Book Review: Xin Liu – The Otherness Of Self

The Otherness of Self” by Xin Liu, published in 2002. Rating: 1/5.

I don’t want to sound overly demanding, but really, unless a writer is the next Kant or Heidegger, he owes it to his readers to make his prose at least minimally engaging. With this book on too many occasions I was under the impression that I was reading something from the Postmodern Essay Generator. Here is a totally random quote I just pulled from THE OTHERNESS OF SELF: “As Carr argues, a solution to the problem of experience is provided by the Husserlian idea of retention-protention as a horizon from which the experience of being experienced at the present moment stands out.

Come again, amigo? About 80% of this book is PoMo-babble, as verbose as it is apparently meaningless – one is under the distinct impression that Xin Liu is padding out a thesis paper with references to thinkers who are not really at all relevant to the putative object of his studies, the Beihai Star Group and South Chinese business culture. It is with this in mind that we come to the actual content, unearthing which expends no small time of energy and sanity.

In this book, the anthropologist Xin Liu argues that “the human experience itself is narrative in character… time is the life of narrative.” By extension, social life is centered around the perception of time as it relates to the past, present, and future, as well as to the sense of “before” and “after”. He analyzes China’s changing society through the prism of its changing conceptions of temporarily as described in three contemporaneous books representative of the time periods in which they were written, as well as his own observations of business life in Beihai.

In traditional society, social life centered around the family,  which in the Chinese word jia carries not only strong implications of materiality but also refers to “not simply a group of biologically connected individuals but a chain of individuals in time.” The family is a rope, its various strands are its various branches, and the single-thread (male) individual is the “personification of all his forebears and of all his descendents yet unborn.” As such, the ethnographer Francis Hsu in his 1948 study Under the Ancestors’ Shadow  characterizes Chinese life as a “continuum of descent”, with all its attendant rites and features like reverence for ancestors. I would further note that even the Chinese language supports such an interpretation, with “before” being coterminous with “above” (e.g., 上个星期) and “after” being coterminous with “below” (下个星期). Or in McTaggart’s interpretation, which is heavily expounded on by Xin Liu, the traditional Chinese concept of time is an “A-series”, in which there is “an equivalence between the chain of past-present-future and that of ancestors-self-descendents” – that is, the self is defined in terms of ancestors, and one must honor them by maintaining filial piety and producing children; in their turn, the ancestral spirits will continue looking after the family line.

The Maoist Revolution kept the A-Series but inverted it, such that “the self was no longer imprisoned by the shadow of the ancestors”; to the contrary, the jiu shehui (旧社会), or old society, was to be decisively rejected in the long march to the Communist utopia.  This process is reflected in Hao Ran’s massive novel The Sky of Bright Sunshine, written in 1964, in the interlude between the millenarian madness of The Great Leap Forwards and the Cultural Revolution. The novel itself has no dates, it is for all intents and purposes timeless. It features a struggle between a dedicated party cadre, Xiao, persuading the people to join collectives, and the reactionary agent Ma, who does all he can to subvert the Smaller Helmsman’s efforts – up to and including sacrificing his own son for the socialist victory. In this secular-Oriental version of the Biblical story of Abraham, Xiao received The Selected Works of Mao Zedong as a reward. That said, I would note that the millenarian element of the Maoist Revolution – the inversion of the A-series – is not unprecedented in Chinese culture, as we see from the Taiping Rebellion; and furthermore, the very concept of an end-time Da Tong (大同) is integral to the otherwise unchanging, “frozen-in-time” essence of classical Confucianism.

The third novel Xin Liu analyzes is A Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, written in 1995, in which the nature of time becomes a B-series of “before” and “after” from which the self now becomes alienated from.  This is already well into the period of the capitalist roaders, and contemporaneous with the story of the Beihai Star Group that forms the focal point of Xin Liu’s analysis of the self in today’s China. “The total absence of scheduling”, he notes, “is a key feature of South Chinese business practice in general.” The business culture is intensely people orientated, given the importance of building up contacts and grace with officialdom, for the chuzhang is “someone who pleases when pleased.” Now there is no longer either a past orientation or a future orientation. To quote Xin Liu in extenso: “For those whose life is part of A Song of Everlasting Sorrow or is spent on these pleasure trips, the utterance today seems no longer pregnant with either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”; instead, the utterance has become “today’s today.” … It is no longer burdened by the world of ancestors or driven by the promised communist final victory.”

It is here however that we come to the crucial problem surrounding all attempts to reduce the complexities of social life, arising in specific socio-political circumstances, to general sociological theories. One can, like Xin Liu, attempt to situate South Chinese business culture in terms of its perceptions of time. Alternatively, one can note other explanatory factors. Beihai was in the far south, in the mountainous, non-Mandarin speaking Guanxi province – a pertinent point given the realities of high mountains and far away emperors (山高皇帝远). This meant that the enterprising laoban could suborn central officials with “unofficial” holiday trips and the “golden production line of entertainment” at locations far removed from the official scrutiny of Beijing; a matter of overriding importance, as it is these officials who would decide which companies swam or sank.

But apart from that Beihai was also one of China’s fastest growing cities during the transition period. These two factors – the sheer speed of development, and the remote location – strongly incentivize the kind of people-centered, improvisational, and traceless business culture that Xin Liu describes. After all if success depends for the most part on guanxi , not meticulous business plans, then it makes sense to focus one’s efforts on the former. Furthermore, not that many other locations during the transition period fulfilled the two criteria of mega-boom and remoteness. As such, the Beihai story does not seem to have been all that typical,  and the business practices it spawned as such may not have existed in so full and flagrant a form in other Chinese regions.

The final point to consider is to what extent this dissolution of self in the river of time was a specific Chinese experience of the transition – or a feature traditionally common to the Chinese, or to societies caught up in rapid changes. Consideration of these points do not necessarily refute Xin Liu’s thesis but they do give cause for numerous caveats, and the more caveats there are to a theory, the less useful it tends to become in terms of explanatory power. First, in his article Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, David Moser notes that the language’s linguistic idiosyncrasies – namely, the difficulty of remembering less common characters – means that in general, detailed note-taking isn’t as practical; far easier to give someone a call. Second, in his book Future Shock, the futurist Alvin Toffler writes of the impact of modern technology as “too much change in too short a period of time”;  an effect that produces social anomie and “shattering stress and disorientation.” The conditions apply to China what with its turbo-charged transition from agricultural subsistence to the Information Age.

As such, the radical simplification of temporal categories implicit in the transition from the A-series to the B-series – and the attendant constriction of a disembodied self between a “before” and an “after” – may well in part be just a coping mechanism of Beihai executives to deal with the information overload produced by the capitalist, “informatized”, monetized, extensively quantified new world that they are constructing themselves.

So, in conclusion. He does have an occasionally interesting idea, such as the laoban-chuzhang-xiaojie triangle; or his theory of time and narrative as applied to post-Maoist China. And in the spirit of Smith, he is capable of making the occasional poignant observation. But these nuggets are deeply buried under an avalanche of quasi-academic vapidity, and aren’t all that universal or profound anyway (certainly not near enough to justify the verbosity expended on their behalf). Yes, hustlers hire call girls to get favors from officials – we get that, it happens in quite a lot of other places too. No need to write 200 pages about friggin’ Husserl to make that point.

THE OTHERNESS OF SELF matches neither the wit and flair of Arthur H. Smith’s “Chinese Characteristics”, nor the lucidity and true erudition of Benjamin Schwartz’s “In Search of Wealth and Power.” It is most not recommended for reading.


  1. Regarding “pomo babble,” Luis Buñuel had an interesting observation in his autobiography, from his time in Mexico: “When this kind of jargon (a typically Parisian phenomenon) works its way into the educational system, it wreaks absolute havoc in underdeveloped countries. It’s the clearest sign, in my opinion, of cultural colonialism.” Perhaps this is now happening in China?

    For fun, you can always play with the Postmodernism Generator: