October 23, 2011

WHAT IS THERE TO BE PROUD OF?:

How can I be proud of my China if we are a nation of 1.4bn cold hearts?: The death of the two-year-old run over as passersby ignored her is symptomatic of a deepening moral crisis (Lijia Zhang, 10/22/11, guardian.co.uk)

The fundamental problem, in my view, lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

Fei Xiaotong, China's first sociologist, described Chinese people's moral and ethical characteristics in his book, From the Soil, in the middle of the last century. He pointed out that selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of the Chinese. "When we think of selfishness, we think of the proverb 'Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbour's roof,'" wrote Fei. He offered the example of how the Chinese of that period threw rubbish out of their windows without the slightest public concern. Things are much the same today.

Under Mao, citizens were forced to behave themselves in both public and private spheres. Every March, people were obliged to go into the street to do good deeds: cleaning buses, fixing bicycles and offering haircuts. Now relaxed social control and commercialisation over the past three decades have led people to behave more selfishly again.

People are enjoying, and sometimes abusing, the vast personal freedoms that didn't exist before. To start with, it is now safe to be "naughty". Back in the early 1980s, when I worked at a rocket factory in Nanjing, one of my colleagues, a married man, was caught having an affair with an unmarried woman. He was given a three-year sentence in a labour camp and the girl was disgraced. In today's society, having extramarital affairs or keeping an ernai - second wife or concubine - is as common as "cow hair", as the Chinese would say. For a novel I am writing on prostitution, I have interviewed many prostitutes and ernai. Many see their profession as a way to gather wealth quickly, feeling few moral qualms.

China's moral crisis doesn't just manifest itself in personal life but also in business practice and many other areas. The high-profile "poisoned milk powder" case and the scandal of using "gutter oil" as cooking oil have shocked and disgusted people around the world. Last year an article, "Why have Chinese lost their sense of morality?", in which the author tried to find an explanation, was widely read. He reasoned that China has introduced the concept of a market economy from the west but failed to import the corresponding ethics, while the traditional moral principles of China no longer fit the market economy model.

There's a lot of sense in that. I believe that the lack of a value system is also deepening the moral crisis.

One of the deepest confusions of the past twenty years is the mistaken notion that the End of History is a form of utopianism or triumphalism.  But for peoples who are devoid of culture it is nothing of the sort.

Posted by at October 23, 2011 6:31 AM
  

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