American History, Through Chinese Eyes

White male privilege, genocide against Native Americans, slavery and subsequent racial oppression, exploitation of immigrants and laborers, repression of women and homosexuals, and environmental destruction—teaching American cultural history through a post-modern lens is hardly the most obvious way to promote positive feelings toward the United States. Yet that is precisely what Amy Werbel did during her Fulbright year in China.

“We were not going to China to make the United States look better than it is—but rather to share what it feels like to be in a classroom in which everyone is free to scrutinize history without fear,” explains Werbel. A professor of Art History at the State University of New York, Werbel taught courses on American culture from the Civil War to World War I and on America in the 1960s at Guangdong Foreign Studies University between August 2011 and July 2012.

Werbel’s new book Lessons from China: America in the Hearts and Minds of the World’s Most Important Rising Generation chronicles her experiences in and out of the classroom. The book captures Werbel’s Chinese students in their own words as they grapple with America’s tragic and transcendent past and, in doing so, inevitably reflect upon their own country’s past, present, and future.

Teaching critical thinking is no small feat in any cultural context, but China poses particular challenges. The life-altering college entrance examination (gaokao) epitomizes a systematic emphasis on memorization. (The test is virtually the sole determinant of a student’s university placement and subsequent professional opportunities, and it provokes anxieties that have led to cheating scandals and even alleged attacks on exam proctors.) According to Werbel, many of her students had never read primary sources in a history class. Their previous assignments had apparently consisted of regurgitating scholarship from sources vetted by the state’s education bureaucracy.

Werbel is frank about the challenges and limitations in reaching her students. In a unit on American Westward expansion, Chinese student perspectives mirrored the attitudes of most 19th Century Americans. It was possible to get students to empathize with Native Americans but more difficult to see both native and settler communities as equally “civilized” and deserving of a self-defined future.

Chinese ethnic minorities have chafed under their government’s campaign to develop the country’s Western provinces in part through settlement of Han Chinese. During the American westward expansion unit and other periods covered in Werbel’s courses, there is an unmistakable sense of déjà vu. It would be nice to think that certain aspects of the U.S. experience could serve as a cautionary tale. But for those of us who may think that mere access to information can undo China’s social contradictions—such as the persistent Han-Uyghur divide—this book provides a healthy dose of humility.

Some of the most profound “lessons” of the book come when Werbel’s students teach their professor (and the reader) to view American history in a new light. In their analysis of Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography, for example, many students shared the assumption that a person could not be whole without the identity that comes from family and place. One student wrote in English that removal of a slave child from his or her family “is more serious than the segregation or even the genocide because it avoids the cultural links, the inner spiritual essence, be instilled into the new generation [sic].” Only after Werbel visits a family temple in an outlying village during the Spring Festival holiday does she realize how keenly her students empathize with Douglass, who never had the opportunity to know his ancestral home.

The course unit covering America’s conflict in Vietnam and the Anti-War Movement challenged students. They tended to expect democracy to produce “virtuous” policy outcomes, and when it did not, they strained to understand how this could be possible. One student’s written response managed to capture the complexity of the time with the following insight:

The majority of American people considered antiwar protestors as unpatriotic or even traitorous because for them it seemed that if you loved your country enough you should have faith in your mother country and in what it was doing… But to those antiwar protestors, whose number increased as the war proceeded, patriotism meant fighting for the good of the country and stretching out for justice. They saw their loss in the Vietnam War and wanted to put an end to it, which, to my understanding, is a more rational kind of patriotism.

This nuanced view of patriotism—historically rare in the Chinese context and still highly controversial—has begun to creep into mainstream discourse. In a similar vein, on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, lawyer and activist Yuan Yulai (@袁裕来律师) recently tweeted:

Some netizens ask me: ‘You are always criticizing the Chinese government and society, but you never criticize America. Is American really that perfect?’ I answer: I couldn’t say whether America is perfect. I am a Chinese citizen, so it’s my responsibility to criticize the Chinese government and society. This kind of criticism is based upon a profound love of my country. I am not CCTV or the Global Times. I do not have this kind of love for America, nor do I have this responsibility to criticize America.

Yuan’s tweet went viral with more than 35 thousand retweets, ten thousand comments, and 4,753 thumbs up. Today, China’s blogosphere can provide a platform for conversation and exchange of ideas not altogether unlike Professor Werbel’s classroom.

Of course, the Web is no substitute for face-to-face engagement. Upon completing Lessons from China, the reader is left with an appreciation for the value of international exchange programs like Fulbright. In introducing the fellowship that bears his name, Senator William Fulbright suggested that regular and ongoing intellectual exchange would “continue the process of humanizing mankind to the point, we would hope, that men can learn to live in peace—eventually even in cooperation in constructive activities rather than compete in a mindless contest of mutual destruction.”

While Professor Werbel does not claim to have ended the world’s “mindless contests,” both she and her students gained a bit more mutual empathy and exercised their abilities to see the world as others see it. This kind of emotional intelligence will be critical if both countries are to operate successfully in this interconnected century.