Some years ago, I was visiting two Chinese friends, wife and husband, at their home in Palos Verdes. Both of them, and their well-to-do families, had somehow survived the Cultural Revolution and succeeded in leaving the People's Republic of China many years before that. Yet despite their opposition to communism, their love for their mother country was still strong. As we sat in their living room and talked, I was noticing the collection of family antiques that they'd managed to bring to the U.S. with them, now casually displayed in a big glass cabinet -- everything from Ming porcelains (1400-1600) to Shang bronzes (1500 BC).
The wife saw me noticing. She talked feelingly about the sense of continuity and connection with their motherland that the collection radiated into their home.
"It's about all those ways that endure for thousands of years," she said, "no matter what kind of government is running the country, and how well or badly they're running it. No matter whether people are living well or times are hard. That's something that many Westerners will never understand about China. That's why foreign religions never made a dent in China. The missionaries tried hard, but Christianity never dented us, and never will.
Islam too...never made a dent. Only Buddhism made a dent -- but later we tried to run the Buddhists out. The only religions that really made it in China are the ones we created ourselves -- the Tao, Confucius, and so forth. Now today, the rest of the world thinks they're going to dent us. But they won't. The land, the rivers, the ways, even the clans -- they've been there too long to dent."
"What clan are you?" I asked them.
Both of them drew themselves up a little, pridefully, in their armchairs. "We are Han," the husband said.
Today I often think of that conversation as the Olympics draw near. For two weeks, August 8-24, the eyes of the world will be on China, during the summer Games of the XXIX Olympiad. Many Westerners tend to think of the Olympics as "our thing" -- an expression of our own ancient ways, our own goddesses and gods and great heroes, that we willed to update into modern times, that some of us have even tried to Christianize, that we invite other countries around the world to share with us. Though the Olympics were supposed to be a "global" movement, 2008 is only the third time in modern Olympic history that the summer Games will be held in a "non-Western non-Christian" country (Tokyo and Seoul being the two previous). Even Moscow, site of the 1980 Olympics, can't be considered a non-Western venue -- because historically that part of the world was Christian from earliest times.
In 2008 the Chinese will do their own unique non-Western thing with the Games, the way they're doing their own thing with trade, with consumerism. The nation that built the biggest palace, the biggest royal tomb and the longest wall in history, has been doing one of the biggest face-lifts in history, including some of the most imaginative sports venues ever built for the Games.
So often, in its long history, China kept itself inward, isolated. It was so big, it didn't need the rest of the world, except to buy the steady stream of silk that it sent west along the Silk Road. Now and then, though, China opened the door and took a big step out -- as in the early 1400s, when Emperor Chengzu sent out one of the biggest fleets in history to expand diplomatic relations and trade. The fleet visited its way around Southeast Asia, and possibly crossed the Pacific to drop anchor in the Americas. (And by the way, it was Chengzu who built that biggest palace -- the Forbidden City in Beijing.)
Today China is making another of those big steps outward. They've even launched a massive media effort to export their image to the world -- especially to Americans who aren't even sure where China is located. Stepping beyond the propagandistic China Central Television (CCTV), Beijing has just launched a new network, Five Continents Television. 5CTV's programming is more sophisticated and polished and entertaining, focusing on what tourists are interested in -- everything from natural wonders, cuisine and nightlife to ancient temples and tombs and monasteries. I've been watching 5CTV since its launch. It's still propaganda, but very educational. Anybody who thinks that everything old and traditional was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution is in for a big surprise. There is a lot to see.
Looking beyond the tourist posters, Chinese society is experiencing enormous stresses and strains as it undergoes all this massive growth -- including overpopulation and uber-pollution. The government is still struggling with human rights -- and that includes their emerging LGBT movement. But it all comes back to this thing of who dents whom.
In spite of the clear challenges that China faces, I think that Americans -- especially our arrogant ultra-conservatives who feel that their politics and their corporations and their religion should be running the whole world -- still have no idea what is hitting us as China impacts America. We have never dented China, but China is denting us.
Quietly, over the few decades that we've been trading with China, some Americans thought the joke was going to be on the People's Republic, which they viewed as a formidable political enemy but also as an economic joke -- a commie atheist country so poor, so underdeveloped that it was trying to up its steel production by having people smelt pig iron in their back yards. In our conservatives' view, this great upstanding Christian nation of ours, that first unified itself in 1776, was going to take advantage of the struggling misguided commie atheists over there, and make a few bucks off their sweatshop labor and their lack of freedom. They had no idea they were taking on a nation that unified itself in 221 B.C. but never made as big a deal about religion as we do.
Now the joke is on us. The U.S. has gone from a trade balance in 1985 -- exports to China equaling imports from China -- to a monstrous trade deficit in 2008, when we are importing from China more than four times as much as we export. The Chinese are sitting on huge reserves of our money, and we have no religious leverage over them. Not only is the United States broke, but we Americans have let so many human rights be taken away from us by those greedy conservatives running our government and our corporations that we can't look down our noses at the Beijing government's abuses of human rights any more.
So the upcoming Games will be a psychodrama of China's effort to change the world...even as China is being changed. Will China finally be dented? If not by foreign religion, then by its need to continue finding enough foreigners to sell stuff too? Or will my friend be right? Will the United States shatter on the rock of China? Time will tell. But time is exactly what China has.