The Myth of the West: Part 3 – Qiangda

Questioning the idea of "powerful."

An ancient civilization, rich in culture and steeped in corruption. Elaborate etiquette surrounds the gold panoply of cruel rulers hidden safely behind rings of high walls, while gangs of laborers work outside under the blazing hot sun. Perfumed maidens with elaborate coiffures secured with jade sway gently as they dance to the tune of plucked instruments. Spry old men perform fabulous feats of strength and defeat enemies with lightning speed. If you look at the way popular culture views ancient China (and to a certain extent, modern China), you’ll see these images alive and well. They are part of the myth of Orientalism. But the West is not the only group with preconceptions that may be far from reality. In China, there exists a corresponding myth of the West—the idea of xifang.

The United States has widely been acknowledged as the sole superpower remaining in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dominance of the United States is not simply in terms of military might, however—it extends both economically and culturally. The ubiquity of McDonald’s, the Friends, and iPods internationally are a testament to American cultural hegemony. American universities are ranked as the top in the world, and no country comes close to rivaling the U.S. in terms of research and technology. All these factors together spiral into what the Chinese call qiangda, or powerful.

These factors (minus military might) are what is classified as “soft power.” While U.S. soft power has been declining under the Bush administration (for a comparison of U.S. and Chinese soft power, see Joshua Kurlantzick’s book Charm Offensive) it still retains a considerable amount of influence. There is the widespread perception in China that the United States can do whatever it wants (such as invade other countries) because it is a qiangda nation. While many Chinese may not approve, they do not deny that the U.S. has the right to do as it pleases. This, perhaps, is grounded in the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven—an idea similar to Calvinist thought of the 17th and 18th centuries: wealth and power accrue to the one favored by Heaven, with the corollary that one favored by Heaven should be accorded extra respect.

Qiangda is often spoken of in wistful terms—or starkly nationalistic terms. “China must become a qiangda nation.” Wistful by those who are eager to see China’s peaceful rise, who see it in economic and cultural terms. They see the increasing amounts of respect that China garners in the international community and view it as a slow inevitability—the wistfulness comes from the desire to see it achieved in their lifetime. Those who speak of it in starkly nationalistic terms are those for whom the Century of Humiliation is alive and recent. Those who most desire China to become qiangda immediately are easily offended by perceived slights to China.

Another aspect of qiangda is cultural domination. China’s reckless attempts to reform its culture and economy—through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution up to modern economic liberalization—has thrown its culture into turmoil. It seeks to become more powerful by emulating the way the West does things, from privatization of enterprises to stopping people from spitting in the street. And, much like Japan during the Meiji Restoration, the culture is divided between those who wish to keep traditional Chinese values (China has 5000 years of culture, after all) and those who wish to become completely Westernized.

The Chinese view of the West therefore resembles the attitude toward a high school quarterback—oscillating between respectful admiration and envious resentment, and sometimes both at the same time. Moves taken against China or affecting China are perceived through that filter, so sometimes innocuous actions that the West takes which affect China are seen as purposeful bullying. To Chinese, qiangda is their hope of the future, one with China as an economic, military, and cultural superpower.

The Myth of the West is a four-part series by Yulin Zhuang.