Critic says Chinese culture is pond of rotting soy paste

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 17, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- In his long career, Bo Yang has produced hundreds of novels, essays and columns. One of his works -- a translation of the U.S. comic strip "Popeye" -- so offended this island's former dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, that Mr. Bo was jailed for nine years.

There was a resemblance between the generalissimo and the cartoon character.

But nothing that the 73-year-old satirist and social critic has written has stirred so much controversy as a short essay based on a speech he gave at the University of Iowa in 1984. In that speech, titled "The Ugly Chinaman," Mr. Bo voiced the unspeakable.

He said Chinese societies are the same everywhere: chaotic, riven by infighting, crippled by a reluctance to admit mistakes, devoid of self-respect, a fertile breeding ground for despots and corruption.

And he used a particularly graphic metaphor to sum up what he considered to be the stagnant state of Chinese culture: an odious vat of fermenting soy paste.

A lot has changed since Mr. Bo gave his speech. Taiwan is rapidly turning into a democracy; mainland China is adopting free markets. But Mr. Bo believes that these changes make his message even more relevant these days.

"Over the past 4,000 years, China has produced only one great thinker -- Confucius," he said in his speech. "In the 2,500 years since his death, China's literati have done little more than tack on footnotes to the theories propounded by Confucius and his disciples.

"The minds of the literati were stuck at the bottom of an intellectual stagnant pond, the soy paste vat of Chinese culture. As the contents of this vat grew more and more putrid, the resulting stench was absorbed by the Chinese people."

In a later edition of his speech, Mr. Bo added: "All the ethical tendencies and native wisdom of the Chinese people were crushed by the destructive elements of Confucian culture.

"The coup de grace came in the 1950s, when the most corrosive elements of socialism -- the system of public ownership and the cult of worshiping the leadership -- infected the Chinese people."

Mr. Bo's pointed analysis set off a heated debate. A mainland Chinese newspaper dubbed him a "bootlicker" for his preference for Western values, and Beijing banned his books.

A Chinese paper in Los Angeles called him an "intellectual hooligan" and suggested that he should be jailed again by Taiwanese authorities.

But his ideas have proved popular, with more than a hundred thousand copies of his 1984 speech sold in Asia. In mainland China, many of his works are in state bookstores. On Taiwan, he is widely respected.

And Mr. Bo is anything but regretful. "The things I wrote, I didn't write deep enough," he says.

"The problem is I still don't know if Chinese culture has too much of something or not enough of something else. But I do know the culture is sick. It's past its glory. Unless we have a new body and a new life, our culture will be dead."

These days, Taiwan is showing signs of taking on a new life as it embraces Western-style democracy -- Mr. Bo's prescription for curing the Chinese world's ailments.

But he is skeptical: "Taiwan is a special society in the context of Chinese history because it has had so many Western influences.

"Our democracy still is like wearing imported Western clothes. It still doesn't spring from within our culture. The difference here these days is that we have some new trees -- a new generation -- grown on nutrients from the West."

These trees need more time to grow on their own terms, Mr. Bo says. But time pressures Taiwan in the form of mainland China's goal of absorbing the island and its threat of attack if Taiwan's democracy leads to a declaration of independence.

The two former enemies recently met for the first time since 1949 to discuss their growing contacts across the Taiwan Strait, perhaps the first step toward eventual reunification.

But like many here, Mr. Bo believes it's better for Taiwan to live in limbo than to risk reunification or independence.

"We still have a lot to learn," he says. "What we need is 50 more years of peace to slowly evolve democracy here."

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