When a Rising China and a Humbled West Meet, Who Bows Deeper?

It is easy to see in this exchange how difficult it was, even during this first encounter, to bridge the culture gap and to work out the niceties of relative East-West status. As Lord Macartney noted in his diary, "Thus ended this curious negotiation which has given me a tolerable insight into the character of this Court, and that political address upon which they so much value themselves." Perhaps the main "insight" Macartney glimpsed was that maintaining face in a culture where equality can never be presumed involves an infinitely complex negotiation over symbolism. Before departing Beijing, Lord Macartney was moved to conclude with some discouragement that, "The Chinese character seems at present inexplicable."

A century later, after the Middle Kingdom had fallen so precipitously from its place of unchallenged global superiority that it had been dubbed the "sick man of Asia," an enormous reservoir of sensitivity toward western dominance and bullying had built up. This sensitivity became especially raw in any public interaction or joint ceremony where Chinese inferiority of status might be implied. For a nation that had been accustomed to strength as a birthright for so long, the idea of weakness -- much less to be despised, as China sometimes was during the early 20th century -- was excruciatingly painful.

As China nose-dived towards collapse, the Chinese found less and less basis left for any presumption of superiority, even equality. However, their yearning for respect -- or even for a ritualized semblance of such -- did not diminish. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party elaborated a unique ideology of victimization that depicted China as having been exploited and humiliated by the imperial powers, and so the need for manifestations of respect only grew. Who went first, bowed before another, or sat higher than someone else all became part of the ongoing shadow play of maintaining face -- a balm calculated to soothe the actual respect deficit.

Maintaining face in a culture where equality can never be presumed involves an infinitely complex negotiation over symbolism.

More recently, of course, China has regained much of its former wealth and power, as well as renewed confidence, and sometimes arrogance. But has this resurgence of self-assurance, whose flows had been in such drought conditions for so long, finally begun to assuage China's long-standing psychological thirst for equivalence? That moment may yet arrive -- if all goes well -- but it is not yet at hand. In reality the Chinese have chinned their country up to a status that is at last approaching that of the so-called "great powers." But it usually takes a generation or two for actual changes in power balance within and between countries to be absorbed psychologically by the actual people on both sides of the proposition.

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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.

Vice President Xi is largely unknown to the West. What a pleasure it would be to see him and his American counterparts break the stranglehold of the past and come forth on the public stage as self-confident equals, bent on helping each other solve some of the world's most challenging problems.

Presented by

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

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