW just keeps getting creepier and creepier.