In many ways, the "China Dream" is not different from the American one
31 January 2014
When the new president of China Xi Jinping talks about the "China dream", the majority of observers outside China usually start to grow nervous. They picture a China staking out a bigger role in Asia, pressing up against the US' strategic interests, and whose leader is bold enough to tell the US president that "the vast Pacific ocean has enough space for two large countries".
For many in the west, the China dream looks remarkably close to an expansionist nightmare - the true sign that a wealthy China is also a pushy one. Inside China however, it seems the dream means nothing more than having the sort of lifestyles that people in London, New York or Sydney currently enjoy. It is a pragmatic, down-to-earth vision, where everyone has a car, a nice house, good food, and can travel abroad. In this sense, the dream is closer to the American one.
What is often missed is that Xi's China dream is also alluding to a sense of China returning to its past glories. He is talking about a culture and an identity which is long established but has been forgotten, eroded, or simply unacknowledged by the great wave of industrialisation and modernisation that the west has enjoyed for over a century, but which China only fully engaged with after the revolution of 1949. In this context, the China dream is making up for lost time, aiming to return China to the position it was in a couple of centuries ago.
We in the west misunderstand China's aspirations because on the whole, we are woefully ignorant about its history, hopes and dreams. Most Chinese have a strong sense of their history: TV programs dramatising historical events are common, as are films and books. Chinese leaders before Xi routinely and grandly referred to the "5,000 years of civilisation", and if there is one thing at the heart of China's nation branding now, it is this sense of a continuing and rich cultural heritage.
For westerners, trying to digest the complicated currents and counter currents of the Chinese past in one swoop will usually lead to failure; expecting our school children to become expert on the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing eras is unrealistic. Asking people to wise up on such a vast stretch of history is bold, but there is a manageable route to do this. We can take a leaf out of the books of the Chinese, and try to give this a human face and convey it through digestible stories. That, after all, is how British history has often been taught - the tales of particular kings and queens, which act like symbols for the eras in which they lived, make the long chronology more manageable.
To try and do this, I have worked on a dictionary with more than 100 experts across the world over the last six years. It is the first attempt in a hundred years to simply tell the story of China's multiple and long pasts through its leaders. Figures like Confucius, Mao Zedong, and the First Emperor are all there, but so too are the less well-known figures - scientists like Bi Sheng, authors like Cao Xueqin, empresses like the sole female ruler of China, the great Wu Zetian. Surprise is always a good way of jolting people into awareness as they come to see history in terms of specific people and their influence, rather than try to engage with vast, impersonal trends and patterns. To find out that so much of Chinese history has been influenced by people from the margins is one insight gained from this process, as is the remarkable impact of literary and scientific culture from the earliest periods onwards.
This history, in fact, is not just China's, but the world's. Just a little understanding of this past helps a lot in looking at the China we are confronted with today. It shows how this history is an inspiration but also a weight and burden, and why it is something that leaders still, to this day, try to deploy - sometimes followed by much contestation.
For modern citizens in China, and for us outside, much of this history is either unresolved or ignored. Not knowing about it is not only a pity, but also a great inhibitor. My hunch is that if you really seek to understand the China dream, then looking back, not forward, is the best bet.