Wednesday, May 7, 2008

We Are Peasants

This post means not to be taken too seriously. Seeing how late Bo Yang's Ugly Chinese can be taken a run with, I have to caution. But the infinite wisdom remains.

Ever heard of Chinese teenagers quarrel? "You are such a peasant" one would say, sometimes in a half joking way. The other would be taken aback, "No, you are." Don't tell people in Wisconsin or Provence France, but Chinese are not proud of being called peasants.

Calling someone peasant is one of those preciously few things that has the magical power of stroking ones ego. A while ago, I was out drinking with some of my male friends, upon whence someone brought up the topic that Ning Jing, a Chinese actress known for her role in The Red Valley, married to an American actor named Paul Kersey from Minnesota. That made them sad, since many of them fancied her. Until, someone burst it out, "peasant", referring to the fact that Paul Kersey was a farm owner. The laughters followed, beer tasted a lot better. All was forgiven.

Image from Shanghai Planet
However, not to be mistaken, we Chinese, as a people, were peasants. And to a degree, we still are.

Chinese being peasants or China being agriculture state means Chinese are historically quite peaceful. Over the years, we grew quite good at being peasants. So while Western ancient empires such as Rome built on subjugation and facilitation of commerce, the highest objective of each Chinese dynasty, except maybe the Mongols, was to protect itself from outside forces, so the people could live their agrarian Xanadu. Yes Chinese warred to ensure silk trade route too, but that always came as second order. That Confucius guy codified the ethnics of a peasant society - to better yourself and then the family and then the nation. Therefore, the dream of a retired Chinese intellectual was to "pick asters beneath the Eastern fence,my gaze upon the Southern mountain rests".

Today a dominant proportion of population are still farmers despite all the fanfare about migrant workers. What about the urbanites, you ask. They are no less peasant. They may have some money, but peasantry is deeply rooted. Why else bourgeois is still a fashionable urban daily vocabulary?

Sometimes I feel I can understand why places like Paris don't like Chinese. Let's call it peasant-phobia for the time being. If you have traveled to the Europe recently you'd know what I meant. Scores of Chinese tourists -peasants I may remind you -with cash strapped on their waists can be seen at almost every attraction. If their picture snapping go-merry doesn't give their peasantry away, their distinct fashion does. You see that black sports blazer paired with athletic shoes? He would be a rural entrepreneur. A better tailored suit with white shirt underneath even under the summer heat? That's a give away, he is most certainly a local government official on organized tour.

In Paris, I was approached by a lady who gave me 600 euro on the street and asked me to help her buy a Louis Vuitton handbag. Apparently she had enough shopping trips to the store that LV securities could recognize her; and apparently a bag straight from Champs-Elysees somehow meant more to her than those available in most big Chinese cities. (Most LVs are made in China also. EU's product origin rule allows it not to label them "made in China", although I don't think she cared to know.) Maybe they mistook her as bag scalper (I don't know that's possible), maybe she couldn't bring herself to be understood, maybe LV was disgusted with the peasantry they decided not to let the poor lady have her bag, as gift she said. I wouldn't know. What I did know was she trusted some total stranger who looked like her patriot with cash in order to buy some luxury bag. Frankly, I couldn't think of any other people who could pull that kind of peasantry off.

Enough with the anecdotes, what about the big picture? China is now the factory of the world, but we are still peasants? Does that make sense?

No one likes to admit it, but we are peasants. Chinese spend like peasants; saving is always a virtue since forever. How else do you explain accumulating billions of trade surplus, fully knowing the excessive buildup itself is going to hurt the value? (learned anything from Japan?)The leading artists are peasants; Zhang Yimou, Mo Yan certainly are, favorite skits performers on New Years Gala are peasants too without exception. The CCP is Peasant. This used to be by its own admission. Judging by its often utter clumsiness, we see nothing changed much. To take it too far like some columnist in Washington does, is giving the CCP too much credit. when you have to find grain self-sufficiency policy to criticize for, you are trying too hard. Worse, you are committing the sin of not utilizing the wisdom of this blog post. Even when the Chinese saves up enough and tries to buy some asset, we don't escape being peasant. Wall Steer gladly takes the money for some non controlling shares, and then leave the bashing job to the main street. The only sure thing Chinese can buy, is the large sum of commission paid to American and European consultancies like Goldman Sachs.

All this brings us back to the topic of Olympics. Why do Chinese care so much of Olympics? Not only the government, but the ordinary people. By now you should have guessed right, because we are peasants trying to join the industrial party decades too late. We'd be better off if we acknowledge and embrace that fact.

*The challenge to you: List your peasants and the thing you find peasant.






历史上的农业中国小日子混得不错,这也让中国能保持一个相对和平的帝国。不同于古罗马等西方文明帝国以征服和维商的风格,中国历朝除了元朝军事上最高要务是保持边界的和平,让内地的农业社会能不受扰得发展自己的桃花源。当然中国也为保证丝绸之路的通畅发动过一些征战,但那些相对处于次要的地位。 孔夫子的修身齐家治国成了农业中国的道德要范,退休的知识分子更是以“采菊东篱下,悠然见南山”为理想。





也许我们不想承认,但答案是肯定的。中国人消费像农民。勤俭节约是自古以来的美德。不然怎么解释明明知道这美元积累的越多越可能不值钱还累积起一天十个亿的贸易顺差?艺术上,一线的也是农民当家。张艺谋莫言,农民。春晚最受欢迎的小品还是农民。CCP首先也是农民,虽然西方的评论家喜欢用一些不着边际的形而上的词。如果一个评论家需要批评中国的粮食自给政策的话,显然是太过努力用力过猛了;更糟的是,显然没有吸取这贴子里的智慧。;) 就算中国积累了点钱伤脑筋想要买点资产,我们看起来还是农民。华尔街左边高兴的接过不构成控股资产的钱右边媒体政客就开始抨击。中国唯一能确认买到的是众咨询公司的巨额咨询费。


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  1. This is wonderfully insightful. It does help us (those who live in the cities of China) understand why the gov't and people still claim that the country is "developing."

    My friend had a student say that China is a developing country because it still has farmers. To many of us, this argument doesn't make sense. All societies need farms as well as urban development.

    I have to wonder if agriculture would be more acceptable to the masses in China if it was more corporate. Or would they still consider these necessary laborers as peasants?

  2. Mat:
    Thanks for the comment. Although it's all said with a bit tongue in the cheek, I do believe it explains some of the Chinese psyche and reality.

    The agriculture corporate will help, certainly. Anything makes people feel modern will do. And it would help agriculture take a bigger slice of economic development.

    Young Chinese today already flock to places like Yunnan and Tibet often with those ancient poems and recitals in heart. With more confidence, maybe with more acceptance by the world (read industrialized world), maybe they will finally realize China has been far into the industrialization and needs balance, and shed the peasant label.

    That's why I think the boycott Olympics idea is so strategically stupid.

  3. Actually regarding the mode of dressing described, whether it is seen as cool or 'peasant' (老土),it really depends on who's wearing them.

    Some of the Japanese have the weirdest tastes in fashion but somehow it is perceived as avant garde and super cool, super creative.. It's got to with the attitude that goes with the outfit I guess and of course, the perceived status of the country.

  4. Very good point. It's more of the unsureness of self-identity. The (highly stylized and stereotyped I might add) fashion I described reflects in part the mindset of Chinese looking up on western civilization and wanting to catch up for a long time.