When China learned to say no


In 1996, a group of poets and publishers got together to write a book about national identity, international relations, the US as a global super-power, and liberal intellectuals whom they saw as too enamored with the west.

That book, China Can Say No: Political and Emotional Choices in the Post Cold War Era (中国可以说不——冷战后时代的政治与情感抉择), was a runaway bestseller and thrust a growing Chinese nationalism into the world media spotlight. "China says no" became a catchphrase repeated in subsequent anti-western episodes such as the protests in response to the bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Two of the book's authors recently took a look back at the "China can say no" phenomenon and the nature of Chinese nationalism in the past decade.

Writing for the November, 2007, issue of Soho Xiaobao, poet and publisher Zhang Xiaobo mused on how the exploration of Chinese identity makes itself known on the world stage:

What's so aggravating is that when we attempt to think this through and make our thoughts known, constrained as we are by the Chinese language, we become childish, stammering, and oblique, and it sometimes seems as if the entire nation gets stirred up over a particular prejudice, to the point that what the west sees is "an extremely poor performance."

In an interview with National History magazine, Song Qiang also reflects on how overheated passion and exuberance gave the writing in China Can Say No a rawer, cruder tone than if it had been written by sober academics.

Although China Can Say No is scattershot—by design, it tried to take on all aspects of America's influence on China, from Congress to Hollywood to the news media—a few of the essays deal with issues that are current today. Tang Zhengyu writes in one about how China should respond to western media that continually try to "contain" China:

As for those voices and actions, the Chinese government should reject, balance, refute, or ignore them according to necessity. Only, it should not get tied up with those issues lest it delay its own forward progress.

The Chinese public, then, should take action. For example, not buying products from those countries is an effective way to contain those noisy voices and actions.

And when Song Qiang writes of Tibet in an early chapter, (Opening the window to wisdom), his dialogue with a foreigner goes much the same as recent conversations described by Zeng Pengyu (An argument out of exasperation) or the office worker in Germany (Encounters with a German).

Students at Huiwen Middle School (CFP)

Alongside the Song Qiang interview, National History ran three photos: one of the protests against the Belgrade embassy bombing, in which demonstrator wore t-shirts emblazoned with a more dynamic adaptation of the book's title: "Today, the Chinese people say no!" The other two draw from a reference Song makes to Beijing's failed bid for the 2000 Olympics in September, 1993. One is simply of crestfallen faces in the Great Hall of the People, but the other (at right) illustrates how that failed bid was used to further patriotic feeling. The caption reads:

On 24 September, 1993, after Beijing's failed bid for the 2000 Olympics, Beijing Huiwen Middle School students rally on the athletic field wearing t-shirts that read "A people that can take a loss is one that truly has hope" (一个输得起的民族,才是真正有希望的民族).

Song discusses the genesis of the book, its immediate reaction, and his views on various nationalist episodes from the last decade:

Why Did China Say No?

by Guan Xin / NH

When China Can Say No was published in 1996, it became an immediate bestseller, attracting attention from more than 100 news agencies around the world and becoming that year's most sensational Chinese book in the west. It was seen as a sign that China's nationalist feelings were heating up.

The force of "saying no"

National History: Why did you all decide to do the book China Can Say No?
Song Qiang: People working in publishing have a strong sense of the surging tide of of popular opinion. The editor of this book was Zhang Xiaobo (under the pen name Zhang Cangcang). The year before, he had asked me about writing a book called "China Can Say No"; he had been working in publishing for quite a while at that time.

China Can Say No

When we wrote China Can Say No, we went about gathering material, and then finished it by describing experiences and telling stories. Publishing followed quickly once the writing was finished. One of the authors, Qiao Bian, was a poet who wrote of the sting that Beijing's failed bid for the 2000 Olympics had caused him in 1993. Qiao Bian's words explained what publishers like us and other young, thoughtful writers, who had had the same experience, were feeling, so we wrote our feelings and experiences into the book.

NH: How did you get together with Zhang Xiaobo, Qiao Bian, Gu Qingsheng, and Tang Zhengyu?
SQ: Zhang Xiaobo was a well-known urban poet in the 1980s. Huadong Normal University had a Summer Rain Poetry Club, and both Zhang and I wrote poety. He was three years ahead of me, but he and I talked fairly often. Gu Qingsheng worked as a freelance writer, but I didn't know him personally. He was relatively familiar with the writing scene. Tang Zhengyu, who at the time was a reporter for the China Business Times and now works as editor of Beijing Youth Daily's securities section, was a good friend of Zhang Xiaobo's. There are two individuals with the pseudonym Qiao Bian, but the Qiao Bian who wrote for the book was Mo Fei, another poet. That made three of us who wrote poetry.

We didn't have much of a profit motive at the time; we all thought it was great fun and really stimulating to express our own viewpoints and write a book of arguments. We weren't formally organized, so we just went by whoever had the time. Ultimately it came down to articles by the five of us—that was how it went. I've said all along that the book would have had the same effect no matter who wrote it. It's not a question of who's a better writer; if a different group of authors were swapped in, it would have had the same influence.

NH: Before China Can Say No, there was a book called The Japan That Can Say No.* Did you read that book first and then model yours on it?
SQ: Finding conceptual inspiration is completely normal in the course of writing. The Japan That Can Say No was aimed at America and represented the will of the people of Japan. That book was a valuable reference in terms of concept and attitude. We had our own thinking and starting point for China Can Say No, and our intent diverged from that of the other book. Ours was definitely not derivative, but we did use it as a reference. This is normal, and it's a very common phenomenon in the design of mass-market books. Domestic mass-market books seldom used ideas from overseas, but we were able to do it, which proves that we were successful, at least from a business standpoint.

NH: What did you want to gain from this book?
SQ: First, throughout the process, each author had the intrinsic desire and passion to express his own opinions. But we did not rule out the prospect of fame and fortune.

China Can Say No (revised)

Second, basically none of the authors made a career out of "saying no." Qiao Bian and Gu Qingsheng, for example, they didn't go off to be the editor of the commentary page at a newspaper, and they didn't use the book's influence as a their own platform. Everyone had a lot of choices for writing.

Third, as the book's editor, Zhang Xiaobo had said that he was sure that Sino-US books would be provocative to the public, so we didn't ignore the thought of commercial profit—this was a selling point. For me, writing this book was a good fit—I did it in my spare time. But we still approached it with the personality of men of letter: we had a desire to express ourselves. The situation later on, however, was not anything that we could control.

Fang Fang, a Wuhan-based author, appraised it as a "bookseller's book." That's hard to accept. Every author yearns to publish freely; we opened up an avenue for free publication—what's so strange about that? Essentially, at that time, lots of publications were done through secondary channels. One aspect of the 1990s was that people who were authors themselves—people who had writing chops, who had read tons of books, and who had a bit of influence—entered the publishing sector.

NH: How much time did you spend on this book, from conception to publication?
SQ: It was relatively quick. The idea came the previous year, but the real concept only arrived two months before publication. Zhang Xiaobo once said to me, let's write a book about China saying no. I said, OK, thinking that he meant a book about international relations. My idea was to say no to all the advertisements lining the streets, no to the culture of foreigner worship, no to the mentality of inferiority. Back then I had been influenced by Bo Yang's The Ugly Chinese.

NH: And the book was quite influential when it came out in May, 1996.
SQ: One effect the book had was to make "say no" one of the signature phrases of 1996, one of the most popular lines. The TV series The Story of the Editorial Office, which aired during the 1997 Spring Festival, parodied the book. Likewise, it stirred up nationalist feelings in the country that year. I received lots of letters, and some people even wrote me advocating setting up a nationalist association or alliance. By comparison, the intellectual world hid its disputes. But today, the argument between the New Left and Liberalism has come to the surface.

Someone at the State Council Information Office said that the book had influenced the west more than any other Chinese book in two decades. Foreign countries were interested and excited about what was happening in China, not whether China published a worthwhile book. The book became an event, a news item about the rise of Chinese nationalism, and this news item was used as the basis for describing the situation in China and reporting Chinese news. From this perspective, it was a highly influential book in the west.

Many domestic intellectuals opposed it. Wang Meng once said that some types of intelligence are short-lived. Southern Weekly began introducing the book in a full-page section, and shortly thereafter, their columnists launched a severe criticism of it. The mainstream domestic media was relatively objective in their reporting, but of course there were still lots of critical voices.

China Can Say No (Hong Kong edition)

NH: What overseas editions were there?
SQ: Hong Kong's Ming Pao group published a traditional-character edition aimed at the southeast Asia market. Yazhou Zhoukan's Hong Kong bestseller list placed it at #1 for dozens of weeks straight, with China Can Still Say No at #2. There were also Japanese and Korean editions, but no English edition. At the end of last year [2006], contacts in France were preparing a French edition. The Japanese edition was relatively influential—it sold very well. The traditional-character edition made up most of the sales in the US.

NH: After more than 10 years, how do you view China Can Say No? Is there anything that's worth revisiting?
SQ: I was 32 years old back then and wrote through my passion and exuberance—the sort of attitude that a young person ought to have. I wrote that book with true sincerity, and the important stuff still holds up. I can't say that it was my best writing, but the motivation was genuine. Criticize the book, but you can't look at it in isolation. We have no regrets about writing it; we have to protect our own points of view. Sure, we were hot-headed back then. We didn't check up on lots of things, and now we've paid the cost through criticism. It's impossible to explain correctly all of what we said, but we could adjust a bit of the rhetoric. When Shintaro Ishihara attacked us, his original words were that those young men were naive populists. But we definitely weren't naive populists here. Nevertheless, statements like "the Chinese are a mighty people," "Chinese virtues," "the sole motivation," and "the liberation of humanity" do indeed deserve reflection; I was the one who wrote lots of the stuff that pushed the limit. At the time, we basically wanted to "shock people or die trying," but as an attitude toward writing, it really is a little too flip.

NH: Three of the five authors of China Can Say No were poets. Did your work have a poetic flavor to it?
SQ: Poetry in China Can Say No? If you call all emotional expression "poetic," then you're insulting poetry. I have a great respect for poetry.

What sort of nationalism do we need?

NH: In the preface, you mentioned that the intellectuals of the 80s, including yourself, liked America, but that had changed by the 90s. Did something happen during that time to cause that change?
SQ: Qiao Bian once said that I had changed from a cosmopolitan to a nationalist, perhaps because international policies and things that happened on the world stage had caused me to see that the west was not as good as I had imagined. Common people, urban residents, and the fashionable classes may think that in foreign countries, everything is good. But we'd already had more than ten years of ideological freedom at that time, so wouldn't there be something if we maintained that same position?

Wang Xiaodong and Fang Ning did a survey in 1995 in which a large proportion of young people said that the country they hated most was America. This was one year before China Can Say No. The US authorities were a bit taken aback by this information. The appearance of a youth voice in China that hated the US, and the subsequent appearance of a voice saying "China can say no"—they said, hey, that can't be right. They imagined that more than 90% of Chinese youth could make up their own minds, and that there was no doubt they'd love America.

So we told the US embassy, what sort of people write the letters you receive? They're the Chinese who float in your circles. They were caught blind by this voice from the people—what had happened? In fact, Clinton once said that it was only after 1996 that he realized that China's domestic feelings deserved to be treated seriously. If the influence of China Can Say No were driven by the government, or if that 1995 survey was fabricated, then America would not have had any need to treat them seriously. So the fact that the book sent out that signal was a good thing, at least in the area of international relations: it gave them real information.

Protesting the 1999 embassy bombing (fotoe)

NH: On 8 May, 1999, China's embassy in Yugoslavia was bombed. What was your reaction at the time?
SQ: When NATO invaded Yugoslavia, a few of my friends in academia talked with me about writing a book that would tell the truth about the world according to western eyes, but the embassy bombing had not yet occurred so I didn't pay it much attention.

The second day after the incident, Zhang Xiaobo, Mo Fei, Song Wei, and myself went to the US Embassy and saw people attacking it. When the crowds tried to breach the police line, I was standing practically in the first row, and I saw that the policed were highly experienced—they were able to hold all those people back and kept them from getting too extreme. That evening I went to the Peking University Triangle where students had convened.

At that time I was busily working on China's Road Under the Shadow of Globalization with Wang Xiaodong and Fang Ning. That book had been started the year before and all the manuscripts were in. I heard that a few pro-US professors at PKU were heart-broken at this unexpected turn of events—they wanted to cry but had no tears. People had embraced the west in a spirit of romanticism, but the west had kicked them down. An academic said to Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke that we ought to abandon ideology. Hawke's response was essentially that this individual's suggestion was mistaken; ideology is of prime importance in relations between countries.

Later, people said that China Can Say No was narrow nationalism that spurned common values. I read lots of books that made that case. So I asked, why is America immune from criticism? It seemed like the bottom line was this: criticizing America was tantamount to glorifying tyranny. Those were the circumstances that led to China's Road Under the Shadow of Globalization.

NH: You've said that China Can Say No sparked a fight between "liberalism" and "the new left." How did they view this book?
SQ: The liberal intellectuals I know are very nice people. They too are working for the good of the country, working on policy,* but they've got the problem that they think westerners are like themselves. Justin Li Yifu is a liberal economist, but he looked positively on the book. In Beijing at the time there was a magazine called Strategy and Management which devoted itself to "China and the US at the Turn of the Century." They didn't imagine that this book would come out so fast. After Fang Ning read the book, he found it was swifter, keener, and more influential than he had imagined. He had anticipated that this day would arrive. Their acknowledgement of the affair, of the book at that particular moment in time, didn't mean that the text itself was well-written or that it would stand up to careful scrutiny.

NH: What were you thinking during the anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2005?
SQ: I think that China's biggest enemy is America. Japan is relatively harmless, so it's easy to confuse things if you're anti-Japan. China is a poor country, but Japan and Korea have done things better than us: each move they've made has been carefully considered. A national attitude of prudence and self-protection is something that China lacks. I didn't take part in the demonstrations but I did sign my name. I said to Tong Zeng [defender of the Diaoyu Islands] that I was afraid that the anti-Japanese demonstrations would slip up and be exploited by the Americans.

China Youth Daily reported that a Japanese exchange student had posted online, saying: The "Chinamen" (支那人) don't have any warriors; the Yamato people are superior to the Chinese. When I first read that I thought it was fake. There was no source of stimulation inside the country, so why not make up a post by a Japanese exchange student to inflame the passions of the Chinese—then we'd all have something to do. This is taking things far too lightly. A few years later, people said that the post was a fake, something cooked up by a Chinese person. If you're anti-Japanese to such an extent, I'd say there's a problem.

NH: After the 9-11 incident in the US in 2001, some Chinese people felt that the bombing was a good thing. The magazine South Wind View (南风窗) published an article criticizing this view. What's your opinion of the issue?
SQ: I paid relatively close attention to 9-11; as human beings we all had a sense of terror. But I was really put off by the sort of grandstanding found in Tonight, We Sympathize With American. 9-11 took place in the richest place in America, but does anyone care that so many people die every year in Palestine? Wars in undeveloped countries have killed so many people—who cares about them? They aren't part of the core reporting of the mainstream media. I wish that we could all take an even look at these things. The Internet can misdirect people's judgment of information. Praise on the Internet for 9-11 can cause misdirection as well. Essentially, those were people who had no power in real life, but on the Internet they could really shine. Online stuff cannot stand in for public opinion. It's something exaggerated, and no matter how fierce it sounds, it cannot represent real life.

China Can Say No (Japan edition)

NH: What do you think of criticisms of nationalism that use terms like "angry youth" (愤青) and "patriotic traitors" (爱国贼)?
SQ: Given such extreme nationalism, it's only natural that nationalism gets criticized. I care about criticism because I'm not an important character. But China has really become a paradise of anonymity, and this concerns me. When it comes time to present evidence for state policy, governmental regulations, and judicial verdicts, must we also take seriously certain websites whose contents are deliberately shocking? If so, then we're in sorry state.

NH: In August, 2004, Huadong Normal University Press published the book Undercurrents: Criticisms and Reflections on Narrow-Minded Nationalism (潮流--对狭隘民族主义的批判与反思). What's your opinion of that book?
SQ: Actually, Hong Kong also published a book called How Should China Face the World (中国如何应对世界), which incorporated a few of those articles. It's a collection of articles from the past few years, and I'm not unfamiliar with their arguments. That book was quite influential, too. But to say that nationalism is an "undercurrent" that "obstructs the progress of history and runs counter to the reform and opening up" is something I don't agree with.

What is nationalism? What is ultra-nationalism? What is narrow nationalism? Can you equate nationalism with narrow nationalism or ultra-nationalism? In the west, nationalism is a cultural instinct. In the UK, if you say someone is British, he'll say he's a Scot. That's a form of nationalism, a person-centered nationalism. But in China, nationalism is defensive. That book says today's world is open, so China Can Say No is harmful. I don't know whether I'm a narrow nationalist. I'm in publishing, so it's a good thing for that sort of book to be published. It's a book that argues reasonably, but when scholars write papers they only look at one side of the issue; they pick out the points that are useful and brush aside the rest.

Undercurrents occupies a relatively liberal position. Liberalism is always attractive, but I am skeptical of whether it can help China at this point in time. China's rural intellectuals are liberals, something I think is only natural: people are innately inclined toward liberal democracy. But at this point in time, how to address nationalism and China's regional situation is not something that can be solved by hurling abuse at the Boxers.* We formed many mistaken ideas during the 20th Century, but if you simply equate nationalism with darkness, autocracy, and backwardness, I think you're being absurd.

NH: In Undercurrents, Xiao Xuehui of the Southwestern University for Nationalities writes, "After reading China Can Say No, I am amazed that a book so vulgar in tone, written in such coarse language, whose sentiment is mannered though its pages are full of ranting, was able to cause such an uproar." How do you view this sort of criticism?
SQ: Sometimes when academics go on the attack they'll load their writing with certain language. But this doesn't mean that I don't take her criticism seriously. This book was indeed fairly crude. Another criticism around the same time said that no concern for people could be found in the entire book, nor was there peace or hope. I said that a book can only carry out one mission; you can't ask every book to be completely well-organized, people-centered, and contain a dissection of international conflict. It's understandable for academics to use extreme language in their writing. I feel that if you write a book, you've got to pay the price for your words and take on a bit of criticism.

NH: Reportedly, there are civic groups like the Nationalist Alliance that want you all to play important roles. As the leading exponents of "saying no," why are you unwilling to participate?
SQ: I've said before, you can't eat patriotism. But you really can eat it, or make money off it. All of us authors have very broad areas of interest; for example, Gu Qingsheng writes excellent articles about cuisine, and Zhang Xiaobo's fiction has been highly praised. I myself am a poetry enthusiast and a writing enthusiast, dabbling in several different forms. I feel I'm still interested in writing, and that I could still write a best-seller. We aren't experts on that front. We wrote something, made if public, and that completed our mission. We have other things to do, things that will be much better than doing that, even though they may not be as influential. But everyone's life needs a focus. I don't even like reading stuff about international relations. A newspaper wanted me to head their commentary department, but I said, forget it, I don't write opinion pieces as well as Xue Yong and all those people, and I'm not really good enough at theory and policy.

China Can Say No (another Japan edition)

NH: Looking back now on the rise of nationalism in the 90s, what are your feelings?
SQ: Actually, in the 80s there was a general taking-stock, and there was a sort of nihilism or Eurocentrism. In the 90s, the authorities launched the great campaign to rejuvenate the nation. Nationalism's acknowledgment of its own national culture is highly significant. China is not too conservative or rigid; it is too fickle. I think that nationalism is something that leaves you in awe of life. I take a positive attitude toward nationalism.

NH: How does today's nationalism compare with that of the 90s—have there been changes, and have those been strong or weak? What sort of influence will nationalism have on China's future?
SW: I think that nationalism has become a type of force. There have been various ideological reactions, such as the attitude toward Japan, but nationalism has never obstructed China's reforms. The Chinese people, including young people, are not conservative, and they have naive, romantic notions of America. I think that we need a nationalist spirit to sweep in at any time to turn around China's future. For the nation-state is still one of the basic forms as the world is mad up; while the threatening international environment still remains undissolved, nationalism still has value in its existence, and has space to grow. In the future, nationalism will be a force for culture-building domestically, and will be on guard toward the outside, protecting the interests of its country.

Song Qiang keeps a blog, where he mainly makes food-related posts. In recent days, however, while he hasn't made many original posts on the Tibet, CNN, and Carrefour controversies, he's reposted old articles and commentary from other bloggers and pundits that oppose the liberal, anti-boycott crowd and make the case for patriotic demonstrations.

Song's still in publishing (he edited the online novel Four Walls for print), and most recently wrote the script for a Beijing TV retrospective on three decades of domestic television.

Zhang Xiaobo from the back cover of A River That Each Day Drowns a Child (1996).

Zhang Xiaobo, the general editor of China Can Say No who also contributed under the pen name Zhang Cangcang, is a poet and publisher. His first big splash was in 1992 when he obtained the mainland rights to the novels of Malaysian wuxia writer Wen Rui'an (though there's considerable controversy over misrepresentation and possible bootlegging surrounding that deal), and he later did the first authorized mainland editions of the Crayon Shin-chan manga series. In the same year as China Can Say No, he published A River That Each Day Drowns a Child (每天淹死一个儿童的河), a collection of intriguingly off-beat short stories.

In the November, 2007, issue of Soho Xiaobao, which asked various authors to reflect on the work that made them famous, Zhang wrote about China Can Say No in the context of the search for a Chinese identity:

One Country's Desire and Fear

by Zhang Xiaobo / SXB

I've just been reading a book about Franz Kafka in which the author (whose name I've forgotten) noted that because of his Austrian and Czech background, Kafka's "Jewishness" was keener than his countrymen, and that the literary themes throughout his short life were "desire & fear." The unification of these two themes formed a charm that split his life apart. Many years later, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami used a battle of far-reaching significance (which has yet to make an impact on the Chinese psyche)—the Nomonhan Incident on the Sino-Mongolian border*—to investigate the makeup of "Japan-ness" and "Japaneseness." I am convinced that more than 90% of Chinese people know next to nothing of the massive battle between the Soviets and the Japanese that occurred on their own soil (Japan lost more senior officers than in any other battle in history), and I am also certain, though I have no evidence, that books on this war in Russia and Japan are definitely a sight to behold.

China-ness, on the other hand—or to go further, "Chineseness,"—was never put into a form that can be precisely and accurately expressed over the course of a century or more, and is still quite uncertain against the backdrop of modern times. However, though it has a different cause (China's tribulations and the sufferings of the Jewish people are of two different forms), there is nonetheless a double-sided "desire & fear" image in the history of this country. What's so aggravating is that when we attempt to think this through and make our thoughts known, constrained as we are by the Chinese language, we become childish, stammering, and oblique, and sometimes is seems as if a particular preconception can get the entire nation stirred up, to the point that what the west sees is "an extremely poor performance."

China Can Still Say No

A decade ago, China Can Say No seemed to possess all of the qualities mentioned above: crudeness in the text, violent symbols, and specious conclusions. The book gave those in the outside world who misunderstood China a tidy excuse, and even domestically there were many extremely intelligent intellectuals who exploded in anger. I remember some common labels applied to the authors at the time: "Red Guards for the Internet Age," "New Ultra-Nationalists," "Profiteers all the more gleeful the more they are criticized"...

Its enormous circulation dumb-founded onlookers; all of China seemed like it had been thrown into controversy over a single book. Some people told us that they were certain that the publication of this book had cost China X billion in loans from the World Bank. One senior domestic official issued an order to investigate the identities of the authors. Rumors flew wildly, a different one every day. The authors, too, were astounded: it was like they had unwittingly set off a nuclear bomb, and the outcome was something they could never have foreseen.

But here's the question: was China Can Say No necessary? In other words, was it a personal work that arose out of the efforts of a few individuals, or was it a reflection in print of the political realities of Chinese society at the time? To make a crude analogy, was it Archduke Ferdinand's death that set off the first world war, or did the outbreak of the first world war require Archduke Ferdinand to die?

China must find itself within a continually-changing world makeup; this has become a more difficult and worrying task since the end of the 1980s, and in fact, society was subject to immense forces that threatened to tear it apart. Today, as astronomers describe the Big Bang, "we all live in its aftermath." No need to dance around the issue: the important, and even paramount, task for China at present is still the issue of how to realize political reconciliation-reconciliation between the government and the people, between the government and intellectuals, between the people and intellectuals, and even among intellectuals themselves....

China Can Say No unwittingly took on a major test of public opinion, one whose conclusions were frightening to both heart and mind. The sheer size of the rift, the depth of the gulf, how a sense of family gave way to alienation and loss-all of this made us feel like we had no way to answer the question "where do we go now?" Sadly, to a certain degree our troubles are vastly different from those of the Jewish people; they can seek Jerusalem after Auschwitz, while we have no way to find an eastern way to bear the "lightness of being."

It also unwittingly completed a staggered test of "China-ness" and "Chineseness." Stammering social realities formed an even more stammering parodic text: mutual probing and recognition between "Us in Western Eyes," "Us in Our Own Eyes," and "Our Original Forms." Similarly, "China Can Say No," China Cannot Speak," and "China Can Refrain From Speaking," were not merely syntactic manipulations. The rotation of the two-sided coin, "desire & fear," is unstoppable. The more we seek to affirm ourselves, our fear rises up in an instant. The more we try to tell the world "we are here," their answer remains, "where are you?"

Therefore, the dead in 9-11 are "here" to us because the news of their deaths was heard across the whole world; their lives, identities, and nationalities are imprinted on our minds. But the dead in Palestine are not "here" to us, and perhaps they never were "here." They could not use death as a way to prove that they once had lived, because the news of their deaths never reached the world-can humanity sustain the burden of such "fear"? I once wrote in a poem:

I want to kill myself
so I can leave a bit of empty ground
and have my loved ones keep vigil by the coffin

In this respect, China Can Say No might look absurd and ridiculous now. The final question is, in Nomonhan, China, there was a brutal battle-where was China then?


  1. Note: The famous 1991 tract by the Japanese nationalist Shintaro Ishihara.
  2. Note: Song says that they are 国策派, a designation I can't find anywhere else.
  3. Note: This refers to Yuan Weishi's controversial article on the Boxer Rebellion that led to the temporary closure of China Youth Daily's "Freezing Point" supplement. Incidentally, Yu Quanyu, who was one Yuan's most vocal critics, contributed the afterword to China Can Say No and the foreword to China's Road Under the Shadow of Globalization.
  4. Note: Aka the Battle of Khalkhin Gol

Online texts

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There are currently 7 Comments for When China learned to say no.

Comments on When China learned to say no

Comments are now turned on (don't know why they were off before).

In the course of writing this up, I ran across a contemporaneous New York Times article that has this odd passage:

''Some people abroad said we did this book because we are manipulated by the Government, or for commercial purpose, or that we are terrorists,'' Mr. Zhang said, seated this weekend in a small Beijing hotel convenient to his fruit stands -- his main source of income before he turned social commentator.

Zhang was a book publisher at the time and I was unable to find any references to him selling fruit. Were Song and Zhang having fun with the reporter, or is it some weird reference to "cultivating one's garden"?

Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara wrote a book titled "The Japan That Can Say No," about Japanese nationalism in 1990. Looks like another case of Chinese IPR infringment.


That book is discussed by the Chinese book's authors in the interview above.

great work, Joel. this one's a beast. it must have taken me a good 1/2 hour yesterday to read your piece in its entirety. the reward was well worth the effort!

curious, this bit from Song Qiang:

[P]eople are innately inclined toward liberal democracy.

Song's comment struck me as odd, perhaps even unfounded.

Song's statement reads more as a reaction against western society than as a substantive critique thereof--as the dying expression of a once-vital Stalinist/Maoist counter-narrative to the received wisdom(s) of the west.

"pouring old wine into new bottles": an odd but by no means unexpected approach for the vanguard of a new nationalism for it's neither as light and nimble as the "guerrilla"/popular nationalism currently en vogue, nor is it as deeply contemplated as the anti-western imprecations of his ideological forbearers. i suspect that this book, if published today, would prove far less appealing


also, i give you the lamest comment of all time: might i humbly recommend that Danwei use a more readily-discernible footnote-signifier, such as "[Fn1]" or "[1]"? asterisk footnotes, though unintrusive, are difficult to see. i often find i've missed some while reading long posts until i make it to the bottom of the text :-(

b.: The book resembles nothing so much as a collection of blog posts, actually, and no one expects blogs to be substantive. I think it the authors are correct in suggesting that it came out at precisely the right point in time; no matter who wrote it or how substantive their arguments were, it would have made an impact. But there isn't a need for this kind of book these days, because blogs and forums have picked up the slack.

You're correct in supposing that it's a "reaction against western society" - there are broadsides against Hollywood and other aspects of Western culture, and the sense of "betrayal" - disillusionment with an imagined western utopia - is palpable. But it's actually a pretty good read, much of it, even if you don't really agree with the authors' emotional arguments.

About footnotes: this time, I tried to make the footnotes link back to the text, just in case you missed them while reading, but I guess I should find a better way to do it.

The notion of “say no” was stolen from石原慎太郎(“NO”と言える日本)and (それでも「NO」と言える日本)。

bianxiangbianqiao, read the article first.

"SQ: Finding conceptual inspiration is completely normal in the course of writing. The Japan That Can Say No was aimed at America and represented the will of the people of Japan. That book was a valuable reference in terms of concept and attitude. We had our own thinking and starting point for China Can Say No, and our intent diverged from that of the other book. Ours was definitely not derivative, but we did use it as a reference. This is normal, and it's a very common phenomenon in the design of mass-market books. Domestic mass-market books seldom used ideas from overseas, but we were able to do it, which proves that we were successful, at least from a business standpoint."

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