The Russian Hamlet Behind the Chinese Screen

Vladimir Volkov

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The ‘real’ China rarely shows itself to outsiders, hiding behind an invisible screen that precious few have managed to penetrate. Among them is Alexey Maslov – an Asian scholar and Shaolin devotee.

It’s the end of April. For the Department of Civilizational Development of the East at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), it is the calm before the storm at the end of the school year. In the waiting room across from Alexey Maslov’s office, two people are talking at a large, round table. The quiet hum of their conversation (it seems their talk is about Li Yuan and the Tang Dynasty) is only interrupted once – by the sudden commotion of a group of students hurrying down the hall arguing loudly in Chinese.

The walls of the modern, simply furnished room are covered in breathtaking photographs of China that could serve as tourism advertisements. There is Chinese ‘Art Nouveau,’ like the proud Shanghai skyline dominated by the unmistakable and nearly half-kilometer tall Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower, hanging alongside traditional Chinese prints, such as picturesque pagodas with curved roofs and scenic rice fields awash with the dim light of the late afternoon sun.

Our meeting is delayed. Maslov calls and apologizes politely (the research board meeting is taking longer than anticipated), and asks for another 15 minutes. When he finally appears in the doorway of his office, he immediately shifts his attention to a graduate student who materializes in front of him.

Finally, it’s my turn. “I am at your full disposal,” he says, inviting me into his office with a welcoming gesture.

For anyone who is interested in China, and at least superficially familiar with Alexey Maslov’s life, getting such an invitation is quite lucky. He is one of the most famous Chinese scholars in Russia, a specialist in the field of Chinese spiritual and cultural traditions, the author of numerous papers and essays, a translator of ancient Taoist and Zen Buddhist texts, a professor and a visiting lecturer at numerous first-class universities around the world, and a member of advisory councils, committees, and working groups – just ask Google.

Maslov is an internationally recognized martial arts historian. He is himself a master of Shaolin wushu, having trained at the Shaolin monastery, where he received a full initiation into apprenticeship. He is the only foreigner whose name has been enshrined in the ‘Chronicles of the Shaolin Monastery Warrior Monks.’

The 50-year-old Maslov looks much more like a professor than the ascetic Buddhist monks you see in movies and popular Shaolin shows. His smart, dark blue suit betrays a strong but not particularly wiry physique; his eyes, framed by rounded rectangular rimless glasses, are intensely expressive; his straight hair, scattered with a touch of gray, is neatly parted.

Maslov himself is not bothered by this contradiction. “Everything should be appropriate. A European in traditional Shaolin monk attire would look as ridiculous in the center of a Western city as someone strolling through the Chinese wilderness in an English suit,” he says, getting comfortable in his chair and continuing the conversation.

Introduction to tradition

We begin with Shaolin, which played a special role in Maslov’s life and destiny. His journey actually began in the late 1970s in Mongolia, where his parents, who came from a long line of Moscow medical doctors, used to work. It was there that Maslov became interested in China (the country was building socialism, but remained an island of Buddhist culture) and began to study karate and Chinese martial arts, colorfully called ‘kung fu.’

“There were Chinese people living there, and their main occupation was selling things at the market. In reality, many of them had fled the Cultural Revolution. Although in 1976 it was already over, those people were in no hurry to return to China – they did not trust the regime.”

That’s why the decision to ‘go East’ was natural for Maslov. In 1981 he entered Moscow State University’s Institute of Asian and African Studies. “The two best students in the program were Igor Morgulov, who now oversees relations with China as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Alexey Maslov. It was clear how passionate Alexey was about it all and how hard he tried to educate himself. So for me, it is not surprising that he grew into a superb Asian scholar and one of the best China experts in Russia and the world,” says Vladimir Remyga, research director at the Russian-Chinese Economic and Financial Center of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, who taught Maslov at the time.

Maslov did not forget about martial arts while at MSU, continuing to practice karate (which was banned suddenly in 1983) and compete on the university team. It was then, he reveals, that he started seeking a deeper understanding of the East. “Karate, Wushu, and Eastern mysticism, as well as Asian scholarship in general, were part of the protest culture at the time. Those weren’t simply martial arts, but a different view of reality, an opportunity to delve into another philosophy.”

Maslov’s first opportunity to see China came in 1989, thanks to a growing interest in the East during the perestroika years. He traveled at his own expense, using money he earned from writing a brochure on the history of martial arts. “Since we didn’t have other publications on the subject at that time, my little book was a huge but entirely unwarranted success,” he says modestly.

Nevertheless, he only had $14 left after buying the ticket. But he got lucky in China; he met people from the school of the Wushu master who had taught him in Mongolia. “The school took care of me. It was not very large or very well known, but it was very traditional. That is to say that people there helped each other, they personally handed me from one person to another,” explains Maslov. “So I returned home with the same $14. I never spent a dime. Throughout that trip I was welcomed, ‘wined and dined,’ and they even started teaching me.” It was a very important first encounter with the ‘real’ China. “I came to realize that the country had an official ‘display window,’ which filters out probably 99% of all foreigners. And then there are the inner channels, which are very difficult, almost impossible, to penetrate.”

When in Rome

That experience, admits Maslov, was a great help to him in the early 1990s, when he first attempted to get into Shaolin. Why did he even try? “You see, for a man who is interested in China and its martial arts, the Shaolin Temple is the same as the role of Hamlet for an actor,” he says, sighing slightly.

But the ancient monastery walls did not reveal their secrets to him on his first attempt. “When I arrived at Shaolin, I was under this bizarre delusion that I would be welcomed with open arms. Naturally, nobody was interested in me over there. The monks made polite conversation with me, but there was obviously no talk about any kind of training.”

But he got lucky again. During his travels through the south of China, in a small hotel restaurant, he met a man in Buddhist robes who would turn out to be the great monk Shi Deqian. He invited Maslov to Shaolin and later brought him into the circle of the senior monk, the last of the great abbots, Shi Suxi. With his blessing, and after two years of training at the monastery, Maslov was given the full rite of initiation in 1996. In commemoration of the event, a stone slab was erected in the Shaolin courtyard, which still stands today.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution the state began demanding the promotion of Shaolin as a cultural brand. It also actively introduced a new generation of monks who were primarily interested in commerce. This policy has to a certain extent been brought to its logical conclusion. Today’s Shaolin is a kind of Chinese Disneyland

So why did the Shaolin monks let him into their monastery? Maslov himself names three likely reasons, which also say a lot about the character of the Chinese people.

First of all, his arrival coincided with a general rise in interest in all things foreign and in foreigners themselves. At the same time, he spoke fluent Chinese and was able to hold a conversation on a wide range of subjects. “I could talk about everything from the way to properly cook noodles to Chinese philosophy – in other words, everything that is talked about in this circle,” explains Maslov.

Second, he was ready to spend time there. “In China, it’s important to devote time to getting used to things. Neither the first nor the second meeting – personally or in business – ever produces any result.”

Finally, he never questioned the monks and never asked for anything. “According to Chinese rules, one can never ask to be taught something. The correct way is to say ‘You are the master, and if you think I should wash the floors, I’ll wash the floors.’ In other words, one should seek a teacher rather than a body of knowledge.”

However, the mere mention of his teacher’s name would open any door to Maslov on his later visits to other Chinese monasteries, as well as in Tibet. “For me it was a very good lesson in understanding Chinese realities, and real life in China, which is always different for foreigners,” he muses. “The Chinese erected a kind of screen against the rest of the world, and China is behind it to this day, although strictly speaking, it is very easy to visit the country.”

Shaolin itself is a good illustration of that fact. In a matter of years, it transformed from a quiet secluded monastery into one of modern day China’s most popular cultural symbols and a place of mass tourism.

In essence, the monastery’s new era started in the early 1980s. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms meant that the monks who had been sent away en masse during the Cultural Revolution could start coming back. About two dozen monks from the old Shaolin school were the first to return to its dilapidated walls. They were mature men who attempted to restore the buildings and revive the traditional disciplines: martial arts, meditation, mind control, healing, and cultural knowledge. “They wanted to live a normal, humble, quiet monastic life. But even then, the state began to exert pressure on them, demanding the promotion of Shaolin as a cultural brand. It also actively introduced a new generation of monks who were primarily interested in commerce,” lamented Maslov. “There were more and more Shaolin shows. The old monks simply could not understand why this was necessary and how it related to the practice of self-improvement. Today, this policy has to a certain extent been brought to its logical conclusion. Today’s Shaolin is a kind of Chinese Disneyland.”

Basic instinct

This example shines a light on the dramatic changes in post-reform China. The country has enjoyed unprecedented economic success, which impacted the mindset and self-awareness of the Chinese people. How is that manifested?

First of all, begins Maslov, today’s China clearly understands that it really is the center of a new world that is giving rise to a new wave of culture and business.

The country has enjoyed unprecedented economic success, which impacted the mindset and self-awareness of its people. Above all, today’s China clearly understands that it really is the center of a new world that is giving rise to a new wave of culture and business. It has also gained enough strength to enforce its will on the outside world

Second, the Chinese have developed a strong feeling of success. The country has become rich very quickly, all within the lifetime of just one generation.

Third, China has ceased to be a soft and submissive country. “In essence, it has never been an acquiescing country. It’s just that for a long while, it did not have the strength to insist on its rigid positions. But today, China can really dictate its terms.”

The last fact is manifested at the level of not only the state, but also individuals. “For example, many of my friends who enjoy shopping at Chinese markets are beginning to notice the unpleasant fact that the Chinese are no longer willing to reduce the initial price fivefold. Why would that be? Because in the past, when things were handmade, the cost of goods was unclear and poorly defined. Now, with the rise of industrialism, the price of labor is clearly understood,” he explains.

For the same reason, China has ceased to be a cheap production site – and never will be again. “Many people continue to perceive this country as it was 10 to 20 years ago. But today, China is working on becoming a manufacturer of high-tech products. In other words, Chinese products will inevitably become more expensive.”

Finally, China has returned to its own old model of political culture, which Maslov defines as ‘expulsive.’ The West uses a ‘cooperative’ model (meeting and agreeing to jointly develop a business, making sure not to interfere with each other’s interests), but China works differently. Namely, it is inclined to get rid of a partner immediately after taking everything that it needs – technology, knowledge, contacts, and process development. “Many people take offense at that. But if you realize that this is the essence of the nation’s self-preservation, you have to admit that this formula works well.”

Huge ambitions

The very same instinct of self-preservation explains another development directly related to China’s huge success in recent years – the growing insistence of the country on foreign economic expansion, manifesting itself in initiatives such as the 2013 Silk Road Economic Belt strategy.

The main reason behind China’s interest in such projects, says Maslov, has to do with its pursuit of internal stability. The increase in labor costs (and, consequently, in the final product) is one of the Chinese economy’s worst growing pains, and can effectively be solved only by reducing logistics costs for delivering goods to foreign markets. “Loosely speaking, China has been producing goods, but their delivery has been carried out by foreign companies that set the price. China undoubtedly wants to bring the world’s infrastructure under its control.” In addition, China has fulfilled (or nearly fulfilled) its domestic agenda – its economic growth rate is slowing down, and will not exceed 7-7.5% in the foreseeable future. “But the worst part is the unmet expectations of those who are used to getting rich. So what the country needs is for part of its revenue to be generated outside of China.”

However, the objectives and influence of Beijing’s upcoming infrastructure projects, such as the new Silk Road, go far beyond pure economic expediency. Maslov draws attention to the peculiarities of this initiative. Two years after its announcement, there is still no clear concept – no official document that describes it. “This is China’s usual way of operating – it throws an idea out there and waits for a reaction to it. This way Beijing doesn’t irritate the world too often.”

Further, it carries the clear goal of political integration around the Chinese core. “Beijing is trying to export the idea of China as the new world leader – not only economically, but also politically. That is, it wants to position itself as a new global political force and start a collective discussion.”

Demystifying the Chinese Matrix

Entering the Chinese market with the idea that you are the ‘one and only’ business partner is a big mistake. Moreover, it is only one of many common errors committed by businesses seeking to make it in China, says Alexey Maslov.

No. 1 Succumbing to the charm of the first meeting

After a warm welcome and productive discussions during the first meeting in China, it is easy to think that the whole thing is in the bag. Indeed, you have just been to China and agreed on everything. You have had negotiations and conversations at a restaurant, so it seems like the only things left to do is to iron out the details and sign the contracts. But then you are suddenly faced with unexpected foot-dragging – it seems like everything is nearly ready, but for some reason a few small things aren’t coming together. So what is happening? The fact is that the Chinese never see the first phase of negotiations as a time for reaching agreements. For them, it is merely a time for learning about the essence of your business, finding out what you have to offer, and deciding whether to proceed with you at all.

No. 2 Getting stuck behind the round table

Entering the Chinese market often begins with dozens of meaningless meetings and outings. For example, associations and foundations arrange endless business forums, round tables, meetings with names like ‘An Evening of Friendship,’ and so on and so forth. In and of itself, this is not bad – they create ‘positive noise.’ But participation in them rarely leads to real results like agreements or memorandums of understanding. However, Chinese businessmen like these events because they emphasize the importance of China and give great PR to business councils and associations. In the end, many foreigners can get sucked into an endless string of events, which run into one another.

No. 3 Not having a Plan B, C, and D

A typical situation is for the Chinese to listen attentively to your suggestions, agree with them, and then offer up their own, entirely unrelated version. This often causes great resentment among foreigners who have been talking about one thing, but then think that they have been understood very differently. Do not be offended. These are simply the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese business mindset and negotiation tactics. There is only one way to deal with it: when working with Chinese companies and entrepreneurs, always have three or four alternatives.

If you are determined to work with China, you will have to build a dedicated team of professionals. China works according to a certain matrix, which makes life much easier. Many companies that are starting to work with China think that they are the one and only – that they are the ‘first bride.’ There have already been many ‘weddings,’ though the Chinese really do know how to make each potential partner feel special. Hence, building and training the team that will work with China is of the utmost importance. It is not cheap, but it is certainly cheaper than losing money as a result of incompetence or ‘childish’ mistakes.

No. 4 Expecting investment into your projects

Many people go to China in hopes of attracting investors. But China is not known for investing in other people’s projects. Similarly, some have the impression that if they own a technology or a factory, all they need to do to receive Chinese money is go to China, convey the quality of their assets, and wait for the Chinese to fall all over themselves trying to buy these products. But this is not going to happen. China is not buying individual factories today, but entire industries like the rare earth metal industry. Chinese companies are also focused on global brands. Among them are brands such as Volvo, IBM, or Waldorf Astoria – one of the leading global hotel chains and a symbol of the American prosperity of the 1930s. Russia and the other BRICS countries do not have as many global companies and brands that are of interest to the Chinese – and besides, they are rarely up for sale.

No. 5 Relying on intermediaries

Today the China-related market is teeming with thousands, if not millions, of intermediaries. These can be individuals or companies. They all try to exploit one myth, that China’s business culture is mysterious and incomprehensible, and they try to find a niche for themselves in this ‘scary Chinese world.’ Sometimes it really does work – there are examples where they play a very positive role. However, in the vast majority of cases they slow down the process, which many foreigners who go to China do not understand. A simple piece of advice: learn how to work with China yourself because no matter how good the intermediary, you will have to personally negotiate, write letters, smile, and give out business cards.

No. 6 Not knowing the basics of the Chinese business culture

China has a very rigid and highly developed business culture. It consists of a thousand little things that one needs to understand, which is why any Russian politician or businessman who goes there should, at least, learn how to behave at the negotiating table, at the restaurant table, and anywhere in between. Here is an indicative, real life example: a major Russian politician went to China, and, as always, he was offered a visit to the Great Wall of China. He declined because he was in a hurry and he had seen it before, but it came across as an insult to the Chinese – visiting the Great Wall is a symbolic gesture that shows respect for the country’s culture. People often ask why they have to adapt to the Chinese business culture when they have their own Western business culture. After all, they are not Chinese. Though there is no obligation to adapt, there will be no dialogue if you do not.
This conclusion sounds trivial, but it is true. One must prepare in advance in order to develop a relationship with China. Moreover, one must do it well; trial by fire is the worst idea imaginable. Instead, it will take training and preparation to learn China’s business traditions, culture, and negotiations processes.

The main reason behind projects such as the new Silk Road has to do with China’s pursuit of internal stability. The increase in labor costs is one of its economy’s worst growing pains, and can effectively be solved only by reducing logistics costs for delivering goods to foreign markets. However, the objectives and influence of Beijing’s upcoming infrastructure projects go far beyond pure economic expediency

To this end, Beijing is building new international financial institutions. At the end of last year, we witnessed the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is now finalizing its list of members. China already pledged its full support to the new BRICS Development Bank, giving a new impetus to the banking and financial structures of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. “Individually, they may not play a big role. But China is creating financial hubs, including in the BRICS countries, which will work with the yuan,” explains Maslov. “In other words, it is the first time that a newly created financial system is not based on a freely convertible currency. This is a unique global event.”

All of this means that the new Silk Road project is both political and economical. Moreover, it is only one component of Beijing’s broader master plan. “I believe that this is one of the possible components of a new global reality being built right before our eyes. We must understand that China’s ambitions are huge.”

Improve yourself to help others

Maslov is convinced that China’s partners and neighbors should build their relations with China based on this understanding. Russia in particular, which is currently pondering its own participation in the new Silk Road endeavor, should only join the projects that coincide with its own interests, refraining from head-on support of Chinese initiatives. “Although China and Russia are strategic partners, Beijing has its own agenda. It will always take care of itself above all else. Therefore, one should have no illusions with respect to China,” he cautions. “We have begun to come to this realization. I think that it is only now that a realistic model of understanding China is beginning to take shape among the biggest Russian companies and the country’s leadership.”

The new understanding of China, and the East as a whole, is one of the most prevailing trends in modern Chinese studies. “Many of the issues that seemed settled long ago suddenly came back to light. It appears that they have not been solved.”

To this end, Maslov wants to create a full-fledged international school for Chinese Studies, which would combine the best people – scientists, analysts, and practitioners – in this field. This is also the goal of the reform aiming to change the education process initiated by Maslov at the HSE School of Asian Studies, which he has been heading since 2010. “Chinese tradition is seamless. This means that the modern Chinese individual, be it a businessman or an important party leader, acts based on the same patterns of thinking and perceptions of reality, which were laid down by tradition. Therefore, in order to become a Chinese scholar or to carry out political analysis of modern China, it is necessary to be well versed in its culture and history from the most ancient times. And by that, I don’t mean studying it as a formality, but understanding the logic of the historical process. That’s the kind of thorough understanding of the East that we are now trying to introduce here. That has been part of the Russian approach to Chinese Studies from the beginning.”

Maslov continues to teach at universities around the world, as well as at many Chinese Buddhist academies – including the Shaolin Wushu Academy, which he visits regularly. At the same time, he strictly follows the Shaolin Buddhist tradition, seeing no contradiction between it and modern life. “The Buddhist monkhood is not like what we are accustomed to in our Christian tradition – it’s simply a different kind of practice. The master at the monastery gives you knowledge and then you rely on it to go out and help people,” he explains. “This is actually how Shaolin Buddhism is defined – the main goal is self improvement to help others.”

His normal day begins at 6:30 a.m. with meditation and special exercises, which take about an hour, and ends around midnight with a similar ritual. He trains twice a week. Maslov’s weekends are almost never free, and his life, filled with trips and travel, is planned months in advance. So if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a person doing morning exercises in one of the Moscow Arbat courtyards with a staff or halberd, don’t hurry by. Perhaps Maslov may help you see behind the Chinese screen too.

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