A spate of recent stories points to part of China’s modern conundrum where seething frustration sometimes erupts in unsettling violence.
One story (Chinese) going around Beijing recently is of a patient who viciously attacked his doctor with a knife, leaving her in serious condition, but alive. The attack was apparently revenge for her failure to cure his throat cancer. To make things more complicated, the attacker had initiated a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital in 2007 and was frustrated that he hadn’t received a ruling and his case was slated for indefinite recess.
It seems like remarkably misdirected anger for someone to attack their doctor, but it’s not an unknown phenomenon here. A quick search revealed several otherrecentstories (all Chinese) of patients violently attacking their doctors when they didn’t get better. In one case, a man who had received treatment for an STD killed his doctor and then jumped out a window to his death when the treatment didn’t work.
The other story that caught my eye this week is of a fight on a train, where after a seating dispute a passenger was beaten to death by railway staff. That even railway employees are unable to restrain themselves from violence is startling. People getting angry is not surprising, but the extent of the violence over such a seemingly small matter is.
It’s tempting to think of these as isolated, sensationalized incidents, but there is a steady stream of dramatic violence in the news here. Last year there was the series of unstable middle-aged men attacking pre-school children. Then there’s the story last week about the man who kept six women in his basement as sex slaves, ultimately killing two of them.
Some of the violence is so absurd it’s hard to understand, but a lot of the incidents have common themes, like attacks on doctors. For example, one of the regular themes is the self-righteous violence of the privileged, often involving traffic disputes. The most famous recent incident is probably that of Li Gang’s son, who stabbed a woman to death after hitting her with his car[struck two college students with his car and then attempted to flee the scene -ed.] last year. When confronted by passersby the guy apparently said, “My father is Li Gang,” invoking his powerful father to avoid punishment. Two incidents this month even prompted David Bandurski at China Media Project to write an article on the subject.
Then there’s the theme of stress induced suicides. This week’s entry is the story of 3 elementary school girls who attempted suicide apparently as an escape from too much homework. The famous entries in this category are the Foxconn suicides last year and a few self-immolations to protest forced land acquisition.
Another theme is police violence, most famously the illegal detentions and beatings that prompted a high level investigation and the closure of pretrial detention centers around the country a few years back. More common however are reports of special city security teams, or Cheng guan, beating up street vendors.
Perhaps the best blanket interpretation is to chalk it all up to the stresses of a fast changing society. High pressure, competition, a sense of entitlement, frustration—people can only take so much before they crack. Of course, China is far from the only country with incidents of shocking violence (see any of a number of shootings in the US for example), but it’s fair to say: China has a violent side.
25 September 2011 was the 130th birth anniversary of Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), considered to be one of the founders of modern Chinese literature. Known for his plain criticisms of hypocrisy, dogmatism and irony appearing in China’s political life at his time, most famously coining the political lexicon Ah-Q-ism (meaning self-deception) from his novel The Real Story of Ah-Q, his status has been compared with that of England’s George Orwell. Han Han’s immensely popular blog posts, which are characterised by satire and a dark sense of humor about contemporary China, are sometimes compared with Lu Xun’s essays.
While contemporary Han Han pokes fun at the absurdity and falsehood of the Chinese system, which pleases many young readers, a lot of observations made by Lu Xun many decades ago are equally applicable to modern-day China. Pan Caifu, an editor, has recently conducted an “interview” with Lu Xun, published in Shanghai’s Dongfang Daily, to mark his 130th birth anniversary and to highlight to readers what we can learn from Lu Xun’s works about today’s China. Many things have changed from Lu Xun’s China, but some have not, which makes Lu Xun’s works even more profound.
Is China any better than it was 100 years ago? From Pan Caifu’s imaginary interview with Lu Xun, a few sections of which are translated below, with some references added to recent news, you may think that the answer is no.
The world is not getting any better
Pan Caifu: Today is your 130th birthday. After having been away for so long, what’s your feeling? Lu Xun: I have never had such a long journey. I do not feel excited. But seeing that the market is as peaceful as it was, and China is still the China as before, the one I’ve lived in, I feel relived.
Pan Caifu: In some universities, statues of Confucius are erected. On both sides of the Strait, ceremonies in honor of Confucius are being played out. The revival of Confucius seems hopeful ((Daniel A. Bell, The Confucian Party, The New York Times, 11 May 2009)). Lu Xun: I also hear that a guy called Jiang Qing self-proclaims himself to be the master of the Confucius religion. Confucius is being held up by power interests in China. He is the sage for the powerful; there is nothing to do with ordinary people. But the powerful would only be enthusiastic for a short while. Yuan Shikai, Sun Chaunfan and Zhang Zongchang have all treated Confucius as the building blocks in their nation-building schemes, only to end in failure. It is true that Confucius had raised useful proposals on national governance, but they are all directed towards controlling the citizens in the interests of the ruling class. He has no proposals solely for the benefits of the common people. — Confucius in Contemporary China, 1935
Pan Caifu: Korean traditional medicine is now universally recognized as a world cultural heritage ((Mirror of Eastern Medicine Becomes UNESCO Heritage, The Korea Times, 31 July 2009)). China also wants its traditional medicine to receive the same recognition. You have a comment which hurts Chinese traditional medical practitioners… Lu Xun: I once said, “Chinese medicine is no more than a fraud, intentional or unintentional.” If this comment affects their bid, I apologize. If Chinese medicine makes it, then Qigong, the “Golden Bell” martial technique and acupuncture can all become world cultural heritage. — Preface to Call to Arms, 1923
Pan Caifu: When you were alive, there were already talks that you should receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many years have passed. Why are still local Chinese writers unable to get the prize? Lu Xun: This is because we don’t know how to speak. What politicians dislike most is people opposing to their opinions, or people opening their month to fight for things. Look at the monkeys in the zoo. They have their own leader; they absolutely follow the leader’s lead. Every tribe has a chief; people in the tribe follow the chief’s orders. If the chief wants you to die, you have to die. There is no literature we can talk about. Even if there is, it is only about praising the God. You cannot expect to win the Nobel Prize by singing hymns. — Divergence between Arts and Politics, 1928
Pan Caifu: Hunan Satellite TV’s Super Girls and Happy Girlstalent shows are very popular. But there are orders that these shows be discontinued next year ((Lights out for TY program Super Girls, China Daily, 19 September 2011)). Lu Xun: I have said it early on. Only a real voice can capture the hearts of people in China and around the world. Only with a real voice can we live with people from other parts of the planet. — Three Leisures: Collection of Essays, 1932
Pan Caifu: You are very critical of the feudal ethical codes, especially the concept of filial piety. But you are a filial son yourself. Today, are you still critical of these ethical codes? Lu Xun: In reality, the old Chinese ideals of harmonious family and father-son relationships have already collapsed. It is not correct to say that the problem is “especially serious today”, but has “already been so in the past”. Historically, China has promoted “five generations under one roof”, and this just shows the difficulties of cohabitation. The lack of filial piety is shown by the desperate promotion of it. The crux of the problem is that we promote hypocritical moral codes instead of real human emotions. — What is Required of a Father Today, 1919
Pan Caifu: You used to frequently eat out at a restaurant. At the time, although food was not abundant, they were at least not harmful. Today, we have tainted milk powder ((Tainted-Baby-Milk Scandal in China, TIME Magazine, 16 September 2008)), poison pork ((China: Pigs Fed Illegal Additive, The New York Times, 18 March 2011)), rice ((Heavy metals tainting China’s rice bowls, Caixin Online, 14 February 2011)) and vegetables ((Toxic vegetables uncovered in south China, China Daily, 31 March 2010)). Can you tolerate that? Lu Xun: People at the bottom also hurt each other. They can be sheeps or beasts. When they meet a beast more fierce than themselves, they will become sheeps. When they meet a sheep weaker than themselves, they will become beasts. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Sudden Thoughts – 7, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.46
Pan Caifu: This makes me think of some people who complain about social injustice, but point their knives to school kids ((China seaches for answers after school attacks, BBC, 30 April 2010)). Lu Xun: When angry, the brave points the knife to the strong ones; the cowardly to the weak ones. Match a beast like a least, and a sheep like a sheep! Then, no matter what kind of devils, they can only go back to their hells. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Sudden Thoughts – 7, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.47
Pan Caifu: Some local governments have established private channels of clean food and vegetable supplies for officials ((In China, what you eat tells who you are, Los Angeles Times, 16 September 2011)). Lu Xun: Luxury and extravagance are the phenomenon of social collapse and corruption. They are never the reasons. — Accents from South and North • About Women, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 4, p.396
Pan Caifu: A while ago, a bullet train accident happened in China ((China: Dozens die as bullet trains collide in Zhejiang, BBC, 24 July 2011)). I’m sure you’ve heard of it. How do you see it? Lu Xun: Chinese people are reluctant to face problems squarely. With evasion and fraud, they create a wonderful path of escape, thinking that it is the correct path to take. This path is evidence that the Chinese people are cowardly, lazy and tricky. Day by day, they are contented; day by day, they decay. But they think that they are becoming more and more glorious. — The Tomb • On Seeing it with Open Eyes, 1929, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 1, p.328
Pan Caifu: But at the beginning China announced that its rail technology is world-leading and patented. It even offered to assist other countries in developing their rail systems ((China Offers High-Speed Rail to California, The New York Times, 7 April 2010)). Lu Xun: China is developing its “self-deception power”. Self-deception is not a new thing, but it is becoming more conspicuous, eclipsing other things. — The Concession • Has China Lost its Confidence?, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 6, p.91
Pan Caifu: Some people even think that they are blessed. Lu Xun: What’s most painful in life is that you wake up to find yourself in a blind alley. People who dream are happy; if there is no way out, the most important thing is not to wake them up. — The Tomb • What Happens after Nora Leaves Home, 1929, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 1, p.270
Pan Caifu: You’ve been very nice towards young people, but you’ve also been trapped by them. Han Han, Guo Meimei ((Guo Meimei Red Cross Controversy Pissing Off Chinese Netizens, chinaSMACK, 29 June 2011)), Li Tianyi ((Son’s Scandal Engulfs Chinese General, China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, 13 September 2011)) and Lu Meimei ((“Lu Meimei” and China-Africa Project Hope Controversy, chinaSMACK, 22 August 2011)) are all young people of today’s China. How do you think about them? Lu Xun: Today’s youth, it seems, are smarter than before, and they also see material interests as more important. For some small gains, they can make false charges and bite you back. This is beyond my expectation…… — Letters • To Cao Juren, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 7, p.141
Pan Caifu: At last, what else do you want to say? Lu Xun: There is too much pain in life, especially in China. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Teacher, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.44