Home > Topics > '2000 Experience Chinese Culture in the United States > 3. Speeches
Images of the United States

 (also on September 13, 2000 in San Francisco and  on September 11, 2000 in Los Angeles)


          When the Chinese first came to know that there was a country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean called the United States of "America" and needed to name it in Chinese, they chose the phonetically translated "Mei Guo," which literally means "the beautiful (mei) country (guo)." A Chinese who happens to hear this name would have a romantic image of America , even though he or she might have little knowledge of the country.

         Since then, Chinese have become familiar with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and with the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Pearl Harbor Incident and the outstanding service and sacrifice of the American people during the Second World War.  However, compared to its images of other Western countries, the Chinese images of the United States have shown greater complexity and inconsistency, in light of historical events such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Sino-US Shanghai Joint Communiqu?in l972, and more recent issues.

         It is helpful to explore the role of the media in Sino-US relations.  Just as many Americans believe the Chinese media to be monolithic and subservient to government dictates, many Chinese believe the U.S. media to be obsessed with sensationalism and biased against China.  How can thoughtful Chinese and Americans explore these perceptual differences and thus build bridges between peoples in the 21" century" .

Full Text:

       America and Americans: A Chinese Perspective

Zhao Qizheng

             Minister of the State Council Information Office

Americans who begin to learn the Chinese language are invariably astonished to discover that the Chinese translation of the "United States of America", Meiguo, literally means "beautiful" (mei) "country" (guo). The etymology, however, is more complex. Initially the Chinese people had dozens of names for the large land facing them from the distant shores of the Pacific Ocean. They finally settled on Meiguo, the best choice, because not only does it sound Chinese but also it inspires good feelings in all Chinese speakers as they first come to know America.

Formal relations between our two countries can be traced back to August 28, 1784, when the U.S. merchant ship "Empress of China'', originating in New York, arrived at Huangpu harbor in Guangzhou in southern China after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. Such mercantile exchanges gained momentum in the middle of the 19th century, thus commencing the long voyage of understanding between Chinese and Americans that would become increasingly significant for both peoples.  

Lin Zexu, an imperial minister assigned in 1839 by the Qing Emperor to end the opium trade and known for his outrage and action against foreigners trafficking in the debilitating drug, had given the Chinese people the first detailed introduction of the United States via a book he compiled about the history and geography of the world (Sizhouzhi). However, generally speaking, even by the end of the 19th century, the Chinese people's knowledge of America, still that vast country situated on the other side of the planet, remained sketchy. No wonder the first group of children sent by the Chinese government to study in the United States in 1872 should have felt both excited and surprised, such as when they noted that the native American Indians seemed dressed like figures from the Peking Opera.

Starting in the 19th century, traditional Chinese culture in general and the philosophy of Confucianism in particular found its way into American thought, exerting a remarkable influence on American literature, especially the school of transcendentalism represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even Walt Whitman, the founding father of modern American literature, twice mentioned Confucius in his "Notes and Fragments."
Meanwhile, numerous American literary works have been translated into Chinese, which helps us hear the depth, resonance and rich variety of the American voice. In Walt Whitman's words, we:

  "Hear American singing, the varied carols I hear...

   Singing with open mouth their strong melodious songs.''

   Yes, through translation, the Chinese readers hear Jack London's "Call of the Wild," William Faulkner's "Sound and Fury," Hemingway's bell - although he does not know "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and hear the leadsman's call on Mississippi "two fathoms or Mark Twain.''  This call became Samuel Clemens' pen name, whose "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and other books are well read in China. Through these writers, Chinese readers find the American people optimistic, individualistic, tough-minded, and practical. This might explain why the complete translation of "America" in Chinese is mei (beautiful), li (profitable) and jian (solid).

Speaking from personal experiences, a U.S. sailor on his first visit to China in the 18th century noticed a unique way through which the Chinese people could differentiate between Americans and Englishmen, since both spoke the English language: the Englishmen tend to haggle over every ounce while doing business with the Chinese, the Americans are much more generous.

The year 1900 witnessed the oppression of Beijing at the hands of the Eight-Power Allied Forces (i.e., Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, Italy and Austria). At the height of the brutal aggression, Yuanmingyuan, the royal old Summer Palace, was ransacked of all its invaluable relics and treasures and callously burnt to ashes. Later China was forced to sign a series of humiliating treaties, conceding defeat, paying tribute, and ceding territories.

China's rancor ran deepest against France, Japan and Britain, the three countries that had launched separate wars against China even before 1900. The United States of America later returned part of the war indemnity, therefore China never singled out the United States as a target of historical bitterness and enduring resentment.

In fact, it is quite the reverse. Towards the final days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), while exploring ways to salvage their nation, many Chinese drew references and precedents from the experiences of the United States. Doctor Sun Yat-sen, the father of the modern-era Chinese revolution, reiterated on many occasions the wish to follow the American example. His famed Three People's Principles -- Nationalism, Democracy and the People's Livelihood -- were to a large extent based upon Lincoln's ideal government "of the people, by the people, for the people." In 1904, Dr. Sun Yat-sen even formally appealed to the government and the people of the States for supporting the Chinese revolution to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, but in vain.

   Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, was also deeply impressed by the deeds of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  As a young man, Mao read their stories in the book "Biographies of the World's Greatest People" and he became convinced that ``China also needs such figures.'' Ever since they came to know George Washington, the Chinese people have respected him as the father and personification of the United States, regardless of the vicissitudes in Sino-American relationship. Abraham Lincoln also enjoys such status in China.

   During World War II, China was transformed into a vast, protracted battleground where a majority of the Japanese army was engaged in a ghastly, tortuous war against the Chinese people, whose unremitting anti-aggression resistance and unbreakable, unyielding spirit was generously supported by the American Government and people led by President Franklin Roosevelt. When the Japanese army cut the supply line between China and Myanmar in 1943, the U.S. Air Force opened the famed "Hump" route over the rugged Himalaya Mountains, which at great cost continued to supply arms vital for sustaining China's war effort against Japan. Many American planes, including 500 C-46s, were lost due to the harsh weather conditions in the foreboding, inaccessible mountains. Only a few years ago, we were still finding the remains of these American planes in China's Guangxi Province and Tibet.  

   As many as 1,500 American pilots sacrificed their lives for China's Anti-Japanese War.  Fighting shoulder to shoulder against the fascists, the Chinese and American people forged a close and durable friendship, which is still cherished with fond memories. In Nanjing, the cemeteries of American pilots are well preserved and honored to this day.

   Currently, China is undertaking the mammoth task of developing its huge western and great northwestern regions, which naturally reminds Chinese of the similar American experience almost two centuries before. It is widely known that the construction of the railroad provided a launching pad for America's economic take-off.  However, it is less widely known that Chinese workers played a large part in this revolutionary means of transcontinental transportation. In the cold winters of the 1840s, when other construction teams had retreated from the Rocky Mountains, the Chinese workers still forged ahead, bringing the railroad to the wild and vast western frontiers. Altogether 310,000 Chinese workers died in this cause. In recognition of their contribution, in 1991 the state government of Illinois erected a monument in Shanghai with 3,000 rail spikes. On the monument is inscribed the following message: "Chinese railroad builders were instrumental in bridging America's western and eastern coasts and in the ultimate unification of the United States." The Chinese who see this monument leave with an impression that Americans are not an ungrateful people after all.

The Chinese people's goodwill and gratitude to the United States, which grew with the outbreak of the Pacific War during World War II (which the Chinese also call the Anti-Japanese War), reached its peak with the joint victory over fascism in 1945. The word "Jeep," a symbol of the American victory that had become hugely popular, found its way into English-Chinese dictionaries and became officially accepted Chinese (as words adopted from foreign languages).  

However, this popularity proved sadly short lived, once Jeeps with Chinese women and American soldiers were seen rampaging around Chinese streets. Seemingly in a matter of moments, amity turned into animosity when an American soldier raped a student from Beijing University in a square in central Beijing on Christmas night in 1946. Not long thereafter, the United States "lost China" when it stood openly with the corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-shek before and during China's civil war.

Seldom has the positive progression of history been free of obstructions, but rarely has such setbacks happened so quickly and dramatically. Due to cultural and ideological differences and conflicting strategic interests, in the five years following their great mutual victory in 1945, relations between the United States and China were transmogrified from allies to adversaries. We became bitter enemies, hurling vitriolic propaganda and insidious stereotypes at each other and, beginning in 1950, fighting a brutal, bloody war on the Korean Peninsula.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War.  In the United States, there will be a series of commemorative activities.  A lot of Chinese and American soldiers were killed in this brutal war, many on frozen battlefields and in close-in fighting. Most Americans believe that they fought the Korean War for freedom.

However, Chinese people think differently. To them, it was the Chinese soldiers who were fighting to protect their motherland, which for a hundred years or so had been the object of cruel foreign oppression and subjected to crushing foreign domination. Once again, national humiliation appeared imminently at hand; the threat of U.S. aggression seemed real, for already American warships were patrolling the Taiwan straits, American forces were approaching the Chinese border at the Yalu River, and American bombs were being dropped on Chinese soil. In the Korean War, the casualties on the Chinese were heavy.

Decades have since passed, but I do not think either side will easily change its views about that war. However, not long ago I was told that a group of Americans was assisting China Central Television (CCTV) in producing a dramatic television series on the Korean War (called "The 38th Parallel"). The well-known Chinese director Li Qiankuan believes that since the United States and China will be partners in peace in the 21st century, it would be instructive to look back and reflect upon the one time in the 20th century when they were enemies at war, and he promised vivid, personal portrayals of all the protagonists - influential figures and ordinary soldiers - in all the warring countries. Who fifty years ago could have imagined such a turn in the historical course, when former adversaries would join forces for an artistic work commemorating the war?

Even following the end of the Korean War, the two sides entered two decades of suspicion and confrontation, highlighted in China by the slogan "Down with American Imperialism'' and in the United States by a seal in American citizens' passports which read ``Invalid for China entry.'' The prolonged isolation made it difficult for either side to acquire accurate information of the other, so much so that before Henry Kissinger's first secret trip to China in 1971, both President Nixon and Kissinger were genuinely worried whether they needed to observe China's ancient rituals to kneel down and kowtow while greeting top officials.

   However, there are no such things as "natural enemies" -- no countries are destined to be eternal antagonists. China and America are no exceptions, and towards the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, when China was in the Cultural Revolution and the mood was anti-American, both countries sensed a compelling need to approach each other and amend their relationship. In February 1972, President Nixon embarked upon an ice-breaking trip to China. Braving Beijing's chilly early spring winds, Nixon, the leader of the world's most powerful country, shook the hand of Zhou Enlai, the premier of the world's most populous country. Mao Zedong received Nixon in his study decked with shelves of books, where they discussed international relations and philosophical issues, ushering in a new era in Sino-American relationship.

   American songs, including those of the early 20th century (such as "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy") as well as those then popular in the 1970s, were widely sung in China. Speaking of the euphoria enveloping Sino-American friendship at that time, I am reminded of its representations in popular culture. In Shanghai, a well-known cookie store prepared a huge pagoda-shaped cake, atop the cake were two children, one Chinese and the other American.  Standing arm-in-arm, each of them carried a national flag of his country.  At the base of the cake were four Chinese characters, painted with jams, which read "Sino-American Friendship," expressing the common aspirations of the Chinese people. To cater to the demand of tea lovers who were very particular about tea sets, factories even produced cups printed with the national flags of China and the United States.

   When China and the United States reestablished formal diplomatic relations in 1979, it was three years after the end of "The Cultural Revolution," China's decade of internal turmoil when universities were closed, intellectuals sent to the countryside, and progress generally arrested. In January and February 1979, just as Deng Xiaoping was beginning his far-reaching reforms that would soon transform China, he paid a visit to the United States, which led to extensive coverage of the distant and mysterious land by the Chinese media. The famous picture of Deng donning a cowboy hat was as widely published in China as it was in the U.S. Ever since then, the Chinese media have devoted much space in covering American politics, economics, culture, sports and society, thus helping to bring an authentic, richly textured picture of America and Americans to the Chinese public.

   Americans have long impressed Chinese with their creativity and can-do spirit. As far back as 1944, upon returning from a visit to the United States, the well-known Chinese writer Xiao Qian spoke of his deep impression of this American trait: "While in nightclubs, the Americans are just enjoying themselves and thinking of nothing else; while at work, they are equally fully committed. In the irrigated area of Tennessee, I've seen Americans, including a chief engineer, rolling up their sleeves and really going at it from the moment they decide to start an undertaking. This is the spirit we Chinese should adopt.''

Chinese people also hold high the scientific and technological achievements made by Americans, such as the Apollo Project and the high-tech revolutions of Silicon Valley. But it's not only high tech: the franchised outlets of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are easily spotted in Chinese cities, and a university education in the United States is the dream of many Chinese college students. According to statistics of China's educational departments, the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. has reached 120,000 since 1978, while the number of American students studying in China exceeds 10,000.

   Still, we have to acknowledge that the development of Sino-American relations is not as smooth as we would like, since notwithstanding the overwhelming benefits of harmonious cooperation, some serious stumbling blocks do exist between the two countries, such as the trade imbalance, the Dalai Lama, the Taiwan issue, and human rights. Though occasionally the Chinese media do carry stories critical of America's China policy, by and large they are rather balanced in reporting the political, economic, social, and cultural situation in the U.S, including progress and achievements in diverse areas.  

   In sharp contrast and much to their dismay, many Chinese find that American media reports about China are often scanty, simplistic, inaccurate and prejudicial. As a result, misunderstandings persist, as can be evidenced by the recent story of a chief executive of a radio station in Washington D.C., who during his visit to China Radio International carried with him large amount of ready food; apparently he was worried that China's edible food supply remained a serious problem. Of course, this is an extreme.

   Some people go to the other extreme and overestimate, far out of proportion, the comprehensive national strength of China, inflating China's military capabilities and ambitions, an exaggeration that would seem to justify their so-called "China Threat" theories and "containment" prescriptions.  Unproductively, such misguided and injudicious opinions have helped create an unfriendly atmosphere for China in the United States and around the world.  The distressful result not only distorts the American people's perception of China, but also, in an escalating cycle of charge and countercharge, contaminates the Chinese people's perception of America.  

   Indeed many Chinese who grew up after 1972 have since relinquished their original fondness of the U.S. Many Chinese, especially the youth whose social and political values may be close to those of Americans, cannot help but raise strings of disconcerting questions: Why is the mainstream U.S. media against China? Why do they oversimplify the situation in China and thus misinform the American public? Why does the U.S. keep churning out a report each year reprimanding developing countries, including China, over conditions of human rights? Why should the U.S. raise anti-China resolutions in the annual United Nation's human rights conference? Why does the U.S. think that its system is the best for every country? Why does the U.S. keep interfering with China's internal affairs? Why does the U.S. expand its arms sales to Taiwan every year? Will the U.S. ever become a true friend of China?

   These questions might explain why in 1996 a few young Chinese intellectuals wrote a widely publicized book, "The China That Can Say No."  Such pent-up sentiments found a natural outlet in 1999, when the U.S.-led NATO forces bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia. The anger and indignation, apparent in the large-scale demonstrations (composed largely of young people), underscored the Chinese people's strong patriotic feelings.

   In reflection, it is clear to me that despite its ups and downs, and some contentious and continuing issues, the direction of Sino-American relationship is to be increasingly interconnected, increasingly cooperative, and increasingly friendly. It must be so. In fact, for the welfare of both China and America, it cannot be otherwise. There is no single reason why our two countries should not come together and work together. If there are problems that seem intractable, they are all man-made and can be made malleable.  In my opinion, the genuine, deep-rooted friendship between our two peoples should grow tall and last forever, like the giant redwood trees thriving in the Rocky Mountains. I have recently come across a brand of cigarettes in China named after the Sequoia, the giant redwood. I like the symbolism, though not necessarily the cigarette.  

China is dedicated to promoting Sino-American friendship. For example, several Chinese film studios and TV stations are working on motion pictures and television series with this core theme. For example, the film "Grief Over the Yellow River," a big box office winner in China, features American pilots fighting the Japanese on Chinese soil. By the way, Chinese people are quite fond of American movies. The beautiful, tragic love story in Titanic, and the manhood and patriotism in "The Patriot," have left deep impressions on Chinese audiences. The animated cartoon "Mulan" produced by Disney basing on a Chinese story has been a favorite of Chinese kids.

   The Chinese are a rational and mature people. They understand that with the multi-polarization of world politics and the rush of economic globalization, all countries will become increasingly interdependent in political, economic, social and cultural matters. It is an undisputed fact that the United States is the most powerful industrialized country, and that China is the most populous developing nation. Though differences exist in ideologies, strategic interests and cultural traditions, our two nations have established an effective, constructive and wide-ranging partnership that recognizes and furthers fundamental interests in many areas. Let's consider the categories and our common goals: In world politics, sovereignty and tolerance; in global economics, growth and development; in national societies, equality and respect; in science and technology, increasing knowledge and standards of living; in culture, mutual appreciation of excellence and diversity.  

   Such interests will be advanced only if China and America both strive for a win-win partnership; however, neither shall benefit if either turns against the other. Indeed, our enhanced understanding and cooperation will extend beyond ourselves and become catalytic for promoting world peace and enhancing world prosperity. Standing in this opening year of the new century, we feel the sober obligation to strengthen Sino-American relationship, if only to benefit future generations, no one has any right whatsoever to undermine, frustrate or thwart it.

   The great majority of the Chinese people back President Jiang Zemin's stance that China and the United States should enhance mutual understanding, broaden common ground, develop cooperation and build a future together. They also agree with President Clinton that the 21st century will witness the blossoming of Sino-American collaboration in all areas of human endeavor.

   I know that I have chosen a tough topic. I do not intend to dwell on the history of Sino-American relations, as that should be the task of scholars; nor do I intend to elaborate on contemporary Sino-American relations, as that should be the task of diplomats. All I wish to convey concerns ordinary Chinese people's perception about America and Americans. These perceptions are alternatively (or simultaneously) complex, mixed, ambiguous, volatile, and even contradictory. However, as an optimist, I hope that my words convey the idea that the Chinese people, in their fondest hopes and best wishes, desire America to truly be a beautiful country, not a beautiful imperial power.  

   Today I've presented this speech "America and Americans: A Chinese Perspective'' in the context of our long-desired exhibition of Chinese culture in the United States. It is my hope that next year there will be a similar showcase "Experience American culture in China", so I can hear a speech "China and the Chinese: An American Perspective", probably by someone from among you ladies and gentlemen.  

   I look forward to meeting you in China. Thank you.  

Curriculum Vitae of Mr. Zhao Qizheng
         Born in  Beijing in January 1940, Mr. Zhao Qizheng  spent his younger years in northern China.  He holds a degree in nuclear physics from the Science and Technology University of China.  Mr. Zhao is Minister of the State Council Information Office since 1998.
         He started his career as a nuclear physicist and from 1963-1974 he worked at the Second Designing Institute of the Ministry of Nuclear Industries.  From 1975 -1984 he served as deputy chief of designing section of the Shanghai Broadcast Equipment Plant, Shanghai Space Administration, and then became Deputy Director for the plant.  His technical title was senior research fellow, granted at the same ranking as advanced engineer or university professor
       Mr. Zhao entered his political life being a government functionary since 1984, and since then his career path is: 19841986, Deputy Party Secretary in charge of the industrial sectors in Shanghai and then Deputy Director General of the Municipal Personnel Department (M.P.D.); 1986 - 1991, member of the Standing Committee of Shanghai Municipal Party Committee and Director General of M.P.D.; In 1991, he was elected Vice Mayor of Shanghai Municipality, and since 1993 concurrently President of the Management Committee of Pudong, the newly developing area of Shanghai.

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