Last week an unsourced article with the headline “Harvard Professor: a national characteristic unknown even to the Chinese has kept the nation standing” went viral across China’s social media sphere. It alleged that a theology professor from Harvard called David Chapman gave a lecture eulogising China’s “unyielding” and “fighting” spirit as reflected in ancient Chinese mythology.
The well-known mythological stories quoted by the professor included Rubbing the Wood to Get Fire 钻木取火, Dayu Regulating Floods大禹治水，and Yugong Moves the Mountain愚公移山. “In our (Western) mythology, fire was given to us by God; in Greek mythology, fire was stolen by Prometheus; but in Chinese mythology, fire was created by people persistently rubbing the wood. This is the difference! They teach their descendants to fight with nature!” the professor was quoted as saying. “When facing epic flooding, we (Westerners) chose to escape on Noah’s Ark, whereas the Chinese chose to fight with the flood and control it. When you read Chinese mythology, you may be incredulous, but if you discard the plots, you will find a cultural core which is ‘fighting’. If there is a mountain blocking your house’s view, you may choose to move home. Yet the ancient Chinese chose to cut down the mountain. We lack such a spiritual core – as our mythology prefers to let God arrange everything. Since the Chinese grow up with these kind of stories, with the ‘fighting spirit’ imbued in their DNA – even though they may not realise it – they can be as tough as their ancestors. Therefore, it’s no surprise that today’s Chinese inherited the unyielding spirit and today’s China is still standing high.”
After echoing the professor’s “passionate” preaching, the article concluded with this defiant paragraph: “Every civilisation began with theism, but only our civilisation is not afraid of God. Our ancestors never put their survival in the hands of God. Many people say the Chinese have no spiritual belief, but how can a nation last for 5,000 years if it doesn’t have spiritual belief? In fact, ‘dare to fight’ and ‘unyielding’ are both our national characters and our spiritual belief.”
The article went viral on both Sina Weibo and WeChat and I read it from reposts by multiple friends, including one of my university professors. Most people liked the story for its “inspiring theme”, which goes perfectly with Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ concept with an emphasis on a national rejuvenation of the economy, the military and promoting “soft power”.
But I pointed out to a friend that it seems such “fighting spirit” had only been directed to the natural world and not toward the brutal rule of man which stipulates, “If the Emperor orders you to die, you won’t dare not to die”. My big question was this: was this fighting spirit the reason that China could survive largely uninterrupted for 5,000 years or was tolerance and endurance the reason?
I also got suspicious about the authenticity of the speech, especially when I read that “the audience was ‘hot-blooded’ and ‘high-spirited’ all through the lecture”. That doesn’t sound like a Harvard audience. I went ahead to look up Harvard Divinity School’s faculty list and couldn’t find any David Chapman. I Googled the name and found the only famous David Chapman is the American who killed John Lennon.
Later I found out on a weibo page that the picture of the so-called Harvard theology professor is actually MIT professor Richard Larson giving a lecture in Chongqing in 2014.
And the so-called “American students’ enthusiastic comments – one example is “Suddenly I admire the Chinese” – were also fabricated. So who created this fake news (and why)? Is it another demonstration of China’s conflicted national psyche which displays signs of both superiority and inferiority (see WiC367 for more discussion on this topic)? What’s evident is that it fooled a lot of people.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]
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