A loyal reader sent this to me and though obviously dated, I found it quite interesting. I re-read Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America a few years ago and was again amazed at how accurately it portrays the United States today, even though it was written in the early 1830s.
The “this” that our reader sent me is a look at America from the perspective of Wu Ting Fang, a Chinese diplomat stationed in the United States in the early 1900s. The “look” is fascinating, both for what it says about the United States and for what it says about China.
The article is entitled, Wu Ting-Fang in America and there is also a podcast version as well. The article is by John Leonard, the M.D. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston.
By 1914, Wu Ting-fang had been a Chinese diplomat in the United States for eight years when, “prodded by an American woman,” he wrote a book on America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat. Dr. Leonard describes it as making “a disorienting, but useful, look at ourselves, even today,” and I agree.
Wu is troubled by America’s casualness in the names given to children:
When he met a man named Coffin he was truly revolted. Names are too important. He’s not superstitious (he claims) but such a name is surely cursed.
I think we can all agree this naming casualness is even truer today.
Wu’s views on the differences between American and Chinese negotiating tactics still holds true today:
The Chinese are tightly bound by protocol and Americans are hopelessly blunt. While we highly value time, Wu suggests that Chinese circumlocution lets parties feel one another out, establish rapport, and save time in the long run.
Wu was both “astonished and delighted by the independent intelligence of American women. He saw them as “far ahead of Chinese women at the time.” He saw them in the “in the workplace, the professions — even running for public office.”
Wu took issue with “American independence:”
He [Wu] really dislikes the independence of our children from their parents. He talks about a young man and woman leaving his parents household when they marry. The idea that the woman isn’t being trained in the role of a wife by her mother-in-law strikes him as bizarre.
I would think most Chinese still view America similarly with respect to the independence we give our children.
Wu does not understand why the people (not the Congress) elect the President here and he is “appalled at the way we grind to a halt during elections.” Wonder what he would think of China’s nearly perpetual Golden Weeks? Wu was “astonished to find middle-class women preparing dinner for guests, and then dining with them.”
In the end though, Wu’s study of difference took him, “as it must take us all, to the essential smallness of outward trivia that divide us” and he “quotes that great Chinese(?) poet William Wordsworth, who says,
Alas! What differs more than man from man,
And whence that difference? Whence but from himself?