The Power of Superlatives

Anyone who’s spent a bit of time in China has heard about it’s “5,000 Years of History.” The phrase is everywhere. It’s written in official documents, appends the introduction to just about every museum, and is even quoted, not infrequently, in casual conversation. This is a reference to China being, not only really old, but the longest running continuous civilization in the world—emphasis on longest.

But “5,000 Years of History” is just a part of China’s love affair with superlatives. When a ranking came out a few weeks ago listing a super-computer in Tianjin as the fastest computer in the world the press jumped all over it. It was the first time that the fastest computer in the world was made in China, that’s a double superlative.

The country seems wrapped in a quest for bigger, better, best. Almost everything in China is classified, categorized, and most importantly, ranked. Walking up to a building one is confronted with a wall of bronze plaques, each one extolling that buildings particular accomplishments, “three star model building” or “1st tier efficiency rating.”

Then there are all the contests: singing contests, beauty contests, speaking contests, Rubik’s cube contests. It seems every school, business, city, county, province, you name it, hosts their own contest of some kind, and that’s not counting the ones on TV.

Even tourist attractions are described first by rank, “Welcome to our 1st level provincial culture site and municipal level tourist destination.” Never mind what you can actually see at the place. The government has also been pulling hard for recognition on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In 2008 alone China self-nominated over 30 tourist sites. That’s more nominations in one year than all but 6 countries have sites accepted in total.

Perhaps the biggest, and most measurable, international award is the Olympics, and in China medals are counted, and recounted. The country’s first Olympic gold in 1984 quickly became a mark of national pride. More recently in 2008, that China won more gold medals than America was a fact not overlooked, even before the games were completed.

In fact a craving to be the best is one way of looking at the big fracas China has made over Liu Xaiobo’s selection for the Nobel Peace Prize. In one light China’s harsh reaction to the decision seems like frustration, and disappointment from wounded pride.

It’s been said that China has a chip on it’s shoulder, that it’s a fallen titan angling to reclaim it’s rightful place at the top. It’s certainly possible to see that in all the striving for awards and touting statistics, but this view perhaps misses something else deeply tied to judging and ranking: ambition.

The Chinese university system is renown for it’s elitism. Schools and students are all unambiguously ranked and everyone seems to be lusting after the few spots at the top schools. I’ve heard students at lower ranked universities talk about spending their first year coming to terms with mediocrity. But along with being competitive Chinese students are famously dedicated and hard working.

Another place where ideas about success and an obsession with superlatives come together is China’s growing consumerism. China is the fastest growing market for luxury products in the world, and has been for a while. What better way to show success than buy the best?

Everywhere I turn China is full of superlatives; hopefully it’s more a sign of ambition than hubris.

This entry was posted in Armchair Theorizing, Social Phenomena. Bookmark the permalink.

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