Shared Dreams


Same Dream, Different Beds:
Shared ends through different means in the U.S. and China

By Kirsten Adams


Tong chuang yi meng.

Translated in English as “same bed, different dreams,” it is an amusingly cynical Chinese phrase describing the awkwardness of paths that are intimately entwined but lack a shared vision.

It can often be attributed to the relationships of dominant countries, and its meaning is as unsatisfying politically as it is, undoubtedly, domestically. But can it thoroughly be applied when linking the aspirations of the U.S. and China, two economic powerhouses whose markets are as codependent as they are competitive?

Can these two very different countries share the same dream?

Professor and scholar David Lampton argues in his book, Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations, that despite the countries’ economic closeness, their differences – including contrasting institutions, interests and culture – assure that the countries have considerably different dreams.

The American Dream has often been viewed as the middle-class aspiration for a comfortable lifestyle, as shown in this 1948 picture. Photo by AP

However, the phrase may also be reversed to reflect the universal pursuit of an ideal that may not be limited solely to the aspirations of U.S. citizens.

The American Dream has served for years as its country’s national ethos, and at times it may be misconstrued as a blend of common U.S. middle-class goals: Own a house, buy a car, raise a family and maintain a comfortable lifestyle.

But more broadly – and more significantly – the American Dream advocates the ability for any individual to reach prosperity and success with hard work and resolve.

This isn’t limited to the U.S. population, and may reflect for many people in China – and around the world – the ultimate dream for their own lives. Even in 1937, Author F. Scott Fitzgerald said that American history and its peoples’ desires for better lives “is the history of all aspiration – not just the American dream but the human dream.”

In order to compare the Chinese Dream and the American Dream, one must recognize the dramatic role of China in the 21st century world market. According to Australian politician and former journalist Malcolm Turnbull, the 20th century trio of the U.S., Japan and Europe has given way to a new century’s set of major players in the global economy: the U.S., China and India.

Although the speed and scale of China’s growth is unprecedented, the country’s climb in GDP rankings and recognition as a key economic contender in the 21st century restores it to where its 1.3 billion population predicts it should be.

China is a multifaceted competitor as a 21st century producer and a consumer. In 2003, the country bought 7 percent of the world’s oil, a third of its iron ore and coal, one quarter of its steel and aluminum and 40 percent of its cement, according to Ted Fishman’s 2005 bestseller China Inc.

But, similarly to the American Dream, the Chinese Dream is measured by more than its country’s economic value. It is created through the collective yearning not to exist, but to thrive, and that desire for achievement is universal – undefined by borders or backgrounds.

Shanghai in the 1930s, as shown in the photo above, was a far cry from the economically driven place it is known as today. China's phase of growth is not over, and its economic prowess will continue to have an effect on what its citizens consider to be their Chinese Dream. Photo by AP

According to Fishman, Chinese citizens’ “buzzy rush to build critical mass now, while the going is good, is the best insurance for the future. And best bought today.”

Although the road may be as difficult as for those who paved the way for the American Dream, China’s surging confidence and desire to compete worldwide provides its population with the momentum to keep the vision alive.

But the Chinese Dream has yet to reach the level of global expansion of the American Dream, and some question what the concept means to its people.

“I believe part of the reason that people in the West fear China is that they are not certain whether China will be a benign power or an evil power because they don’t know what the Chinese Dream is,” Forbes’ contributor Helen Wang wrote in a 2010 article.

The Chinese Dream may still be in a phase of creation, particularly as the younger generation begins to create its own legacy in China. But the basic pursuits of happiness and equality exist in all societies’ aspirations, according to entrepreneur Louis Hernandez, Jr., in his book Saving the American Dream.

“To most of us, [equality and the pursuit of happiness] are what the dream is all about – even if the specific components of happiness change with each cultural shift and each new generation,” Hernandez wrote.

Chinese and American culture will likely never overlap in many ways, but both countries will continue to play a major role in the 21st century global market. As the American Dream reforms itself to reflect new generations, the Chinese Dream will continue to mature with its population’s growing desire to tap into the country’s economic and cultural boom.

The futures of China and the U.S. are intimately entwined not only because of the countries’ economic closeness, but also – and more significantly – because of their mutual aspirations.

They may sleep in different beds, but they share the same dream.

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