Modernizaton / Globalization in China

If one looks around in Shanghai, one sees English translations on road signs and subway maps. I asked a local friend why this is so, and she said because Shanghai is a globalized city, and it needs to be ‘friendly’ for international visitors. She compares this to how China had been closed during the Manchu dynasty, which caused the backwardness and ignorance of worldly affairs for many centuries. My reaction to her was, but this is China, why do you have a foreign language on your signage? And if one thinks deeper into it, it becomes a really bad metaphor when a foreign language is giving you directions in your own backyard. But that metaphor is probably a really strong reflection on what’s going on in China right now, or at least the direction that they are headed towards. I had just arrived from New York and so I told my friend that there aren’t Chinese words on the street signage there, and what does that say, but I know for my friend and for most people, English is the de facto language for international relations, diplomacy and trade.

But is it really? Or is it a kind of exclusive club for English-speaking nations that China wants to be part of ? It almost seems that the Chinese language used to be the de facto language for many Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. when China was still an empire. And as China’s power gradually weakened over the last 400 years, the Chinese language lost its place, just like how the French language did, although you can still seem remnants of it in all the various Asian cultures.

I guess the next thing to think about is whether the adoption of a foreign language in your country’s infrastructure helps or harms the country. My friend thinks that it is needed right now, as China is still growing and still ‘immature’, but I beg to differ and think that it belittles the dignity of this ancient civilization. The Chinese civilization is anything but immature. It’s problem is one of self-confidence, which stems from the humiliation of The Opium War, and China will never go far if it keeps looking up to the West, as much as it is growing right now. One can only grow so much from without, but true growth comes from within, and that will only happen when China breaks its shackles from Western dominance and starts to lead again.

The misconception that a lot of people have about Globalization is that it’s about making your city more internationally friendly. Sure it is, but it’s also heavily tilted towards Western culture and honestly the words ‘globalization’ and ‘westernization’ are sometimes interchangeable in my opinion. Some people might judge a city as ‘global’ when it has McDonald’s or Starbucks. Others might judge it by the tall skyscrapers that have replaced historical buildings. No, I am not against Western culture, and in fact I actually think there’s a lot to learn from it; but the bigger issue at hand is the self-cleansing process that China is undergoing which they call ‘modernization’ or ‘globalization’, an idea once again propelled by the humiliation from World War II and the Opium War.

Prior to the Opium War, the Chinese had always been proud of their own manifestations. Whether it was in terms of their culture, art or technology, they always saw themselves as superior and looked down on others by calling them ’savages’ (野蛮人)。

This map represents the way the Chinese Emperor positioned himself and his empire among others, as the centre of the Universe, hence the name ‘Middle Kingdom’ (中国). Other examples include Admiral Zheng He’s voyage in the 1400s where he sailed around the world to display the prowess of the Chinese fleet, giving other civilizations gifts as a sign of mercy.

What happened to all that pride then? That confidence and assuredness of one’s own nation? The empires in the vicinity all used to bow down to China; Japan, Korea, Malaya, Thailand, etc. They used to deliver gifts as a gesture of submission and respect, and China would actually return a gift that’s higher in value because China had everything she needed and didn’t need anything from anyone. That was the kind of power China used to have; the empire of empires and the envy of poorer civilizations. How many wars have been fought since the days of Qin Shihuang against the ‘barbarians’ who tried again and again to penetrate into the Chinese civilization, then called Zhongyuan (中元),to acquire the riches and assimilate the culture. Almost like a physical manifestation of this historical phenomenon, the Great Wall was built to ward off these ‘barbarians’, but it never stopped all the different minorities from finally integrating into the Chinese civilization. Don’t forget how Christopher Columbus was looking for a shortcut to China when he sailed West only to stumble upon America, and how people in Europe at that time were seduced by the vast riches and exotic culture of the Orient.

Ironically, it was this pride that caused them their humility. A change that hasn’t yet quite reversed.

Being the envy of other nations, China became complacent. They closed themselves up and never knew much about what was going outside China. Then again, they had too much to deal with internally, always putting down a rebellion or struggling against a famine. When you’re the centre of the world, you don’t worry about insignificant minorities elsewhere, which, if you think about it, sounds a bit like USA right now. And it was one of these insignificant minorities, a country that ‘wasn’t even big enough to be a province in China’, that blew apart her complacency with their superior cannons.

England made the first attack in China over opium and tea. But many nations soon followed suit, and by the time China realized what was happening, it was too late. Like a large beast that was intimidating, it was also slow and clumsy, and could not adapt to the superiority of the little mice in time. And there was the beginning of the fall of the Chinese pride. The Chinese people fell from a race that was honoured by others to a race that became despised and looked down upon. They even earned a new name, ‘The Sick of the Orient’ (东涯病夫), given by the Japanese who could finally stand up against the Chinese after centuries of bowing down to their Chinese neighbours.

As such, the Chinese people started losing faith in their own culture, deeming it as old and ancient, outdated and superstitious. Western cannons had blown up their forts, and Chinese cannons could not reach far enough to hit Western ships, and it made the Chinese think that the West was far ahead in technology. The Chinese had no natural science, no empirical method of proving scientific theories, and so they looked up to the West for their discoveries and formulae. It became a self-rejection of culture and beliefs, like how Chinese medicine had no ’scientific’ proof, according to western standards, even though it was a practice that had existed for thousands of years. Gone with the old, up with the new. It wasn’t only culture that was being rejected, but also the old political system of Emperors and lords. The collapse of the final imperial dynasty was metaphoric for the overthrow of old habits. Yes, we will become a republic. No more slaves of the Empire. We will become modern like the rest of the world and we will regain our pride.

We will become a New China.

I had a heated conversation with Y yesterday, which ultimately became kind of ugly, but more importantly was the content and conflicts that arose from our points of view: one from a local Chinese, and another from a Chinese foreigner.

There were many misunderstandings to begin with, primarily because of language problems. But that’s besides the point. Y had just finished reading a book titled “I don’t want to be a Chinese in my next life” (“来生不做中国人”) by Joe Chung, and so we casually started chatting about Chinese culture and the state of affairs. She mentioned how Chinese civilization had deteriorated after so long, and discussed about how things needed to change for standards of living to improve. And i guess that was the beginning of our conflict. I challenged her notion of standards of living, and proposed that the idea of ‘improvement’ is a consequence of modernist ideals seeped into China (ever since the days of Sun Yatsen). Modern cities look to Western models as their yardstick, and are forever chasing the shadows of the latter, always one step behind, rather than manifesting on their own terms. Yes, one can argue that chasing Western models IS their own way of growing, but it is still significantly different from motivations that come from within. I told Y that Asian civilizations today use western standards of living to gauge if theirs is up to par, and she disagreed. She said standards of living are universal, because human beings in general have the same needs, and thus are after the same things. She said it is common sense that having a cell phone is better than having a beeper, and having railroads is better than walking all the way. I told her about how the Europeans used to think that way too, coming to Africa and deeming them as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’, and so tried to ‘help’ them by teaching them the word of God.

Allow me to digress for a bit into something I read from Lin Yutang. Before i read him, i used to think standards of living were universal too, and that everyone has certain basic needs and wished for the same luxuries. But i stumbled upon a chapter in his book where he wrote about how the Westerner would come to China and think that the farmers are unhygienic, and that their homes are dirty and their lives filthy. But Lin Yutang reminded me that all this, including the western idea of human rights and democracy, are still on Western terms. There is another way to think about this. Lin Yutang uses the word ‘degeneration’, and says that if you look deeper into the matter, it is the Western model of living that is of a lower standard, because the clean, pristine way of living has caused Westerners to be weaker biologically and mentally. They remain indoors most of the time (like most of us do now, thanks to Modernity), and are less tolerant of outdoor climates that are closer to nature. The Chinese farmer, on the contrary, being so used to ‘dirt’, or maybe i should say ‘natural surroundings’, has a higher tolerance and survivability of the wild, and thus is stronger. Now, is it necessarily fair to say that everyone wants to have a ‘higher’ standard of living, only to be degenerated over time and generations? I don’t necessarily have a definitive answer yet, and neither am i saying that one is better than the other, but i sure do think that the Modern life is not it, and that it is only one of many routes that one can take.

But it also becomes a different matter when a civilization is critiquing itself, if the Africans look at themselves and start wishing they were White. Who are we, as outsiders, to judge if they should or should not want to be like another? And yes, the same pattern happens again: I am an outsider, only trying to ‘help’. Am I really ‘helping’? What makes me think I know what’s better for China? Y resented some of the things I said because I am speaking from the point of a foreigner, and who am I to judge China’s way of reinventing themselves? I guess this is the part where it gets murky, because I am Chinese, but yet I am not. Am I helping my own people, or am I helping a foreign race? There is no answer to this, only how one sees it. When does an outsider step in to interfere with someone else’s family problems? I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. America was praised when they defeated Hitler, but criticized for invading Vietnam and Iraq. When does one draw the line?

As much as I’m writing about my conversation with Y, and as much as she said some things that upset me a little, I am not unhappy that we spoke, and am not writing this out to prove that I am right whatsoever. Rather, I am writing this out so that I lay things out in a clear manner for proper criticism, so that we may move on someday in a more objective manner. In fact, I am glad we spoke, because we laid out our differences, and only by overcoming these issues will we become stronger. One thing we did agree, was that we both knew we loved the Chinese civilization, and probably only differed in our approach to the matter.

Back to our conversation. Y criticized my way of thinking as being limiting and non-constructive, which i do agree in some ways. Back in Portland, when Yinghao came to visit me, he did mention how it’s pointless to criticize something without giving a solution. Y said if i refused to define a standard, how can civilization move on? Even if it is ‘wrong’, and ultimately they realised it isn’t what they were searching for, at least they went there and learned their ways, and then they will move on from there. I do not disagree totally, but perhaps I wanted China to not have to go through that process of erring, because right now (2009), China is on the brink of change, and whatever happens now is going to affect them for many years to come. It’s almost like child psychology, where when a child is forming their structural notions of identity and their surroundings from a clean slate, and the growing period is pretty sensitive because an extreme incident might traumatize the innocent mind. Yes, China has already had their fair share of traumas, as I have mentioned in another post, but I guess what I’m focusing here is the structural framework for China’s evolution.

The notion of improvement. What does that mean? How does a civilization decide to build more railways, more skyscrapers, and more Starbucks? When I stopped over at Beijing airport a year ago, I was surprised to see Starbucks; it was my first time on China soil, and there I was greeted by the familiar mermaid in the green circle. I told a Chinese friend of mine about this experience, and he laughed at me,”you thought China was so backward?” For a moment i thought that was exactly the reason why I was surprised, but on deeper thought, it was something else. It’s funny that one equates having Starbucks to being ‘not-backward’. My surprise had nothing to do with backwardness, but rather, the penetration of western culture in the east. There I was at the gateway of the most magnificent civilization, and I was greeted by the same culture that I had left behind in New York. Back to motivations behind improvement. One could think of improvement as a way of moving closer to where one wants to go, with a certain type of destination (or destiny) in mind. As such, the destination, or the desired place, is so important in shaping one’s growth. Here i’d like to suggest that ‘growth’ and ‘improvement’ have slightly different meanings, at least in how I am using them. Growth referring to change over time, and improvement referring to going ‘higher’ than what one already has, depending on the standard that is defined. I guess a good question would be to ask local Chinese people what their visions of the future are, because those visions are what shape their lives today. And only by changing that psychological vision, would we be able to change China’s future tomorrow.

But yet, the West has lost sight of the ‘future’. Modernist ideals have collapsed somewhat, and people aren’t so caught up with technology and for this futuristic notion of the world. Yet, China, and even most of Asia, is always looking for ways and ways of improving themselves. And here I am, trying to discourage them from ‘improving’, and encouraging them to embrace what they already have. For a civilization that is trying to reinvent itself, my view isn’t quite accepted. My ideals, just like how China views tradition, only hinders their path to modernity and utopia. I do agree with Y that some of the rural countryside needs help, that there are people who struggle to get meals, and have no chance to go to school. But yet, at the same time, do they really need ‘help’, and are we really ‘helping’ them? Looking at it another way, we are only judging them by city standards, and only trying to convert them into city-dwellers, and instilling aspirations for city-living into their minds. I don’t have an answer right now, because I am torn between both sides of the argument. Maybe, like what Y said, there is a need to be steadfast and objective, and to quickly define standards, or else things will never be done, and we will never know the answer.

Am I contradicting myself? Am I advocating against change? But yet i mention evolution. But then again, borrowing from the principles of art and design processes, one should never try to guess the ending or have preconceived notions of creativity. Like process-based work, the result should be a discovery, and open-ended, and maybe evaluated. So what do I really believe in, in terms of shaping the ‘future’ of China? I told Y that what I really wish for is for China to lead the way, and to have their own way of living and growth, whatever that means. Maybe it won’t happen during our lifetime, but my concern is to seed the idea now.

LIke what Azuma in the anime Naruto said, the ‘King’ of a village are the unborn children, and that is what the villagers live to protect.

Perhaps, that is the answer. That is the thing that I’ve been so frustrated over. The area that I wish to contribute to, is not to give China an answer, but to open up their options through self-discovery and inquiry. That is what needs to be worked on: the fundamentals of what it means to improve the lives of the Chinese people, and the groundwork for things to grow and flourish, even if it means uprooting and tilling the soil. When I debated with Y over the meaning of ‘improvement’, what I was getting at was a questioning of fundamental ideals. To Y, it was more important to set a standard and move on to improve things, while my methodology was to figure out the standards before you move on. Because the standard itself is something that needs to be developed too. If standards are fixed, then even over time, you would only have moved one step, because you already set a predictable goal. Neither am I saying not to have any standards, but the more important thing is to be flexible and be open to development.

It is a different type of growth when one already has a vision in mind, as opposed to developing the fundamentals from within and letting it manifest from the bottom up. Just like in studio practice, professors never tell us what we should or shouldn’t do, they only facilitate thought and exposure, giving us a little push in the direction that we seem interested in. What happens in the end is ultimately open-ended, because professors never really taught us anything; they only taught us to teach ourselves.

Perhaps what i was also advocating was not to focus too much on the material growth of the Chinese people, because that might not be what everyone needs, even in the rural villages. What might be more important could be of a spiritual or psychological matter, helping them develop their own way of life, facilitating their thought process. When one takes away universal standards of living, one also starts feeling less pitiful about rural villages. The idea of ‘helping’ rural villages can sometimes be dangerous, because even though we come with good intentions, by giving them donations, teaching them new ideas, but what we are also doing is making them more like us, and ultimately making them want to go to the city. Again, I’m not saying not to offer charity to the countryside, but what I’m saying is to be careful and understand fundamentally how we are actually making things better. We don’t want villagers to become city-dwellers, but yes, we do want them to be happy. We don’t want them to feel that they are ‘unprivileged’ , but to accept themselves for who they are, and teach them how to make things better with their own hands and mind.

When one thinks of the codified world, as Vilem Flusser describes, one starts to think of their cultural heritage as a set of codes. For me, I have come to define ‘culture’ as the methods of survival for a given civilization over time (this probably warrants a whole other article in itself.) Culture is something that grows out of the necessity to survive, and over time, develops into ritualistic practices, and then their intentions are sometimes forgotten because they are so old. As such, because each civilization has lived differently and undergone different circumstances, they have sought different ways to overcome difficulties, and of course the ones that succeeded survive. Now, Flusser will argue that culture shouldn’t be explained, but should be interpreted, because it is a humanity. For him, culture is something that is fabricated by people to give meaning to their meaningless lives in the face of death, a very existential approach, but for the purpose of this article, I am concerned only with the aspect of culture as a form of code, not its purpose.

What’s interesting about different cultures has always been about how different their codes are; even within China, the different provinces each have their own cultural practices. They might all speak mandarin, the common language, but until you have lived in a place and learned the local tongue, you might still not understand some of the terms and phrases that they use. Such symbols are not a matter of language, but a common understanding that is brewed over time within a certain frame. By frame, I mean both physical, such as geography, and metaphysical borders, such as time. People only start to accept you as one of them when you have acquired an understanding of their local culture, and if you have truly mastered it, might even confuse you to be one of them.

The tricky issue comes when a person has more than one set of codes imbued in him, although in today’s world, we already have many of such people around. I once watched a documentary where a Japan-born Korean found difficulty in being accepted into Japanese society. What’s weird is if she doesn’t tell you she is ‘Korean’, one will never know she belongs to Korean heritage because she speaks perfect Japanese and understands the culture fully. The only difference is that she has a memory which had been ingrained into her from young that she has a connection to the Korean civilization. One might argue that being ‘Korean’ is more biological than cultural, but I beg to differ. One must consider the factor of time and, once again, the notion of the frame (this will go in another article). But even if one simply looks at cultural identity, for example being Korean, as having both biological and social codes, then maybe it is not so complicated. For how a civilization behaves in social terms affects how it biologically breeds, and how it biologically breeds also affects how it socially plays out, and culture is brewed in this continuous spiral. Culture is born out of a spiral between social practice and biological function over time. For example, a people living in a cold climate might cook spicy food to fight the cold, and over time, develop a biological appetite for spicy food. But because they have grown to like spicy food over time, they start developing new recipes to satisfy this crave. And hence you have an array of spicy food in say, Korean cuisine, which only further propels the spicy appetite of next generations. Over time, people might forget how it all started, and why they had come to develop so many different variations of spicy food and have such a liking for them, but by then a ‘cultural’ code would have occurred, and if you’re Korean, you eat Korean food.

As such, this model could also be brought to explain moralistic practices within a civilization. Let’s take one of Confucius’ teaching as an example, which is to respect and take care of the elderly. Now, I’m not claiming that this necessary came out of a survival problem, but let’s say it did, and that somehow the Chinese people realized their numbers did better when they took care of their old. This practice becomes accepted and understood by everyone within the community that it starts becoming a moral, where if a person who doesn’t do it is as good as endangering the whole community. Over many centuries, this group of people gets used to this practice, it gets passed down from generation to generation, and the thinking gets imbued in their blood, such that a Chinese person will naturally be in agreement with such a practice. Social practice has been converted into a biological function over time, and conversely, biological functions continue to pass down and promote such social practices. History is embedded in our blood, and one can see it as a form of code that is a part of the cultural equation. Which is why Chinese medicine believes that the body is a product of the mind, and they even believe that some illnesses are linked to a spiritual or psychological dysfunction i.e. worry. Mind is body, and body is mind. If a person’s mind is in constant worry, his heart pumps faster everyday, and over time, he is affected physically. Every intangible thought or feeling has a certain effect on a person’s physical body. There is some physiological connection between mind and body, just like how Confucius’ teachings can be codified in every Chinese person’s blood, and the Chinese believe in it. Which perhaps starts to explain Chinese people’s use of the word ‘blood’ as not just a mere biological fluid, but rather a collection of beliefs,feelings, ideology and history. Centuries of war and suffering is codified in Chinese blood. Blood plays a huge significance in Chinese culture, and if someone wrote a letter in blood, then it must be of utmost importance.

Our codified blood, blood that contains many layers of complex information, is also affected by things such as weather and environment. Again, in Chinese medicine (and i learned this via a conversation with my landlady), they believe that everyone is biologically different depending on where they come from. Because their cultural practices are different, their blood is also different. The people who live near the sea have a certain type of liver, because they have constantly been eating seafood for many centuries, and so they cannot be treated in the same way as people from other places. Word has it that the ‘bagua’ (八卦) has clearly categorized all the different types of Chinese people according to their areas, and how it affects them biologically and culturally depending on climate, diet and conditions. It’s interesting when one starts to equate biological processes to cultural practices, and vice versa, and then blood having a memory to store all these information. Of course, blood content changes all the time, especially in today’s world, where cultures are mixing all the time, and people are migrating so often. People from hot climates are migrating to colder climates and planting new roots there, hence changing the content of their blood (and also culture), while people interbreeding from different climates is also more rampant due to technological advancements in transportation.

When all these codes change, how will we start to define them?

It is easier to define a cultural code when it is consistent across a big number of people, and this consistency trickles down to signs such as language, diet, skin, facial features and religion such that we can call them a civilization/race/nation. But when everything starts getting jumbled up, and there is not enough consistency to identify a trend, will people start to lose their cultural identities? Or will they start to develop new ones based on other factors such as one’s association with the workplace?  Before it had always been geographical borders that defined how these codes developed, but one can find different codes of conduct in the same place now, even within the same building, and people in different places might even have more in common than those around them due to the emergence of new ‘frames’ and conditions.

Or perhaps all these culture (and blood) will get diluted someday to form one ultimate unified code across the globe?

I had a conversation with a colleague about cultures in China. He told me about how many different forms of the Han culture exist throughout China, due to the political and social circumstances over time. He remarked that if you went to Guizhou, you would see Han people dressed in a weird way, different from what we understand about most Han Chinese, and he explained it was because they were people who escaped from war during the Ming Dynasty and settled there. It was as if time had stopped for these people, and they preserved that particular moment in history, and with it its culture and memory. If one takes this theory to a broader level, one could easily theorize that the evolution and history of Chinese culture was essentially spread out geographically in China. Time was preserved in packets of space.

He gave another example of the Hakka people, known as 客家 in Mandarin, which mean the ‘guests’. The Hakka people still exist today, all over the world, but they derived the name from the Han people who migrated South during political unrest in the North, taking with them their cultures and language, and thus preserving it in a different place. My colleagues claims that these people were actually the ‘purer’ Han Chinese who once belonged to the central part of China known as ‘Zhong Yuan’ (中原).

And so we came to this discussion about the idea of purity. Purity of culture, language, and blood. Races mix all the time. When the Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia, they mixed with the local natives, the Malays, to form a new breed known as the Babas and Nonyas. Everywhere people migrated, over time, their bloods mixed, their cultures and languages synthesized. It’s almost like everyone has a bit of everyone else’s blood. So what is ‘pure’?

We came to the conclusion that the Han Chinese blood itself was also a mixture. We took the analogy of a soup. You have a bit of salt, some carrot, some pork, and then you mix it for a long time. This brew becomes very homogenous over time, and it’s hard to tell what the soup was even made of if you didn’t know the ingredients. Using this analogy, every race and culture was essentially a mixture of some other forms. It was only a matter of how long this particular brew managed to sustain itself, and allow itself to be cooked. The Chinese race continued to absorb and synthesize with other cultures over thousands of years, and is still doing so today, more so with the West now. One could think of the different cultures in China as the different flavours and brews that had cooked over the centuries, analogous to the different recipes of food in China. The different flavours of food is symbolic in a sense, to the different cultures that had been fostered over time and space.

If one takes the soup analogy to another level, one can view some new nations as the beginnings of new flavours of soup. Singapore is probably a good example, although the fusion of different languages to form a common one is a healthy sign of its primal synthesis. I have another friend who once wished the world had no borders. As much as that would make the world much more free-flowing, it does threaten the diversity of cultures. Almost like bacteria in science, they cannot be cultivated without certain conditions. Every living organism thrived in its own optimum condition, and if the whole world existed in the same manner without borders or limits, there would only be one type of organism growing in it. The existence of borders allows different cultures to be formed, different ’soups’ to be brewed, different ratios of people to be mixed.

Now, there is also a different argument for this, a different way to look at it. Because as much as synthesizing different cultures eliminates the presence of existing cultures, it also helps to create new ones. Everyday new things are being created, and old things are being made extinct. There is a sort of sadness to things being lost, a culture so old only to vanish after the last of its kind returns back to the Earth. With him, he takes centuries of knowledge and wisdom to his grave, never to be seen by his children again, as they are diluted with other forms of culture, or globalized by the modern world. It’s as good as seeing an endangered species become extinct after centuries of evolution, wiped out in a single blow.

I guess the only fear is that cultures become wiped out faster than they can brew, because they do take some time to cultivate again, for life doesn’t evolve overnight. As much as culture is a soup that brews over time, we must remember that when we overturn the soup, we also lose time.

Chatted with a friend today about ‘helping’ kids in a village. It began casually, about how it will be nice to help a kid in rural China, or perhaps bring a kid over to the city for a week. But then suddenly it dawned on my friend, who is a local Chinese, that it might also be harming the kid to do so. Is it good to show them something they might never have? Or even if that wasn’t true, was it good to inject them with ideas beyond their world, to change their behaviour and desires? This goes back to a discussion I had with myself a long time ago, not unlike the  colonial Europeans who came to ’save’ the ’savages’ in Asia or Africa.

Our conversation then led to what it really means to ‘help’ these kids, and what it really means to ‘modernize’ someone, or a village. I brought up the thought that when you ‘modernize’ something, at the same time, you are also destroying existing culture, and this is how a lot of tribal culture is being made non-existent. My friend tried to rationalize this aspect by saying perhaps as beautiful as certain cultures are, it is inevitable that they do not survive if they cannot keep up with the times, or not tolerate cultures from the outside world. He started thinking if there is a point in preserving cultures that aren’t strong enough to survive the outside world. I mentioned that, well, we have zoos, which preserve and protect animals that may very well be extinct in our world today. I’m not sure if there is a point, as, the longer you keep them in the zoo, the longer they won’t survive outside in the ‘real’ world. But then i also mentioned that museums are also like cultural zoos in which they preserve culture that has otherwise been overwhelmed by globalization, and he quite liked the idea.

All this brought me to the thought of how the industrial revolution and technology has changed the world so much today to endanger cultures everywhere in the world. How are cultures endangered? When boundaries are erased and cultures exposed to each other, it brings them into a conflict and threatens their existence. A simple example of an influx of immigrants to a certain country makes the locals feel threatened very easily, overwhelmed by the foreign language and culture. In the old world, we had all sorts of boundaries: political, social, geographical, technological, linguistic, etc. But in the new world, everything is getting homogenized, and everything brought closer to each other, everything more accessible. At initial thought, that sounds great and all, unifying the whole world into one species. But then if you go deeper into it, you are essentially smearing all the colours on the palette to create grey. Without boundaries, many things will not survive. Deers could survive because they could hide or live in areas that were perhaps inaccessible to lions. But if the only boundary that kept them alive was taken away, they’d be extinct immediately. Being intolerable to the outside world doesn’t signify that a culture or a species shouldn’t exist, contrary to what my friend thought. It’s really the changing world that is erasing these boundaries that used to protect different species and cultures. Or should I say, enable different cultures to propagate and grow. If we didn’t have physical boundaries, we wouldn’t have so many different types of flowers in so many different colours. Flowers that aren’t strong enough to compete with other flowers don’t warrant their extinction. Unless we really want just one big bowl of cultural soup in a single flavour, we should really start thinking about what boundaries we are destroying everyday and what new boundaries are being created. These boundaries will break or make the future.

I visited Soong Ching-Ling’s memorial home today, and inside, her writings made me think about all the dreams and hopes she and her husband had for China. Would they be happy to see what it had become today? Or would they be rolling in their grave? Was this the China they had worked so hard for? All those lives sacrificed in the countless revolutionary uprisings from Guangzhou to Beijing, were they really worth the China it is right now? And then you look around, you see the new generation of Chinese kids, those born after the 90s, and you see a lost generation. A generation that doesn’t know what the future holds, rejects the past, and is only absorbed with their own individual pleasures. This isn’t necessarily a judgment, but it’s definitely an observation.

Revolution means so many different things to so many different people. To some, it is only a change in government. To Madame Soong, it was a change in the people and how they saw themselves, how they defined themselves, ideologically and socially. Perhaps it should be renamed Social Revolution, because very often governments change but the people don’t, and everything remains the same even though the ‘packaging’ is different. The question is, did Madame Soong’s Social Revolution succeed? Has the Chinese people changed their perception of China and of themselves as a nation and a civilization?

Now, I’m not interested in going into the details about Mao and his cultural revolution and whether that had anything to do with preventing true social revolution from happening, but I’m going to talk about things as they are, without assigning blame to anyone or to any entity. The fact is that China is far too complex a civilization to assign blame to just one party; it will always be a combination of factors, whether internal or external.

So, what is the state of the Chinese people now?

If you ask outsiders, they will tell you their impressions of most mainland Chinese as sometimes rude, not knowing basic manners, not understanding social etiquette, and not very polite. Of course, this is a general statement and does not apply to everyone in mainland China, but here we are dealing with a general impression and a large sample size within this huge population. Does this have to do with poverty? You do see a lot of rich Chinese businessmen who are a little loud and rough. In fact a lot of them can be quite rude in their mannerisms, and quite selfish and inconsiderate in their daily actions. So that rules out money as a factor. How is it that you can have so many people not feeling disgusted about spitting in public, and not feeling bad about cutting queue, and not feeling impolite to push and shove someone else in public if they are in your way? Why is this decline in social behaviour so apparent in mainland China, even though people are starting to become well-off and they have been opened to the outside world for about 20 years now?

You can’t say the Communists didn’t try to create good behaviour among their citizens. There have been countless of red banners with doctrines of good behaviour plastered all around China for centuries. But people tend to ignore them as noise no one ever really pays attention to them. It has become government propaganda now, instead of a good-will service to its people. So what is it? Is this actually the stubbornness of Chinese culture, which has prevented them from being brainwashed by countless different dynasties and different cultures and allowed them to withstand any sort of cultural invasion to preserve their own identity and values? Does this mean the Chinese people have always been rude? Now, let’s not jump to conclusions yet, as all these are still hypothetical, but they are possibilities.

And yet, China was the civilization that created the culture of politeness and rituals, thanks to Confucius, which became adopted by so many other cultures, such as Japan and Korea. How has Japan succeeded in creating good social behaviour? Why have they succeeded when China has failed, or should I say, not yet succeeded (if they are even trying in the first place)? I believe a big part of it lies in the education, although once again, there are many other factors, such as the social framework and the acceptance of bad behavior, or should I say, the lack of awareness of it. I am aware that this might start to sound like ‘the white man’s burden’ sort of thing, but for one, I am not white, and two, I believe the Chinese people themselves consider it as bad behaviour too, just that they put up with it and ignore it over time.

Did the revolutionary leader accidentally leave out this detail in their painful struggles for China? I know Sun Yatsen was all about how the people should be governed, and the freedom to vote for your own government. And when Mao came, he seemed to be more concerned about mobilizing the farmers and the workers, and distributing food and resources, and building the country up industrially. Then when Deng Xiaoping came, he seemed only concerned to let China became rich and powerful, increasing the opportunities in financial growth of the whole nation. Every step was essential, and you needed them to get to the next stage of progress. But what of the country culturally and socially? I believe Lu Xun was one of the few that actually cared about the country’s moral illness, which was why he put down his scalpel and took up his pen to try to cure it. But was it enough?

It is more than obvious that the next stage of Chinese revolution, if you want to call it a revolution to continue the pattern over the past century, would be a cultural one. Not like Mao’s cultural revolution, which I’d rather call a cultural destruction. But a revolution that would awake the Chinese people’s hearts and minds and make them realize what they have been missing all those years, and how they have been living blindly without any sense of social etiquette. That would be a true revolution, and a good one without causing the deaths of any, but a cultural renaissance, as Daniel likes to put it, where the arts would flourish and the people respected by foreigners as the upholders of the origin of civility.

Even when you look at Chinese calligraphy, it attempts to teach one how to live a proper and balanced life of good morals and social etiquette by walking up straight and not with a slanted back, which is translated through writing upright and visually balanced characters. This is embedded within Chinese writing and calligraphy although I’m not sure how much of that is still taught and believed in schools today.