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Society & Culture

Is the Concept of an ‘Underdog’ Universal?

Jul 12, 2016

An ordinary person gains super powers and defeats a powerful villain to save average citizens from catastrophe. Political outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders fight for the underprivileged against a corrupted political establishment. Millions of African-Americans commit acts of civil disobedience to protest Jim Crow laws, finally achieving desegregation of the South. As Westerners, we are moved by stories like these. We are drawn to narratives where the heroes start out at the bottom, with the odds stacked against them, but ultimately prevail in the end. We love underdogs.

We might think the love of underdogs is universal, however this sentiment isn’t so much present in China. Daniel A. Bell, a Professor of Comparative philosophy at Tsinghua University and author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, wrote in an article in The Guardian entitled Cheering for Goliath, that the Chinese people don’t tend to root for underdog teams in sports. In the Euro 2008 (UEFA European Football Championship), while much of the rest of the world rooted for long-shots like Spain, Chinese fans favored the more established German and Italian teams. According to Bell, it’s nearly impossible to translate the word “underdog” into Chinese with the appropriate nuances it contains in the West.

So where does this Western attraction to underdogs come from? Why are we so drawn to the trials of repressed peoples? I think in large part it comes from a Judeo-Christian tradition, and the influence of the Bible, which is perhaps the greatest underdog narrative of all time.

According to The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, which discusses archeological evidence for the historical veracity of biblical events, many of the early stories in the Bible—including Exodus, the Book of Judges, the conquest of Canaan, and a powerful state ruled by David and Solomon—were most likely myths compiled in a later period, probably in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE. Instead of being faithful portrayals of history, they were intended as propaganda to promote Israelite resistance to the formative foreign powers of the day, such as Assyria, Egypt, and later, Babylon.
Exodus, the Book of Judges, and the conquest of Canaan are all stories of an underdog minority fighting for independence and sovereignty. The image of a powerful Israelite state ruled by David and Solomon was meant to give people an idea of what could be in the future. The tales were intended to create hope, and a belief in ultimate victory. God would deliver the Promised Land so long as the people followed His law.

To form a united front against powerful foreign adversaries, however, the Israelites first had to form a distinct ethnic and religious identity. For most of their history, the Israelites had worshiped a variety of deities. Then, sometime in the eighth century BCE, there emerged an increasingly vocal school of thought that argued that Yahweh alone should be worshiped. As The Bible Unearthed states, “It is easy to see why the biblical authors were so upset by idolatry. It was a symbol of chaotic social diversity; the leaders of the clans in the outlying areas conducted their own systems of economics, politics, and social relations—without administration or control by the court in Jerusalem.” (p.249) Thus, the movement to worship Yahweh alone was a rejection of social diversity in favor of creating a single religious group. It came along with bans on intermarrying with local people, which served to reinforce ethnic identity. Only such a united ethnic and religious group could come together against a powerful foreign occupation. In this way, the Israelites developed the idea of a single god, and one true way to worship him.

If Christianity can be seen as the greatest philosophical influence in the West, Confucianism holds that place in China. Whereas the Bible emphasizes that there is only one correct way to worship God, Confucianism places a high value on diversity. A short time ago I had the chance to speak with Professor Bell, who told me one of the most famous lines in the Confucian Analects is He er bu tong (和而不同). According to this idea, an exemplary person should prize harmony but not tong, which is often translated as “uniformity” or “consensus.” Bell described the metaphors Confucian texts use to explain the value of diversity: a soup with only one ingredient is bland, but with other ingredients the flavor is richer; certain musical instruments sound dull on their own, but if played with other instruments the sound becomes beautiful. Bell explains, “The Confucian idea of harmony—which is not like an eccentric view, I mean every Chinese intellectual knows this [concept of] He er bu tong—is a respect, maybe even a celebration of diversity.”

Bell told me that you can find evidence for this in how Eastern and Western places of worship are designed. If you look at monotheistic religious centers such as a Catholic church, Jewish synagogue, or Islamic mosque, they all clearly belong to separate religions. But in China you can often see the influences of multiple belief systems in a single temple. “So this idea that there’s like one way, one true way, and everybody should conform to that is pretty foreign actually, not just to Confucianism but to…I would say something like the Chinese ethos or spirit,” Bell states.

Confucius likely would not have approved of an ethnic minority walling themselves off and insisting on independence. Chinese philosophical traditions support the idea of “all under heaven,” which suggests that the emperor who receives the mandate of heaven should rule over the entire world. While other leaders might be in charge of tributary states, they would derive their legitimacy from the emperor, and would pay tribute to him. Minority groups operating under this framework would be allowed to practice their traditions free from government interference, yet their way of life would be downgraded to a second-class status.

The differing Biblical and Confucian approaches to minority groups make sense considering their different audiences. Confucius hoped to influence a powerful ruler who could one day unify “all under heaven.” For an emperor ruling over a vast territory, the Confucian approach seems wiser. Actively repressing minority groups might cause them to rebel. Instead, it’s better to utilize soft power and hope the minorities will eventually assimilate. If not, they may come to live peacefully within territorial borders. Assimilation or peaceful coexistence is perhaps what the pharaoh hoped the Israelites would do during seventh century BCE. Had the dominant narrative that emerged from the time been written for him, maybe we would have a society based on a very different set of values. Instead, the early Biblical stories were meant as a rallying cry for the Israelites, a minority group. For them, confrontation and resistance could mean independence and the power to rule their own territory. For the Israelites, resistance was clearly the appealing option.

As a result, Western civilization came to see the relationship between minority groups and the majority as inherently confrontational. Westerners tend to see the world through the eyes of underdogs. We recognize ourselves in the Bible’s characters, immersed in an epic battle for rights and independence. As The Bible Unearthed concludes,

Just as the subjects of Charlemagne paid homage to him as a new,
conquering David—and the followers of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman
saw in him the wisdom of Solomon—other communities in very
different cultural contexts would identify their own struggles with the
struggles of biblical Israel. Medieval European peasant communities
rose up in apocalyptic rebellions with the images and heroes of the
Hebrew Bible as their battle banners. The Puritan settlers of New England
went so far in imagining themselves as Israelites wandering the
wilderness that they recreated the Promised Land—with its Salem, Hebron, Goshen, and New Canaan—in their newfound meadows and woods.” (p.317)

Our entire democratic system has been set up with the goal of defending minority rights in mind. Checks and balances, regular elections, and the Bill of Rights in the United States are all designed to defend the rights of minorities against the power of the majority.

But in China, most people don’t see minority and majority interests as inherently in conflict. They don’t see the need for minorities to separate themselves from the larger group. As Bell writes in Cheering for Goliath, “A sure way to upset my Chinese father-in-law—a veteran of three revolutionary wars—is to tell him that my francophone mother supports independence for Quebec. Why would she want to break up the country, he wonders? Bigger is better, isn’t it?” Similarly, Bell says Chinese people are not concerned with independence for Tibetans. “I’ve yet to meet a single Chinese person who favors breaking up the country so that a minority group can enjoy its own way of life.”

There are, of course, a myriad of factors that combine to create culture. The values that define modern society in mainland China certainly don’t come exclusively from Confucianism, just as the United States doesn’t derive its ethical foundations solely from the Bible. And yet, the narratives we tell ourselves, and choose to tell our children, have a lasting power to shape how we see the world. Where we decide to take our heroes from determines how we see ourselves, and our relationship to those around us.

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