Images of China in the West: do not Trust Common Stereotypes
F. Mote’s thesis that Chinese civilisation differs in the most fundamental aspects from Western civilisation explains to a certain extent why it is so difficult to comprehend China. This is clearly exemplified by, for instance, the patterns of change. In the West, as A. Toynbee indicates, it is the principle of substitution that predominates, i.e. old customs, fashions and ideas are substituted by the new ones. In China, on the other hand, it is the principle of juxtaposition that predominates, i.e. new elements are added to the old ones and function side by side. According to Soviet archaeologists, this difference has been visible since the end of the Palaeolithic Age and it concerns the entire East Asian region. It results, as A.C. Graham points out, in particular syncretism in intellectual life, where a thesis promoted by the opposition is not rejected as wrong but presented as “partial” and included into a broader context. This allows the Chinese to maintain consensus and avoid controversies, which are avoided. It is also manifested in politics; in 1912, a representative of the imperial court was invited to the rostrum at the first military parade of the Republic at the Tiananmen Square. In a similar way, in 1949, the last commander of the Guomindang forces was invited to the rostrum at the Tiananmen Square to assist them in their first military parade to celebrate victory. Nobody would have acted in such a way during the French or the Bolshevik Revolution. Numerous Chinese intellectuals have noticed this difference.
When facing such complex realities, a Western observer is usually perplexed, and makes wrong conclusions as his/her mind uses the archetype of Good fighting against Evil to eliminate it, or the New fighting against the Old. Meanwhile, since ancient times, the Chinese mind has adopted a scheme of complementary dualism, like Yin and Yang, which consists in complementing, rather than fighting, one another. Hence, the process of transformation in China differs significantly from that in Central Europe, where the New system has substituted the Old system, and the Western capitalist and political model has triumphed. The Westerners usually believe that their civilisation and concepts are universal. Meanwhile, the Asians are rather reluctant in adopting a similar view although they are willing to adopt some of its most useful aspects. In this way, as S.N. Eisenstadt points out, various modernities evolve.
Lynn T. White introduces an enlightening metaphor. According to him, since the seventeenth century, the Westerners have looked at China through a mirror, in which they usually see their own dreams or fears rather than what really exists in China. Consequently, the images of China diffused in the West reflect mostly the states of the Western souls rather than changing and complex “true China”.