Kaiser Kuo – Building Bridges Between Chinese and American Cultures

This Kaiser Kuo interview was first published in connection with the ‘Cultural China’ project by The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS) at Peking University, see HERE. It is in the public domain, however, if you want to cite from it, please always give the correct source:

Kuo, Kaiser (2013/04/27), Interview with Kaiser Kuo on Confucianism and China’s Soft Power, The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS), Peking University, Beijing. Web. May 2013. <www.iahs.pku.edu.cn>.


Interview with Kaiser Kuo on Confucianism and China’s Soft Power

BEIJING – The Chinese American rock musician Kaiser Kuo, writer, program host, and director for international communication at Baidu, the Chinese search engine, sits down with Thorsten Pattberg to discuss Chinese terminologies, global language, Confucianism and China’s soft power. [27 April, 2013]

Thorsten Pattberg: Kaiser, you are a musician and former member of two pioneering Beijing rock bands, Tang Dynasty and Spring and Autumn, and now the international communication director at Baidu, China’s search engine. But you are also a passionate writer, who, in my view, developed a unique prose style that incorporates poetry with a good sense of humor, street wisdom, and a good deal of Chinese loanwords. Tell us about your use of Chinese loan words in your famed column ‘Ich bin ein Beijinger.’

Ich bin ein Beijinger

Kaiser Kuo: Promoting Chinese words or the Chinese language was never the intention, and this was never part of a larger project to do so. I liked using the occasional Chinese word rhymed in Chinese (baozi, jiaozi, and Laozi for instance) for the humor of it. I like the meter and the rhyme. You get a bigger range of rhyme possibilities by using two languages. I never had any illusions about who I was writing for—that tiny intersection of people who speak both languages and live here in Beijing.

TP: TheBeijinger is a highly influential magazine for internationals in Beijing, and read mainly by young fellows who are now becoming the future global leaders in their fields. Those witty columns of yours left a lasting impact on them; they smiled, they could identify, they became part of the Beijing community. What’s your take on that?

KK: I got a lot of positive feedback and I’m grateful for that, but again, it was only read by a tiny number of people and I don’t think there was any real lasting impact. I did have a good time writing the column, though!

TP: I am certainly going to write about this, and mentioning it; mentioning the very idea that, of course, you are an artist [as opposed to an academic], you obviously have access to other vocabularies and you have other things to consider like the rhythm of the prose, and you are doing this without political agenda, but you are doing something that ordinary scholars can’t do, namely you are using proper Chinese terminologies.

KK: It is really random. It is not a deliberate, very thought-through process. The poems where I used this, they were doggerel, you know this term, it is “deliberately bad poetry.” It is not supposed to be good; it is supposed to just be silly. It is children-style rhymes. There is one I wrote about the end of the Olympic games? (It was called “One Fish, Two Fish, Post-Olympic Blues Fish”) and I did it deliberately pattern it on Dr. Seuss; you know Dr. Seuss?

TP: Yes, the children books author.

KK: It was done to be silly; it wasn’t intended to be good. It certainly is not scholarly work; it is a shallow entertainment. I don’t know if there is anything useful or meaningful in it. As for the use of Chinese words in it, mostly it is for humorous effect to achieve a rhyme. And like I said to you, it kind of creates a sense of shared community, which is quite a narrow sliver of the world. And if anything, rather than trying to include people from outside of that little narrow sliver, it is more like drawing walls around that little community and saying this is our secret, shared language.

TP: Yes, it is a kind of secret language, because you can’t expect the occasional tourist to “get it.” The artist doesn’t have the time and space to provide a definition in that poem, so readers ought to know the meaning of the [Chinese] terms. How long have you been writing?

KK: I have written all my life. This is something that I always enjoyed doing. This column I started in October 2001 and finished it in October 2011.

TP: I myself came to China in 2003 and remember reading it. I enjoyed myself and it certainly left an impact. And the German title is especially memorable. The Beijing expat community is very selected (students and expats), many have returned to their home countries and the ‘Ich bin ein Beijinger’-time stays is now part of their personal history too. Maybe they will even use Chinese terminologies in their future writings as well.


KK: It is not the terminologies I am concerned with. I would encourage anyone who comes here to study the language, it’s a wonderful thing, I think there is no other better path to build genuine people-to-people relationships than a meaningful acquisition of language. What I try to do when I write is people to appreciate the moment they are living here in China, the opportunity to peek at China during this momentous point of inflection. Historically, this is a rare opportunity: we are experiencing one of the most important changes that has affected one of the biggest swaths of humanity in the entire existence of our species, and that we have a chance to witness this, you know, these flesh-and-blood organisms here sitting in this time to see this happening. This is something worth appreciating.

TP: I totally agree. And of course you also have simultaneously influenced the music scene.

KK: I think it is all part of the same project.

TP: It is?

KK: Yes, I think, from a very selfish point of view, I feel this might sound to you grandiose, but I was very fortunate by my birth to have had parents who were born in China, who still spoke Chinese, and spoke it at home, and were intensely proud of their Chinese heritage, but raise us, me and my brothers and sister, in America to feel that we are also perfectly legitimate heirs to the Western tradition. So I felt I was one of these privileged students who had an organic sense of being an heir to two great civilizations. And as somebody in that position I was almost obliged to try to help the two civilizations in their current manifestations, that is, modern China and contemporary America, to get to know each other better, because they don’t know each other well at all. For me, I was always somebody who realized early on that I was translating musical idioms into English or Chinese; or from the American “rock” tradition into Chinese. It is really part of the same thing; everything that I poured energy into in the last twenty years of my life has had something to do with this mission.

TP: Would you have imagined back then that you were actually doing some sort of cultural ambassador thing between the two great civilizations? Have you been aware of it back then?

KK: I hoped it. I always hoped that I was able to do that. I don’t know how effective I have been. I am not very reflective about. I don’t sit and stop and think: Have I risen to the idea? I don’t really do that. It is enough to encourage other people who share the same vision and direction so they will possibly make that happen.

TP: This is certainly true in the music scene in Beijing. I mean, you build it up. Even today, the next generation of Chinese youths know about bands like Tang Dynasty and Spring and Autumn.


KK: We should also be careful not to exaggerate my contributions to this. I was one of many many people. You know, there is a tendency in the English speaking world to overstate my role in Tang Dynasty. The simple fact, yes I co-founded it; yes I did come up with the name of the band and some of the animating ideas; but a lot of the music tends to have nothing to do with my writing. They lyrics, I had nothing, anything to do with the lyrics of Tang Dynasty. And so many people like that band because of the lyrics; I can take no credit for that at all.

TP: What is your next project in terms of writing?

KK: I am working on a family history. I am writing very sensibly about my father right now, and about my grandfather and great grandfather. Mostly I am focusing on my father who is now 80 years old. He lives in Beijing so I can see him very often. We sit down at least once a week and we do two ours at a time of interview. He has had a fascinating life. I am trying to document that. My sister is a photographer and she will be helping with the images. We don’t know what’s gonna come out of it, but I have written hundreds of pages already. My parents started in China growing up during the war, going to Taiwan and then coming to the States, raising us in the States, and then coming back to China. With two of their children born in America, my younger sister and me; but really especially me, I was really falling in love with China and wanted to make a life for myself here. And now I have my own children. And I am teaching them about America in kind of the same way my parents taught me about China.

TP: They have been to America.

KK: Sure.

TP: Do you speak English or Chinese at home?

KK: The rule is they speak only English with me and Chinese with my wife. They are completely bilingual. I think it is the best gift I can give them. I want them to write beautiful Chinese. You know, my Chinese, I write like a little child. My daughter’s Chinese is already better than mine and she is only nine years old.

TP: Very interesting. Now, there are some key words I would like to share with you and hear your opinion about. With regards to the rise of China economically, politically, and culturally, do you also see the possibility that Chinese will affect the future global language?

Future of Global Language

KK: It depends how far we are talking about future. In the long term, yes, but in the next 30 or 40 years I think the impact will be very small, much smaller than we imagine. There is some small chance that all is going to change, and some has to do with economics, but China has a very particular mindset; I don’t think China has a lot of valence universally. I think we should not fool ourselves about this idea. Part of it is, it has never attempted to reveal itself; it is just the way of the last 150 years have gone in human civilization. If you look at China today, if you say that the two sides (West and China) have merged; China has backed down much more. It has embraced the international system of nation states, the institutions that were laid down by Anglo-Americans. For better or worse, this has been the case in technology, the monetary system, international trade, and other Western standards. I think that China has become more Western. The other thing is this: the whole idea of “Chinese soft power” has been very fundamentally flawed.

Chinese soft-power

TP: That would be the next item on my list. Let’s talk about China’s soft power.

KK: I have talked much about this, and written a column about this. In that column I talk about a fictional neighbor of mine, Mr. Zhao. Zhao’s life is China in miniature. The wife in this kind of stands for China’s history, and the fraught relationship that Chinese have with it.

Zhao is either widowed or divorced. There’s evidence for both surmises, and I’ve not quite gotten up the nerve to ask him directly. He’s talked about his late (or ex-) wife before with me: he actually brings her up with some frequency, and it’s clear that he’s conflicted and still tormented by her. He’s by turns spiteful and warmly nostalgic when he speaks of her. In one breath, and with no awareness of any irony, he’ll wax admiringly about her deep knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and laugh contemptuously about her superstition. Whatever happened between them, or whatever happened to her, it seems to have involved a foreigner. […]

Although he’s clearly a very proud man, and one of no mean accomplishment, somehow around women— Chinese or foreign alike—he simply fails to project confidence. He’s stiff, defensive, and shows none of the easy, often earthy humor that comes so naturally to him when it’s just us.

“Don’t try so hard,” I tell him. “Be yourself.”

“Actually,” he answers, “I’m being exactly myself.” And I worry that he’s right.

KK: In the story, when we are talking about ‘money’ this is obviously the Chinese economics. He is sitting in the ‘gym’ and what I mean is that he is more ‘muscular’ in the world now. And that is an attractive thing in a lot of ways, in terms of soft power. He is ‘dressing’ better, so cosmetically his outward appearance has improved. He is trying to ‘quit smoking,’ so he is making an effort on the environment. The list goes on. But what is clear is that… when Joseph Nye, the Harvard scholar, when he came up with the concept of ‘soft power,’ he understands power as attraction rather than coercion. When he uses the word “attraction” I think of that in a very literal sense, that it is attractiveness. If I want to be attractive to a woman; when you look at personal ads, for example, most women are looking for two kinds of things in a man: confidence and a guy who is humorous. China is very bad at projecting both of these things. China’s “confidence” either comes from in the form of an inferiority complex or bullying swagger. It makes these pendulum swings between the two and never rests in a comfortable zone where it is confident enough to take up eye contact [with the West], and be funny and humorous. Chinese people are very funny, terrifically funny at times, but we have a very hard time – compared to the rest of the world – at laughing at ourselves.

TP: So in the company of foreigners, they suddenly feel very uncomfortable. Would it change if China were able to introduce Chinese vocabularies into the world language? Because at the moment journalism, academia, sciences all seem to be dominated by Anglo-Saxon categories and words. Other cultures like Japan or India do it differently; they want to grasp their own concepts and come to the table and want to be stakeholders in global language.

Foreign Terminologies

KK: I think that puts the cart before the horse. It is not the lack of impact in language that is causing the deficit of culture; I think it is the other way around. China has a rich trove of cultural treasures but is not attractive enough. Chinese as an international language is not going to happen if you push it. It is a pull-thing. People need to want it, to come here, and to find it themselves. When did Japan become a soft-cultural power? It was in the 80′ when we were all suddenly watching Akira Kurosawa movies. We can see Japan’s soft power in manga, you can see it in anime. People everywhere were studying Japanese. It wasn’t because Japan actively pushed. It was because Japan’s economy was robust; because Japan seemed irresistible. Just look at the popularity of sushi-restaurants in the west. You know, I never ate sushi before 1983 but suddenly it was like part of my regular diet. And with it came the [Japanese] language. Nobody knew before that what a netsuke was. Japanese even enriched our vocabularies in pornography.

TP: I agree, there are a lot of Japanese loanwords in the English language. Words like Zen, kamikaze, or tsunami.

KK: Yeah, and banzai. But these kinds of words are the wrong kind of words. Look what words we know from German. We know words like Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht, and blitzkrieg. You know, we have words like panzer.

TP: Or angst (existential fear).

KK: Many German words became popular in the second half of the 20th century to us, like weltschmerz or weltanschauung. Those are philosophical words but the German ‘soft-power’ mostly gave us negative words. And then there are German words associated with engineering or words that were pushed out by advertising companies like Volkswagen or Porsche.

TP: Do you believe this could be cultural strategy. For example if The Economist magazine writes a China article and has no other choice but to mention Chinese names like Sina, Weibo or Baidu; this is good for China. So there is a decision you have to make when you set up a company: Do you chose an English name or do you stick to your own language. And the Japanese did this a lot, I think.

KK: Honda is a Japanese name, and Toshiba. But Sony, Sharp and Panasonic are not.

TP: They could have given them all English names, but they didn’t. Because there is a certain confidence that comes with the culture. In Germany these days, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, a lot of artist and musicians for example start off with English names and labels. This isn’t in the best interest of German culture; yet there is in many cases a conscious decision not to use the German language at all.

KK: That’s right. The Scorpions… all of it in English. We are seeing that fighting out right now in the Chinese music scene. It’s a gigantic debate. Should we sing in English or should we sing in Chinese. Some groups start with singing in English, but I agree they should also sing something Chinese.

TP: A bit like the recent South Korean hit ‘Gangnam Style’ [by Psy].

KK: Yes, but would that be a global hit if there weren’t a couple of English words in it? “Sexy lady” and Gangnam “style,” and so on.

TP: Ok, let us now go over to the next topic. You are now involved at Baidu as international communicator. Are you involved in the discussion about business ethics, or ethics in general?

KK: Yes, we do talk about our business ethics as part of the company alongside corporate governance; but I don’t have a role in formulating it. Fortunately there are a lot of people caring about this much already. As to theUS, the only work experience I had was in restaurants in high school and an assembly line when in college; and then in graduate school I was teaching. So I don’t have that much practice or business experience, so it’s hard to make comparisons.


TP: What about your ideas about Confucianism in today’s China. As you know there is an effort by the government to promote it.

KK: I understand it. And I myself I feel like I embody a lot of Confucian values. I don’t think that these are uniquely Confucian but they have happen to be also Confucian like the idea of xiao or “filial piety.” It is just one of these wonderful things in Chinese society. I understand that there are a lot of problems with it when taken to the extremes. And I understand why in the May Forth Movement they would repudiate that idea. I also happen to be somebody whose parents are very deserving of respect. I love them and we have a wonderful relationship. That’s true of my parents and all of their children. And of the course, the [Confucian] value of education. Or the idea of moderation in all things, these are all things I very much embrace. I think the Confucian idea of ‘ren’ – I named my son Guo Puren – since I love that concept of “humanness” and I also like the Confucian ‘golden rule’ better than the Christian one. The Christian version says ‘do onto others as you would have done onto you,’ but it doesn’t work in real life. I would have you give me huge amounts of money but I wouldn’t do that for you. It makes no sense. It is the opposite; it should be [the Confucian way] ‘do not onto others what you not want to be done to yourself’ – it does works. It sounds like a negative formulation, but it is actually kind of a brilliant piece of ethics. I should add that I don’t like any kind of dogma. I am ferociously anti-religious. Any time I see an ‘ism’ of any sort that becomes a body of actions and beliefs that is imposed by some external authority, I am very suspicious of it.

TP: Many people would even disagree that Confucian was a religion.

KK: I didn’t call it that. The moment we quantify it and say this is what it is, it becomes some sort of a dogma.

TP: According to Tu Weiming, Confucianism is a dialogical tradition. It is always in dialogue with itself and other traditions. In this respect, it might be able to give something back to the west.

KK: Yes, but in order to be something that is accepted by a Western audience… do you think that Chinese political culture can embrace something that is dialogical right now? I don’t think it can. Confucianism has a profound tendency for dogmatism. In America we have this “let’s have massive disagreements on issues of politics, but, hey, let us put that outside and have a beer together” mentality. It is hard to imagine that’s happening in China. The Chinese political culture, you know, you are familiar with this, is one that wants you to present a facade of unanimity, but it doesn’t sort of embrace visible incarnations.

TP: Interesting answer.

KK: So I think that when China can get more comfortable with that idea, then what it wants to present as its core set of values something that is dialogic, like Confucianism ought to be, than it would get more appeal.

TP: Could you think of other Confucian elements that would appeal to the West; that could make the West a better place?

KK: Sure, I think that filial piety is one; another one is the central agnosticism. The American mentality, for example, tends towards crazy religious dogmatism. I love the secularism of Confucianism. I also like the human centrism. What I like about Confucianism as opposed to the other religious or philosophical traditions in China is its worldliness; it is engaged with the real world. Human affairs, human relations. That’s where our minds should be focused on. But I don’t think that these things are much in absence in the west either.

TP: Recently the Tsinghua University professor of political theory, Daniel A. Bell, published an article in The New York Times arguing for a ‘Confucian Constitution’ for China and praising China’s ‘meritocracy’ as model for the West. What is your opinion on that?

KK: I wouldn’t dismiss every idea in it. There were just some things that stand out as particularly ludicrous. I can’t remember the exact wording. It was like having something like an upper house parliament that was of a highborn intellectual class. Another idea was that you would have a body of descendants of Confucius and such. I think he came in for a lot of nasty criticism. I have a lot of issues with his ideas; the notion that Chinese political system is meritocratic… that is just nonsense. I mean, that is just easily disproven. Look at the pedigrees of the ruling elites, the princelings etc. There is a meritocratic element in China, yes. But to say that it is an achieved meritocracy; that is nonsense.

TP: Thank you very much for your time.


Read more on Kaiser Kuo at Wikipedia, TheBeijinger, or SmartBeijing. This interview was first published by The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS), Peking University, on April 27, 2013.