Lectern

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

"Lin-sanity" reveals Chinese culture

The Jeremy Lin phenomenon has occasioned lots of discussion in the U.S. of everything from Harvard and basketball to stereotypes and racism about Asian-Americans. It has also gotten some fascinating reactions in China that say something about traditional Chinese culture and about the state of Chinese politics today.
 
As a fascinating report on CNN noted, Lin-sanity has definitely hit China. Its arrival there should serve as a reminder of what the CNN report referred to as a “wide and inclusive sense of national identity” in Chinese culture. When an athlete whose ancestors came from Italy or Sweden makes it big in a U.S. sport that is followed abroad, it does get some minor special play in those countries, perhaps including local media interviews with relatives of the star still back in the country of origin. But, deep down, most Chinese actually think that the descendents of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. are really Chinese, not American – a view tied in with the long-time (though now fading) strong Chinese identification of “overseas Chinese” in Asia with their homeland, which often included not even taking citizenship where they lived. 

As I often point out to Chinese audiences, while we in the U.S. refer to “Chinese-Americans,” Chinese call these people “American-born Chinese.” The former implies Americans whose background is Chinese, the latter Chinese who happened to have been born in the U.S. It reflects the cultural difference between how we see immigration in the U.S. and how Chinese see people of Chinese origin abroad.
 
But there is also something Lin-sanity reveals about the current, precarious state of Chinese politics, with its hard-to-understand mixture of censorship and repression with pluralism and freedom. As a perceptive article in the Financial Times noted, the official Chinese media have been basically quiet about Lin – he is an open Christian, and Taiwanese flags have been waved during his games in the U.S.  However, the official media no longer fully control the political debate by any means, thanks not the least to what is quickly becoming a crucial new feature of Chinese politics, the rise of microblogging, known in Chinese as weibo (“bo” is the sound-alike word for “blog,” while “wei” means micro). Twitter is blocked in China, but this is the domestic equivalent. 

Lin has a million weibo followers in China, and they are writing and posting videos about him, though the official media is largely silent. On a politically more serious note, there has been virtually nothing in the official media surrounding the fate of Bo Xilai, a top party leader who may or may not be in eclipse, following a bizarre story involving an effort by a top lieutenant to seek political asylum at a U.S. consulate. This story, however, has been all over weibo. 

As frequently occurs with sensitive stories, there has been an attempt to block the news – the name Bo Xilai gets no hits on weibo. However, as also frequently occurs, Chinese are making use of homonyms, which abound in Chinese, and word plays to get around the blocking – in this case they are playing on that Bo’s name sounds like the Chinese word for “thin” and calling him (in Chinese) “not thick” on weibo, which apparently is not blocked – though the question remains how, if I know about this workaround, why the government doesn’t block it as well. 

The era of Jeremy Lin is also an interesting era of transition in today’s China.

Posted on Feb 22, 2012 at 7:27 PM


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