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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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English: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 189...
English: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1898. On the left Helen Keller and on the right Anne Sullivan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Twaine said “The two greatest characters of the nineteenth century are Helen Keller and Napoleon Bonaparte“. I would modify this quote as such: “The two greatest characters of the nineteenth & twentyth century are Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan”.

I have been fascinated by these two women since ever I heard their names. However, my own “fascinating” life experience seemed to keep me busy for more than a decade and I had not been able to get into many subjects of my interest until very recent years. These days I had leisure to be totally drowned into the story of Helen Keller and Sullivan, especially the latter. After I read a short autobiography of Helen Keller, I went on read a biography of her teacher – “Beyond Miracle Worker: the Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary relationship with Helen Keller“. It was a joy read, though the content is quite “heavy”.

Contrary to what I learned superficially before, both Helen and her teacher lived very difficult lives. First by reading Helen’s autobiography I learned about Helen’s controversial trial of her story “Frost King”, when she was only 11 year-old, which tormented her heart and shadowed all her life (How could those “educated” people from Perkins Institute treated a 11 year-old blind-deaf girl so harshly with alleged plagiarism was beyond my understanding). Then I read about her going on Vaudeville circuit during her middle age for almost 10 years, together with her teacher of course. She had to do that simply for making living. However, based on books I read she seemed enjoyed it, which made me relieved a little.

Anne Sullivan, who later became Anne Sullivan Macy, was an even more complicated character than Helen Keller. Her life process was extreme undulate and her personality was contradictory. Born in an Irish immigrant family, Sullivan’s childhood was spent in the darkness of poverty, death, ignorance and violence. She lost her mother when she was only eight, and when she was ten, she was abandoned by her father and was sent to almshouse together with her brother by her relatives. After 4 years living in almshouse, during which her brother died, Annie somehow got a chance to go to Perkins Institute. Her life turned! In Perkins, she appeared to be an extremely intelligent but also belligerent student. Six years later, she graduated  as a valedictorian. Soon after she graduated, when she seemed to face an unknown future, she got a job to be governess of Keller’s family. Hence the legend started.

Beyond Miracle Worker” is an excellent biography with some tediously chronicled details, but these boring details was tolerable to me, simple because of the extremely interesting characters. The book focuses on Sullivan’s complicated psychological state, creates an impression about her that cannot be summarized in a few words. Sullivan came from the bottom of society, strove to a place “beyond her dream”, yet to a cultural circle that did not suit her past. She seemed to have extremely ambivalent emotion toward her past – she tried so hard to forget, but the ghost of darkness in the past never left her alone, it tangled all her life through every bit of depression and perplexed  her profound view about the value of her own existence.

Another “fact” this book reveals to me, is that Sullivan Macy started from Helen’s teacher, assistant, a role that Helen depended on by all means, gradually transformed into a person who had to depended on Helen. She refused several chances to work for others, and relied on Helen’s fame to make continuing success, though it was herself initially turned on Helen’s intelligence. Sullivan also had eye disease since her childhood, carried this disease all the way to the end of her live, when she became completely blind. The constant pain of her eyes, tortured her since beginning, also tormented her mental state. When her eye condition worsened, she became more irritated, capricious and depressed, and relied on totally on Helen, who seemed to forever embraced her as her own savior.

Sullivan’s achievement was underrated by society and she had always been furious about it. She hated to be thought as a teacher who enlightened Helen simply by adopting the teaching technique that was “invented” by the founder of Perkins, but she was always viewed by public as so. The fact was that she was very creative when she started to teach Helen. However, in her late years, when she was recognized for her individual achievement as a renovated educator, she rejected some honors that were bestowed on her. She was too sick, too weak, too confused and depressed for herself, that she simply did not care what society did to her anymore.

The two women’s lives were not easy. Both of them were disabled (though Sullivan was pictured in public as “normal”), but they did not have any stable financial support, except intermittent helps from philanthropists. I thought Helen’s family was rich, but the fact was her parents’ (mostly her father’s) financial situation soon declined after Sullivan came to them. As matter of fact, Helen’s family started to depend (partially, I suppose) on Helen soon after she became famous. In her middle age Sullivan married to John Macy, but she made herself financial connection lawfully only to Helen Keller. Also, though 3 of them lived together, Sullivan’s husband was never be able to be a source of their family financial provider. It was always Helen, who seemed most unable, was willingly to be the “breadwinner” of the “family”.

Another “bewitching” factor is their relationship. Sullivan married to John Macy, but they soon separated (though their legal marriage stayed until John Macy died), it is Helen with whom Sullivan lived most of her life. Helen Keller was proposed by a man named Peter Fagan, but she concerned about her teacher’s reaction, eventually yield to her mother’s objection and gave up marriage. Why did Helen give up her own happiness? Was she completely happy with her teacher? Did she stay with her teacher by her own willingness or by obligation? Was their relationship more than “teacher and student”?

Nonetheless, I found the lives of these two extremely intelligent women intriguing. I personally believe their staying together was destined and their attraction to each other was both mental and physical. In whatever way, it is beautiful in my eyes. Their lives, their struggle, their success and conquest of darkness, disability and adversity of life, truly embodied the greatest strength of human intelligence, passion, love and willpower. Simply put, I just cannot imagine anything more extraordinary than the real “story” of these two women. Comparing with them, Napoleon fell into mediocrity.

The Cultural Revolution hunted the political a...

(Caution: even though as a writer I always spare gruesome details, still, if you do not have the nerve to confront the darkest darkness of human nature, don’t read this blog!)

People always put the word “kind” to all the weak individuals, but what they do not know is, the reason some of these individuals appear to be “kind” is only because they do not have chance to be evil. — Hu Ping

I was born a year before Cultural Revolution. I don’t remember much of violence diffused all over the country during my childhood. I heard there was a bullet shot on the window of our house (barely two rooms with a small kitchen), which just missed my head, while I was sitting in my nanny’s lap. I heard my father’s concussion was caused by 4 red guards holding his body upside down, then hitting downward to the floor of the stage – before which some hundreds of people were watching, including me, who was crying. I heard one of professors was tortured, in a way I felt difficulty to describe; I also heard some “rumors” about cannibalism that took place in some countryside of China. Still, rumors were just “rumors”, the life of my first 30 years in China was “peaceful” (if we don’t count the violence happened within families).

Recently I read part of book: “The Myth of Blood”, a book that was written over 20 years ago and finally got published in Hong Kong in 2010. The book documents carefully about the mass massacre that took place in Dao county, Hu Nan province during summer of 1967, right after Cultural Revolution began. The brutality of this massacre was absolutely beyond anyone’s imagination – during 3 months of mass murder, over 9000 people died (among which over 1000 committed suicide) in that county alone, most of them by torture. A local river ran red for months. Once this beautiful place was well known for the fishes from river, but after massacre, no one bothered eating fishes for years.

Intrigued by this book, I traced some online sources about another “well-known” massacre took place in Nan Ning county, Guang Xi province. Those sources proved the “rumors” I heard long time ago. This massacre was even more gruesome, mostly due its widely practiced cannibalism. What’s even worse than just cannibalism was that the cannibalism here was often “practiced” during victims were still alive. It seems no one really know how many people died in that place during massacre, some sources say 50 or 70 thousands, some say hundreds of thousands. No one knows for sure.

These two massacres were not all happened in countryside of China during Cultural revolution. There were many other places suffered the same horrors. As Deng Xiaoping once said (source from online): we would never know how many people died during Cultural Revolution.

I was shocked, first by the brutality, second by the people who involved – they were mostly “ordinary” people. These massacres were not government “organized”, or “state-promoted” crimes, they were “mass movements” that everybody participate (more or less) voluntarily. These massacres usually started by two groups of people who fought violently, yet both sides claimed loyal to Mao and Communism. And when these movement went into absolute chaos, more people involved, then the “excitement” was no longer “political”, or “ideological”, but absolutely frenzied and devilish.

The details were incredibly gruesome, I think they would be the best described by Mo Yan’s style, not mine. However, here are a couple of them I could put in brief: in Dao County’s masscare, one person tried to hang himself but he was just a little too late, he was “rescued” by his “enemies”, and then tortured in many different ways until he died. During massacre of Guangxi province, it was said one old (ordinary) lady first got a heart from a victim, but after she heard that the organs from died bodies did not have the best curative effect, she threw it away, and eagerly participated the next more frenzied action in order to get a fresher one…

Ignorance does kill!

Honestly speaking, I would prefer these crazy people all had guns, so the victims could depart the earth more mercifully. The fact was, without guns, these Red guards or Red comrades were just become incredibly “creative” on killing. Again, I am not interested in details of those “techniques”.

Can we blame this type of crime to Communism, or to Mao, to Chinese government? I simply cannot. It is obvious that most of participants of such movements were volunteer commoners, free to do or not to do anything that they “felt” “right” or “wrong”. There were some forced actions, but certainly not all of them (I supposed not even most of them). And there was no law, no moral stance, only evils unleashed. Yes, Mao might be responsible for unleashing such evils.

What continued to strike me is, all these horrors, almost vanished from people’s mind immediately after they ended. No body talked abut it, neither no one was punished by laws (of course there was no law). Most of those murderers, those who ate other humans organs, flesh, just went straight back to their “ordinary” life, many of them even played victims of history. It seems some were later arrested for murder, but how those “trials” went I do not know for sure. What I can be quite sure is that majority of these people who committed the most horrible crimes in human history lived peaceful lives until they died, or some of them are still alive. The whole massacres were all forgotten. No one mentioned them at all, until this book of “Myth of Blood”.

Or maybe the reason of such crimes were forgotten by many is precisely because they were committed by “many”?

I somehow understand this type of “oblivion”, because it is indeed too dark to mention. Except, dark history would not evade repeating itself just because we choose to forget. As matter of fact, similar crimes happened also during Great Leap Forward, which was only several year earlier than Cultural Revolution. “Good” thing is, many crimes – include cannibalism – happened during Great Leap Forward were covered by “starvation” – a much more sound and face saving term than “massacres”.

Another side of story is, there are things that Chinese people chose NOT to forget, such as how the intellectuals were persecuted, how the “precious” Chinese tradition was destroyed, etc. Think carefully, it is not that strange at all, because those who write history can choose what to write, what not to write, and in China (also elsewhere), it is “intellectuals” who write history, so “understandably”, after cultural revolution, intellectuals’ fate was much better documented than those peasants who lived in countryside, despite the fact that what happened in countrysides were much more “serious”.

I am not an expert in history, but by my limited knowledge, I still have to say, I simply could not find any part of human history darker than this part of Chinese history. The reason for that is, these massacres were not “wars” between nations, neither state organized, but just “mass movement” consisted of “commoners”, yet they reached a stunning level of destruction and brutality.

How could such things happen? If we cannot blame these horrors to minority powerfuls, or those abstract ideas, such as “communism”, where can we find an answer for such insanity exhibited by these mass “common” people? Were they just temporarily possessed by Evil?

If so, where does the EVIL come from?

I like history and always wanted to read a book that could give me a clear view of the world history in a relatively small scale. I had very difficult time to find one until I read this one (it is in kindle only). It was written in simply English – which I especially appreciate, and was definitely clear, with most crucial invents of history displayed distinctively, yet interactively. And the author’s view points on each events are not only unbiased, but also touch very profound understanding on human nature. I have to say, it is this book (kindle) that gave me a holistic view on world history, and made me feel that I finally crossed the threshold of this knowledge.

I highly recommend. $7.99 price is much more than just well spent!

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(Just read an article “One child policy is the worst curse happen to China” in a Chinese forum. Haven’t read the article but the title did ring the bell, triggered me writing down the following words):

For most outsiders, “1 child policy” might be one of most notorious human right violations made by Chinese government. I agree, the practice of this policy is inhumane. However, the other side of story is, the policy alone, really was pushed by the uncontrollable population explosion since new China was born 1949. It was a right move by my opinion, because otherwise, things would go beyond control.


Here is what happened earlier: In 1949, the demographic data shows Chinese population was less than 0.5 billion; in 1979, 30 years later, when “1 child policy” was made by government, the population increased to about 1 billion (http://www.populstat.info/Asia/chinac.htm). And I heard (also believe) that the factual number was over 1.2 billions. The reason the population increased this much was mainly due to the policy made by Mao himself which encouraged all mothers to be “heroine mother” – which means having as many children as possible. Echoing with Chinese tradition that focused on the continuation of family blood ties, Chinese people cooperated with the policy with great passion. Of course, there were other reasons too, such as political belief – more people makes China stronger, fighting with capitalism, etc. The overwhelmingly ignorance of none-educated Chinese people made government easier to manipulate them (of course, this doesn’t say that “educated ones” knew better). So, during “heroine mother” time, many women were constantly under pregnancy, and some families had as many as more than 10 kids. That’s how Chinese population increased nearly 3 times more during only 30 years, despite of the fact that “Great Forward Leap” killed over 30 millions people! 

This really is stunning. If situation continued, with same rate, another 30 years later, which was 2009, Chinese population would be over 3 billions (right now is 1.4 billions by official report). This number no doubt is something that none of the governments on this earth could handle.

And needless to mention the quality of lives under such density of population would be extremely poor:  children do not get basic care, child abuse would certainly gets worse than what it already is (child abuse in China has been extremely underestimated, by both Chinese people and government).

Many outsiders only see the inhumanity of practice of “1 child policy”. Yes, it is, but the other side of story is, killing babies, dumping unwanted children have been long existed in a country like China (I am aware of such thing also happen elsewhere, but scale is what made difference here). Children, has been the number one victim of Chinese tradition (mostly Confucianism), and they have been living in a condition that is not only without “love”, but also without mercy. Under such circumstance, I do not think “1 child policy” is totally faulty, because it is my understanding that lives without decent care would grow into the worst nightmares. So, I believe when parents are not ready, it is better not to have any children than to have many unwanted children, and to abuse them, to make their lives unbearably painful. 


It is true that the practice of “1 child policy” (not necessarily policy itself, bmo) is a crime that violets human right, but on the other hand, the huge population explosion would certainly have a much worse consequence. So, nevertheless, no matter which side to choose, the situation really is the worst curse ever happened to China – once the most beautiful and fertile land that nurtured the largest population on this earth. 


Yes, we human take mother nature for granted, here comes the consequence.

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“Europe, on the other hand was a collection of small and competing states with multiple cultures and languages and this unsuspectingly served as an advantage to its inventors and explorers; if one party failed to sponsor them, they could always turn to another. Either way, it was in a country’s best interests to keep up with the latest technologies in order to keep the balance of power. As a result inventors were encouraged rather than discouraged.

‘In the end it was precisely the instability which Europeans had been trying unsuccessfully to evade for so long which had turned out to be their greatest strength. Their wars, their incessant internal struggles, their religious quarrels, all these had been the unfortunate, but necessary condition, of the intellectual growth which had led them, unlike their Asiatic neighbours, to develop the metaphysical and inquiring attitudes towards nature which, in turn, had given them the power to transform and control the worlds in which they lived'” (Worlds at War, by Anthony Pagden)

A short history of the world, by christopher Lascelles

I understand that there are two type of moral standards: social and humanistic.
The social moral standards are set up for establishing social stability. This includes laws, religion doctrines and common social customs (based on traditional ideology). The humanistic standard is based on our conscience, which belong to our nature. The former favors more on social needs, latter more on individual rights.
History of ethics seems to involve from strict collective (social) rules that prohibited most individual desires or needs, to be more tolerant on individual rights. Examples such as marriage, patriotism, homosexuality, religious, etc. all demonstrated this route.


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