November 17, 2011
The news was shocking: China’s military was going to permit the enlistment of recruits with tattoos on their bodies!
Yet the New York Times, with all its resources and talent, fails to cover the story with a good dose of intercultural awareness.
The Chinese have long had a saying: “Just as one does not make nails out of good iron; one does not make a soldier out of a good man.”
That is how much the Chinese culture despises soldiering as a career. In fact, the first Prime Minister of newly independent Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, knew that in order to build a strong military (which was necessary given the political instability in that region in the 1960s) out of a population that was predominantly ethnic Chinese, the country had to practice conscription (see section titled “Jobless Instead Of Soldiers”).
As the mainland Chinese economy surged forward in the last two decades, the Chinese middle class has grown multi-fold. As is the case with any rapidly industrializing country, Chinese youth are increasing looking for jobs that do not require them to toil in the elements. You may say that Chinese youth, having been born and brought up in an era of prosperity unlike their parents’ generation who grew up under the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, are getting “soft.”
Also, East Asian societies have long associated tattoos with secret societies (better known as the mafia here). People with tattoos are frowned upon and even discriminated against in the job markets. Compare that to contemporary America, where a tattoo is a symbol of self-expression or may be in honor of a dead friend or relative.
So the Chinese military is scraping the bottom of the barrel for its military enlistments. American politicians and policy-makers seem to be alarmed at that prospect. Should they be?
They might be better off spending the time understanding how the Chinese think.