China: Why ‘gentleman’ matters


When I tell a Beijing cab driver I’m a British, the conversation tends to go one of two ways. For the more nationalistic cabbie, Hong Kong is the go-to topic, and even the longest journeys through the city can be filled with talk of Maggie Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping and how we should have given it back much sooner than we did.

But the alternative is never discussed at any great length. “Gentleman” is usually said with a smile and a faint nod of approval, not to question what the word means, but as a simple acknowledgment of the subtle but strong notions of Britishness it invokes.

The English Gentleman may be one of our country’s most enduring national symbols, but it is still a somewhat controversial topic back home. Ask 10 Brits what a gentleman is and you’re likely to get 10 different answers, ranging from an exemplary man to a snobbish and pretentious one.

In China, however, the concept has flourished in a wholly positive way. Whether it’s shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock attracting millions of online viewers, or David Beckham delighting vast crowds with his latest hanzi tattoo, it seems China can’t get enough of “gentleman.”

It is interesting to note that the the word itself is rarely translated – it is much more common to hear “gentleman” than to hear shenshi or junzi – suggesting that there is something uniquely British about the notion, in a similar vein to English adopting the words of Chinese concepts like taichi and yin yang.

Although people in Britain may argue over the relevance “gentleman” has today, there is no denying that the concept has indeed played a significant role in shaping our culture and national identity. The British education system has always placed huge value in developing gentlemanly ideals, while our literature is littered with tales of gentleman heroes. (There may not be such a thing as a gentleman manual, but Rudyard Kipling’s poem If… is not a bad substitute.)

As opposed to the religious creeds and official laws that governed our country, “gentleman” acted as an unofficial moral code that encouraged rather than forced people to act decently.

If this description sounds familiar to Chinese readers, it is probably because an almost identical concept is rooted deep within Chinese culture. Junzi, like gentleman, was originality a class status, before it was remodeled by Confucius to mean an exemplary person. A junzi, as with a gentleman, should adhere to a moral code not because they felt they had to, but because they wanted to.

So why has the English Gentleman prospered here while the Chinese Junzi remains largely unheard of in the west? Have the Confucian ideals died out, or are we looking at China with blind eyes? I spoke to two experts to find out more.

Yue-sai Kan is an entrepreneur and author who divides her time between the United States and China. Her book The Chinese Gentleman, backed by the Chinese Ministry of Culture, encouraged Chinese men to adopt a more international set of behavioral standards, and Kan notes that although China is not “at a level we can be proud” of in this regard, she has seen “a big improvement since first doing business here 30 years ago.”

As for the question of image, Kan said that there is still a sense of suspicion felt toward China in the United States because of the lightening speed at which it has grown economically. She states that the prevailing view of Chinese men in the West is that they are all “shrewd businessmen,” in both a positive and negative way.

Nicholas Chrimes, the British author of Cambridge: Treasure Island in the Fens, traveled through China last year lecturing on, among other things, the nature of the English Gentleman.

His take on the topic is that gentleman is a title earned by behavior not circumstance, bearing no relation to wealth or class. With regard to an apparent lack of gentlemen among China’s elite, he believes the fuerdai, the children of the wealthy, and newly rich do not behave in a gentlemanly way because Mao Zedong “swept so many of Chinese society’s civilizing influences into the gutter” during the Cultural Revolution. Britain, meanwhile, has a “more fluid class structure” that doesn’t allow wealth to adversely affect personal conduct.

But Chrimes was also keen to stress the amount of gentlemanly and kind behavior he encountered from all levels of Chinese society during his time here. From “the delightful hospitality of a peasant family in Lijiang,” to “the self mockery of a high-level executive in Shanghai.”

With this in mind, it seems this problem of the missing Chinese gentleman may also lie in misperception. The West’s suspicion of China – reflected and perhaps fueled by the media – means that the behavior of the small minority is allowed to reflect badly on the vast majority. Stories of fuerdai causing fatal accidents with their vintage Ferrari’s or defacing ancient Egyptian ruins receive so much attention because they play up to the image of the uncouth yet wealthy Chinese.

But why is “gentleman” relevant for China, and how might it help?

The answer to this is that it can’t, but the idea of soft power, or cultural power, that lies behind it can. Britain might not lead the world in much these days, but few can match our soft power capabilities, of which the concept of the English Gentleman plays a significant part.

Soft power in a country is something like charm in a person. It can’t be summoned overnight. So when Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping state that China must strive to improve its soft power, it suggests they are missing the point that you can’t try too hard to spread soft power. Chen Guangbiao found this out the hard way when he said he wanted to buy The New York Times as a means of “promoting China’s influence on the international stage,” only to end up doing the exact opposite.China is also doing a poor job in promoting Chinese culture abroad because of its habit of copying others. Western media gleefully pick up on stories about the “Anmani” jeans being sold in markets and the fake English villages like “Thames Town” cropping up around the country.

Soft power is a suit that comes in different styles, but must always be tailored to personal taste. If you try and adopt another country’s style, it will always end up looking awkward and ill-fitting.

Mao once said that power comes from the barrel of a gun. This kind of aggressive attitude may have steered China through miraculous economic growth, but for its soft power to flourish China must embrace its own heritage and adopt a gentler, more gentlemanly, more junzi-like approach.







About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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