How rudeness was once a survival strategy
Zhou Xun says China's history may explain mainlanders' reputation today for being pushy. Hard times have taught that those who didn't push to the front didn't survive
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Earlier this month, Thierry Gillier, the founder of French fashion house Zadig & Voltaire, announced to the world that its new boutique hotel, due to open in Paris in 2014, would not welcome Chinese tourists. This shocked and angered many Chinese on the mainland and overseas and Gillier was labelled a racist.
There were, however, a few divergent voices criticising the Chinese tourists themselves as being tasteless, noisy, rude and pushy. Happy Snail, a blogger on the mainland, pointed out that his countrymen often ignore warnings and try to take photos in art galleries, and talk loudly in restaurants. He warned his compatriots to change their "bad habits".
Now I am no self-hating Chinese, but I can understand the unhappiness with loud and rude Chinese tourists. Two weeks ago, I was catching a public bus in Sichuan province. After having spent 20 years in Britain practising how to queue, I naturally stood patiently waiting for the bus to turn up. When the bus pulled into the stop, the waiting crowds rioted.
It was like a contact sport. Two men nearly knocked me down as they pushed forward to get on the bus. Others followed them. Hopelessly I cried: "You are not civilised, you are so rude." No one paid the least bit of notice. By then the bus was completely full and the door closed on me.
Watching the bus leave, I felt angry, but I knew from experience that anger would not get me on the bus, or anywhere, in China. I also knew that to teach people in China manners would not make them less rude or less pushy. Growing up in communist China, one of the first phrases we learned at school was "to be civilised". But in this case the brainwashing did not take hold.
Could the rudeness of Chinese be cultural, someone once asked me. Of course not. Rudeness has nothing to do with Chinese culture. I have fond memories of travelling in Taiwan and was impressed by how polite Chinese people in Taiwan were. So how come mainlanders behave differently and have the reputation of being rude, pushy queue jumpers?
A few years ago, while researching the great famine of Mao Zedong's China, I learned that being pushy at the time was an essential strategy for survival. Faced by the great calamity, selfishness became the norm. One person's gain was always another person's loss.
In the communes' collective canteens, I was told, only cadres and those strong enough to push to the front of the queue could get enough to eat, and those left behind died of starvation.
In the archives I researched and during my interviews with survivors, I constantly came across documents or heard stories of how, just to secure the odd mouthful of food, desperate people were always ready to steal from one another, or even commit murder.
Time and again within many families, there was violent strife over food. One grandma in Sichuan died of starvation because her own grandson had stolen her food ration.
Now, 50 years after the famine, with the economy booming in many cities and a staggering growth in gross domestic product, it seems that Mao's vision of the Great Leap Forward has finally come to pass. China in 2012 feels like a different world to the 1960s. Yet the consequences of the famine continue to cast a long shadow over the country.
The gap between rich and poor is ever widening, and even in the world's second-largest economy, the less-privileged masses still struggle to survive.
After 60 years of life under communism, ordinary people live by the hard lessons beaten into them during the famine: the only way to keep going, to have access to goods and services, is to steal, to cheat, and, most importantly, to always stay one step ahead of the system.
"The party does not care," people say. "If we don't help ourselves, no one is going to help us. OK, you don't approve of people jumping queues, but if we don't jump the queue, we will get nothing." Travelling across China, this is what I hear over and over. Rudeness was a means of survival in communist China then, and remains so today.
Zhou Xun is research assistant professor of history at the University of Hong Kong