Letter to Chinese Friends: We Really Are Different

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At a conference in Beijing last week, several Chinese academics marveled at the extent of Jewish influence in the United States. In general the Chinese, the world’s most numerous people, look benevolently on the Jews, one of the world’s smallest, noting the traits they have in common: Preservation of an ancient culture, strong family ties, a passion for education, and a practical approach to life that serves well in adversity. But the Chinese are mystified by the political influence of American Jews, which they tend to exaggerate and attribute to Jewish wealth. Four years ago I tried to explain what the Chinese and Jews have in common. This time I tried to explain to my Chinese interlocutors why we are so different.

Mandarin-speaking Chinese friends often complain that they have no common language with their grandparents, who speak only dialect. That is sad; not long from now their grandparents’ language will pass into extinction, following countless languages and ethnicities that appeared and disappeared within the greater realm of Chinese culture. Hymns, ballads, stories, poems, love-songs and lullabies that informed the intimate life of one of the many peoples within the Chinese empire will go still forever, as they have done during the four-thousand-year history of China. In the West, the extinction of a people is the object of horror; in China it is a fact of life.

Until the present generation it made no sense to characterize “Chinese” as a spoken language. “Chinese” is a system of ideograms that convey concepts but not sounds; each dialect has idiosyncratic sounds that correspond to the characters. The Beijing court dialect, or Mandarin, was spoken by a tiny minority, while the vast majority of Chinese spoke regional languages or dialects. The People’s Republic of China recognizes 56 distinct ethnicities with distinct languages, while linguists identify eight principle language groups and too many dialects to mention. Many of these are as different as Spanish and German; Cantonese, the largest southern language, has little in common with Mandarin or Shanghaiese.

The tribes and nations that comprise the Chinese empire are fragile. They appear and disappear, but China remains. China is eternal, and Chinese identity is eternal, but it is a cold and distant identity; until the recent spread of the Mandarin dialect due to a national education system and electronic media, no Chinese mother ever sang a lullaby to her baby in “Chinese.” The life of Chinese families and clans, and all the domestic and intimate relationships of the Chinese, were conducted in dialect. It is hard for Westerners to imagine what this feels like. Imagine if Europe emerged from the Dark Ages not with national languages that gradually suppressed and absorbed local dialects, but rather with Latin as a lingua franca and administrative language, while ordinary people spoke their local patois. Even this analogy fails to convey how different China is, for Latin is a spoken language with a great deal in common with all the dialects spoken on the European continent west of the Rhine and south of the Alps. The life of birth, courtship, family and death remains within the fragile sphere of ethnicities doomed to perish; the life of the empire and the literary heritage continue.

To put this another way, it is the empire and the state who are sacred, which is another word for eternal; the individual is not sacred but transitory, and implicitly expendable. From the building of the Great Wall more than a thousand years ago to the Great Leap Forward, Chinese rulers have been spendthrift with the lives of their citizens. I do not mean to suggest by any means that the Chinese empire was more cruel than the Romans. On the contrary, the economy of the Roman Empire rested on latifundia worked by slaves while Chinese agriculture was grounded in the extended family farm, and the emperor himself each year ploughed a symbolic furrow in the Forbidden City.

A radically different idea of eternity arose with Abraham in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago, namely the belief that a people under the protection of the one universal God might be eternal in its own flesh. As a nation the Jews have remained intact for thousands of years and preserved the Hebrew language, even in exile where it persevered as a liturgical and literary language but ceased to be spoken. God’s Indwelling is present in the carnal Jewish people, and every individual is sacred; the laws promulgated by God declare the sanctity of all life. The Jewish king is a limited monarch subject to Jewish law, not a “son of heaven” raised to a different ontological status. The Jews’ relationship with their king is as intimate as the relationship of the Chinese to their emperor is remote.

China expanded to its present boundaries by the Ninth Century of the common era, and it did so by assimilating the peoples on its periphery, sometimes butchering them or driving them away if they refused to assimilate. The emperor kept order and levied taxes, but did not inspire the affection of the subject peoples. The Chinese always have tolerated rather than loved their government. The Jews pray three times a day, and at each service pray for the restoration of the royal line of King David twice. The Europeans adopted the model of the Davidic dynasty, poetically in the legends of Arthur or Barbarossa, and politically in the emulation of the Hebrew polity. For the return of which dynasty do the Chinese pray? On the contrary, when dynasties fall, the Chinese are happy to see the back of them.

China is the world’s oldest living civilization and America is the youngest. How does a new civilization come to be in the first place? It must graft itself onto an older civilization. The American principle is that each individual is sacred, and therefore sovereign, with equal protection under the law and an equal say in governance. Ancient Israel is the wellspring of the American imagination, as I argued in a lecture to the Heritage Foundation in 2016.

If China’s national epic is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, America’s national epic is the King James Version of the Hebrew Bible. America was founded by dissenting Protestants for whom the history of Israel was a map to salvation. It was envisioned by English political theorists who projected a “Hebrew Republic” out of biblical as well as later rabbinic sources, at a time when the Jews had not yet returned to England after their 14th Century banishment, and the Jews were a tiny, scattered and apparently insignificant people.

America was Zionist before Zionism existed as a political movement. All the more so does America identify with Israel now that Israel is strong, prosperous and successful far beyond its numbers in the arts, sciences and business. America’s five or six million Jews have disproportionate influence relative to their numbers, but American support for Israel rests on 80 million evangelical Protestants more than it does on American Jews. No other issue unites Americans so broadly as support for Israel, because the hope of Americans for eternity arises from emulation of Israel in the first place.

China in some ways is brilliantly successful. From ancient times it has been ruled by a meritocracy of scholars, and its accomplishments in the past forty years have astonished the world. But Americans never will reconcile themselves to China’s lack of concern for individual rights, for its cruelty to so many of its citizens, and for the absence of mercy in its public affairs. Americans tolerate billionaires because their wealth largely is earned rather than inherited, and earned honestly. No one resents the wealth of a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, who came from middle-class families and became wealthy through their own efforts. The Chinese worry about social solidarity under conditions of unequal wealth distribution, but do not seem to notice that the wealthiest Americans give away most of their money to philanthropy. Americans in 2017 gave away nearly half a trillion dollars, roughly the GDP of a Belgium or Sweden.

Much as I respect the Chinese and admire their accomplishments, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how different we are. The fact that the Jews and Chinese have preserved their respective cultures for thousands of years does not show that the cultures are similar, but rather that it is possible for two radically distinct culture principles to attain great longevity. We will continue to be competitors; I hope we do not become enemies. And we shall see whether the Jewish idea as filtered through the American experience will produce superior results. Sadly, Sinology in the United States began as a training system for Christian missionaries, and the naive missionary belief that China gradually might adopt Western values still confuses American perceptions of China. Perhaps China one day will adopt Western modes of thought, but that would require a change so profound that it is impossible to imagine what circumstances might bring it about.