America and China as Hyperreal: Jean Baudrillard and Bo Yang

The starting points of the present reflection are Jean Baudrillard’s America and Bo Yang’s The Ugly Chinaman. Yang uses his leading concept, the Chinese soy paste vat, as a metaphor for Chinese culture, by means of which he tries to come to terms with the Chinese past and present. According to Yang, Chinese culture develops through fermentation and an infinite process of indiscriminately adding cultural components, which resembles the production of soy paste in a vat. Yang’s thesis states that the cultural elements within the 5000 year-old vat of Chinese culture have never been churned and as a result, the thick paste of its culture has prevented the development of Chinese civilization.[1] To this “soy paste vat theory” of Chinese culture, I oppose a vision of America that has been elaborated on by several authors, most famously by Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco. The hyperreal America is best encountered in simulated places like Disneyland and Las Vegas but is perceptible on many different levels within American civilization. In America, Baudrillard experiences the New World through an exoticizing lens of estrangement that has been shocking for many Americans because the country appears as distant and culturally removed as if the author were writing about China. Hyperreal America is the “Desert America” most present in California and in the Midwest;  it is the America of cleanliness, politeness, and happiness settled in a utopian future, which is unquestionably civilized, but which foreign visitors most often find “culturally empty.” Baudrillard draws an interesting picture of American civilization: a straightforward, and predominantly utopian affair, indefatigably preoccupied with turning things into material realities and largely unable to ironize upon the future because American civilization is supposed to be the future by definition.

Both China and America engage in cultural/civilizational simulations of the highest degree. China’s Confucian simulation of culture and America’s utopian simulation of civilization suggest identical copies of either culture (China) or civilization (America) for which no original has ever existed. Baudrillard’s “concrete mythology of America” that is entirely made of civilization finds its counterpart in the Confucian myth of Chinese culture produced by the soy paste vat.

Bo Yang’s the Ugly Chinaman

The Taiwanese writer Bo Yang (柏楊,1920-2008) plays out Chinese culture against American civilization. In 1985, he published a collection of speeches and interviews under the title The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture (English 1991).[2] The Ugly Chinaman is an aggressive piece, but despite of the scathing criticism of Chinese culture/civilization and the apparent glorification of America that it suggests, The Ugly Chinaman does not propagate the wholesale Westernization of China. The book also contains a great deal of irony, impressionistic flashes of the mind, as well as descriptions of the instantaneously comical content of everyday Chinese life. In no instance can it be understood as a systematic continuation of mid-nineteenth century Chinese debates between traditionalists and reformers. As a matter of fact, Bo Yang does not explicitly talk about modernization or westernization, nor does he delve into classical modernization projects, such as liberal democracy, capitalist free enterprise and rational technologies. Instead, his aim is to provide sketches of Chinese situations whose “lack of civilization” is obvious to him; he proceeds only to tentative theorizations.[3]

The book was never meant for an academic audience, as show Yang’s monolithic use of a concept of “Chinese culture” as well as his vague presentation of “Confucianism.” Still, as a piece of literature, The Ugly Chinaman provides intuitive insights. Yang’s leading concept is that of the Chinese soy paste vat, which he uses throughout the text as a metaphor for Chinese culture. The soy paste vat is common in Northern China and serves the production of a paste similar to Japanese miso. Foreigners most likely become acquainted with it while eating Beijing duck. The contents of the vat – soybeans and wheat flour – are never stirred, and its fluidity is reduced to a sticky thickness until the ingredients begin to ferment. “It’s as viscous as mud, and doesn’t flow. Because the paste remains in the vat untouched and unstirred, and because the water content is constantly evaporating, the paste grows thicker and thicker as time goes by. Chinese culture undergoes a similar process” (40). In a lighthearted fashion, Yang attributes all ills of Chinese society to the soy paste vat culture (jianggang wenhua) among which there are infighting, pettiness, ignorance, self-indulgence and self-pitying.

The idea of a fermenting vat of culture is not entirely unknown in the West. Herder (1744-1803) called the Middle Ages the age of fermentation. However, Herder’s idea is more inspired by the process of wine making where the seemingly unhealthiest fermentation will produce a culture of a higher order in the form of the Renaissance or protestant culture: “Observe how the church had to produce so much horror, error, insipidity, and blasphemy; how so many ages had to struggle, scream and strive for progress, before your Reformation, or your light and brilliant deism could come about” (Herder 1877-1913: 528/217). For Herder fermentation is necessary to produce “pure, divine elixir.” Another concept reminiscent of the soy paste vat is the philosophical ‘brain in a vat’ metaphor according to which the brain is suspended in a vat full of liquid and wired to a computer which is feeding our current experiences under the control of a scientist. The Matrix-like vision can be traced to philosophical sources like Descartes’ evil demon theory (according to which the reality we perceive is a dream produced by an evil demon in order to delude us) or to Plato’s allegory of the cave. These conceptions suggest that our reason might be flawed because we rely on flawed perceptions, but through intellectual means, we can get out of the vat and perceive reality the way it really is. In any case, this metaphor suggests that the vat is a limitation of our cognitive/perceptual horizon, which makes it similar to Yang’s soy paste vat.

Another scientific metaphor aims more at the content of the vat, that is, the paste. Cognitive science uses concepts such as the “soup of human culture” or the “ideosphere” to represent a shared mental landscape (Hofstadter 1986). The idea of “the soup of human culture” comes from Richard Dawkins who suggested that gene-like cultural elements called memes (for example tunes or ideas) are brought together to ferment in a sort of cultural vat (Dawkins 1989: 194). However, the ideal view is that the soup of culture is not self-enclosed because total confinement will prevent its evolution. An eventual opening towards the outside world is essential.

Normally, reality should be the product of an interaction between matter and time, which is not the case in Yang’s soy paste vat. Instead of evolving through the progressive passage of civilization, culture remains enclosed until it produces a self-sufficient reality. For Yang this is the reason why both the Chinese economy and Chinese political culture have remained static and evolved into a culture of secrecy in which a mystifying examination system and bureaucracy would set the standards.

Yang’s interesting idea is thus that China’s deplorable state is not due to a lack of culture, but, on the contrary, to a surplus of culture that the country has been unable to handle through an appropriate civilizing process and which – in the very end – prevented it from becoming “civilized.” Yang’s view of civilization is very much in line with Oswald Spengler’s theory which holds that “pure civilization, as a historical process, consists in a progressive taking-down of forms that have become inorganic or dead” (Spengler: 32). Culture must go through civilization in order to reject antiquated elements and to get updated in time. Without this dialectics of culture and civilization (or, to stay close to Bachelard’s system, without the dialectics of a cultural dream and real time), culture will become a paste and function as a ballast holding the country back. Even worse, culture will begin to represent a reality on its own.

Bo Yang’s America

Bo Yang puts forward America because its “civilization” has made a deep impression on him during his visits. At the obvious risk of being accused of Americaphilia, Yang affirms that America has everything the Chinese do not have, such as the ability to act civilly to others (55); the ability to take logical steps to solve their problems and gradually reduce racial prejudice (95) and install tolerance (Yang refers to the racial prejudice in China); politeness (persistent thanking and sorrying) (70); and an absence of provincial prejudice compelling him to ask, “have you ever heard of people from Virginia trying to exclude people from Arizona from their state?” (93). Being asked who, in his opinion, has made the greatest contribution to mankind, Yang indicates the “Anglo-Saxons” (and not the English) because it is them who invented the parliamentary system of government and a relatively equitable juridical system.

The Ugly Chinaman would certainly be classified as slanderous and racist were its author not Chinese. What saves him is not only his Chineseness, but also a good portion of humor. Unfortunately, these attributes were not found convincing enough by the Taiwanese authorities who imprisoned Bo Yang in 1967. After Yang’s arrest, his defender, the well known nuclear physicist Sun Guanhan, said that “what imprisoned or destroyed Mr. Bo Yang was that discovery of his: the soy paste mentality of the Chinese people” (Lancashire 1982: 685).

Baudrillard’s America

Bo Yang’s soy paste vat theory of Chinese culture can be compared to a vision of American civilization inscribed at the opposite end of a scheme that opposes culture to civilization. Both Chinese culture and American civilization share the ontological features of hyperreality and of simulation. In order to illustrate this paradoxical parallelism, I will compare The Ugly Chinaman with Jean Baudrillard’s America. As a piece of critical literature on America, Baudrillard’s America is tortuous. Straightforward critiques of American culture could go in the same direction as those of The Ugly Chinaman, that is, towards the critique of a concrete quality to be found in American culture. Such critiques do exist. ‘Ugly American’ refers to the loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, and ethnocentric behavior of some American citizens abroad, but also at home. Straightforward critical or self-critical writings on American culture criticize a particular redneck culture or a culture of “the boomer, the shark, the horse-trader” (Cash 1941: 18) depicting America in a way not so different from how Bo Yang characterized China. Criticisms of redneck culture are intended to illustrate America’s lack of culture, but also a certain lack of civilization. When Thomas Sowell describes rednecks and crackers as boasters and threateners given to bombastic self-dramatization, excelling in academic and sexual laxity, showiness, and corruption (Sowell 2005: 13, 237), it is obvious that what he criticizes is the rednecks’ simultaneous lack of culture and civilization.

Baudrillard goes in a completely different direction as he intends to deal with neither the non-cultural America of the rednecks nor the America of culture. Baudrillard clearly declares that a cultural America exists, but that he is not interested in this aspect. What fascinates Baudrillard is the most American quality that America has to offer, which for Baudrillard, is the America of the desert: “I went in search of astral (sidéral) America, not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces” (Baudrillard 1986: 10/5). Baudrillard’s book is not a critique of American culture (or even the possible lack of it), but rather a description and critique of American civilization, which is why Baudrillard’s work can be conceived of as the mirror image of Bo Yang’s critique of China. Jean-François Mathy finds that Baudrillard “distinguishes, in Spenglerian terms, a mere civilization from a genuine culture” (Mathy 1990: 275). “Desert America” is more than its concrete manifestations; it is a concept that permeates, like an abstract structure, all of American civilization. There is, in Baudrillard’s opinion, a sort of absolute American civilization that “no [American] is able of analyzing, least of all the American intellectuals shut away on their campuses, dramatically cut off from the fabulous concrete mythology all around them” (28/23).

Nobody should doubt that America has plenty of culture. However, wherever we encounter this culture we will find that it makes America less “American.” There are also, in America, pockets of “non-civilization” like redneck culture or ghetto culture, but even this does not interfere with the idea of “American Civilization” as a concept. On the contrary, it can be argued that the existence of such uncivilized parts within a civilized culture is possible only because the overall civilizational tissue of America is extremely strong.

“Americanness” is a matter of civilization by definition and here Americans score better than anybody else. Baudrillard states that “the distinctions that are made elsewhere have little meaning. It would be misguided to focus on aspects of an American civility that is often in fact far superior to our own (in our land of ‘high culture’) and then to point out that in other respects the Americans are barbarians” (67/67). Politeness, sincerity, soft-spokenness and all the other items that Bo Yang found to be missing in Chinese culture – we find plenty of in America as long as we are not among rednecks. There is no lack of civilization in America. There might be a lack of culture, but any discussion of a non-cultural or anti-cultural America is bound to get entangled in an intellectually unsteerable relativism. In a way, redneck culture or even American ghetto culture are cultures. But in principle, America is the land of civilization, a civilization that is pure and abstract not because it is opposed to culture, but simply because it is not concerned with culture.

Dick Meyer, in his critique of contemporary American culture entitled Why We Hate Us argues along these lines. First Meyer notes that “we perceive other Americans as belligerent in arguments, boorish in manners, vulgar and violent in entertainment, greedy in business, ostentatious in style, and phony in a big way” (Meyer 2008: 15). However, his main criticism is not directed against these “cultural” components that clearly denote a lack of civilization. On the contrary, Meyer puts in the center of his cultural criticism an America suffering from over-civilization that overlaps with Baudrillard’s desert civilization – an America of faux-chateaus and sensitive therapy; of plastic surgery advertisements on billboards next to the busiest roads; and the America of ‘It’s a great day at ServePro, this is Emily, how can I help you.’ It is the America that many foreigners experience as a friendly enhanced world, safely programmed, market tested and always ready for an Oprah Winfrey quick-fix. It is the America of middle-class suburbs and their emptiness; of the sprawling, repetitive and forgettable landscape that has supplanted the original promise of suburban life with a hollow imitation (see Meyer: 130). It is the America where the only people still allowed to be offended are straight white men with a full head of hair (188). This is not cultural but civilized America offering the foreigner’s gaze a perfectly polished civilizational surface with a fascinating cultural void behind it.

Desert means “no desire.” It symbolizes an accomplished civilization for which the word utopia seems to be the most fitting. Desire, just like charm or eroticism, are “heavy” components that could prevent civilization from adopting the accomplished lightness so typical for American civilization. Desire is always the desire of something that has not yet been reached and a perfect utopia is supposed to contain no such desire. Indeed, “desire is still something deeply natural, [and] we are living off its vestiges in Europe. (…). [In America] the cities are mobile deserts. No monuments and no history: the exaltation of mobile deserts and simulation” (119/123).

“Eros is not American,” (84) has said an earlier French traveler, Claude Roy, about a continent that he found clean and septic, pointing out that “American love remains unsophisticated and frustrated, clumsy and anxious, frenzied and hypocrite, committed to a contradictory and lively civilization whose terrible ripping and magnificent gushing it reflects” (Roy 1949: 84). It can be concluded that American civilization is just as unerotic as a soy paste vat but for exactly the opposite reasons. Nobody who is living in a soy paste vat is capable of having any desire – except getting out of it – because life is so saturated by culture that there is no culture left to desire. ‘Civilization as desert’ is thus the conceptual counterpart of culture as a soy paste vat. Both come into being when either culture or civilization exist in isolation and do not “desire” each other within a dialectical movement:

American culture is heir to the deserts, but the deserts here are not part of a Nature defined by contrast with the town. Rather they denote the emptiness, the radical nudity that is the background to every human institution. At the same time, they designate human institutions as a metaphor of that emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert, culture as a mirage and as the perpetuity of the simulacrum (Baudrillard: 63/63).

The clean desert civilization is one of Puritanism and of asceticism. According to Baudrillard, “America always gives me a feeling of real asceticism. Culture, politics – and sexuality too – are seen exclusively in terms of the desert, which here assumes the status of a primal scene” (32/28). American politeness, for example, is pure civilization manifesting itself as the “eternal smile of communication” (36/33). Finally, the brutal naïveté, alien to all sense of speculation or irony through which this absolute civilization is implemented, does not make it less primitive or savage than the soy paste culture. To this point, Baudrillard argues that, ”deep down in the US, with its space, its technological refinement, its bluff good conscience, even in those spaces which it opens up for simulation, is the only remaining primitive society” (12-13/7). While Bo Yang had declared the Chinese to be primitive because of their over-abundance of culture, Baudrillard does not hesitate in calling Americans primitive because of their over-abundance of civilization. He states that, “everything here still bears the mark of primitive society: technology, the media, total simulation” (63).

Any criticism of America must be directed against this particular concept of civilization. American civilization can only be criticized because of its autonomous status that makes any dialectical movement reflecting civilization against culture impossible by definition. America is not “bad” because its evil culture will kill another that we [the Europeans] believe to be superior. Precisely, the “problem” with much of American culture is that it can be reduced to civilization:

In this sense, [civilizational America] is naïve and primitive; it knows nothing of the irony of concepts, nor the irony of seduction. It does not ironize upon the future or destiny. It gets on with turning things into material realities. Santa Barbara is a paradise, Disneyland is a paradise, America is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise, mournful, monotonous and superficial though it may be, it is paradise (95/97-98).

The mirroring effect between America and China becomes clear here. While the Chinese hold that their culture is civilization through the emperor’s Mandate of heaven, the Americans are socialized to see their civilization as “American culture.”

Disneyland and the Soy Paste Vat

We hear an echo of Bo Yang when Baudrillard criticizes the European soy bean vat as a “primitive accumulation of time” (76/76) that Americans are luckily lacking. The American problem is of another kind. The spontaneous tendency to transcend reality towards a purely civilizational ideal makes Americans lose reality for the opposite reason. Francis Hsu has noted that “while Chinese have always moved within the limitations of the familiar and what can be perceived by the senses [and] have never overly interested themselves in high abstraction, [Americans] express their feelings about either the present or the past in terms of an imagined future” (Hsu 1970: 372, 363). This imagined future is a utopian expression of an ideal civilization. Cornel West finds that the American “indigenous mode of thought subordinates (…) immediate problems to utopian possibilities” (West 1989: 5).

The result is the production of a perpetual presence of signs leading to perpetual simulation making Americans lose reality in a way similar to how the Chinese lose reality in a soy bean vat. This is the reason why Baudrillard equates the exaltation of mobile deserts with simulation, and why desert and simulation are for him the same concepts. The problem is an immediacy of cultural perception that is not constrained by having to think civilization through culture or by transcending culture towards civilization because it is pure civilization. Utopia is only achieved when there is only civilization and no history or culture, that is, when this civilization has established itself immediately. American civilization does not feel the need to transcend because it is transcendence. Americans lose reality to simulation through an overabundance of civilizational transcendence just like the Chinese lose reality through a lack of civilizational transcendence by shutting themselves into a windowless soy bean vat.

This is why Americans are the representatives of the most extreme form of utopian civilizationism while Confucians (according to Bo Yang) are the representatives of the most extreme form of historicism and culturalism. As a mere mixture of discursive categories, the Chinese soy paste contains too many concrete items that too often do not seem to be linked through any abstract structure. American civilization, on the other hand, is made only of codes and nuclear categories. “America as a Concept” is a logical structure that is infinitely reproduced. The result, according to Baudrillard, is that any gas station, any Burger King, or Midwestern American street represents the whole of American civilization. When the present is utopia, when culture is civilization, when the dream is reality, everything flows into a paradoxical arrangement “just as it is” which is, for Baudrillard, the most paradigmatic idea summarizing American civilization. This can also be described by the paradoxical concept of the “pragmatic dream” (32/28) which gives Americans the right to be “simply what they are” and which is, finally, the reason why “Americans have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model” (32/28-29).

When Baudrillard establishes a causal link between desert civilization and the loss of reality or the transformation of reality to simulation, this is the exact reverse of Bo Yang’s soy paste vision of culture in which people are lacking windows enabling them to perceive the reality outside the vat. The soy paste vat culture is achieved when there is no immediacy and everything can be traced back to history. This is “absolute culture.” Against this, “absolute civilization,” does not form an organic body made of present and past but exists outside the aspirations of cultural duration. Still, the procedure leads to an identical result: a vision of a world that is “just as it is,” no matter if it is called culture or civilization. The driving forces of absolute civilization are not those of “an ‘objective’ conception of historical transformation,” but instead they “are utopia and morality [and] the concrete idea of happiness and mores” (88/90). While in Europe, politics and culture remain a primitive backdrop against which any civilization must formulate its strategies (75/75), in America, the utopian sphere itself is the backdrop, which makes its civilization absolute and desert-like.

The parallelism between Baudrillard and Bo Yang’s brain in the vat scenario becomes most obvious when it comes to the perception of reality. The hallucinating goo of the cultural soy paste in which reality gets entangled has found its counterpart in a civilization that creates culture in the form of a mirage or a simulacrum. Here, “everything is destined to appear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem to exist only by virtue of this strange destiny. You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as an advertizing copy in some other world” (35/32). The endless copying that is supposed to establish a civilization finds a parallel in Chinese culture since China produces culture in the form of a writing that bears the same traits of hyperreality. Chinese culture produces itself out of nothing.


The main similarities between the American simulation as a manifestation of a utopia of civilization and Chinese simulation produced by a cultural soy paste vat are that both give priority to reproduction over production; both designate references prior to designating the referent; and both are self-referential that is, both produce identical copies of either culture (China) or civilization (America) for which no original has ever existed. Baudrillard’s “concrete mythology of America” that is entirely made of civilization finds its counterpart in the myth of Chinese culture produced by the soy paste vat. Both concepts are symmetrical opposites, but produce identical attributes. American civilization is indestructible because its abstract and general values are not linked to geographical, historical, or cultural positions. Chinese culture is indestructible because it is only identified with a particular historical and geographical position. The Chinese soy paste vat suffers from the inability to produce values able to define China as a coherent nation and not simply as a vast group of people united by race and common historical experiences. American civilization is based on self-sufficient ideas such as liberty and democracy and has neither the need nor the capacity to derive values from history and concrete culture.

I have developed the above thoughts more thoroughly in my book La Chine contre l’Amérique. Culture sans civilisation contre civilisation sans culture? (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012, 207 pages) as well as in various articles in English.


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[1] The distinction between culture and civilization is not well embedded in the English language but has remained meaningful in some other European and in non-European languages. ‘Culture’ (from Latin cultura) is the older term and corresponds to the Latin form also in its content; the term civilization (from Latin civis) was coined later and developed rapidly, especially in Eighteenth Century France and later also in England while the concept of ‘culture’ with its respective meanings was developed mainly in Germany. Roughly the distinctive line can be drawn like this: civilization refers more to material, technical, economic, and social facts while culture is supposed to conceptualize spiritual, intellectual and artistic phenomena, or at least, results of individual or collective human expression instead abstract systems. The German usage of Zivilisation has always alluded to a utilitarian, outer aspect of human existence subordinated to Kultur, which was perceived as the “real” being of humans, society, and their achievements. The distinction remains relevant in a world where cultures (both local and global), tradition, and modernity collide. In 1961, Paul Ricœur launched a debate on the cross fertilization between rooted culture and universal civilization (Ricœur 1965), pointing to ideas of regionalism that would become eminent in the future. Since then, the culture-civilization debate has become important in the context of postmodern situations of fragmentation. For example, Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, in his study of Middle Eastern political culture, points to the “frequently expressed view that there is an Islamic civilization and not just culture or cultures” in the modern Muslim world” (Abu-Rabi 2004: 188). Abu-Rabi claims that because the Muslim world has failed to develop its capitalist system in the modern period and has become dependent on the world capitalist system, “the Muslim world has culture but lacks civilization” (189). More precise explanations can be found in my article “What is the Difference between Culture and Civilization? Two Hundred Fifty Years of Confusion” in Comparative Civilizations Review 66, Spring 2012, pp. 10–28 as well as in the book La Chine contre l’Amérique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012).

[2] Bo Yang wrote novels and popular history books with an output of over two hundred works. The Ugly Chinaman is by far his most famous book. From 1967 to 1976, Bo Yang has been imprisoned in Taiwan because of his tendentious translation of a Popeye comic strip that the Kuomintang interpreted as a disguised mockery of President Chiang Kai-shek.

[3] His work follows the tradition of the satirical essay called zawen (雜文), much used by Lu Xun (魯迅) and brought to a revival in the 1950s and 1960s in both the Peoples’ Republic of China and Taiwan.

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