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Eli Bildner senior contributor

Lost in Translation: The Culture Wars

Just minutes after CNN declared Rick Santorum winner of Louisiana’s Saturday GOP primary, China’s netizens were already posting their Sunday-morning reactions — in sentence and smiley-face form — on the country’s most popular microblogging sites.

“Don’t get excited too soon,” one Tencent Weibo user warned. “But at least it’s a step towards hope.” Another user with the moniker “Baby” retorted with a grimacing “.”

As the US primary season dawdles on, its eclectic cast—from early dropouts like Donald Trump and Herman Cain to active contestants like Santorum and Mitt Romney—has continued to pique the interest of Chinese netizens and commentators. A few weeks ago, New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos dubbed Super Tuesday China’s “second or third most impressive political event of the week,” alongside Putin’s election victory and Premier Wen Jiaobao’s annual report to the Parliament. And a casual shuffle through a few of the tens of thousands of election-related microblog posts uncovers Santorum supporters in Shandong (@王轼衡 gushes: “When he smiles, he kind of looks like Nicholas Cage”) and Romney partisans in Shenzhen (“He isn’t as good as Ron Paul, but at least he’ll get Obama out of there,” opines @cooldj).   

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the themes of sex, scandal, and wealth dominate the discussion; alongside their American counterparts, Chinese netizens lampoon Santorum for his war on hardcore pornography, Gingrich for his marital infidelity, and Romney for his forced chumminess and Cadillac collection. But what’s largely missing from the Chinese message boards is any real discussion (aside from copied Wall Street Journal or Reuters reports) of the underlying themes of the 2012 GOP campaign. Or, to quote Osnos’s description of Super Tuesday, the 2012 election is, to the Chinese, “vaudeville—a raucous, traveling show with a narrative [they strain] to discern.”

If Chinese observers see this election as a vaudeville, it is because one of the central divides of the primary campaign—America’s “culture war”—is a conflict that simply does not translate for a Chinese audience.

In 1991, as America reveled in its Cold War triumph, sociologist James Hunter warned of a new “culture war”, a struggle over “the meaning of America…who we, as a nation, will aspire to become in the new millennium.” Two decades later, this “culture war” continues to flare. In 2010, over 40% of Americans self-identified as “very conservative,” constituting the largest ideological bloc in American politics. Two years later, the race for the GOP presidential nomination has become a referendum on the direction of the Republican Party, pitting Romney on the right, and Santorum on the far right.

Most Americans, having lived through nearly 20 years of cultural struggle, intuitively understand the political context in which Santorum, for example, can pillory John F. Kennedy’s landmark speech on the separation of church and state, and in which Romney is called to defend his early support for abortion rights. But for many Chinese, cultural conflicts over topics like religion, homosexuality, and the power of the federal government add to an atmosphere of confusion.

This sense of confusion is reflected on the discussion threads of Sina, QQ and other Chinese social media services. For instance, a short news item on Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault of birth control activist Sandra Fluke prompted over 1600 Weibo reposts and comments. Most responders simply copied and pasted a short quote attributed to Obama reading, “No citizen should be subject to attack simply for expressing his opinion on public policy.” More waggish ripostes included @卡尔梅克Kalmykia decrying “vicious capitalism” and @丑丑2a2 suggesting that Obama, upon the completion of his presidential service, should “come to China and take up the post of Party secretary.”

Entirely missing in the thread, however, was any discussion over the underlying issues of state-funded birth control and abortion policy. One of the few commentators who did bring up abortion policy did so by asking fellow netizens for recommendations on background reading: “I don’t know if there’s any short history on abortion in America?” asked @鸽格葛各. “The abortion question is something Americans are all stuck on.”

In a way, Chinese observers of American politics lack even the terminology to explain this cultural conflict. Take, for example, the word “culture war”. In Chinese, “culture war” is most commonly rendered as wenhua zhanzheng (a literal translation). But to most Chinese ears, the term wenhua zhanzheng — particularly when preceded by meiguo (“America”)—has nothing to do with birth control, homosexuality, or Rick Santorum.

In late 2011, Chinese President Hu Jintao published an essay that continues to define the idea of a “culture war” in China. In his essay (garrulously titled “Unswervingly Walk the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Strive to Build a Nation of Strong Socialist Culture”), President Hu warns of a “culture war” (wenhua zhanzheng) in which America “exploits its strength to export cultural products throughout the world, just as England, many years ago, exported opium to China.” President Hu concludes: “The consequences of such cultural aggression are far more grave than the military aggression and economic pillaging of years past.”

“Poetry is what is lost in translation,” Robert Frost once wrote. At times, culture can be too. While there are certainly a number of Chinese observers fluent enough in American culture to understand the context of the GOP primary battle, for casual followers of American politics, the Republican campaign will likely remain more political vaudeville than political history.

America’s election season is young, and plenty of time and server space remain to accommodate thousand-post Weibo discussions of Romney or Obama or Santorum. But what is unlikely to change is the manner in which these candidates are inspected: as politicians and individuals, but not as landmarks on an American cultural battlefield.

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Eli Bildner

Since moving to China after graduating from college, Eli Bildner has lived in Yunnan, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. You can read more of his essays and poetry at www.elibildner.com.
  • http://twitter.com/Alec_Oh Alec O

    Interesting article and interesting to read about how Chinese netizens are responding to US election process. I think however all the talk of Chinese confusion over abortion, and pornography, and separation of religion and state is really missing the point of why Chinese netizens are discussing elections: because they’re interested in democracy and public debate and how that happens in the US. The particular issues and policies being debated are really irrelevant and of no interest to the majority of Chinese netizens. That’s the reason why when responding to Rush Limbaugh’s statements on abortion, Chinese netizens posted about the importance of freedom of speech; that’s what’s of primary relevance to them, not US birth control history.

  • http://twitter.com/Alec_Oh Alec O

    Interesting article and interesting to read about how Chinese netizens are responding to US election process. I think however all the talk of Chinese confusion over abortion, and pornography, and separation of religion and state is really missing the point of why Chinese netizens are discussing elections: because they’re interested in democracy and public debate and how that happens in the US. The particular issues and policies being debated are really irrelevant and of no interest to the majority of Chinese netizens. That’s the reason why when responding to Rush Limbaugh’s statements on abortion, Chinese netizens posted about the importance of freedom of speech; that’s what’s of primary relevance to them, not US birth control history.

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  • Sascha

    I agree with Alec. For Chinese abortion and homosexuality are not issues. Abortion here is something like a common form of birth control and accepted as such really. Homosexuality is accepted as well. The conservative right in America might seem silly to the Chinese, as it does to most of the rest of the world as well; while the left seems somewhat naiive. 

    The issues in America are far removed from me as well, even though I am American. The culture war that your map so sadly displays says more about why I left than why I care. The truth is so much sadder … the culture war as a red herring to obfuscate who truly has the last say when it comes to the question,

    What is America?

    Chinese could never really care about or understand this. I think Alec is right: the spectacle of a dozen Bo Xilai’s yapping it out in public is infinitely more interesting.

    • http://www.elibildner.com/ Eli Bildner

      Thanks for the interesting comments, Alex and Sascha. I hear where you guys are coming from. Certainly, Chinese are not following the US elections because they care about what we Americans consider “cultural issues”. Much has been made of China’s “pragmatic” policy-making that subordinates potentially sensitive “cultural issues” from family planning to architecture to utilitarian decision-making.

      At the same time, the problem I was trying to highlight in this post was that of translation. There’s always a danger in cultural mis-translation. While US cultural issues may not feel “important” to Chinese observers, they are: The “culture war” we face in America is a natural offspring of our democracy, and not an aberration of it. Could China maintain its “scientific” policy-making as a democratic country? Maybe, but either way, it’s a question that deserves attention. BTW — Liu Xiaobo has a terrific essay about “revolution” and the problem of translation that might be of interest: http://www.tsquare.tv/links/LiuXiaobo.html

  • Sascha

    I agree with Alec. For Chinese abortion and homosexuality are not issues. Abortion here is something like a common form of birth control and accepted as such really. Homosexuality is accepted as well. The conservative right in America might seem silly to the Chinese, as it does to most of the rest of the world as well; while the left seems somewhat naiive. 

    The issues in America are far removed from me as well, even though I am American. The culture war that your map so sadly displays says more about why I left than why I care. The truth is so much sadder … the culture war as a red herring to obfuscate who truly has the last say when it comes to the question,

    What is America?

    Chinese could never really care about or understand this. I think Alec is right: the spectacle of a dozen Bo Xilai’s yapping it out in public is infinitely more interesting.

    • http://www.elibildner.com/ Eli Bildner

      Thanks for the interesting comments, Alex and Sascha. I hear where you guys are coming from. Certainly, Chinese are not following the US elections because they care about what we Americans consider “cultural issues”. Much has been made of China’s “pragmatic” policy-making that subordinates potentially sensitive “cultural issues” from family planning to architecture to utilitarian decision-making.

      At the same time, the problem I was trying to highlight in this post was that of translation. There’s always a danger in cultural mis-translation. While US cultural issues may not feel “important” to Chinese observers, they are: The “culture war” we face in America is a natural offspring of our democracy, and not an aberration of it. Could China maintain its “scientific” policy-making as a democratic country? Maybe, but either way, it’s a question that deserves attention. BTW — Liu Xiaobo has a terrific essay about “revolution” and the problem of translation that might be of interest: http://www.tsquare.tv/links/LiuXiaobo.html