05/15/2008 07:04 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Out of Tragedy, a New Cultural Understanding of China

The heart-sundering photographs and video of grieving Chinese parents in Chengdu, Juyan and elsewhere could represent a major cultural re-consideration here in America.

Our ingrained perception of the Chinese is every bit as deep and complex and indurated by racism as our relationship with blacks, a sensitive subject that was recently and profoundly addressed by Senator Obama in Philadelphia.

There have been four modern phases that define the way Americans see the Chinese, four lens of perception.

The first was as opium-smoking Mandarins during the 19th century.

The second lens, which emerged late in the 19th and early in the twentieth century, was that of a feverishly over-populated civilization where human life was meaningless. The Chinese were a "Yellow Peril", and journalists used that incendiary language to whip us into a frenzy of fear and discrimination.

The third lens, which defined our view during the Communist period -- particularly the Cultural Revolution -- was that of brainwashed, amoral thought slaves who were able to be manipulated and controlled by Mao.

Interestingly, while we viewed the Russians as oppressed by the Evil Empire, because of decades of stereotyping and debasement of the Chinese, we generally saw them as quietly complicit in their fate.

The fourth lens, our contemporary one, views the Chinese as still amoral, but now 24/7 capitalists, cold, calculating and emotionless. A civilization that is willing to relocate millions, manufacture tainted products in a free-for-all economy and destroy the environment as they play the largest catch-up game in human history.

While once we were threatened by the sheer number of them, now we're economically threatened by the sheer industriousness and relentlessness of them.

This is reinforced by the stereotype of Chinese students in America -- super-rational brains who dominate in math and science and don't give a damn about the humanities.

The Chinese government, of course, bears some responsibility for this. In their burning desire to both modernize and control, their global image management strategy was to focus on China's transformational economic success, to restore national pride and never, ever convey weakness or softness or victimization in the process.

By relaxing its grip on this Pollyanna Perfectionism -- due, no doubt, to the upcoming Olympics, the Tibet problem, the need to modulate popular unrest, as well as the inescapable enormity of the problem -- China is admitting the world into its tragedy.

We are now face-to-face with searing images of parental grief, and that can only soften the hard and robotic surfaces of the Chinese culture, and the residual but cemented perception that life is cheap.

Perhaps this event, combined with a less claustrophobic and defensive media posture by the Chinese government, can mark a transition into the Fifth Phase. Where we can climb out of cliché and begin to appreciate the unparalleled richness, humanity and historical complexity of Chinese culture.

Of course, it's tragic that it takes a tragedy to do that. But the benefits for relations between our countries would be profound, as we march into a century where the economic and military ascendancy of China is a fact of life.