Slippery Definitions

4 February 2009

Where’s the Culture in Multicultural?

Sliip, by MarkyBon, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Definitions are slippery things, often over-ruled by the shear weight of expectations. In responding to ‘yourfriend’ about multiculturalism in China I have relied on what is by and large an academic definition of ‘multicultural’ rather than what has more recently become a popular description of multiple cultures in the same political space. My multicultural country is one in which the majority culture absorbs, pays deference to and systematically tends to the health of minority cultures – an unrealised and perhaps unrealisable ideal, if the policies and presumptions of multiculturalism are anything to go by. ‘Yourfriend’, in contrast, has defined – a least implicitly – a ‘multicultural’ country as one in which multiple cultures exist: a statement of fact.

This is an interesting divergence not so much because it shows our different viewpoints (although that it does) but because it’ll allow me to consider some of the implications of what we haven’t quite managed to discuss, touching on the points that ‘yourfriend’ has covered and considering some of the things we’ve both missed. And, as ‘yourfriend’ implies in his final comment from last week, both sides are lacking useful definitions of ‘nationality’ and ‘culture’. These, unfortunately, aren’t really evident in the post by Professor Crane that I originally wrote about.

Ethnicity and Nation

I can, however, start by accepting the assertion that minzu, which I put forward as ‘nationality’, is more accurately translated into English as ‘ethnicity’. That doesn’t necessarily rule out xenophobia in China of the sort I described in my last post – as ‘yourfriend’ mentions of America, the creation of “ethnic people” can be debasing by itself. But leaving that particular issue aside as something I can neither prove nor disprove here, I’m interested in how ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’, or at least the concept of the nation, start to merge into one another in discussions about multiculturalism, and how the notion of culture floats on by, curiously abandoned.

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Why Multiculturalism?

1 February 2009

Response to a Response

Get to the Point. By boliston, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)In response to both my last post and my original post on multiculturalism and China, ‘yourfriend’ has written a number of perceptive comments, arguing that multiculturalism as an ideology (not to be mistaken for a country being multicultural) is not a viable concept and thus not applicable to China. Other points, including a more accurate definition of Chinese ‘nationalities’ as ‘ethnicities’ and a critique of Professor Crane’s original argument are well worth reading, so I’ll reprint the three comments here with very minor editing (mainly the correction of a mistake that ‘yourfriend’ pointed out). If anyone else would like to offer comments on the topic, please do – discussions such as these can be crucial ways to learn. I’ll reply tomorrow.

Correction: I’ll have to reply on Tuesday, given that I have a course to attend tomorrow night. In the meantime, what do other readers think of multiculturalism, and – as ‘yourfriend’ asks in a more specific manner – how can or should we define nationality and culture?

First Comment – Response to the Original Post

The post makes less sense to me each time I read it. China is already multicultural, why the debate on whether “whites or blacks” can be “Chinese”?

Multiculturalism is a pretty loosely defined ideology, and there is no sense in using China’s current “multiculturalism” to make an argument for expanding it to include “blacks and whites” in China. I came to think that you didn’t have much of an appreciation for the ethnic and regional differences within the PRC, but I might have been wrong. I apologize if I am.

I question the quote by Crane here:

If Chinese multiculturalism does not deepen, if whites and blacks and other racial and ethnic groups cannot become Chinese, China will discourage the very people it has invited to understand its language and culture; and in the process it will be limiting the global market for its cultural products and undermining its world-wide political influence.

This is very speculative. The global market for Chinese cultural products is not very large; and especially not for genuine Chinese cultural products. At least to Americans, they consume Americanized cultural products created by “ethnic people” for the sake of novelty … very debasing, and all-around an unpleasant trade.

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Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

31 January 2009

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

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The Spacemen Speak

6 December 2008

Dispatches from the Twilight Zone

Windup metal spaceman, by zen, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Relevance is not always an exhaustive criterion in Hong Kong journalism. A vague association, the merest hint of connection, a slim link between national prestige and local humdrum is often all it takes to crank out a feel-good headline. Hong Kong’s minority English-language newspapers, in particular, are adept at trumpeting thinly-disguised irrelevance as news. Not always, but it sneaks in there often enough. Consider the front page of today’s South China Morning Post. The banner headline tells of a high court judge who gave an oral ruling in an appeal case and then reversed his decision when he gave the formal written ruling eight months later. The judicial system under the spotlight, a real case for concern – now that’s worth reading about. But with equal billing at the top of the page is this far less explicable headline: “Astronauts confident HK can weather financial turmoil”.

And thus the spacemen speak.

In a world that matches naiveté and nous, credulity and common sense, this is not an entirely unsurprising headline. But it truly beggars belief that any newspaper, save perhaps the Weekly World News, would even try to cast astronauts as in any way knowledge about a very complex financial crisis. Still, the SCMP is ever willing to pander to the overlords of the north and their lesser representatives. The astronauts, members of the Shenzhou VII mission that featured China’s first spacewalk in September, are in town with their support crew to speak about their experience and, it seems, to relate that experience to Hong Kong, even if by the weakest of analogies.

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Multicultural China?

24 September 2008

Not Yet, But Maybe Soon

The notion of a multicultural society is difficult for many people to accept, and not only because they yearn for the purity of a singular description. If a city, a region or even a country is multicultural, how do we define its multiculture? Of the many definitions proposed for culture, perhaps the best is that it provides a common system of signs and signals by which a group of people can function as a group of people. In a sense, culture is the sum of our presumptions, the net of our possibilities.

So the coexistence of more than one culture, as distinct cultures in themselves, would seem impossible in the same society. As a policy, multiculturalism has always stumbled at this hurdle, failing to satisfactorily negotiate the hazards of divergent cultural practices, discrepant ways of living, juxtaposed against each other.

Perhaps that’s why the Chinese government calls minority ethnic groups ‘nationalities’ – it skirts the issue, places them at the edges of supranational life, with their own cultural spheres only loosely connected to the Han whole. Conceptually, assimilation isn’t an issue because minority cultures either continue at the margins or disappear as the centre expands. There’s no room for compromise.

This is quite obviously a case of xenophobia, but so then are the many failures of coexistence in Western societies. Allow me to give a brief example that involves not ethnic cleansing – nothing so extreme – but merely the pursuit of everyday life.

Over the long decade of recently ended conservative rule in Australia the government shrank back from adequately contemplating how a mess of cultures – at once singular and interdependent – could satisfy the dominant culture’s need to be recognised as the universal Australian culture. People in the majority no longer considered themselves British, as my grandparents did, but were encouraged to maintain the sort of systematic biases that allowed them to go about their cultural lives in much the same way.

The newly elected Labor government has done little to reverse this myopia. Australians tend to accept that they live and speak and write in a multicultural society without much considering the multiples beyond cuisine and unusual faces glimpsed quickly on sometimes crowded streets.

So we have much the same situation in two very different countries, which suggests that despite an enormous amount of chest thumping around the world – both in an out of academia – very little has been done to reconcile the urge for an illusory national unity with the accidents of history that people every country with groups never quite fitting the norm. It is within this climate of disguised cultural indecision that Professor George T. ‘Sam’ Crane at The Useless Tree asks an intriguing question. Can a black man ever become Chinese?

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Show and Tell

24 August 2008

One Picture, 706 Words

There is, we are often told, an old Chinese saying that a picture tells a thousand words. But no-one ever mentions which picture, what words and who might be listening. Or, for that matter, who might be watching, wondering. Consider the photograph on the left. What does it tell us? It shows an athlete running into a crowded stadium – only the marathon allows for that. His salute suggests victory ahead, and a certain confidence that would only come from entering the stadium with a comfortable lead. He is, in fact, Samuel Wanjiru, and he’s just over 400 metres away from crossing the line first in the Olympic marathon for men in Beijing this morning. We don’t know that from the picture, yet a quick search of the Internet will give us the background, the frame if you will.

But leave Wanjiru aside now, including his stupendous capacity to run just over 42 kilometres in 2:06:32 hours and not seem to be tiring. Consider what’s happening around him instead. Click on the picture to enlarge it if you need to. The crowd haven’t quite noticed Wanjiru yet, but they will soon. The stadium announcer will point him out, and cameras are just starting to relay his image to the big screens high up in the stands. And, if you look carefully enough, the screen in the picture is exhorting the crowd to cheer, in both Chinese and English for good effect.

Now ask yourself this: why does the crowd need to be told to cheer? This is no reminder. Crowds cheer – that’s why they go to any sporting event, let alone the Olympics. Not everyone understands the technicalities of every event, but when Wanjiru makes it to the track, when he runs beyond the frame, so to speak, they’ll know. So again, why do they need to be told?

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Conventionally Speaking

6 June 2008

How We Listen to Nothing

NO, by neil-san, with Creative Commons licenceWho speaks in the silence between words? In his masterly essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote of hackneyed phrases, terms that enter the popular imagination deprived of their original meaning, devoid of context and “ready to think your thoughts for you”. They appeal to the emotions rather than the rational mind, and use silence as a shield, as a way to stop true understanding. Their intent is negative – by excluding something they allow someone or something else to speak quietly to you, urging you to ignore what you already know.

Some of these phrases are deliberate manipulations, others are unfortunate cultural lapses. All are dangerous.

Consider first a term that I often see in my professional capacity as an editor in Hong Kong – the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. Now regardless of the dubious capitalization, what does this describe? An event that took place in Tiananmen presumably, and anyone with a little curiosity could easily find that the site is a plaza in Beijing, a famous meeting place and home to Mao Zedong’s tomb. But what does the term refuse to say? That 19 years and two days ago the Chinese military, at the instructions of the government, massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, mainly students.

Speak out for Peace, by mudkat, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s common knowledge, right? Yes, but in China it’s not commonly spoken. And in Hong Kong, that little part of China which really isn’t China at all, academics tend not to use the term ‘massacre’. They sanitise the situation with ‘incident’. That’s the official government line, and as Hong Kong academic Carsten Holz argued in the April print edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review last year, those who don’t listen to the voice in the silence soon find that their research in China generates few useful results. Data are not forthcoming and the mandatory local research partner is unlikely to be found.

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