Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Culture Corner: Confucianism

My first ever culture corner preview...  

I'm salivating with anticipation!  For my ethics class, I've given the students the assignment of writing a story with a moral conclusion, like the hare and the tortoise, or the men who built homes, one on a rock, the other on sand, etc.  I'm envisioning this to be a goldmine for our entertainment!  With the Chinese film equivalent of the Oscar being called the Golden Rooster, can you imagine what these students are going to come up with!?!?!  The best part I think will be trying to guess what the moral of the story is.  Stay tuned....
After flying so high on the hopes of expectation, I fell, plummeting to the grounds of reality.  Having now been in China for almost three years (three years!!) I'm kicking myself.  I know better - I should've seen this one coming!  What was I thinking?  Not only did the students’ moral stories lack imagination, they lacked originality.  Here are the statistics: a few turned in stories of their own creation, but were bland and dull.  A few more blatantly plagiarized: nothing like satisfying the requirements of a "creative writing" assignment in an Ethics class by stealing another's words.  But most simply took an existing story and slightly altered it, for example replacing the tortoise and the hare with a leopard and a sloth, the remainder of the story remaining identical.  Of the latter two, I prefer the plagiarism.  At least their "creativity" was economized.  So, I have nothing to as interesting to offer you as I’d hoped upon giving the assignment.

In case you weren't aware, just about every granule of creativity and individual thinking has been squeezed out of Chinese society.  As Western influences begin to take root, things are changing, but generally speaking they are a bunch of lemmings, individuality and ingenuity crushed beneath the wheel of potential social criticism.  At first I wanted to blame leftover communism for this, but the longer I've been here and the more I've read, I think the reason is an -ism that has been around longer than Marx’s variety.

Many, many hundreds of years ago while Medieval Europe was still trying to find properly sharp splinters to spear their bed lice and dumping shit and piss out their windows onto the street, the Chinese were a sophisticated, civilized society, wearing silk, sipping wine, and expounding in poetry.  Confucianism, a tool that kept peace in society and allowed those in power to maintain that power for long periods of time, reigned.  I assume most of you think of Confucius as "that smart Chinese guy" and know not much more about him other than his ability to utter the most profound statements in a paucity of words. (You know, “man who live in glass house see sky.”)  So, I will tell you a little more, particularly how he crushed the creative spirit of China.  

As with his contemporaries, people like Laozi and Mozi, Confucius, or Kongfuzi, was a philosopher trying to spread a doctrine, his being that developing virtue is the most important facet of humanity. In particular, benevolence is the virtue to be held in the highest regard, and as your parents give birth to you, i.e. showing you the ultimate act of kindness, you have an obligation to obey them, no matter what they say, or whether they are even still alive.  For example, one part of a child's duty according to strict interpretation of the practice was to regularly pay respects to their dead ancestors, which is why Confucianism is often classified as a religion by the West, despite the fact there is no god or gods, only dust and bones.  (Wait, aren’t we squabbling over the shroud of Turin…)

Wanting to talk about virtue ethics one day in class, I asked my students: "Why does your mother love you?", hoping to draw out their virtues as examples.  Now, in the past during conversation I've jokingly asked this question to other Chinese people and always gotten the same answer.  Because my class wasn't as casual, I thought I might get a different answer.  But no, I received the same answer, yet again – from every student: "My mother loves me because I'm her child."  (Imagine the resulting answers from a class of American students, e.g. "Because I don't eat all of her pop-tarts.", “Because I have her eyes.”, “Because I go to the shop and buy her cigarettes.”)  This put a kink in the start of my lesson; it's difficult to make a list of virtues in the face of Darwinian logic.  My point is, Confucianism remains evident today.  Blind statements regarding the obligation one has to their parents come from everyone I've asked.

As government, in particular the king, is society's parent, one also had a duty to obey whatever he said according to Confucianism.   The doctrine of Laozi (move to a mountain and become a hermit, writing poems and growing vegetables) and Mozi (love everybody the same, the street bum the same as the government official) did not play as well into the hands of those in power.  Thus, you can see why Confucius's doctrine was promulgated by leadership.  The current Chinese government so adept at propaganda, I can assume they began learning how to indoctrinate back then, telling the people they were concerned for the "well-being of the family," the indirect benefit to themselves left unmentioned.  But that's just me being cynical.
Much the same as the Bible once was in the West, one of Confucius's books, "The Book of Rites," was utilized throughout society as a guide for living.  People studied, memorized, and practiced the incredibly detailed list of rites one must perform to be properly obedient to their parents –dead or alive - and government – dead or alive.  Rites and not laws, they were, however, and therefore not wholly enforced by the government.  Rather, wielding the strong arm of justice was the wagging tongue of your neighbors and the public, critical voices of leaders. Yes, this is much the same as any fundamental religious community.  However, there’s a difference to the Confucisnism.  It's not: "I saw Johnny touch Christy on the shoulder at the grocery store.  Is that the way friends should act!  What would their spouses think?  I hope Jesus will forgive them."  Instead, it is: "Johnny only wore sackcloth and wept for the first 35 months and 29 days after his father's death instead of the full 36 months prescribed – I know, I was counting.  I wouldn't do that, I'm a filial son."  You get the idea.

So, much the same as Christians can be depended upon to hold certain ideals and be a self-policing community without formal law, so too have the Chinese been since Confucianism took hold.  The ideals foremost on people's minds when deciding what moral course of action should be taken, the gossips await to judge.  The scale of society obviously being much larger in China, this begs the question: where do depraved citizens go when not following the moral precepts of a whole country?  To a different country?  The answer is: nowhere but to the mountains to write poems and grow vegetables.  But really, essentially the people had only the choice: CONFORM or be isolated socially, the benefits of nepotism and bribery no longer available.  So, they conformed.  And conform they did, and they've been conforming ever since, accent on the family, moderation, humility, benevolence, obeisance, etc.  

With conformity in such high regard, introducing fresh, innovative ideas into society does not bode well.  What's different and unknown is something to be feared and doubted.  During the Tang Dynasty, a the Chinese Golden Age, new inventions and creations appeared, benefiting society in general.  But since that time, especially during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Confucianism and neo-Confucianism ruled, and very little has been introduced.  As a result, how many Nobel prize winners have come from China?  Not many.  What's the most recent advent of technology originating in China?  Waiting…  How many original kinds of Chinese music have you heard lately that aren’t rooted in a tradition hundreds or thousands of years old?  Again, waiting… How many contributions to world society has China made since the Tang Dynasty when they produced four wonderful things we still use today: the compass, paper, printing press, and gunpowder?  It's interesting to note, while the Chinese used gunpowder for fun and fireworks (and most effectively I might add), foreign powers took this invention and created powerful weapons, weapons they later used against China to subjugate certain parts, all because the Chinese were living in the same groove they had been for hundreds and hundreds of years.  (Side note: this is how Hong Kong came to be British.)  In other words, aside from slight nuances, maybe hairstyles or the fit of clothes, poems having six lines instead of four, peach trees instead of plum, Chinese society has gone virtually unchanged for a very long time.  It's only in the past century that cracks have begun appearing in a façade literally millennia in the making, Communism only the latest manifestation of utter conformism.

Some of you are turning your nose up at China as a stale, tedious social environment because of what I’ve just described.  But you should know that, relatively speaking, the result is also one wherein their society has been incredibly stable and peaceful compared to Western nations.  Certainly their leadership has changed, wars have been fought, but when compared to what has happened in Western nations during that time, they are like a sleeping cat who only wakes up occasionally to stretch its claws and find where the sun has gone.  In a country of 1.3 billion, poverty – the supposed breeder of crime – is at an incredible high, yet it is still safer to walk down any street or dark alley in China than the most civilized street our "great" Western societies can offer.  You may not be able to say anything bad against their government, but they don’t have children going to school and expressing their individuality by aiming a gun at their classmates.   Maybe artistic styles have undergone little or no change in the past 15 or so centuries, but every family may fully depend on its members to be a cohesive unit, there for you in youth or old age, ready to fulfill duty by helping you, even in death, rather than shuffling you off to the old folk’s home.  It is to these depths that Confucianism goes – and steals away my hopes for wonderful moral stories. 

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