Qing CAO

The Chinese government spent billions of dollars on new facilities for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. The Olympics were a great opportunity for the Chinese government and people to present a positive image to the rest of the world. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN

Western opinion of China has oscillated between the positive and negative for nearly three hundred years. In the current era the media is an important force in China’s perception and reception.

China has made considerable efforts on the foreign policy front to offset Western perceptions of a “China threat,” instead stressing China’s “peaceful rise” (a phrase that quickly was replaced by “peaceful development”). But despite gains on the political front, the general cultural image of China remains clouded in the West.

China is becoming increasingly difficult to define ideologically because it is in a constant process of change. It is searching for national and international identities and for a fresh model of development. Its rate of sociocultural and economic transformations is almost dizzying. In terms of Western perspectives of China, one can have either an essentialist view—which assumes that an authentic and clear set of definitively Chinese characteristics exists—or a nonessentialist view, which questions the concept of a “fixed” or “true” Chinese identity or essential “Chinese” qualities.

Eleven “Ages” of Attitudes toward China

The scholar Harold Isaacs described six “ages” of attitudes toward China in the 1950s; in 1990 Steven Mosher added three more ages:

? Age of Respect (eighteenth century)

? Age of Contempt (1840–1905)

? Age of Benevolence (1905–1937)

? Age of Admiration (1937–1944)

? Age of Disenchantment (1944–1949)

? Age of Hostility (from 1949; Mosher saw this
age as lasting until 1972)

? Second Age of Admiration (1972–1977)

? Second Age of Disenchantment (1977–1980)

? Second Age of Benevolence (1980–1989)

To these nine append the following two:

? Third Age of Disenchantment (1989–1997)

? Age of Uncertainty (from 1997)

Each age has some distinguishing essentialist features:

? Confucian wisdom in the first

? Oriental despotism in the second

? A resilient civilization in the third

? The heroic Chinese in the fourth

? The ungrateful wretches in the fifth

? The evil Communists in the sixth

? Peaceful communitarian society in the

? Excessive revolution in the eighth

? A modernizing nation in the ninth

? An unrepentant Communist state in the tenth

The eleventh age, the current “Age of Uncertainty,” is marked by concerns about human rights but more substantially by a sudden increase in coverage of China’s economic development as well as its increasingly important role in global issues.

For example, in mid-March 2008 the riots in Tibet triggered severe criticism of China’s record on human rights by the media in the West. This criticism, reaching its apex in the Olympic torch relay in London, Paris, and Los Angeles in early April, galvanized so much public attention that it even threatened to derail the Beijing Olympics. But only a few weeks later the media responded positively to the Chinese government’s quick rescue attempts after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. Later the early critical voice of the media was largely lost when the media joined the celebration of the success of the Beijing Olympics in August. The ravaging financial crisis in late 2008, however, brought China back to the other focus: China’s increasingly vital role in the world economy. The current uncertainty in the media’s portrayal of China may reflect uncertain changes within China and the challenges that these changes pose to formulating stable, long-term relations between China and the West. The theme of human rights versus the economy will continue to play out in the foreseeable future.

A prominent feature of the ages of attitudes toward China is that chronological pairs of them often represent two polarized positions. The image of China during the 1980s, for example, was dominated by hardworking people and harmonious families with the aspirations of an old civilization to modernize, whereas during the 1990s that image was replaced by an image of child abuse, prison labor, the death penalty, Taiwan, and Tibet. Perhaps it is not surprising that the 1980s brought the flowering in Great Britain of television documentaries about Chinese history and culture as the West tried to rediscover China after decades of isolation. At least eight such documentary series were produced during the 1980s, including Yellow River, The Heart of the Dragon, and Silk Road. However, during the 1990s this cultural China yielded, in the Western mind, to a largely political China.

The romantic-cynic pairing is another duality in Western perception of China. The West has had a love-hate relationship with China for as long as the West has studied China. That duality is reflected in U.S. policy toward China.

Similar or Dissimilar?

Because the West has a fondness for such dualities, it tends to see China through an either/or lens: China is perceived either as deviant and therefore negative or as like the West and therefore positive. During the oscillating ages presented earlier, with the exception of the Age of Respect (eighteenth century), positive ages were marked by qualities that the West sees itself as possessing and negative ages by what the West defines as “other.”

Therefore, on the whole, China’s receptiveness to Western influence has resulted in positive perspectives in the West, whereas China’s resistance to Western influence has resulted in negative perspectives. The one exception was the Age of Respect, when Europe used its idealized view of China as a means to criticize its own culture. The French philosophers of the eighteenth century grossly exaggerated the grandeur of China in order to address domestic problems. For example, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, disillusioned by the immorality of his own society, argued that China should send missionaries to teach natural theology to Europeans. But by the mid-nineteenth century the decline of China’s power with the advent of Western encroachment meant that such lofty perspectives could not be sustained. The technological progress that resulted from the Industrial Revolution and the opinion (common then in the West) that the non-Western world had no history to speak of meant that Westerners perceived China as backward.

Media Role in Image Building

We can easily see a parallel between image oscillation and changes in relations between China and the West. As the image shifts, so do relations. The reverse also is true: as relations shift, so do media perceptions. Indeed, the underlying force behind so many “back and forth” images concerning China is the change in the underpinnings of the relationship between China and the West.

The scholar Tsan-kuo Chang, writing on the
influence of the media on U.S. policy toward China from 1950 through 1984, concluded that the media functioned more as a surrogate for foreign policymakers than as an independent voice. In reporting on China the U.S. media serve as an unofficial instrument for foreign policymakers to establish the rules of the game. During the 1980s the media reinforced the policymakers’ view of China as a counterbalancing force against the threat of the Soviet Union. When that threat disappeared during the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, China seemed suddenly much more threatening. Policymakers and the media were now aware of China as the world’s most populous country, a country with rising economic power and an alien ideology. Since the 1990s the challenge seems to be to engage China productively and to balance economic and political interests.

The Future

China’s polity, despite having embraced economic (capitalist) globalization, remains unchanged for the most part. But it has reached a crucial crossroad: It has abandoned the Maoist development model but is not walking down a totally Western road to modernity, which is what some in the West, as well as in China, would prefer. The Chinese society and state continue to evolve, steered by a multiplicity of dynamics but mostly by a catch-up mind-set and a renewed appreciation of their own traditional values and history.

The Chinese adage “groping for stones to cross the river” can be applied not only to China’s economy, which has already taken off, but also to China’s sociocultural and political institutions, which are seeking a sustainable development model. This fact is reflected in the Chinese Communist Party’s adoption of a scientific approach to development at its seventeenth National Congress in 2007. The Communist-versus-capitalist perspective linked to the Cold War is obsolete. Indeed, today the Chinese state resembles, if anything, more its predecessors in China’s long history of bureaucratic control and state intervention than anything described by orthodox Marxism. The groping-oriented approach initiated by Chinese Communist Party general secretary Deng Xiaoping to some extent shows that the Chinese political elite has made a complete reversal in its ideological struggle for China’s future: from embracing Soviet-style Communism early in the twentieth century to embracing capitalism in the twenty-first century. Both Dengist pragmatism and Maoist dogmatism are part of a search for a Chinese road to modernity in a journey that is far from being over in the first years of the new millennium.

Today China defies simplistic characterization, although some people in the West may still feel that China can be interpreted within existing Western frames. Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in What Does China Think? that although dozens of books about China’s rise have been written, most authors treat China as a political, economic, or military unit instead of as a generator of ideas that could influence the Western world.

If news reporting mediates reality rather than mirrors reality, how are the news media mediating the reality of China? How does China become news? How is newsworthiness determined? More important, how should China be presented to the general public? These questions are important because the media contribute greatly to the public perceptions and knowledge of China. The media often define what we say and think about China. The scholar Richard Hoggart concludes that news editors’ sense of what is news has been culturally conditioned and that such a sense structures reality. If his conclusion is true, news reporting involves an interaction between our internalized versions of the spirit of our time, influenced by cultural conditioning, and our external world.

Further Reading

Dawson, R. (1967). The Chinese chameleon: An analysis of European conceptions of Chinese civilisation. London: Oxford University Press.

Isaacs, H. (1958). Scratches on our minds: American images of China and India. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Jespersen, T. C. (1996). American images of China: 1931-1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Mackerras, C. (1999). Western images of China (Rev. ed.). Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Mosher, S. W. (1990). China misperceived: American illusions and Chinese reality. New York: Basic Books.

Source: Cao, Qing. (2009). Perspectives on China—Western. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1749–1753. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

American soldiers in China during World War II found Chinese girls who were educated in the United States to be good sports companions. Here Sergeant Ivan O. Stanbury of Pomona, California, waits with three young ladies for a turn on the tennis court. This photograph, circa 1942, conveys the Western view of China that Harold Isaacs calls the “Age of Admiration” (1937–1944). PHOTO BY TOM CHRISETENSEN.

An 1987 lithograph by J. Keppler, for Puck magazine, dating from the “Age of Contempt” (1840–1905, as named by the scholar Harold Isaacs). During the economic depression of the 1870s, white workers began to blame Chinese competition for the high rate of unemployment. As anti-Chinese sentiment grew, the American media depicted Chinese immigrants as opium addicts and rat-eaters, crowded together on bunk beds to save money. In this particular illustration a racist portrayal of Chinese immigrants is juxtaposed with that of an idyllic American family, implying that the Chinese laborers’ “standard of living” allowed them to settle for less wages than their American counterparts. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Perspectives on China—Western (X?f?ng duì Zh?ngguó de kànf? ????????)|X?f?ng duì Zh?ngguó de kànf? ???????? (Perspectives on China—Western)

Download the PDF of this article