When China and the West Meet, Who Bows Deeper?

in the Atlantic, Orville Schell uses a recent performance in Beijing by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actress Meryl Streep to illustrate a subtle power play between China and the U.S. which has persisted for hundreds of years and which he believes needs to change in order to the bilateral relationship to progress and benefit the world. After their Beijing performance concluded, Streep and Ma each bowed to the other in “unexpected ballet of competitive modesty”:

From here on, as China’s wealth and power increases, its national challenge will be to start letting itself feel sufficiently reinstated in the congress of great nations that it does not need to wallow in narratives of victimization, or be so militant about grasping symbolic demonstrations of its equality or superiority. The highest stage of evolution for any truly great power is to reach that point where it is possible to transcend the notion of both inferior and superior, the better to cultivate a self-confidence that leads to modesty. This is a lot to ask of China, or any country. Even the United States, the strongest nation on the globe today, has only rarely demonstrated such national maturity.

What made such exemplars out of Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma on that Beijing stage — which fittingly lies just across the street from the Forbidden City, where the Qianlong Emperor reigned over 200 years ago — was their rare deportment toward each other. Instead of one seeking to stand taller than the other or to bolster one ego at the expense of the other, each tried to deflect acclaim from themselves to the other in what ended up being an almost slapstick comedy of competitive humility. Theirs was a stellar example of magnanimity born of accomplishment and confidence. They helped create a wonderful night of artistry, but more important they gave a subtle but powerful demonstration for Chinese and Americans alike of the level to which collaboration built on true equality can sometimes rise.

While a great nation must, of course, seek its own self-interest, it does not need to do so by remaining selfishly unmindful of the interests and accomplishments of other nations. True greatness does not demand endless adoration, but thrives by sometimes deflecting acclaim to others. It was this element that was so heartwarmingly evident in Yo-Yo Ma and Meryl Streep’s joint performance — and, two centuries before, was so missing from Lord Macartney’s visit to the Qianlong Emperor. Alas, it is still all too often missing from U.S.-China relations today.

Watch a video of Streep and Ma’s performance, including their bows at the end:

A Poem Reading with Meryl Streep and Cello with Yo-Yo Ma from Center on US-China Relations on Vimeo.

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