One way or another, the “wise, old Chinese man” became one of Western pop culture’s oldest tropes.
I think part of the trope comes from two fictional characters: one is Charlie Chan, whose alliterative name even evokes his heritage; the other, Mr. Miyagi, gave us the memorable tagline “wax on, wax off,” even though he’s actually Japanese. His wisdom and power became associated with Eastern culture.
Even the sitcom Seinfeld poked fun at the trope way back in 1994:
I think that trope is a big part of why we in the West have this tendency to view China as this mysterious and elusive “other” place. As a kid, for example, I’d heard my dad say, “What are you doing, digging a hole to China?” but that’s about all I ever heard about China.
In the absence of concrete knowledge about the country, it was easier to fall back on the stereotype — including, of course, the schoolboy wisdom of “Confucius say …” jokes, which were the forerunner to Chuck Norris jokes.
I can’t help thinking: this reverence for China is why so much of the world cast aside their long-established pandemic playbooks and followed China’s lead into a policy of lockdowns and Zero Covid. It’s as if governments everywhere thought, “Hey — China knows what they’re doing, let’s do the same!” (Not because they actually thought lockdowns would help, but because politicians saw the pandemic as an opportunity to increase their own power.)
Now, though, we do have concrete knowledge about China, and we have to update our perception of it. It’s not the magical land of milk and honey we thought it was. We know, for example, that while it does confer some benefits, traditional Chinese medicine has mostly been usurped by real medicine. Social media (yes, the ones the Chinese Communist Party has banned) have helped us see behind the wall and learn how the Chinese government really operates. And thus, we know that China is ruled by a slave-holding, totalitarian regime. We know it spies on its citizens, is hostile to those who dare speak out, and for almost 40 years, tried to restrict family size.
Above all, we know about the Chinese government’s genocidal abuses of individual rights and liberty.
But social media and other new technologies have also helped us see that the Chinese people are a lot like the people of the rest of the world: they want to run businesses and invent products. They want to raise good children and build strong communities. They want to travel and learn and love. They just need their government to get out of the way.
Still, it’s worth repeating, because we have to reverse that stereotypical, built-in fondness for so-called “ancient wisdom.” Just because something’s ancient doesn’t mean it’s wise. And just because Confucius (or even some other thinker of renown — even if that’s Ludwig von Mises!) said something, doesn’t mean it’s beyond reproach.
And it certainly doesn’t exempt their philosophies from being bastardized by those in power to suit certain political agendas.
To learn more about how the Chinese Communist Party used Confucius’s teachings to suit their own agenda, watch our video below:
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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.