A few years ago I was taking a nap on Saturday afternoon in my apartment in Shandong Province, China, when my daughter Katherine rang me on the intercom from outside.
“Mom, Shei Hanshao and Grace got into a fight. Shei Hanshao said she wouldn’t play with Grace. Then Grace hit her, and Shei Hanshao started to cry. And…well…can you just come down?”
Shei Hanshao was a good friend of Katherine and Grace, my two daughters. She was a sweet girl with a bit of a flair for the dramatic, one of the neighborhood pack my girls ran around with during the four years we lived here in China. I walked downstairs into the courtyard. Four girls were lined up waiting for me. In the center were Katherine and her friend Bing Bing, on both ends were Grace and Shei Hanshao, wearing matching offended looks.
“Grace, did you hit Shei Hanshao?” I asked.
Grace immediately burst into tears.
“Ayi (Auntie),” began Shei Hanshao, “Grace hit me here and it hurt.”
“Shei Hanshao,” I said, “Grace should not have hit you, and I’m sorry it hurt, but I think you said some words that hurt Grace.”
Katherine then interjected. “Mom, Shei Hanshao also said something else. She said that Americans said Chinese people were dogs.” She looked at me quizzically.
Immediately I remembered the sign that supposedly hung in front of a park in Shanghai during the early days of the twentieth century: “No Dogs or Chinese allowed.” I had heard that though widely accepted as fact, there was no evidence that there ever existed such a sign.
“Shei Hanshao, Americans didn’t say that Chinese were dogs,” I said. “Shi bu dui de.” It’s not true.
“No, it is true,” she informed me, “My father told me.”
Now I was in a difficult position. “Well, even if it were true, there are a lot of Americans, and most of them are good even if one said a bad thing. Just like there are a lot of Chinese, and even if one does something bad, that doesn’t make all of them bad, and it doesn’t make you bad.”
I sighed. “Shei Hanshao, Chinese and Americans are friends.”
She nodded her head, but I don’t know if I convinced her. After all, why should she believe me over her own father. I turned my attention to Grace. It took some coaxing, but she finally came around and apologized to Shei Hanshao. “Mei guanxi,” said Shei Hanshao. It doesn’t matter.
Katherine and Bing Bing both gave Shei Hanshao pointed looks.
“I’m sorry too,” she said.
Grace still needed some comfort, and continued to sit on my lap. I thought about Shei Hanshao and her parents, whom we have known for nearly four years now. We have walked our children to school together, we have greeted each other on the street, and our children have attended each other’s birthday parties. Shei Hanshao’s father was an amiable fellow, always smiling, often greeting me with an English “Hello!”
That night I researched the sign on the Internet. The park in question, located at the end of the Bund in Shanghai, is called Huangpu Park. From when it was built in 1868 to 1928 it had various signs at the gate with a lists of regulations. Most often, the first regulation stipulated its intention as a park exclusively for the foreign community. Another regulation said no dogs or bicycles were allowed. China scholars Robert A. Bickers and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, in an article in China Quarterly, said they found no evidence for the popular belief in a “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed” sign, although such a sign did appear in the 1973 Bruce Lee movie The Chinese Connection.
But regardless of the scholars’ findings, in the popular Chinese mind, the sign did exist. And that is all that matters. And frankly, sign or no sign, we must admit that the underlying sentiment, that the Chinese were inferior, was likely present. For there was a time when the Western powers, with their thoughts and their actions, treated the Chinese with less dignity than they ought. This sign, allegedly posted at the turn of the last century, was just a symbol of previous humiliation. Yet it was casting its long shadow over a playground in 2010, forcing my seven- and eight-year-old daughters to answer for events of a hundred years past.
Chinese have a fundamentally different relationship with their history than we Americans. History is a subject we study in school. But wars took place in faraway lands. Our individualism means that our collective history, as Americans, is once removed from our identity. World War I and the Great Depression and the Smoot-Hawley tariff are events in history books. They are studied, they are even interesting, but they are not that connected to who we are.
Not so the Chinese. History, for Chinese, is not book knowledge. Rather, their history is carried along with them, as they walk along the way, an unseen burden, an invisible shadow; unconscious, and therefore, powerful. We Americans read about history. The Chinese experience it like reaching back into their own memory.
Katherine, Bing Bing, and Shei Hanshao began playing a game in the courtyard. Grace was interested, though she still sat on my lap. A few minutes later Shei Hanshao approached and asked her if she wanted to play. Grace was off like a flash and the four girls scampered off together as children do, whether in the East or West, their recent troubles quickly forgotten.
The U.S. and China have also had their recent troubles. We lecture China about human rights, pressure China to revalue its currency, and blame China for our trade imbalance. But we would do better to take a longer view. We should look beyond today’s troubles and instead embark upon a mission that is more vital and more foundational: recast our role in China’s history.