An ugly title

Widow calls time on Bo Yang’s controversially named book


Set to go out of print

A decade ago when Taiwanese starlet Barbie Hsu tied the knot with Wang Xiaofei, the heir to the South Beauty restaurant group, the marriage was billed by media outlets on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as “the wedding of the century” (see WiC101).

That meant that the announcement of their divorce this week prompted another flurry of commentary on a romance that had come to symbolise the broader ups and downs of cross-Strait relations, which were enjoying a ‘honeymoon’ period back in 2011 when the couple first wed (see WiC545).

News that the publication of a bestselling book is also being discontinued has stirred a different debate on cross-Strait ties, albeit with a similar end-of-an-era tone.

The book in question is The Ugly Chinaman (which has the subtitle The Crisis of Chinese Culture) and it was first published in 1985.

It soon became a cultural sensation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, despite being banned in 1987 in mainland China (it was published in bootleg form or brought in by smugglers till 2004 when censors relented and permitted its publication locally).

Bo Yang was the pen name for Guo Yidong, a Taiwanese writer, historian and philosopher. Born in Henan province in 1920, he moved to Taiwan after the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the civil war in 1949. He would later spend 10 years in jail in Taiwan as a political prisoner after displeasing the KMT in the 1960s (when the island was run in authoritarian style by Chiang Kai-shek).

The Ugly Chinaman originated from a speech that Bo gave at the University of Iowa in 1984. Reportedly, members of the audience fell into a deathly silence after listening to his dramatic broadside against the weaknesses of Chinese culture. Most Chinese take pride in an ancient civilisation backed by the longest written history (nearly 4,000 years). However, Bo spoke disdainfully about this cultural pedigree, describing it as no more useful than a giant vat for making soy sauce ­– that offered no visibility of all the problems that were fermenting at the bottom of the pan.

“We are ugly because we don’t know we are being ugly,” Bo warned, coming up with a list of “despicable traits” of many Chinese, such as being noisy, crude and disunited. Bo blamed these weaknesses on a “neurotic virus” in the soy sauce “vat culture” that was infecting the Chinese and their offspring, in a line of attack that seems even more linguistically incendiary in the Covid-19 era.

“For years people have been going on about the supreme greatness of the Han Chinese people, and boasting endlessly that Chinese traditional culture should be promulgated throughout the world. But the reason why such dreams will never be realised is because they’re pure braggadocio,” Bo complained.

The controversial speech was subsequently converted into written form in The Ugly Chinaman, alongside other political essays by Bo. At a time when China was experimenting with political and economic reforms, Bo’s work was almost as popular as River Elegy, a TV documentary that asked challenging questions of its own about traditional Chinese culture.

The book has since gone through numerous editions, retaining its popularity long after Bo’s death in 2008.

However, Chang Shianghua (Bo’s fifth wife) announced last week that his most famous work would no longer be published at the end of its current contract in 2024. “Bo Yang once said we can stop reading this book when China progresses,” Chang told the Global Times in an interview. “When the Chinese people stop indulging in problems of the past and have new goals to pursue, this book should be scrapped.”

According to Chang, she has turned down a number of requests for excerpts from The Ugly Chinaman to be included in school textbooks in Taiwan as she was concerned that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could use the book as part of a “de-Sinicisation” agenda.

“Children who are just in their first year of junior high school between the ages of 10 and 12 have absorbed very little Chinese culture. But now, the education authority of Taiwan is trying to implant a subjective sense of [hating the mainland] in the youth first,” she warned.

The DPP rejects these accusations, although the Chinese history curriculum has undergone substantial changes since 2016, United Daily News reports, compressing 2,400 years into a few pages of ‘East Asian history’.

Unsurprisingly, China’s state media and mainland bloggers have been heaping praise on Chang’s decision to call time on the The Ugly Chinaman. There were even some kinder words for its author, with commentary that his book has often been misinterpreted. “Bo Yang was never a racist or a Han traitor. He was genuinely patriotic,” Guancha, a news website, opined.

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