Sense Of Shame Vs. Sense Of Guilt — Two Different Phases Of Moral Development


Michelangelo Moses
Michelangelo Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1. Human – social animals

We human are social animals. Our existence relies on cooperation, or communication. We were not necessarily more “superior” than any other types of animals in terms of physical ability. i.e., we cannot fly as birds, run like deer, bite like lions, hide like snakes, but we do excel in communicating. Perhaps, it was mostly due to this ability (to communicate and to cooperate), we not only survived, but prospered into civilization.

In order to cooperate, we much work as groups, and in order to work as groups, we must have stable communities, or societies. Therefor, there must be some forces that can bind us together. Looking into humans societies, we may find, that beside our natural needs to communicate, such as feelings, there are two main forces that group us together, one was made collectively and imposed on individuals; the other was also made collectively, but taught through tradition or education, and gradually ingrained into individuals’ minds. The former is law, the latter is morality. So basically, morality is just a set of principle for individuals to follow, in order to establish social stability. And to make morality easier to comprehend, we invented the concept of “good” and “bad”, or “right” and “wrong”, grant those behaviors or thoughts that are helpful to our bond, condemn those that are harmful to it.

The history of morality is as long and complicated as human him/herself. Though religion has very simple explanation about the emergence of morality,  from historical view, morality was not endowed by “God”, but created by humans, also it changes along time. If we look into history, it’s not hard to see, that whatever we think is moral now or here, could be immoral then or there. There are plenty of examples which I would not bother to make.

The evolution of morality is a mega spider web, complicated and mysterious. However, what I am trying to take a closer look in this article is not this giant web, but two type of moral senses that have been ingrained in our human minds: sense of shame and sense of guilt.

2. Sense of shame vs. sense of guilt

I like to temporarily define a sense of shame as a feeling of guilt or even agony provoked by one’s recognition that he/she is no longer innocent or decent in other people’s eye; a sense of guilt is a self condemnation that one makes to him/herself due to his/her awareness of his/her wrong doings. There are similarities between these two, but also an fundamental difference: the sense of shame is evoked by others’ judgment, while the sense of guilt is derived completely from one’s self determination.  Due to this difference, we could easily see that in the case of sense of shame, because one’s feeling of guilt is due to others judgment, so if other people or society do not condemn one’s conducts, he/she would not feel guilty; but in the latter case  (sense of guilt), regardless how other people think, one would still condemn him/herself because the judgment of “right” or “wrong” is made by him/herself.

The individuals who only have sense of shame, usually value others opinion more than their own, thus when they found others no longer “look up” to them, they would feel insecure or abandoned, suffer a significant loss of self confidence; on the other hand, individuals who have sense of guilt would not share these feelings because the it is their own choice to condemn their misconducts. For individuals whose moral drive is sense of shame, they would sometime even conceal their wrong doings, for the purpose of keeping their faces clean in others’ eyes, and those whose moral drive is sense of guilt, they would confess their wrong doings even if they don’t have to.

3. Collectivism vs. individualism

Sense of shame is a product of collectivism. Collectivism is a moral ideology that put collective value over individuals’. As we discussed in the beginning, humans are social animals, and individuals’ survival is almost fully relies upon groups’, so in most part of human history, collectivism is the dominant ideology.

It is because of this fact that individuals could not survive without groups, human beings developed this strong sense of “belonging”. We would be extremely upset if we were rejected by groups. In many cases people would prefer die than being left alone. And naturally, we developed a psychological tendency to please others, or majority, or powerful ones, and the sense of shame would naturally take place when we failed to do so.

The positive contribution that sense of shame made to human societies is, that it makes tight bond between individuals and groups, so it helps establishing social stability. The negative part of it is that when there were no supervision, individuals would act “wrongly”, or destructively, due to lack of self motivation to cooperate.

Sense of guilt is a product of individualism. Contrary to collectivism, individualism is a moral ideology that places the value of individuals above the value of groups. Among societies that collectivism is dominant ideology, individuals don’t have much freedom, but among societies that individualism is dominant idea, individual freedom is the goal of social effort.

The paradox here is, as mentioned earlier that we humans are social animals and cannot survive without group effort, so would individualism leads to damage to societies? My answer is yes and no. If individualism emerged during earlier stage of humans history, or in some societies that are not ready for individualism (that is being dominated by collectivism), it would have negative effects, because societies might be quickly broken up due to unbounded individual freedom. But if individualism emerged in the societies that most people already have self-motive to cooperate, it can do more good than harm. Historical fact is, that individualism as a social ideology only emerged (or evolved) in societies that were ready for it, i.e., western Europe after its dark middle age, when people had very strong sense of guilt (mostly due to Christianity). At this stage, basic altruism already ingrained inside the minds of many (though not “all”) individuals. Also, humanism that was originated from ancient Greek culture also nurtured Europeans with independence, responsibility, fraternity, love, mutual respect, etc. So when freedom finally came, there was a strong moral buttress that kept people’s freedom under certain conditions. The great example of this would be The declaration of rights of man and of the citizen of French revolution: “Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others.” The “does not harm others” is the bottom line of this individual freedom, without which would only do more harm than good to societies.

Comparing with the sense of shame, sense of guilt is a more advanced phase of morality development. Not only it shares the same positive effect as of sense of guilt, which is binding individuals together, but also it has some advantage that sense of shame doesn’t have, which is making individuals cooperate with others without external force (self motivated altruism).

Maybe it is not entirely accurate to say that sense of guilt is a product of individualism. They both could be mutually dependent, and it could be a long process of evolution. Same can be said to the relationship between sense of shame and collectivism.

4. Morality and social system

Sense of shame most existed in earlier stage of human history, it also widely exists in today, mostly among societies where collectivism is dominant ideology. Sense of guilt as ideology emerged in recent human history, among societies where individualism was dominant ideology (namely Europe).  Generally speaking, the equivalent social system for collectivism is despotism, for individualism is democracy.

As we already discussed, the development of European democracy was closely related to its moral development. That is, though its culture permit individual freedom, the societies can still keep their stability because of individuals’ self motivated cooperating attitude. This is usually not the case in societies that ruled by despotic power – when given maximum individual freedom, the force that once keep societies together no longer exist, people’s sense of shame would stop working, greed, selfishness, hatred, all these “evils” would unleashed and societies would simply collapse. Thus, after a short period anarchy, these societies usually had to go back despotism, in order to establish stability.

Based on this analysis, we may have better understanding of Chinese history, get better idea about why China walked through thousands years of repetition of extreme centralized ruling system and anarchy, still never developed democracy. We may also have better understanding about modern communism, when permit of killing was given, ordinary people could commit extraordinary atrocity. And maybe, we could understand, that the democracy in European civilization really was not something happened in one night, or by one revolution, but by a long evolutionary process. So, we may understand, arguably, an imposed democracy may not be very effective to those societies whose ideology is still dominated by collectivism.

Of course, there are individual differences. i.e., in despotic societies, we could often see people who have good sense of independence or responsibility, and in democratic societies, there are people who would also act irresponsibly. However, the overall change of a society does require collective effort. So only when an idea penetrate through majority, would the society change accordingly.

To conclude, both sense of shame and sense of guilt are parts of the development of human consciousness, and both function as the force to group individuals together. Most likely, all societies had been gone through the first phase – collectivism, under which people cooperated passively by their sense of shame, and only some societies evolved into a more advanced phase of ideology -individualism, under which people cooperate with each others by self motivation, or conscious choice.

So the question remains, if we humans started from the point, what made our societies so different now? Or, did we really start from the same point?

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Distortions of Confucianism – by Stephen Austin

(Thanks Stephen Austin who wrote a comment to my post Disappointment And A “Period”! — My Battle With Confucianism Is About to End” a while ago and left a link to his own article, which I found very profound and objective, yet comprehensive. I pretty much agree with every point the author made. Highly recommend to those who are interested in Chinese or East Asian cultures.)

Distortions of Confucianism

– by Stephen Austin

It is the nature of ideas not to exist in their elemental form but for a series of thinkers to add to them and construct extensions and developments of them. These developments are frequently uncharitable, as architects of a certain agenda cherry-pick items they want to further their doctrine. The Koran for example reveals a remarkably enlightened attitude towards women considering the times, with much attention paid to women’s welfare, with provisions for divorce and clear rules laid down about fair treatment. But centuries of patriarchy derailed these ideals. By seizing upon some rather vague remarks on dress and mannerisms, it was possible to hijack these guidelines so that they became central and instrumental in insecure males’ repression of women in society to the extent they are mere extensions of male pride. Men who could only assert themselves as individuals by forcing women into subordination found the pattern they wanted by misrepresenting The Koran.

In much the same way East Asian societies have advanced certain components of Confucianism to inflate and pile on filial piety with a trowel.

Confucius’ Analects do not contain much about filial piety, with much of the over emphasis on coming from Mencius’ book from third century AD. The casual observer’s first impression of South East Asian society might well conclude that that the majority of Confucius’ output comprised filial piety by the amount of references to it and to the extent that families use it to wield power over their offspring. It distends universally, almost as if it has a life of its own, it infiltrates itself into ostensibly innocent reading material so that kids never cease tripping over and getting caught unaware by the never-ending harping on and flogging of filial piety. Kids can hardly touch a work of fiction or essays without the risk of reprimands and admonitions nagging from the pages. Chu Chung-hok, a winner of an award for language teachers at the Polytech University, compiled several classical excerpts into a book divided into themes like ‘filial piety and reverence for teachers.’ We need to remember that this material was intended as an aid to language acquisition for special needs students.
It is little wonder that many students prefer reading in English than Chinese. This inculcation can leap from the unlikeliest of sources.
So it is another example of a small idea being pounced on and made a meal of to serve a particular agenda, just as chauvinism found an ideal vehicle to promote its patriarchal schema with a few sentences in the Koran,
South East Asian societies in general venerate the ancestral, so Confucius is an ideal antecedent to domineer offspring and avoid the delicate balancing acts of compromise and sensitive communication that constitute emphatic parenthood.
Confucian emphasis on filial piety has parallels with Biblical exhortations to honour one’s parents. Confucian references to filial piety are grossly exaggerated and magnified in an attempt to produce textual precedent for bad parenting. The ancient, outdated and indiscriminate instructions totally lack any calibration or flexibility. They give abusive and / or incompetent parents carte blanche to impose unreasonable demands on offspring, disregard their needs, and refuse to communicate. Filial piety is an institutionalised means to ride roughshod over these requirements and provides justification for authoritarianism as a parenting model.
Love and respect for one’s parents is a natural response to a loving upbringing. Love is a privilege earned, not a right. When there is lack of love and respect, the fault is the parents. Filial piety industrialises and instills ‘love and respect’ by brute force. It frees parents from the responsibility of expressing love but entitles them to unconditional respect and unthinking obedience. It validates indiscriminate imposition of a parent’s will. Obedience and ‘respect’ being codified in this way strongly suggests overcompensation for a deep insecurity. It legitimises the wielding of enormous power over children and the forcing of blind, unthinking compliance to often blinkered, self-centered and insensitive demands.
Confucius had plenty of other good ideas. Voltaire and other Enlightenment radicals idealised the Chinese sage. The rise of the Chinese communists of the twentieth century certainly were not impressed by one particular thought Confucius came up with, the idea that any unjust government needed to be kicked out. No, the communists saw that with the population’s minds already grounded in Confucian ideas, the philosopher’s work was an ideal vehicle to warp into an idea of absolute obedience and deference to authority and it is with this context in mind that we find the present day resurgence and promotion of a version of Confucian thinking in China and Hong Kong.
Mao’s vigorous chucking out of anything remotely feudalistic and redolent of the dark days of imperialism certainly did not prevent him from exploiting evil old Confucius to serve as the Chinese leader saw fit. So China’s recent rehabilitation of Confucius was hardly a surprise, an action that followed old, well-worn paths.
Neither was it a surprise to see people commenting in the letters pages that Confucianism was useful as a means to counteract the pernicious western influences that were contaminating Chinese society. These toxicities were responsible for, the writers claimed, teenage pregnancies and compensated dating – the upshots of over-sexualised, over permissive western decadence. Teaching Confucianism would be an effective antidote, the writers preached.

This reasoning betrayed a number of mordant oversights. First, compensated dating originated in Japan, and quickly became entrenched in Hong Kong already imbued with a traditional Chinese mistress culture. Then, the almost non-existent state of sex education has long been a thorny issue here. Lack of political will to reform education is partly responsible, along with excessive prudery and squeamishness from parents and educationalists. Parents often have an unwillingness and even inability to communicate with their offspring, because of the rigid, hierarchal Confucian structure preempting most kinds of empathetic discourse between the generations. So instead of assigning blame to the real problem, we see a classic defence mechanism of ducking the issue and dealing with anxiety-provoking thoughts by attributing them to convenient scapegoats. Promoting ancient principles while accusing systematic censure discrimination against a society are all symptoms of unwillingness to look inwardly to where the root of the problems lay.
This was one more clumsy assertion of Chinese supremacy. China’s rehabilitation of Confucius not only betrays and presages the Communists’ predisposition for imperial ways. It also helps reinforce the widespread and politically inspired delusion that all of China’s ills are symptoms of insidious western influence.

original link:

Pinyinizing Chinese Characters – Advantage or Disadvantage?

SANSEIDO CO.,,SYOEN, VOL1.No.1, 1937, Septembe...

Recently I participated a discussion in a Chinese forum about Pinyinizing Chinese characters, or making Chinese script from current character form into alphabetic system. People who proposes this idea believe that learning Chinese characters is way to hard for children, therefore they believe that language – more specifically the character system, which doesn’t have connection between writing script and pronunciation – is a big barrier for the diffusion Chinese culture (they still had that dream that China really should be the center of the earth, and Chinese should be international language, not English!).

They use Chinese American kids as example, argued that lots of these kids hate to learning Chinese characters, and their English reading and writing skill developed way faster and easier than their Chinese. I would not argue this part, but I personally found this idea of pinyinizing Chinese not so appealing because, first of all, I do not believe that Chinese writing/reading skill are that hard to learn, and I either don’t believe English is an overall easier language than Chinese. I understand that Chinese writing system maybe hard to learn only during the beginning period, because you probably do need to memorize all those characters “from scratch” – because there is no connection between writing and pronunciation. However, as long as 3 or 4 (even just 2 or 3) thousands characters were mastered, the rest of Chinese language learning becomes a piece of cake – you literally don’t need to make much effort at all. So, these first a few thousands characters really become a lifetime saver. The reason for this is because most of Chinese words were composed by these basic characters, so if you recognize them well, you would have no problem to know most “compound words”, which are the most of Chinese words made of.

I believe that a high school graduate Chinese student should have no problem to understand any Chinese documents, include fictions, magazines, and some professional documents as well, because they usually handle much more than 3 or 4 thousands characters. That’s why there is no Chinese reading and writing test in graduate school entry exam designed for all applicants in Chinese universities, but on the contrary, in United States, GRE is for all students its English language part is not only difficult to foreigners, but also lots of American students.

I personally found English is hard to learn, especially its vocabulary part. Some people (in the forum) argued that English also has lots of roots, prefix & suffix, but I found roots, or prefixes work in a very different way from Chinese characters. In Chinese, you have to learn those basic characters before you go anywhere, which means these characters are basic elements on which the whole language based, but in English, understanding roots, pre or suffix, works only like “assistants”, which helps a lot, but is not a “must” for beginners. So after all, memorizing words is still a major labor work for learning English, especially for those who use this language as the second language.

The second reason that I don’t think pinyinzing Chinese writing system is a good idea is that Chinese language has a n incredibly huge amount of homophone characters. This makes way to difficult to distinguish words just by pinyin (or alphabets). And it is because of this shortcoming, Chinese writing system actually serves as a major complement, because of its rich variation in its visual form. I believe that Chinese characters were invented for reasons – the separate individual syllable were best to be represented by each individual character. I also realized that alphabetic languages are more vocal or acoustical – so they sound beautiful (and alphabetic system naturally became the best way to record these languages, and I believe this was why western cultures all preferred and adopted this system over Sumerian’s cuneiform writing system back thousands years ago); Character based language such as Chinese are more “visual” – they looks beautiful! Personally I believe, that throwing away Chinese characters, Chinese as a language would totally lose its “charm”.

I think many people would agree, that the reason that English is widely used and becomes almost as “world language” is because of its cultural influence, not because of its language facility. If so, Spanish should be the most used language, because it’s easy to learn. (I heard this and hope what I heard is true)

Well, I hope those linguists who propose alphabetic system would invent some pinyinized Chinese script system, and let history speaks for itself.*

*Actually I heard they tried already but didn’t succeed.

From "Anti-Chinese" to "Original Humanity" – 5 Reasons Why I Dislike Chinese Culture

Great chinese wall atSimatai

I am getting more and more indifferent about the situation of China, good or bad. I seldom read Chinese books, literature or history, almost never watch Chinese TV shows or movies. As matter of fact, I have been like this since I entered this country (USA). In Chinese forums where I participate discussions I have been often accused as “anti-Chinese” or “racist” (my recently short post of 10 favorite books also resented many Chinese fellow netizens simply because none of those books are “Chinese”).

I might deserved this label, depend on some superficial understanding of “discrimination”, but based on my own understanding, I am not. I am an individualist who is fully capable of differentiating individuals from population, treat each of them individually, regardless their races or nationality. My indifference about “Chinese” is not derived from “hatred”, but solely from “personal interest”: “Chinese” culture doesn’t seem to interest me that much any more.

And there are reasons. It seems to me that thousands years of monotonous “culture” or “civilization”, together with “communism” somehow changed, “tamed”, even distorted Chinese culture. Among Chinese cultural heritage and contemporary lifestyle, I just don’t have a taste of “original humanity”.

What is “original humanity”? This is of course a serious subject which deserves a whole hundreds pages of book. But writing (or reading) such book is beyond my current capability (not even mention my back pain), so I would try to appreciate simplicity a little: original humanity can be as simple as “the quality that we possess by nature”. Or in other words, it is the quality that has not been stained or “polished” (depend on you view) by so call “cultures”, “civilizations”, or even “human intelligence” (in a sense of “superior to nature”). Based on this understanding of mine, I found that Chinese culture has been overly “cultivated” so that it lost many natural traits.

Below are several major reasons that I found Chinese culture “anti-original-humanity” (by my own words):

1. Lifelessness: among most of Chinese traditional or contemporary intellectual works (art, literature, etc.), I seldom found any works that praise life for the sake of life itself.
There are many art or literature works praise “Chinese” as a nation, praise her over 4 thousands years of tradition, praise “empire” or communism, but we cannot see many works that show the beauty of human life (or of humanity). Sure there are many art or literature works praised the beauty of nature, expressed the harmony between human and nature, but instead of the direct appreciation of the nature and life, they were more serve as an escape from human world.
The direct reason for this is, by my opinion, that so many Chinese people have been deprived from being capable of enjoying life. Their lives always had/have some preset “purposes”, such as serving for their country, their families, parents, their rulers (emperors or communism) , but never, ever for themselves. For lots of Chinese people, life has value only when it is sacrificed. Second, is the religion aspect of Confucianism: “ancestor worship”. Such tradition made Chinese people take it for granted that “dead” is more important than “life”, parents are entitled to have power over children. This, is the root reason (cultural wise) of why Chinese culture lacks “life”.

2. The worship of man-made order: Confucius was fond of “man-made order”, despised passion, inspiration or spontaneousness. This affection to “man-made order” was accepted and followed by most Chinese people, of both ancient or modern time, and it made Chinese culture too “patternized” to be interesting or adventurous. While this trait was already bad enough for art (as matter of fact, I love many type of Chinese art, for their “irrational” characters, but I do dislike its monotonous style), it was absolutely “lethal” in ideology field – it made Chinese people held same idea for thousands years. What can I say except “lazy brain”?

3. The “murder” of individualism: I personally believe that Chinese traditional and contemporary culture (Communism) together have successfully “murdered” “individualism”. Or, be more specifically, individualism never existed since Chinese civilization (agricultural) began.
By my poor knowledge of history, I know that one of the major differences agricultural civilization made from the previous civilization (hunting and gathering) was hierarchy system, in which individualism had no room to grow. China, one of the oldest agricultural civilization that is still alive today, is certainly a perfect embodiment of this hierarchy system: from social to family, from art to “science” (the reason I put exclamation mark is I still don’t think Chinese culture has true scientific spirit), literally, you just don’t see any clue of “individualism”. Or if you saw any – such as Lu Xun, even the classic novel Dream in Red Mansion, those works would almost no exceptionally tottered into the fate of be misinterpreted (“rape” is a more accurate term here) by mainstream intellectuals, serve all different political or social purposes.
By my personal understanding, individualism truly is humanism in its most direct and personal term. However, among Chinese intellectuals (ancient or modern) it has been an issue of the least concern, or not concern at all. That’s why we absolutely found no sense of “self” in almost all intellectual fields. So you may think Chinese people are the most altruist people in the world? Well, ironically, you probably would find it’s just opposite (if you have chance to live within Chinese culture long enough), and the reason for this is, (I think) when our decent personal needs are completely deprived, we tend to find some “indecent needs” through “indecent” way, as complementary to this “tremendous loss”.

4. Poor intellectual creativity: Lack of individualism inevitably led to lack of creativity. If whole group of people “create” same style of art, state same kind of ideas, we better call these works “products”, not “works”.
Lu Xun once said, “we better read less Chinese books, or, just not to read them at all” (I cannot agree more!). As Lu Xun, Liu Xiaobo and many other (actually not “many”) independent thinkers pointed out, Chinese intellectuals never has been an independent class through Chinese history. Their lack of courage made them always lined up with ruling class. This fact made Chinese intellectual heritage extremely monotonous and insipid.

5. Overwhelming/morbid sadness: There is widespread overwhelming (even morbid) sadness in Chinese art, music and literature, from ancient poetry to modern pop songs. I have been wondered why, but not anymore, because the answer is obvious: the deprivation of “life”. Since they (or “we”, because even though I am not a Chinese by nationality, nI am still a “Chinese” by “blood”) were born, they were “trained” NOT to live for themselves, thus they/we never feel the ownership of their lives. Of course it is sad!

Above are the reasons why I dislike Chinese (main stream) culture. By my opinion, they are all too far away from our original nature, too tamed and “cultivated”, not room for change, for freedom.
Of course, I understand any culture has its good and bad sides, and the traits listed above also exist in all cultures, not only in China. But the difference is, in Chinese culture, they are overwhelmingly dominating. And it is exactly this domination that made/makes Chinese culture extremely monotonous and lifeless.
I believe China as a country and political power will not only survive, but also persper due to its economic rising. However, it’s mainstream culture – Confucianism, will not be so influential to the world as Chinese economy. As I understand, diversity is the key factor for any organisms to survive, it must be crucial to cultures’ survival as well. For this reason, I don’t think Confucianism would survive long. As matter of fact, to myself, it already died long time ago.

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"A Thousand Years of Good Prayer"

This is a short/sweet/a little bitter movie about generation gap within a Chinese family: a father comes to America to visit her daughter who lives in US about 12 years and find he had to confront the “gap” between them.
I enjoyed the nice flow of the story line. The conversations jumped around different languages was amusing and how the father communicated with his neighbors and even made friend with a “foreign” lady (who had quite similar family experience) was very interesting. It was nicely done. I like the father a lot (wish I had one like that:-)). How he describes he gave name to his daughter made me tear up a little.
However, If this movie convince people that this type of problem represents most of Chinese families’ problems, I would disagree. There are much worse “problems” exists in Chinese families between generations. This movie ascribes the cause of problems to external: the job, society, etc., which doubtlessly is the case, but I believe the real “Chinese” family problems are “internal”, far beyond this common “human factor”.
The real “Chinese” family problems come from Chinese tradition, “Tiger mother” alike, which is the lack of true love on parents side, the retrogression (not sure if this is the right word) of human nature caused by so call “culture”, or “tradition”. This type of parents may not necessarily “majority” but their ideas prevail within Chinese communities (both in China and oversea) and the damage it made on Chinese people is beyond repair.
I would love to see this side of stories revealed one day. It would be real dark, almost black, and I suppose many Chinese people will not like it.

Materialism, Who Is To Blame? — An inquiry into Chinese cultural tradition

Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a ...Image via Wikipedia

Revised by Anji Sandage

From a philosophical point of view, materialism represents some of the most negative aspects of our human nature, such as greed, selfishness, and inhumanity. It would be unjustified to put the label of “materialism” on any single ethnic group. However, being Chinese, I find it hard to ignore the excessive materialism in modern China, where money seems to be the sole “religion” in many people’s lives.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon – poverty, the social system, and even communism itself, but I have found all of these reasons to be superficial. I believe many Chinese people’s “passion” for money has little or nothing to do with the reasons listed above. Instead, it has EVERYTHING to do with Chinese cultural ideology.

In China, there are two influential classical philosophies – Confucianism and Taoism – that dominate Chinese cultural ideology, and have for thousands of years of Chinese history. Both of these philosophies focus primarily on the practical aspects of human existence, or the “mundane.” Briefly speaking, Confucianism is about social stability while Taoism is about individual happiness. Even though Buddhism came to China during the early part of the first millennium and has undoubtedly had a great influence on Chinese culture, like Taoism, it is still a belief system focused mainly upon individual happiness. Soon after Buddhism spread throughout China, it quickly merged with Chinese culture and branched off into several sects and schools, the most common being Zen Buddhism, a school of Mahayana, with a following of between 500 and 1,000 million people throughout Korea, China, Japan and Vietnam.

Before the 19th century, China was almost completely closed off from the outside world. When China first opened its doors to the west in the middle of 19th century, these two philosophies were the whole content of the body of knowledge understood by Chinese intellects. It is a common belief in China that Knowledge isn’t something that can or should stand alone, but rather it is a subsidiary part of political or practical life. In ancient China, the only purpose for gaining knowledge was to gain political and social power. In his book “Mist of Metaphysics” Liu Xiaobo stated:

“One of the characteristics of Chinese culture is to provoke the human desire for power as much as possible. The path to becoming an intellectual is almost the only way to reach this goal.” [1]

In Chinese culture, there is no concept of “God” in a monotheistic sense, no sense of “divinity,” and no concept of absolute “truth,” neither was there any scientific spirit that existed in ancient China. In other words, there were no existing bodies of knowledge other than those with the purpose of serving mundane life. I believe it was exactly this monotonic understanding of knowledge that has shaped many Chinese people’s materialistic attitudes toward life.

Certainly both Taoism and Confucianism did not teach people to be greedy, but one important idea that both of these philosophies teach is that there is no need to question or look for anything other than matters directly related to the practicalities of life.

Taoism is a very charming philosophy and can be understood in a very positive way, for example, the ideas of following our natural spirit and making harmony in our lives with or without material comforts are very appealing to many people, and I believe this truly was the original intent of Taoist philosophy. Unfortunately, this aspect of Taoism has only been taken and practiced among some intellectuals, such as artists and poets. Among most others, Taoism was simply understood as a pathway to physical comforts and happiness.

Under such a cultural background, when China once again opened its doors to the world during the 80’s, it was more than willing to embrace capitalism, and people’s materialistic desires that had been suppressed by traditional morality for thousands of years were finally unleashed under this perfect marriage. This is why even though China is completely under communist rule; it was still able to combine the communist political system with a capitalist economic system.

Some people may blame Communism for this materialism. I would totally disagree. Not only does Communism not encourage materialism, it encourages a kind of “puritanical” lifestyle in modern China. During the 50’s, China experienced a very anti-materialism social movement where almost everyone lived in very poor material conditions, but with a zealous mental enthusiasm similar to Europe during the middle ages. Needless to say, this did more harm than good. It created one of most devastating horrors in human history, now known as The Great Leap Forward, which cost tremendous loss of life. After that, Chinese people lived in very poor conditions until the 1980’s when China once again opened up to the outside world.

I truly believe that while materialism exists in every society in this world and greed is truly a common disposition of human nature, some types of cultural ideologies encourage such philosophies and dispositions, while others discourage them. I personally view the overwhelming growth of materialism in modern China as a consequence of the poor development on Chinese intellectual property.

Once again, to quote Liu Xiaobo:

“…The worst regression in Chinese history was the revival of feudalist ideology”[2]

[1] Mist of Metaphysics, by Liu Xiaobo

[2] Mist of Metaphysics, by Liu Xiaobo

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"Mom, stop pretending to know something you don’t!"


Image by xdanger via Flickr
“Mom, stop pretending to know something you don’t!”

Another day in my art class one of my students (12 year-old) said this to her mother. I just cannot forget it.

For thousands years, being completely obedient to parents has been #1 moral principle for Chinese people. Disobeying your parents is like “taboo” to Chinese people. The most important teaching of Confucianism is “Xiao”, which mean obeying and serving parents unconditionally. By my opinion, before China opened the door to the world over a century ago, all Chinese kids had been treated as lowest class human being since the beginning of their lives until they were parents themselves (upon the time they of course were still their parents’ “slaves” but they also got the right to enslave their own kids as they wished). That’s why one of Chinese authers Lu Xun screamed out “Save the children!” (in his most famous short stories collection “Call to arms” during early of last century).
Of course, situations have been changing since a century ago, but this tradition – the unconditional responsibility of children to their parents – still has been carried on (more or less) by Chinese people to wherever they go, because it was considered as a iconic culture element – without it, you are not a Chinese.
In my art classes most students are Chinese Americans. They are influenced by 2 quite different cultures – Chinese tradition from their parents and American culture from schools, or anywhere else outside of their families. However, by my observation they are 90% Americanized, while their parents – who are mostly the first generation immigrants – are mostly still very conservative in terms of Chinese heritage.

The parents of one of my students in painting class seemed to be one of the most traditional Chinese couples I have meet in this country (USA). They “love” their daughter, but they could not help to keep pushing her to the “perfection” they aimed for her on everything. They usually stayed in my classes, sometime the mother sometime the father (I let the parents stay if they don’t have places to go), watching their daughter’s performance even closer than I did.
One day the mother was in class, highly unsatisfied with her daughter’s painting, could not help to stand beside daughter and gave her instructions of doing this and that. Of course her daughter was extremely annoyed and kept complaining and fighting back by refusing to follow her mother’s “command”. “I don’t want to do it. If you like, you do it!” She said. To my surprise, the mother grabbed the brush painted couple of small things on the painting. I was seriously worried at the moment that daughter might be just so pissed off and destroy the canvas. But she didn’t.

Feeling somehow obligated for some detailed instruction, I picked a brush to help the daughter to fix somthing on her painting. I mixed color and painted on canvas and mother immediately said “see, now it’s right“. Unfortunately, before she finished the sentence, I realized the color was NOT quite “right” and threw some words like “oops, that’s not quite right.” And the daughter just quickly captured the moment and said it very loudly: “Mom, please stop pretending….”

Hearing the daughter saying that so loudly, I was somehow relieved. I saw her acting like a brave girl who was able to be truthful to herself, regardless her selfish and demanding mother. Another time I heard some other students referred this daughter as a little “strange”, “easy to get irritated” person, but I believe as long as she could be brave enough to let herself stand up in front of her parents like that, she will be fine.

This is just one small happening but it does tell me that something fundamental about Chinese people is changing. I cannot imagine I say the same thing to my parents when I was 12. And I never heard any of my contemporaries said similar things to their parents at this early age. I am just very pleased to witness such an rebellious action taking place in a traditional Chinese family.
And this happening undoubtedly enhanced my belief in “equality” and “liberty”. As soon as we taste them, we cannot live without them.

*The picture is one of illustrations from a Confucian teaching book – the part that teaches how women should behave and serve their parents and husbands, which I have not bothered reading any yet. But the art works were excellent though.