Americans don’t really know anything about other countries. We’re very, very ignorant. We were totally ignorant about Vietnam. We had actually fired most of the experts at the State Department who knew something about that region as part of the McCarthy purges in the ’40s and early ’50s. We know nothing about the countries we invade.
What do we know about the Vietnamese people? Larry Heinemann, who wrote Paco’s Story, which won the National Book Award, a Vietnam veteran, tells a great story that I love. And he says that he was interviewing somebody from the—a professor at the University of Hanoi. And he says that he asked him, what did you do during the war? And he said, first I went to Beijing and I learned English. Then I went to the University of Moscow and I read American literature. Then I went back to Hanoi, and they sent me out to the Ho Chi Minh trail, where I educated the troops there on the Ho Chi Minh trail about American literature. And they were reading Hemingway, Whitman, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Jack London. You know, they carried these books in their backpack. They were studying American literature, the Vietnamese troops. And then he turns to Larry Heinemann and he says, and what Vietnamese author did you American troops read? And Heinemann says, I laughed so hard that the beer started to squirt out my nose.
You know, Americans are ignorant. You know. And that to me captures it. That story captures a lot. And so we go into these situations blind. We think that somehow maybe we can impose order. And at times we do. But we impose order at the—you know, what we sacrifice there is social justice in those countries."
The reluctance of the educational system - public and private - to grasp the Chinese nettle is a metaphor for a much wider problem: our ignorance about China and our failure to appreciate just how much it will change the world and transform our lives.
The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China - not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.
Let’s take one example. We assume that the nation-state, that long-standing and remarkably influential European invention, is more or less universal. True, China has called itself a nation-state for about a century. But 100 years is a mere pin-prick for a country that dates back over two millennia. Modern China emerged in 221. By the time of the Han dynasty - still more than 2,000 years ago - China’s borders already closely resembled those of eastern and central China today. China is very old, the longest continuously-existing polity in the world. And for more than 2,000 years, it was not a nation-state but a civilisation-state. In essence it still is."