I've been away for a bit, giving lectures in Chicago and Milwaukee, and that, and other things, have distracted me from blogging. But I received various responses on the last post below and those replies have sparked some other thoughts on this topic; so here goes:
On the question of whether foreigners can ever really know "China," we should recognize that there are certain barriers to understanding. Language is one. Learning the language opens a door to wider understanding of China, and it takes time, a fairly long time, for foreigners to learn Chinese. When I started out learning Chinese, thirty years ago, there weren't that many of us in the advanced classes (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981, there were only five of us in fourth year Chinese!). At that time, relatively few Americans had the capacity to engage China and Chinese culture in its own language. There were, of course, Americans then who through not only linguistic but also historical and philosophical and political study, knew a great deal about China. But that capacity was somewhat limited.
Now, we have a rather different situation. Many, many more American college students study Chinese and travel to China. And Chinese language learning proliferates at the elementary and secondary levels. On this important dimension, we have to say that the US now has much greater capacity to understand China than ever before.
Yet, precisely when more Americans are learning Chinese and living and working in China, we have strong assertions that Americans cannot understand China. Why?
First off, we should recognize that there continue to be misunderstandings. That is inevitable on both sides of the relationship. There are cultural differences and sometimes those differences, on both sides, will distort and cloud perceptions and knowledge. But that's not the whole story.
Something I have noticed is the similarity here between China and Japan. It is fairly common in Japan (and perhaps it was more common, especially in the nihonjinron boom of the 1980s) to say that linguistic and cultural particularities make it difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to truly understand Japan. And, again, there are certain barriers, though they are not insurmountable. There is a lot of great scholarship and understanding, on the part of some Americans, of Japan and Japanese culture. There is some misunderstanding and distortion as well but that does not mean it is impossible for outsiders to understand Japan, just that they have to work carefully at it.
In thinking further about Japan, we can see how history and politics inform claims about the possibility of understanding. Japan was the first Asian country to modernize on its own terms, outside of colonial or semi-colonial control, or even, after 1895, extraterritoriality. It changed rapidly and extensively after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. And that transformation was deeply destabilizing culturally. The national identity that emerged, at the turn of the twentieth century, placed Japan in a unique position globally: at the crossroads of East and West, taking from both and positioning itself as the leader of a modernizing Asia. Ultimately, cultural nationalism fueled Japanese imperialism in the region, the defeat of that imperialism and unconditional surrender in the wake of US nuclear assault. Post-war Japanese identity thus, in the 1950's and 1960's sought to downplay the earlier assertions of Japanese cultural uniqueness, which had been appropriated by militarists to rationalize imperialist expansion.
It was not until economic success produced a dynamic Japanese "model" in the 1970s and 1980s that cultural nationalism was significantly reasserted. Economic success provided a new basis for cultural particularism, removed from the old imperialist militarism. And so, we get many more statements of "Japanese uniqueness" and the impossibility of foreigners truly understanding Japan. Although this attitude seems to have subsided somewhat in the new millennium, it is still to be found (interesting pdf on the topic here, which states, among other things: "...nihonjinron has also taken a different direction over the years as it includes a sense of a liberal view and an idea of negotiation. It may still hold a sense of nationalism, but it has been compromised due to Japan’s declining economic power as well as its new generation which is less interested in Japanese tradition and culture.")
So what does this imply for China? A similar political-economic dynamic could be at work. China's rapid modernization of recent years has brought cultural transformation and destabilization. What does it mean to be "Chinese" now? That question is more open and more contested than at just about any other time in Chinese history. While that can be liberating for some, it can be rather disorienting for others. And out of that struggle comes a desire, in some quarters, for clarity and closure, for a clearer sense of knowing, precisely, what it is to be "Chinese." Since the "West" is often blamed as the source of destabilizing change that brings cultural inauthenticity, creating walls - ontological walls, epistemological walls, philosophical walls - between "China" and the "West" is a means of establishing temporary (and, in the end, illusory) calm in the socio-cultural storm. Chinese know who they are, and they are not Western, and Westerners cannot really know what it means to be genuinely Chinese: this is a reaction to the massive economic and social and cultural changes that have been sweeping China in recent decades. That's why we have a strong "the West cannot understand China" sentiment today.
As the comparison with Japan suggests, I do not buy Chinese exceptionalist arguments, just as I do not buy American exceptionalist arguments. Yes, each national history and culture unfolds in its own particular way. But those processes are not each sui generis; they are subject to similar global economic and political forces and there are similarities in those national trajectories. There might be specific national experiences of modernization, but they are all expressions of broader dynamics of modernization.