"Feeling the China elephant" phenomenon 盲人摸象

The illustration is from the MOP discussion forum, a commentator posted in repsonse to Jessey Meng Guangmei's toilet-gate controversy (more details in Chinese).

The comic illustrates the Chinese proverb "Blind men feeling the elephant 盲人摸象" (which probably originated from India, and spread to China with Buddhism)
  • It was six men of Indostan
    To learning much inclined,
    Who went to see the Elephant
    (Thought all of them were blind).
    That each by observation
    Might satisfy his mind.

    The FIRST approached the Elephant
    And happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side
    At once began to bawl:
    'God bless me, but the Elephant
    Is very like a wall!'

    The SECOND, feeling of the tusk,
    Cried 'Ho! What have we here
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me 'tis mightly clear
    This wonder of an Elephant
    Is very like a spear.'

    The THIRD approached the animal,
    And happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    Thus boldly up and spake:
    'I see, 'quoth he, 'the Elephant
    Is very like a snake!'

    The FOURTH reached out his eager hand,
    And felt about the knee,
    'What most this wondrous beast is like
    Is mightly plain, 'quoth he:
    'Tis clear enough the Elephant
    Is very like a tree!'

    The FIFTH, who chanced to touch the ear,
    Said: 'E'en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most,
    Deny the fact who can,
    This marvel of an Elephant
    Is very like a fan!'

    The SIXTH no sooner had begun
    About the beast to grope,
    Than, seizing on the swinging tail
    That fell within his scope,
    'I see, 'quoth he, 'the Elephant
    Is very like a rope!'

    And so these men of Indostan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong.
    Though each was partly in the right
    And all were in the wrong.

    So, oft in theologic wars
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean
    And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!
The comic above shows Meng saying this
  • "The elephant, YOU KNOW, is jut one rope...
  • And, it feels very rough to my hand...
  • Judging from my many years of modeling, talk show hosting, and acting experiences, the elephant, is just like a rope and nothing more."
I do not have anything more insightful to say about the constroversy around Ms Meng than already discussed in sites like the Mop, except these minor tidbits,
  1. Meng handled the response extremely poorly (threatening to sue) for something which could have been dealt with much easier (the more vicious host Li Jing simply apologized and no one picked on her);
  2. There are some inconsistencies which illustrates Meng's carelessness (e.g. She said People's Square when mentioning the toilets on July/1/1997, but earlier said she went to Beijing on that day. The Chinese poster concluded she meant to say TAM in BJ) - the original videos are quite hilarious, though the facts discussed often dated and even wrong, but what do you expect from a cheap talk show;
  3. For netizen comments from both camps see Mop, which also asked commentator to identify themselves on the 2 opposite camps (optionally) and selected/organized representative arguments from both sides. I think this approach is ingenious and will be adopted by many content sites, forums and even blogs which draw a lot of comments.
  4. To be fair to Ms Meng, when the host Li Jing pressed about rumours of artists being kidnapped or coerced by 'triad gangsters' in mainland, Meng and the other 2 guests spoke the truth in defense of the mainland, saying this never happens in major cities such as Shanghai/Beijing, and that even in smaller cities it is unorganized coercion or business disputes at worst.
What I want to talk about here is the ubiquitous phenomenon in China-related internet forum and blogs written in English, the phenomenon of "Feeling the China elephant". Such phenomenon is understandable, given Ms Meng, who has spent over 10 years in mainland China and HK, and a native speaker in Chinese, still makes confusing mistakes ranging from names of locations to the sensitivies of mainland Chinese audiences.

China is an enormous country, both geographically and demographically. Everyone watching China, including this blogger, is trying to feel his elephant with a partial view. In the controversial talk show Meng starred, there is a discussion about how each province has its own celebrities, and a provincial celebrities is hardly recognized in other part of China. This illustrates the fragmentation pretty well.

It is also very easy to reach an absurd conclusion if one is not careful. An example would be the Koguryo history controversy. While a simple minded reader may react to China's incorporating Koguryo into its own national history as a sign for soveriegnty ambition on the whole of Korea peninsula, the reality is that PR China was only being defensive on the current boundary in which there are a few millions of Korean minorities and a few very important ancient Koguryo heritage sites, using a rather clumsy backward projection of its current geography and demography as one of its historic views.

Therefore, it is important to remember how incomplete our eye sights are, and always look for different POV for comparison. In addition, we need to note everyone, this blogger included, is biased in his/her own way, given what s/he saw, read, heard, and experienced. (related quote: as Thomas Barnett said, "Chinese like the Western look because it's rare there, but the same logic holds true for China's appeal to the rest of the world.")

There are, of course, people who push their own agendas, by presenting distorted/selected facts, decorated with subjective false logic. They are trying to tell you the elephant looks like a rope even though they themselves see more than that. The often used trick is to quote isolated and unsubstantiated cases and try to mislead readers into over-generalization. Examples are revealed in the following posts/comments 偉大的反共文豪, 文化郭芙, Quacking Canard.


Sun Bin said...

For those angry who blamed Ms Meng, please watch what she did in Taipei in this video

Anonymous said...

"China is an enormous country, both geographically and demographically. Everyone watching China, including this blogger, is trying to feel his elephant with a partial view."

Yes, I couldn't agree more with this sentence. Lin Yutang, in the 1935 preface to his well known book, My Country and My People, wrote that "China is too big a country, and her national life has too many facets, for her not to be open to the most diverse and contradictory of interpretations."

This is even more true of today's China than it was of the time Lin was writing.

I've having an interesting discussion about China's governance and society today, called the "MAJ-Sojourner Debates" which is an attempt to test differing views on China. We'd love to hear your perspective too, Sun Bin, if you're interested.

Mark Anthony Jones

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