Friday, May 15, 2009

Tai-Pan: Cultural Differences

One of Clavell's strengths in this book is his ability to illustrate different cultural viewpoints. Each culture in the book is convinced that they are the superior race, and all other cultures are barbarians.

William Longstaff (page 90-91 in my edition)
"Why the devil (the Chinese) can't act like civilized people I'll never know.... 'Pon me word, we have to be late four hours to prove we're 'superior' when of course everyone knows we're superior!"
Dirk Struan (talking about Chinese attitudes, page 94-95)
"For fifty centuries the chinese have called China the Middle Kingdom - - the land that the gods have placed between heaven above and the earth beneath. By definition a Chinese is a uniquely superior being. They all believe that anyone else - - anyone - - is a barbarian and of no account.... As far as they're concerned, Queen Victoria is a barbarian vassal who should pay tribute."
Jin-qua (page 139)
Jin-qua closed his eyes for a moment and thought about European barbarians. They were hairy and apelike. Their manners were repulsive and ugly. They stank beyond belief. They had no culture or manners or graces. Even the lowest coolie was ten thousand times better than the best European.... And the foods that the barbarians ate - - hideous. He had been to their dinners many times annd had to sit through the innumerable courses, almost faint with nausea and pretending not to be hungry. (description of various western foods) All in monstrous amounts. Like pigs - - like sweating, gluttonous Gargantuan devils. Unbelievable!
This disparity of opinion carries on throughout the book. What slowly happens with Dirk is he starts to adapt to the Chinese attitudes, and starts to adopt some of their habits. He drinks tea rather than dirty water or gallons of beer. Dirk mandates wiping one's posterior after excreting solid waste, then washing hands, to minimize the spread of germs and disease. Dirk starts to enjoy the local foods, and appreciate the effects of the different type of nutrition.

Clavell does this in his other books as well. In Sho-gun, the Englishman is slowly converted to a Japanese way of thinking.

In Noble House, the descendents of Dirk Struan are now actually native to 1960's Hong Kong - many were born there and speak the language and understand the culture viscerally. Interestingly, in the 1960s, Clavell shows that there's still little or no intermarriage between cultures - the Europeans marry Europeans, the Eurasians to Eurasians, and Chinese to Chinese. While intermarriage is nominally accepted, it's quietly ignored.

Do you ever find yourself thinking "...of course everyone knows we're superior!" And then stop to wonder just how that other culture is seeing you?

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