As someone with a particular interest in Chinese language and culture, I always keep an eye out for stories about China in the British press for two reasons. Firstly, I simply like to keep up with what’s going on over there. Secondly, as someone who’s lived in China and who has several native Chinese friends, I’m always interested in finding out Britons’ perceptions of the country and the people and contrasting them with my own experiences. China is a hot topic for obvious reasons, and so it’s no surprise that it’s been getting more and more attention from the British press lately. But the Daily Mail’s reporting on China and the Chinese has caught my attention recently and I believe it’s worth commenting on as it represents what I believe is an increasing tendency amongst some people to erroneously view the Chinese as a kind of wacky bunch of eccentrics whose behaviour and values are incomprehensible to us in the West.
Today’s ‘Meet the Michelin Baby‘ story is a continuation of the Daily Mail’s misguided ‘Incredible Chinese Circus’ narrative which has become quite prevalent of late. The article introduces 10-month old baby Lei Lei from Hunan Province who, despite being ‘normal weight’ at birth, now weighs in at a whopping 20kg (3.1 stones). Despite this remarkable weight gain pointing to some kind of medical condition, no attempt is made to explore this further except to mention that Lei Lei is currently undergoing some tests at a local hospital. Instead, we’re just treated to a series of photographs showing the super-sized tot looking, well, super-sized. It’s just another quirky story about those quirky Chinese people!
The article is sourced from the appropriately named ‘Quirky China News‘, a site which provides journalists with ‘quirky news’ on China, helping them zero in on that next titillating scoop with helpful links entitled ‘eccentrics’, ‘LOL’ and ‘stupidity’. They were behind the story in the Mail a while back about an impoverished Rickshaw driver in Beijing who had taken to chaining his 2-year old to a lamppost during working hours for fear of him being abducted, a tragic situation which the Mail insensitively referred to as ‘Childcare: Chinese style’.
And the circus acts just keep on coming. The Mail have shared with us the ‘bizarre’ ‘new craze’ amongst the Chinese for dying their pets to look like other animals (they were being dyed for a competition – I’ve travelled all over China and have never once seen this ‘craze’), reported on how Chinese tots are being ‘contorted into the most uncomfortable positions’ in the name of gymnastics training (I suppose Beth Tweddle was just a natural-born Olympian?), and have even amused us with the tale of the Chinese farmer who ‘had his huge male breasts removed‘. Scroll down to the comments on any of these articles to find a bagful of tittering, disbelieving commenters all stupefied by the zaniness of this foreign culture and all scratching their heads in disbelief wondering what those crazy Chinese will do next.
China is a huge place, home to some 20% of the world’s population, with an extremely complex culture and set of customs which vary widely between cities and provinces. As such, you’re always going to find cultural and biological extremes there. What bothers me is that they seem to be reported with a disproportionately high frequency, which gives a false impression of the Chinese as a nation of nutters living in a culture so incomprehensible to us in the UK that they may as well be on another planet. Add to that the fact that for most Brits their only direct experience of Chinese culture is the occasional takeaway on a Saturday night, and you have a potent formula for cultivating confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance.
The comments left on articles like those mentioned above can range from the bewildered (‘I guess you’d have to be Chinese to understand it!’) to the downright nasty (‘cruel, abhorrent people’) and it annoys me that people are being led to feel this way about such a wonderful, dynamic culture and group of people. Sure, there are real cultural differences between the Chinese and the British – the Chinese like to save money, the British like to spend it; the Chinese are more likely to give cash, the British are more likely to give presents – but at the fundamental level of the individual, British and Chinese values are far from irreconcilable and in many ways very similar. I feel closer to many of my Chinese friends than I do to my British friends, a fact that would be inconceivable were you to accept the Daily Mail’s version of China and the Chinese.
If a journalist wants to write an article that illuminates life in 21st Century China there is no shortage of material. There’s the burgeoning art scene in Shanghai, the exciting fresh crop of Chinese thinkers who are helping to shape the country’s future, as well as massive international events like the Shanghai World Expo and the hugely influential Canton Fair in Guangzhou. There are numerous topics which journalists could delve into to help readers get acquainted with modern China, something that should be a priority for all of us over the coming years. These silly ‘weird and wacky China’ articles will inspire nothing but cultural misunderstanding and stupidity, which is the last thing we need at a time when we should be grabbing every opportunity to engage with what is in my opinion one of the most fantastic and important cultures on Earth.