'Barbarian Lost' On Campus

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

  • Poster advertising Trudeau's Book Talk at the 2016 Eden Mills Writers' Festival

    Poster advertising Trudeau's Book Talk at the 2016 Eden Mills Writers' Festival

Alexandre Trudeau just gave a weird ethnocentric presentation at U of G and no one is talking about it.

Yes, that Trudeau.

On September 17, Alexandre Trudeau, younger brother of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, visited the University of Guelph to discuss his newly released travelbook, Barbarian Lost: Travels in New China.

University of Guelph President, Dr. Franco Vaccarino, welcomed a packed house with a warm address which repeatedly punctuated the importance of “uniting diverse communities”. It is a week and a half after the 2016 G20 wrapped up in Hangzhou, China and I am interested to hear the journalist and documentarian discuss his own experiences within the country. Trudeau was joined on stage by award-winning author and Man Booker Prize nominee, Madeleine Thien.

While things may have been off to a promising start, what ensued was one of the most awkward,  ethnocentric presentations I have had the misfortune of sitting through within an academic setting. A presentation which at many times teetered cringingly close to colonial discourses of the 19th and 20th century. You know, the ones where “The West” is heralded as a benchmark for success, progress, and all things good in the world? The ones Edward Said called out almost four decades ago? Yes, those.

So, for the past few days I’ve been wondering to myself -- did anyone else hear that?

But let’s back up. 

I did not attend with the intention of writing about this event. I was simply there to learn, pass time… and because I was offered a ticket from a friend who could not make it. Perhaps I don’t have much to offer in terms of analysis. Admittedly, I do not know much about Alexandre Trudeau’s work nor have I read his book. Nonetheless, I feel that someone needs to, at the very least, acknowledge the dangerous dichotomy evoked in Mr. Trudeau’s presentation.

So here goes.

Trudeau started off with a return to the roots of his fascination with China. His interest was sparked at a young age on a visit during the summer of 1990 with his two brothers and father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

His newly released book is primarily based on a six week trip he took in 2006 accompanied by his guide -- a Chinese journalist named Vivian. Trudeau admits that he does not speak any Chinese languages and that he returned to the country for many short visits during the following decade to continue his writing.

Trudeau’s publisher HarperCollins promise the book will present an “insightful and witty account of the dynamic changes going on right now in China, as well as a look back into the deeper history of this highly codified society”. So I thought perhaps I did not hear correctly the first time Trudeau referred to “The West” early in his discussion to make a point about his own puritanical notions of sex (which are swiftly placed onto “The West”) versus the “ease and acceptance” of the consumption of sex in China -- later described as “carnal” and “much more natural” in an interview with the CBC.

Surely this tired dichotomy is not acting as the backbone for what has been promised as an insightful account of a vast and complex country, right?

But did I also hear incorrectly when he stated “The Chinese” have, at best, an “embryonic” conception of environmental stewardship? That they will likely “evolve” to hold a more “advanced” understanding like we do in “The West”? I must have, because otherwise that would sound like a bit too much social Darwinism for the year 2016. . .

Thankfully, Madeleine Thien counters Trudeau’s comments by noting that environmental awareness is a huge topic in China today, but the language used to engage with the subject is more specifically broken down with regard to how people engage with food security, air quality, and the government.

Unthankfully, this confirms that yes, indeed, I did just hear Mr. Trudeau use the term “EMBRYONIC” to describe the state of an entire country’s environmental consciousness.


While I think it is infinitely important to create a dialogue around cultural difference and diversity, it is Trudeau’s dichotomization of the subject wherein “The West” is ambiguously positioned as the measure of progress for China’s political and economic developments that has me writhing in my seat.

 As the discussion continues, I look around the auditorium wondering if I am the only one hearing this.

Later, at home, while trying to make sense of the day’s events by attempting to learn more about Alexandre Trudeau, my bewilderment continues:


Did I hear correctly when he told the CBC that, “Chinese are legendary for being hard working, driven folk”?

Or The Toronto Star that they have “moved from a kind of remote, slightly backward place”?

Or The Observer that they have “progressed economically so fast […] going from really a backward disturbed country to one where a vast number of people are enjoying a modicum of the comforts we take for granted”?

Am I hearing this correctly?

Trudeau’s deep fascination with the country is obvious. He is excited about “New China” and he wants the audience and readers to be as well.  Yet he repeatedly invokes the East/West dichotomy to make sweeping generalizations about an entire country -- generalizations that use notions of Western progress and consumption as a touchstone for measuring success.

I am not writing to lament a poor public speaking engagement. I would like to think it was not Mr. Trudeau’s intention to invoke such explicitly problematic rhetoric -- and, of course, anyone who has ever stood in front of large crowds knows that public speaking has a wonderful penchant for twisting even the most eloquent of speeches into nonsensical babbling. And yet we must not allow ourselves to forget the power of his position and the implications of giving a platform to such a carelessly considered oration. 

We must acknowledge the impact such language has on audience members when, lurking just below the surface of discourses that leverage “unity” and “diversity” rhetoric, deeply problematic language is being used to structure power and superiority in very specific ways. While perhaps well-intentioned, material like this, whether presented within or outside of the walls of the academy, should readily accept challenge and opposition.

Mr. Trudeau, you have the power, the platform, and, more crucially, the responsibility to do better.

Do you hear me?




Written by Mandy Amoog

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