Translation: Wei Zhou on National Optimism vs Personal Pessimism

An essay by writer Wei Zhou (@维舟) published to WeChat last week describes a dissonant way of thinking increasingly common in China, in which people are able to maintain optimism about the state and trajectory of the nation despite experiencing sustained personal hardships that would appear to lead towards pessimism. The essay on the “two selves” that, according to the author, work to reinforce allegiance to power and obscure awareness of individual liberty, was deleted within hours. It has been archived by CDT Chinese, and is translated in full below.

Wei Zhou|The Two Selves of the Chinese

A Bilibili user named “speedymotor” (@飞奔的马达), after a long time spent scrutinizing videos, made an interesting observation:

“For all videos on macro-level topics, like domestic industrial upgrades and international relations, the comments on the bullet screen are generally super-optimistic. Basically, we keep getting better, and our enemies keep on degenerating. The vloggers who think this way get the highest praise. But for middle- and micro-level videos, like those on housing prices or young parents, the bullet screens are impossibly pessimistic. If the commenters aren’t completely giving up, they’re ranting non-stop. And anyone who tries to lighten the mood a little—vloggers who really aren’t so terrible—they get dumped on.

“Assuming these videos are targeted at a particular audience — young people — we can see a strange phenomenon: they show boundless hope for the future of the country, yet are completely despondent about their own personal prospects. It’s clear that the two are in fundamental conflict with each other.”

How did the youth of the internet age come to be so “schizophrenic”? Speedymotor (@飞奔的马达)  can’t explain it, save that this is perhaps “just part of our own Dickensian era”—”it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Quite often, the people who hold these opposing views are one and the same. This seeming contradiction is all around us, and not just on Bilibili.

How do we explain this mentality? Some believe it is nothing more than that of “complacent slaves.” Others wonder if it is the manifestation of “information siloing,” where the grand narrative selectively reports a more hopeful vision, while life at the individual level is directly experienced but suppressed. “Can we voice our discontent with the grand narrative? Or are we reduced to mocking our own lives?” This implies that “macro-optimism is false optimism, while pessimism about oneself is valid pessimism.” Yet for many, both are true. At least, that’s how they see it.

Is that “schizophrenic”? For some, this mentality is perfectly reasonable. The future of the country is predictable, steady, long-term, incremental progress; while their own lot is immediate, tangible, the far-off future unable to quench a present thirst. And though it is not false that there is overall incremental growth, that growth must fall on every head. Then there is the problem of distribution. How much will an ordinary person be allotted if they are not on the same level as those with vested interests?

This viewpoint is very representative, and it corresponds to a common refrain among the younger generation: the country is fine, the pressure and exploitation I am subject to is because of the capitalists.

This isn’t even simply a problem of capital. It reflects people’s anxiety over social stratification and sensitivity to inequality. According to this logic, the problem isn’t the whole, it’s the mechanism of distribution.

Harem dramas and involution, so much in vogue these past few years, belie this line of thought: countless people are competing for limited resources within a closed system, and they pin their particular hopes on an ultimate power that is fair and impartial. As long as they work hard, they should get what they deserve.

It’s not such a strange idea. It’s not even a new one. There have always been those who “oppose corrupt officials but not the emperor”—the system itself is fine, it’s the people running it who are the problem—and so they moan and moan, “if only the sovereign/emperor/head of state knew.”

Even in England, the birthplace of liberalism, the Labor Party never went mainstream before they abandoned their radical program of land nationalization. People aren’t looking to tear everything down and start again. As Michael King observed, no matter where they come from, people seldom want to “destroy” the capitalist system: most people simply want the system to be more sensitive to their needs.

As for China, this underlying tradition runs even deeper. Eileen Chang once wrote that every rebellion in Chinese history was done in the name of “ridding the emperor of his evil advisors,” believing that their deception of the singular authority was the source of all their troubles. “Even the outlaws of Liangshan Marsh only fought against corrupt officials. Though he plundered homes, attacked cities and seized land, they remained ‘devoted to repaying Zhao Kuangyin.'”

Such “loyal opposition” is ubiquitous in recent Chinese history. Even as people complain about their personal predicaments, they genuinely believe that overall everything is fine, just that poorly trained and undisciplined grassroots cadres have made “errors,” that “the monk read the good scripture all sideways.” This being the case, what is increasingly required is the intervention of authority to “correct” these “errors.”

The question invariably becomes: How can I make my voice heard higher up, so that the emperor is not deceived? As a result, whether we speak of the “honest official” or the “disguised official making secret inspections,” a slavish admiration persists in the Chinese tradition. It’s as if it never occurred to anyone that it is this very system, in which it is so difficult to convey the wishes of the masses to the higher power, which is flawed.

In my opinion, only when these contradictory aspects are brought together can we truly understand the complexity of the Chinese mentality, that struggle which pierces through to its very heart.

You could say that the Chinese people have two selves. One is the “self as a member of the nation,” the self that thrives when the nation prospers; the other is the “self as a private individual,” detached from the grand narrative, only concerned with one’s actual lot. The weaker the latter, the more one longs to merge with the former, casting off one’s own petty troubles. “I don’t want to become me, I want to become us.”

In “Confucian Ideology and Chinese Historical Thought,” Huang Junjie made the keen observation that the historian Qian Mu put special emphasis on the elements of “man,” “but his so-called ‘man’ was ‘man’ as a member of a social group, not ‘man’ in the modern sense, the atomized, solitary ‘man.'”

Only when the social fetters of tradition were broken in the tumult of China’s modernization was the individual liberated. This same process, however, thrust the individual into the modern Colosseum of “every man for himself,” freeing them to face solitude and hardship on their own.

Here the labor pains of China’s social transformation are refracted: as modernity drove forward, the individual was extracted from their original social network, but then each was left on their own to face a nameless, massive force, giving rise to an enormous sense of powerlessness. This catalyzed two opposing desires: to fiercely defend their individual rights, but also, in moments of weakness, to join with a more powerful entity.

This is no reason to criticize people as “schizophrenic” or “lacking self-confidence.” It is, after all, the way of the world. It is hard for those who did not personally experience that onslaught of modernization to understand the shock of the atomized individual. If we say that tradition both protects and constrains, then your present freedom is bereft of that ready-made support. In this moment, loneliness and helplessness are inevitable

In truth, nearly every nation goes through this phase in the process of modernization. It’s just that the path of England and the United States guaranteed individual freedom as it gradually refined its social system, protecting their interests and welfare against unpredictable threats; while other nations have taken a more winding path: as the weak individual is made to conform once again with a large group (whether the “race” or the “nation”), he is required to live on for the collective.

Right now, either of these futures seems plausible. If the lowly wage slaves adopt the national narrative, it seems that even rich old Ma could instantly be turned into a nobody. As soon as this perilous sense of power overflows, it could easily cross borders. On the other hand, the Chinese awareness of their own rights has never been as strong as it is now among the youth. It’s hard to imagine them like the intellectuals of the May Fourth movement, sacrificing themselves, “abandoning the small family to care for the big family.”

Quite the opposite, this is a new phenomenon, a so-called “delicate egoism,” which really means “seeking personal gain by joining the collective.” In other words, “becoming us” is the means, “becoming me” is the end. Even as this is met with universal moral outrage, I am certain that this new person, possessed more clearly of his own rights and interests, will normalize the “selfishness” that was for millennia unspeakable; and that on the basis of “putting people first,” the Chinese people will at last be truly liberated. [Chinese]

Translation by Anne Henochowicz.

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