Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

A: Confucius, Basically

Q: Why is China like that?

A reader writes:

I am normally a lurker on your blog, but when I saw that post about “it’s worse in China,” I felt compelled to respond.

A little context: I am a Chinese woman, born and raised in Guangzhou, China.  I have lived on the Left Coast for 25 years.  I saw the sweeping changes of economic policy under Deng Xiaoping, and I also witnessed all the good and ill that happened to my city as a result of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  I was also watching cable TV from Hong Kong on an illegal cable box when Tiananmen Square happened (please don’t believe everything you read in the West).  Cantonese and Mandarin are my native languages, and English is my third.  I’m no academic, but I am fluent enough in reading the Chinese classics.

The Chinese, from their leadership all way down to the poorest farmer, are first and foremost Chinese, and their monolithic culture has changed little in 4000+ years.  How is that even possible?  Well, it has a lot to do with that guy named Confucius.  14 dynasties later, Confucianism is still the ruling philosophy on how to govern one’s family as well as one’s country.  Everything mentioned in that blog post is part of the “Confucian Tradition.”  It is a literary tradition as well as a cultural tradition.  It is so ingrained in the culture of China and Chinese communities outside of China, that most Chinese people don’t even talk about it.  For thousands of years, if anyone wanted a job in government, he’d have to study the classics and know it like the back of his hand, and then test his way to the top.  Now supposedly the purpose of immersing oneself in this tradition is to become a Junzi.   A Junzi aims to put himself in order, then his family in order, then his country then his world in order (“Great Learning”).  On the other hand, it is accepted that most people are not and probably will never be Junzi.  Instead, most people are Xiaoren (see the Wiki page on Junzi), and most people even accept their lot as Xiaoren.  Every now and then, someone born into the world of Xiaoren decide to rise above his surroundings, gets his butt in school, works hard, aces the exams, cleans up, and joins the ranks of the Junzi, and such a person would be greatly admired by his community.  The Chinese people who make the sacrifices to remain upright citizens?  They’re the Junzi among 1 billion Xiaoren.  The tension between he Junzi and Xiaoren has existed for at least 2000 years and will probably never go away.  This tension got even more complicated when “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” swept the country, because it was the Xiaoren who did not have any social standing or reputation to lose and therefore made a ridiculous amount of money by hook or by crook (mostly crook), while the Junzi sat on the sidelines pondering what it all meant and were mostly too righteous to be crooks.  There’s an old Chinese saying, “Money can make the Devil push the millstone for you.”  Well, money made a lot of people push a lot things around, and most of that was not and still is not good.

Where am I going with this?  Well, up until the Chinese Communists came along in the 1949, mainland China was largely a medieval agrarian society.  About 1 person out of 10 could read and write–a great-great-aunt on my mother’s side was a math genius who could not recognize her own name in print.  Women were literally second class citizens and were traded like livestock in more rural places.  My own mother, who was born in 1950, was among the first generation of regular Chinese women who was educated in a public school and treated as equals with the boys in her class.  Remember that the Chinese Communists are not a foreign power–they were a bunch of privileged Chinese guys who became Communists during their study in Europe.  In fact, the way they saw it was that the Qing empire that came before was the foreign power that didn’t know how to handle the Han people, and these Han guys were *reclaiming* the country from “those darned Mongols.”  Of course the curriculum in the school includes propaganda about how “Communism saved the peasants from the tyranny of the elite blah blah blah,” but mostly, every kid went to school to learn the Chinese classics.  No, not modernized versions of the classics, every kid had to learn classical Chinese starting 7th grade and then proceed to read the classics in its original form.  That’s like reading Shakespeare in Elizabethan English.  Why would the Communist government do this with their schools?  Because the Communists leaders are a very well read bunch of men, and they all know exactly how dynasties were overthrown by peasants 14 times, and if they’re not careful, they’d be the 15th.  Because the Chinese Communists are Chinese first, Communists second.  Because if the kids grow up immersed in the Confucian tradition, society will likely gain a few more Junzi and therefore lessen the dominance of the Xiaoren.   When the world is inhabited by more Junzi than Xiaoren, the world would be more harmonious.  And…well, adding Christianity into the mix is a whole other can of worms.   🙂

Chinese communities outside of China can be kind of insular, and unless you live in such a community, the attitudes and thoughts of the community largely don’t get out.  But the truth is, you can take the people out of China, you can’t take China out of the people.  Contrary to what is typically portrayed in the media, Chinese immigrants are *culturally* very very loyal to their countries of origin.  Even if the American-born Chinese kids are not fluent in the Chinese language, they still inherit many Confucian cultural traditions from their immigrant parents.  They may never read the classics, but the classics is already in their blood.

This blog has really interesting readers. Thank you!



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now