Fifth of November

Remember remember the Fifth of November! In celebration of Guy Fawkes day, I thought I would write a little bit about the notion of the rebel, especially since it serendipitously came up in class today.

For the last week my Chinese students have been studying archetypes of characters in world literature. Of course, this actually means Western archetypes and literature. Many characters translate to Eastern cultures: the hero of course, the female temptress of course, the mentor, the allies, etc. But three characters boldly oppose the most fundamental Chinese sensibilities. The primary of these is the Rebel.

Westerners have a soft spot in their hearts for the rebel. The outlaw, the cowboy, the James Dean. We have romanticized this character to no end: Robin Hood, Han Solo, Captain Sparrow, the list goes on and on. Even Guy Fawkes, a man who planned the murder of hundreds of non-combatants to overthrow the government and institute violent anarchy in real life gets his own cool movie, mask, and slogan. Therefore I assigned my “coolest” boy the task of presenting this character to his ninth grade class. (Or, “Grade 9” class, because the word “ninth” is too difficult to say.) I expected Paul would love this assignment. Imagine my surprise when he defines a rebel as a bad guy who betrays the hero. “He should die.”

I have to chime in. “The two big characteristics of a rebel are he is independent and he defies authority.” I continue to explain he does not like to be controlled, he breaks the rules, and he is often on his own and not part of the group. As these concepts tumble thoughtlessly out of my mouth, I watch my students become sullen and confused. I slowly become aware that I am describing everything that fights the very core of the Chinese identity. Finally, in desperation, I blurt out, “But audiences like him. He’s sexy.”

Nothing. The only sound is the air filter uselessly blasting away.

Then one of my bravest girls raises her hand and asks, “Why is he sexy if he is alone?”

Chinese identity centers around community. I have heard different version of the order of the communities each person belongs to, but the three communities are these: your country, your city/village, your family. Usually in this order. Outside these communities a person is nothing. Everything is for the group. Food symbolizes this value at the most basic level. All food is shared from a communal bowl; there are no individual plates. Everyone contributes and everyone benefits. When a person leaves home to make their way in the world, they still send most of their earnings back to their family and village. A loner does not contribute. Therefore he has no honor and no respect. Historically, the greatest punishment is exile.

Then there is the concept of control, which makes Americans shudder. We start to finger the guns that Easterners believe we all own as we narrow our eyes suspiciously in the direction of authority. Chinese people experience a completely opposite visceral reaction. Comfort, warm fuzzies, confidence, a gentle blanket – these are their concepts of control. What scares us the most they find the most comforting. I have heard it explained like this: If someone tells you what to do, everyone knows what to do and there is no confusion. You do what you are told and then you know you are doing the right thing. And when you do the right thing then you know you are good and have honor. So you are happy and everybody is happy.
Of course, Westerners would say that the flaw in this logic is that leaders might be telling you something that is bad, not good. But that is basing logic on a different system. How do you define good and bad? By Chinese definition good is what you are told. Good is defined by the leader, not an objective or absolute esoteric idea.

Faced with this logic, I conceded defeat – the rebel is a character who creates complex feelings in his audience. But! He always comes back at the end to to help the hero (because he is sorry he betrayed him) and therefore we can like him again! He should not die! They agreed to not kill him and we moved on.

Conclusion: remember remember to always assume nothing when it comes to cultural expectations!


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