CHINA AGAINST AMERICA:
Culture without Civilization
against Civilization without Culture?
This is an English summary of the French book by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein La Chine contre l’Amérique. Culture sans civilisation contre civilisation sans culture?
In spite of its provocative title, the aim of this study is not to denigrate either America or China, but rather to examine the two countries and their relationships through the lens of a half-forgotten though classical philosophical debate: what are the distinctions between culture and civilization?
I am not saying that China lacks civilization and that America lacks culture. Instead I examine Chinese and American texts supposed to provide the cultural and civilizational foundations of China and America. I notice different centers of interest.
China creates its identity through a discourse on culture while America creates its identity by defining its own relationship with civilization.
I link the culture-civilization debate to the theme of hyperreality whereby China has developed a hyperreal culture and America has developed a hyperreal form of civilization. American civilization is an uncanny conceptual mirror image of Chinese culture. Hyperreality is the state in which it is impossible to distinguish reality from fantasy. Such a state is common in technologically advanced cultures where virtual reality has made the endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearances possible. It is however, also possible to speak of hyperreality in terms of cultures or civilizations.
China produces a hyperrealist version of its culture through devices that are peculiar to the Confucian treatment of history. The mythical and pseudo-historical past upon which many Chinese philosophical discourses are built leads to a quasi-virtual timelessness whose effects remain significant in China's contemporary political life. American hyperrealism is present in its civilization, which has often been described as a materialized utopia excelling in simulations like Disneyland and Las Vegas or an aseptic, dishistoricized culture that authors like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco have classified as hyperreality to the point that it permeates large parts of American life like an underlying structure.
Superficial observers reduce the China vs. US theme to that of a confrontation between a notoriously undemocratic country and a country that is democratic to the core. Linked to this is the appeal that the Chinese should first embrace "modernity" (that is, "democracy") before Americans can seriously negotiate with them. Any such one-dimensional opposition will lead a baffled outside observer to wonder how much do the countries actually know about each other. Is there, in America and in China, something like a realistic appreciation of the respective cultures? The popular American picture of China is that of a totalitarian country sporting mythical development and unstoppable growth, eagerly dumping prices and currencies together with the most common ethical categories. This is complemented by a Chinese picture of an imperialist America trying to overrun the whole world with its mindless consumer culture, against which China has to resist. If this is going to be a new cold war, it will be led by opponents that have a much smaller piece of cultural common ground and less mutual understanding than the protagonists of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union.
The subtle and very much contested distinction between culture and civilization is established through careful considerations of its development within European intellectual history. It show that both the Chinese and the American strategies lead to assumptions about their own countries' being the centers of the world, assumptions shared, to such an extent, by no other nation in the world. Further analyses lead to a comparison of Chinese and American nationalism.
One of many advertizements (here in a Hangzhou taxi) that invite the "civilized customer" not to eat in the taxi, not to throw garbage out of the window, etc.
This plate, found on a monument in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, illustrates the universal use of the word "wenming" where in English "culture" (Chin: wenhua •¶‰»)would be the norm.
Article in Baudrillard Now: 'America and China as Hyperreal: Jean Baudrillard and Bo Yang' in Baudrillard Now 2 Nov. 2020.
Cover picture of French edition
To Yang's soy paste vat theory of Chinese culture, I oppose a vision of America that has been elaborated on by several authors, most famously by Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco. The hyperreal America is best encountered in simulated places like Disneyland and Las Vegas, but is also perceptible on many different levels within American civilization. In America, Baudrillard experiences the New World through an exoticizing lens of estrangement that has been shocking for many Americans because the country appears here as distant and culturally removed as if the author were writing about China. While Bo Yang criticizes China's excess of culture and lack of civilization, Baudrillard criticizes the American excess of civilization. Baudrillard's vision of an American "paradise materialized" is diametrically opposed to Yang's "hell" of the Confucian soy paste vat. In spite of this, both paradise and hell are driven by identical systems because both rely on the mechanics of a self-enclosed and auto-productive reality. Both systems are radical. The Chinese soy paste vat filled with familism, poetry, religious beliefs, superstitions, irrelevant names, quotations, and legendary kings is opposed to the American vat filled with highly marketed consumer goods, media images, aesthetic surgery, Oprah-style quick fixes, superhuman enemies, and other fakes. Both the American and the Chinese vat create an almost religious form of hyperreality leading to unrealistic self-perceptions that can easily lead to conflicts with the rest of the world.
This book undertakes research on Chinese and American hyperrealism and its effect on the self-perceptions and cultural identities of both countries. It concludes that the US and China are actually very similar though diametrically opposed in some terms.
The centerpieces of the present research are Bo Yang's The Ugly Chinaman and Jean Baudrillard's America. Yang uses his leading concept, the Chinese soy paste vat, as a metaphor for Chinese culture, by means of which he tries to come to terms with the Chinese past and present. According to Yang, Chinese culture develops through fermentation and an infinite process of indiscriminately adding cultural components, which resembles the production of soy paste in a vat. Yang's thesis states that the cultural elements within the 5000 year-old vat of Chinese culture have never been churned and as a result, the thick paste of its culture has prevented the development of Chinese civilization.
Left: 2011 Social Morals Campaign in the city of Hangzhou (Zhejiang). The text in large letters reads: Social morals is civilization and politeness. I'm a lovely Hangzhounese [the use of parallel English words is interesting here]. Below in smaller print: Talking and behaving in a civilized way are better; Say "please" in order to show your sincerity; Politeness and modest restraint make the traffic smooth; Show modest restraint to manifest your generosity.
Parts of this research have been published in English in:
Culture and Dialogue 2, Sept. 2011, 'America against China: Civilization without Culture against Culture without Civilization?'
ProtoSociology 28, 2011, 'Confucianism, Puritanism, and the Transcendental: China and America' [Special issue: China’s Modernization]
Comparative Civilizations Review 66, Spring 2012, 'What is the Difference between Culture and Civilization? Two Hundred Fifty Years of Confusion'
Traditional Dwelling and Settlements Review (TDSR) 22:2 Spring 2012, 'Hyperreal Monuments of the Mind: Traditional Chinese Architecture and Disneyland'
'America and China as Hyperreal: Jean Baudrillard and Bo Yang' in Baudrillard Now 2 Nov. 2020.