I am Chinese. But I am also American: I was born and raised in the country, shaped by distinctly American values, and that makes me able to see and understand young people in this country. Young people in the U.S. are more familiar with the “inevitability” of war and the “necessity” of machines than they are of this country’s great freedom fighters — W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. So despite the political uncertainty and turmoil in America, we’re stuck waiting for leaders to change tomorrow rather than believing we must grow into those very leaders. Our imagination of what the future could be is severely limited, and we are devastatingly unfamiliar with our fundamentally human capacity to change our world.
Knowing I am Chinese means knowing I come from a civilization. It is not as simple as knowing I look like my parents with black hair and eyes that narrow when we smile, but instead knowing there’s a history, culture, and values that go deep and far. Paul Robeson explained in his 1934 speech “I want to be African” that Africa is the Dark Continent not just because its people are dark-skinned or because its mighty forests, deserts, and rivers feel impenetrable. He says it’s also because Africa’s history is lost.
“consequently the American Negro in general suffers from an acute inferiority complex; it has been drummed into him that the white man is the Salt of the Earth and the Lord of Creation, and as a perfectly natural result his ambition is to become as nearly like a white man as possible.”
Asians in this country are also taught to believe the world began and will end with Europe. Robeson emphasizes the loss of history — by force, detachment, or lies — is devastating in how it convinces people from great civilizations to diminish where they come from and instead look West for authority.
“In the country of his adoption, or the country that ruthlessly adopted his forebears, he is an alien; but (herein lies his tragedy) he believes himself to have broken away from his true origins; he has, he argues, nothing whatever in common with the inhabitant of Africa to-day.”
This loss of history and crisis of civilization is not small. It is everything, or as Robeson says, “…it is an extremely complicated matter, fraught with the gravest importance” to the billions of darker peoples who make up the majority of the world. I, along with so many other young people in this country and the world, grow up wanting to be white. We often do anything in the hopes of achieving that, even if it means breaking from our parents. I insisted I was not Chinese, but Chinese American. I wasn’t Asian, but Asian American. What does that even mean? It means belonging to the West, looking down on the East, and believing the world’s future—including my own—would thankfully be guided by the West.
Asian American Studies classes don’t teach much of Asia except that it was the land people left behind to come to America. Professors focus on what happened to Asians once they came to the U.S., emphasizing our past exclusions and hardships in this country. But they don’t say anything about the Asian histories, cultures, and principles that shaped our ancestors and thus our own lives. Partially it is because they don’t know much of the civilizations they come from. But mainly it is because, as Robseon said, they argue they have nothing in common with where people that look like them come from. And that’s a horrible insistence — “What is there in Asia that is relevant to me?” Or, what is there in Asia that offers something of substance to the world?
That is the problem. Asian students, from the Asian Americans like me to the ones who come from Asia to attend American universities, begin to believe this propaganda. We’re taught that Africa, Asia, and Latin America don’t have much to offer to the world, that they are flailing and “developing,” ignoring the fact they are rebuilding from centuries of colonialism, enslavement, and exploitation by the West. I grew up believing China was a place of dictators and that Chinese people were dirty, submissive, and socially regressive.
Knowing I am Chinese is knowing that the civilization my grandparents, parents, and I descend from produced salt before Europe knew its taste. That it was this civilization that gave birth to thinkers and leaders like Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, and Soong Ching-ling, who saw what the future needed in the face of a West doomed to fall apart and take the rest of the world down with it. These leaders knew more about human progress, requiring a new sense of morality, than the West. I used to think the East was behind, but instead these leaders from the East and the ancient cultures they rise from speak of compassion for and responsibility to humanity. They said that any fight for freedom must be part of a long fight for all of humanity. This civilization existed before the West, and it is something that can inspire our creation of a new world as the modern world as we know it collapses.
During World War I, Sun Yat-sen refused to let China fight for the British against Germany, whom the British pointed out held a Chinese city as its colony still. Identifying Britain and Germany as part of the same civilization with a culture of domination, Sun Yat-sen said:
“Our civilization is two thousand years ahead of yours…We would of course welcome the War if its purpose were peace, justice, and equality; but as a matter of fact you always prefer war to peace, might to right. We consider the brutalities of your might as nothing short of barbarism. So we shall let you alone until you are tired of war. Perhaps the day of real peace will come, and then you and I will work together for the common good of mankind.”
Civilizations from the East have moral traditions that existed before Europe was born. But we are not taught this or the real history of the world. History shows our modern world is born from the subjugation of Africa, from taking the rich resources of Africa to build Europe and America up to enslaving African people and establishing an organized business of selling humans across the Atlantic Ocean. With the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the concept of whiteness and Western superiority was invented. But thus more devastatingly, we inherit what W.E.B. Du Bois pinpoints as “…the contradictions in European civilization and the illogic in modern thought and the collapse of human culture.”
This true history of the world also explains why white people and those who aspire to whiteness are so unhappy. When Africans were enslaved and delusions of whiteness were born, there was a deep decay of humanity as a whole. Whiteness was the need to create the idea of an undignified, inferior Negro just for the sake of defining whiteness. In other words, white people need the lie of inferior darker peoples for their own identity. They haven’t mustered the courage to define themselves by human creativity, the immense capacity to love, imaginative productive capacities — a way of seeing themselves that has the overwhelming potential to transform their own souls and the society they live in. But this desperate necessity to define themselves by creating the inferior Negro out of scratch is the reason why white people cannot see themselves and cannot join humanity until they leave whiteness behind. And the resulting work to uphold a false history of progressive Europe has led to a psychologically, spiritually, and economically unstable society dependent on another’s detriment to uphold itself.
So why do we seek authority from and in the West? After all, I see so many young people here who are depressed. We lack purpose and meaning in the peak of our lives. Even when we’re sent to elite universities, when we advance in our professional careers and achieve not just economic security but luxury, we’re tempted to ask ourselves what the point of waking up is. We eat, drink, play video games, listen to synthetic loveless songs, and watch YouTube and Netflix to make it to bedtime. This is a question of the morals underpinning a society, and we need to confront this civilization — why do we look West?
The truth is that the propagandists, the professors, the liberal protestors— none of them really even know this country they’ve lived and breathed in every day. And they definitely don’t know what to do about and how to steer this country. I once told my dad about these college protests I attended and organized. Many were against the university administration, chastising them for not being liberal enough and drafting demands that they give us students more. After I explained how these, in my eyes, were exemplary acts of justice, my dad used to tell me, “You all could use a good year in the countryside, learning to feed a country like I did.” He was referencing the time when he, along with thousands of other Chinese youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, was sent to the Chinese countryside to learn from and live with peasants after high school. While we social justice activists were demanding the Ivory Tower to give us more ivory, he was learning what it meant to be part of building a new country, to live simply but with wholeness in purpose and meaning. My dad told me farming with the peasants was hard work, but it was one of the most defining experiences of his life.
I couldn’t understand what my dad was saying back then. And I didn’t know that he was talking about a civilization’s culture and values and how that infuses meaning into young people’s lives. I only found China through the Black Radical Tradition, a legacy of thinkers, artists, and leaders like Du Bois, Robeson, King, James Baldwin, and Grace and Jimmy Boggs, who saw the world as defined by Africa and knew that the evolution of humanity would depend on understanding the past and taking responsibility for the future. I was raised by my grandparents when I was a child and returned to Beijing for summers growing up, but I never understood the civilization that gave birth to me. But Baldwin asked me to think of how our human psychology has everything to do with American society’s violent history; Huey P. Newton put in words — better than I could — what it feels like to be a human walking in the streets of Beijing, free of guilt, shame, and humiliation when identity comes from a shared struggle against violence and a shared destiny of building a new world; King asked me to fulfill my human identity with hope, love, and overcoming rather than self-victimization; and Du Bois and Robeson showed me ancient traditions and historic relationships based in peace across Africa and Asia.
Contrary to the beliefs the U.S. ingrains, we should look East. Africa and Asia spoke of world ethics and principles of peace before Europe even breathed, and Asia is rising today. Du Bois emphasizes Asia and Africa’s moral advancement, which we can let inspire our search for a new guiding morality:
“It is surely a wider world of infinitely more peoples that Europe has ruled; but does this reveal eternal length of rule and inherent superiority in European manhood, or merely the temporary possession of a miraculously greater brute force? Mechanical power, not deep human emotion nor creative genius nor ethical concepts of justice has made Europe ruler of the world. Man for man, the modern world marks no advance over the ancient; but man for gun, hand for electricity, muscle for atomic fission, these show what culture means and how the machine has conquered and holds modern mankind in thrall.”
Sun Yat-sen spoke loudly that freedom for China must be a fight for freedom for all of humanity. But he also said that deciding ethics of peace to guide a new society like China is the most significant goal, both to connect people to a fulfilling human purpose and because winning a world of peace is morally right:
“Gentlemen, we ought to decide at this hour what is to be the fundamental policy for which the nation is to stand, and where our hope and our greatness lie. When the days of our prosperity come, we must not forget the pain and misery which we are now suffering from the pressure of economic and political forces of the Powers. When our country becomes powerful, we should assume the responsibility of delivering those nations which suffer in the same way as we do now. This is what the Daxue (大學) means by ‘securing world tranquillity.’ We should use our old moral values and our love of peace as the foundation of national reconstruction; and look forward to the day when we shall become leaders in world reconstruction upon lines of international justice and good will. This is the mission of our 400,000,000. Gentlemen, each one of you is one of the 400,000,000; and you personally should assume this responsibility.”
Young Americans don’t learn much about selfless responsibility for the world as our great human identity from school and college. But it’s exactly this awesome responsibility we need, not just to save the world but to save our own souls. I remember my grandpa once telling me a story about a Chinese hero from the Opium Wars, who threw away tons of expensive opium that the British were smuggling into China against law. He could have gotten rich off of peddling opium to the addicted masses, but instead he chucked the drug into the sea to protect the Chinese people and stand up to the British. People revere him as a hero in China to this day, an example of always fighting for what’s right for the people, against pure pursuits of your individual gain.
Our young people today live meaningless lives, and they can feel it. We must struggle for a new fuller world because it is morally right, but also because through the process of building a better world, we grow into the very people we hope this better world will raise one day. It’s not just that I want to be Chinese, but that in the face of a collapsing Western civilization, this country and this world needs me to be Chinese. America, my country with its contradictions, its cities of half-riches and half-poverty, needs a revolution of morals.
Robeson believed that our world was re-awakening, and that with a moral revolution, we could remember the depth of our humanity. He believed
“Mankind is gradually feeling its way back to a more fundamental, more primitive, but perhaps truer religion; and religion of man to God or forces greater than himself must be the basis of all culture. This religion, this basic culture, has its roots in the Far East, and in Africa.”
I am Chinese, but I am also American. I was born and raised in this country, and I can see what’s happening to young people like me. People deserve a full life of meaning, and it begins when we ourselves take up the responsibility for a better, loving world. And so our great task is to look East, to remake a society and humanity that’s been degraded for so long, in the face of a dying way of the world. We’re creating a world where, in Robeson’s words, “there will not only be world-famous Negro sculptors, writers, and musicians, but you will have a race which understands the whole art of living— fully, deeply, and efficiently.” This is a whole art of living that’s different from what we see today, across the U.S. and a modern world dictated by the West (historically and morally today). And this is a whole art of living that will not only leave us with happier people but with a necessary sense of responsibility for peace. With this great, fundamentally human will for justice and peace, a new world is ours, and we can make it.
- Paul Robeson, “I want to be African,” Paul Robeson Speaks
- Paul Robeson, “Negroes — Don’t Ape the Whites,” Paul Robeson Speaks
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The World and Africa
- Sun Yat-sen, The Three Principles of the People
Article originally published by Organization for Positive Peace