Letter to Chinese Friends: We Really Are Different

Letter to Chinese Friends: We Really Are Different, by David Goldman.

Mandarin-speaking Chinese friends often complain that they have no common language with their grandparents, who speak only dialect. …

Until the present generation it made no sense to characterize “Chinese” as a spoken language. “Chinese” is a system of ideograms that convey concepts but not sounds; each dialect has idiosyncratic sounds that correspond to the characters. The Beijing court dialect, or Mandarin, was spoken by a tiny minority, while the vast majority of Chinese spoke regional languages or dialects. The People’s Republic of China recognizes 56 distinct ethnicities with distinct languages, while linguists identify eight principle language groups and too many dialects to mention. Many of these are as different as Spanish and German; Cantonese, the largest southern language, has little in common with Mandarin or Shanghaiese. …

Until the recent spread of the Mandarin dialect due to a national education system and electronic media, no Chinese mother ever sang a lullaby to her baby in “Chinese.” …

China is the world’s oldest living civilization and America is the youngest. … The American principle is that each individual is sacred, and therefore sovereign, with equal protection under the law and an equal say in governance. Ancient Israel is the wellspring of the American imagination, as I argued in a lecture to the Heritage Foundation in 2016.

If China’s national epic is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, America’s national epic is the King James Version of the Hebrew Bible. America was founded by dissenting Protestants for whom the history of Israel was a map to salvation. …

China in some ways is brilliantly successful. From ancient times it has been ruled by a meritocracy of scholars, and its accomplishments in the past forty years have astonished the world. But Americans never will reconcile themselves to China’s lack of concern for individual rights, for its cruelty to so many of its citizens, and for the absence of mercy in its public affairs. Americans tolerate billionaires because their wealth largely is earned rather than inherited, and earned honestly. No one resents the wealth of a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, who came from middle-class families and became wealthy through their own efforts. The Chinese worry about social solidarity under conditions of unequal wealth distribution, but do not seem to notice that the wealthiest Americans give away most of their money to philanthropy. Americans in 2017 gave away nearly half a trillion dollars, roughly the GDP of a Belgium or Sweden.