Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie
Release Date: 11/02/2016
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Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas people and movements who have shaped rehtorical history. Before we get started, big announcement: Rerecordings are over! We’ve re-recorded over 80 episodes here in the studio thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas. That’s an incredible feat and now that we’re done, there’s no more reruns, at least for a while. We’ve had new ones interspersed yeah, but now it’s all new from here on out. The other news is that having defended my dissertation and finished my time here at the University of Texas --boo!--I’m headed to the University of Houston Clear Lake --yippie! That means this might we one of the last episodes we record here at the booth at the University of Texas. Well, I hope it’s a good one!
Today we’re talking about LuMing Mao’s Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie. This book is not, as you might suspect, a treatise on how to decipher phrases like “Your smile is your best asset” or “Defeat your enemies by making them friends.” Instead, Mao is talking about what the fortune cookie represents. It might surprise you to know that fortune cookies are not the traditional end of meals in China. They aren’t even the dessert when you go to a Chinese restaurant in Europe. The fortune cookie is an American-Chinese invention, combining an ancient way to pass notes undetected with the American proclivity towards dessert at the end of a meal (18). In this sense, “Like the Chinese fortune cookies, the making of Chinese American rhetoric is born of two rhetorical traditions, and made both visible and viable at rhetorical borderlands as a process of becoming” (18). That’s the meaning of Mao’s Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie--we’re not talking about Chinese rhetoric, and no American rhetoric, but something distinctively Chinese American
All of this adds up to being more or less fluidly comfortable with these different elements. This might sound like a cheesy platitude about tolerance and strength of immigrants, but it’s more complex than that, argues Mao. “‘Togetherness-in-difference”--rather than harmony-in-difference--...becomes constitutive of the making of Chinese American rhetoric,” he writes (29). Instead of trying to be perfectly assimilated, this “togetherness-in-difference” highlights a distance between non-Western rhetoric and the other Americans around them.
First, we need to “recognize that there will be times when instances of incommensrablity become irreducible” (28) Second this is not a matter of celebrating diversity because, as Mao says, “there is nothing to celebrate”--the emergence of Chinese American rhetoric is a rhetoric of survival based on as the scholar Mao cites, Ang says ‘the fundamental uneasiness’ of interconnection. Third, Mao points out “at rhetorical borderlands where there is more than one... rhetorical tradition, if nothing else, the basic question of commununication never goes away in terms of who has the floor, who secures the uptake, and who gets listened to” (29).
Much of the book then focus on what these differences in rhetoric are and how we are to interpret them. For example, Mao talks about the (in)famous Chinese indirection. While the American academic writing values clarity, Chinese indirection communicates through “subtle, direct strategies, through innuendoes and allusions” (61). Many American writers, especialy those who teach first-year composition and English as a foreign language, or work in writing centers, find themselves slashing through sentences and paragraphs and repeated asking, “What are you trying to say here?” This deficiency model ignores the rich possiblities of indirection.
Okay, so get comfortable, because here’s a long quote from Mao: “Chinese indirection should not be seen, without discrimination, simply as an example of a non transparent style of communication or, worse still, of indecision and incoherence. Chinese indirection, be it realized or articulated by repeated appeals to tradition/authority or y recurrent parallel statements with or without a transparent profession of ideas, takes on new meanings or associations within its (newly-developed) context. To put the matter another way, the contextualized nature of the chinese language and the dominance of correlative thinking of the chinese language and the dominance of correlative thinking in Chinese culture both constitute a central context to understand the rhetoric of Chinese indirection more completely and provide a metadiscourseive language to talk about and reflect upon it more felicitously” (71). But remember the Chinese fortune cookie? Chinese American rhetoric doesn’t have a list of characteristics, but “border residents can behin to take advantage of this oportunity to develop and try out new ways of speaking, and to reconstitute rules of relationships and patters [sic] of communication” (75).
Another section talks about the mysterious and misunderstood concept of “face.” Americans will use phrases like “saving face” or “losing face” Mao points out, but they are talking about “the myth of the individual, of the individual’s need either to be free or to be liked” in contrast to the “public, communical orination, which underpins the original concept of Chinese face” (38). For one thing, there are two kinds of “face”: lian, which refers to moral dignity, integrity and shame and mianzi, which is more about what you do with your life, your position in society. Usually when Westerners think about losing face, they mean mianzi--prestige and position. Lian, though, the moral integrity, is consistered far more important and far worse to loose than mianzi (39). But Westerns think about pride, not the “ever-expanding circle of face-giving and -receiving in one’s own community and beyond” (43). This balance of self and community gets even more complicated as Chinese Americans negotiate and transform multiple communities. The urge to “yi”-- immigrate, move, transform-- re-emphasises that “togethenessr-in -difference”-- to “moliblize and put to practice a hybrid rhteoric that ...openly cultivates not a harmonious fusion,” but recognizes inherent tensions and potential” (50)?
This double-mindedness is not just a cultural sophistic exercise, but a robust theory that has implications in communities, in classrooms and in families. Mao closes his book with a sustatined case study of a statement prepared by Chinese Americans and others to protest the racist statements of a Cincinnati city councilman. Mao doesn’t just consider the document itself in this hybridity, but the process of putting together the document, of addressing the Westerner-American city council as well as the Chinese American community they are representing. Mao ends with three practical suggestions from his case study. First “we try to assert our agency and to establish our residency” to “speak out more openly about thee experiences” (141), and second “learn ow to place ourselves in the other’s position and ‘word the world through the other’s eyes”... “incorporating both self and other into a relaionship of interdependence and interconnectedness” (141-2). Finally, he calls for Chinese American scholars to “reconnect to our own rhetorical history”... as it “enables us to resist both the discourse of assimilation and the discourse of deficiency or difference” (142).
Reading this book reminded me of some of the other scholars who have felt pulled in two different traditions, like “Bootstraps” which was in an earlier episode. Well, I hope you don’t feel pulled in two different directions about this podcast. If you like us, please leave a message on iTunes or send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially as I begin to figure out how Mere Rhetoric will continue at my new institutional home. And let me give one last thank you to the University of Texas for a great year of recording!