Zhang Ziyi, Taiwan, and the Perverse Shaming of China

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Saturday January 10, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Recent topless photos of Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi have created an uproar and online debate in China; they also expose a dark side of Chinese culture. It is a culture that because of several of its underpinnings unfortunately allows control freaks and people without a life of their own to gravitate to the top of the society. This in turn allows that element to create the self-righteous group thinking that makes China the continued dangerous hegemonic threat it is in Asia

The photos referenced above are typical paparazzi shots. The young Zhang, 29, is seen topless on a Caribbean beach with her Israeli billionaire lover Vivi Nevo. That he is a foreigner creates some of the shame; that she is topless is another aspect. A typical line in the debate is the following. "Zhang Ziyi is really shameless. She is with a foreigner, but should remember certain conduct is expected of Chinese women." It is in the repetition of lines like that expose the manipulative group think that is imposed on the nation.

Throughout the debate, Zhang's shaming of the nation is the key. Examine this closely. The focus is not on morality but that Zhang's actions "shamed the nation." What other nation finds that the private behavior of its citizens brings them shame? Do Americans feel their nation is shamed by any acts of Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Madonna or the like? Their actions may be judged reprehensible but any idea of shaming the nation is ridiculous.

Not so in China, there where the thoughts of a nation can be controlled by the judgments of a few you see the dangers of a collective mentality that it is easily manipulated from the top.

To get a handle on the perverseness within such a groupthink and culture go to Bo Yang's "The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture," and Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements." These books are not flawless. They have some over extended arguments and exaggerations but what they do expose is the dark side of mass movements and nationalism

Hoffer provides two quotes explaining how mass movements offer a substitute for those who lack self respect. "Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves," and "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause." Hoffer's words sweep across the board in pointing out the dangers in any mass movement; he does not state that all are bad, but he points to inherent dangers.

Bo Yang on the other hand uses the soy paste vat metaphor to describe a Chinese culture that has so often denied the fresh thought of its young and prevented any meaningful reform. "A fresh peach placed in a vat full of putrescent soy paste will soon wither away and turn into a dry turd."

Yang also sees this as the reason why so many Chinese cannot even now condemn the atrocities of past leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. These despots are excused in groupthink because they allegedly had the "best interests of China at heart." As Bo Yang states, "The problem lay deeper. Chinese culture was to blame."

Here one clearly sees the difference between Taiwan and China. Though Taiwan and China share some similar cultural elements the Taiwanese personality and culture is made up of much more. Taiwan has its own history and part of that history is that it has broken free of the groupthink that the colonial Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) strove to impose with its forty years of martial law and one-party state. Taiwan is now a free and democratic state. Zhang Ziyi should consider being a citizen of Taiwan; it is a much healthier and more tolerant culture.