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The Politics of Economics and Chinese Culture

December 10, 2008

It is nice to have intelligent comments left on a blog. According to my stats in hundreds of readers per day I am getting very few comments. This is probably a good thing as I briefly kept a blog a couple of years ago that was taken over by pro falungong types leaving non-sensical anti-China rubbish and I will not stand for that.

Having said that, however, I do very much welcome comments and questions.

I write this article in response to Menin, who seems like an intelligent and reasonable person, perhaps struggling to come to terms with modern China like so many people. I have spent the last 12 years in and out of China (mostly in) and the pace of change never ceases to amaze me. My feeling is that it must be quite hard to understand if you are stuck right in it. It is certainly hard enough to fathom as a relatively impartial outside observer.

Menin says that he/she (sorry not sure which) worries that the increased trade with the west will lead to a decrease in Chinese values, Chinese culture and rampant consumerism. I am not sure how long it has been since you were last in China but I can tell you that your fears are valid, if a little late. China is, without doubt the most money obsessed, consumer driven, materialistic place I have ever been in the world.

I make absolutely no value judgements about what I say above, I just state the facts as I see them and the urban Chinese of today really really like to earn and spend their money.

The current situation in China is what happens when a people rises out of poverty at such a fast rate. Some get rich first, they wish to show off their wealth, others work to become rich. In theory, at least, you get trickle down economics where the wealth is slowly spread throughout society and consumer spending drives economic growth. All good things for alleviation of poverty.

That is not to say that all Chinese people are money stupid. China has a household savings ratio of approximately 40% which is, I believe, the highest in the world. People save for a rainy day and they understand that the state will not always bail them out if things go wrong (this is a good thing cf the idiotic situation now in the States).

Lack of available consumer credit also helps greatly to keep normal people from going under- things are now changing with the availability of credit cards but for the most part banks are unwilling to lend the average man on the street easy credit in the same way as in Britain or the States.

However, consumerism is rampant. People aspire to luxury goods in China in a way that just doesn’t happen in the West. Wealth is worn on the body and showing ‘face’ all important.

You can never really tell the wealth of an aussie by looking at them. The guy sitting next to you in a cafe dressed in bordies and thongs, no watch and driving a ford is just as likely to own a three million dollar boat or a couple of nice holiday homes. The space, easy access to water and lack of people here in Australia has made the culture fundamentally different to that of China or the UK, for example.

I would be interested to know the average net worth of Rolex watch owners in China vs the UK vs Australia. My guess is that in the UK a Rolex is something you buy with a bonus or when you really feel like splashing out on something because you need little else. In China, it is the first sign that you are starting to make money. A declaration to the world that you ‘have arrived.’ In Australia Rolex sales are tiny, people usually only buy one if they are really into watches. To own an expensive watch but not a boat might be seen as a little odd.

To say that consumerism is a Western concept is entirely wrong in my opinion. It is human nature to consume, just read Tang Chinese texts and people were amassing wealth then, just like now.

To say that reform and opening up have damaged Chinese culture is partly right but the one certainty in economics is that in the real world, nothing happens in a vacuum.

It is a cast iron fact that Chinese people today have little understanding of Classical Chinese culture. You will have to travel a long way to find someone who has read the Dream of Red Mansions in the original classical Chinese let alone someone who has a real understanding of Confucian, Mencian, Legalist texts or has even read them.

Most people know a few set expressions, a few basic stories but that is about it. There are a couple of TV shows based on the great classics but the less said about this the better.

Knowledge of traditional Chinese martial arts is also massively on the decline, Chinese teenagers want to play basketball, not learn Kung Fu or Qigong. I studied Yongchun Quan for many years before moving to China, always having access to good teachers in the UK. On arrival in China I found it very hard to find a teacher and ended up falling out of practise.

Nobody except for the Chinese decided to make Yao Ming a national icon- it follows on that children will want to emulate him.

It was not foreigners who decided to simplify the written language to make it easier to learn but in turn, making it more difficult to read ancient texts.

It was not foreign influence that caused the Chinese classics to be dropped from the school curriculum. Foreigners did not decide during the cultural revolution that anyone even owning classical texts should be punished and considered anti-revolutionary.

Again, I mean NO disrespect or criticism. Is it not the case in the UK also that children no longer learn Latin or Greek the way I did at school?

Perhaps it is the way of the modern world that we are all doomed to use text speak from now on. If LOL means laugh out loud perhaps I can suggest OMDB for ‘over my dead body’.

Menin, as someone who is deeply passionate about Chinese culture and who devoted many years to the study of Classical Chinese (70% of my finals papers were on a dead language that few can read anymore) I humbly suggest to you that it is not trade, business or reform and opening up that has caused the lack of interest in traditional Chinese culture but the force of the last 200 years of Chinese history.

Certainly, some of those 200 years have seen interference and influence from foreign states but the absolute nadir for interest in traditional China came at the period when China was shut away and isolated from the rest of the world.

When enough people have been brought out of poverty and have realised that whilst money may provide security and therefore happiness. Possessions for the sake of owning owning only brings the hollow desire for more.

When everyone has enough to eat, people will spend the money to collect and preserve great works of art.

When people realise that basketball is incredibly boring they may well start to learn Qingong again.

When people tire of reading the translated version of Covey’s 7 Effective Habits for Losers who Dream of Being Effective they’ll realise that the Dream of Red Mansions is one of the most entertaining books ever written.

It may take some time but trust in the innate goodness of Chinese culture and do not lightly blame foreigners for all bad influences.

It is nice to blame others for things, I would like to blame that scumbag Blair and nu-labour for killing Latin in British schools but sadly I don’t think it is as simple as that. He didn’t invent the TV or the internet and they are also factors.

I am going out on a limb here but foreign interest in what made China great may well actually be the catalyst for a renaissance in Chinese culture.

Is it not being now in the States that makes you, Menin so much more interested in your own roots?

You seem to fear that the exposure to western values will kill Chinese values. What makes you think Chinese values are weaker?

Perhaps it is China that will influence the west- perhaps as China expands and gains more influence it is us that will change. China has changed my world view forever- I believe that it will also change the views of other westerners.

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5 comments

  1. You make several good points. I guess it’s not that I feel Chinese values are weaker or more prone to falling apart at the first sign of change. It’s something a bit deeper than that.

    Chinese, just like everyone else, are people first and foremost. They have the same emotions, weaknesses, and flaws just like anyone else. And due to that, they’re also prone to falling prey to human follies just like anyone else if the right moral guidelines are not in place. The Islamic world and Muslims living in the West are also struggling with issues like this to perhaps an even greater degree than Chinese both domestic and overseas. And seeing as you’re from Britain, maybe you know more about it than I do. I’ve heard news and stories of Pakistani’s in Britain having issues with assimilation and whatnot.

    In the end, one should never underestimate the power of human folly(for any race of people) or the media. The ability of a corporation like MTV to influence an entire generation of youth is something that’s sure to inspire awe. But at the same time, it’s a terrifying sight knowing they have this much power over the hearts and minds of people. Will such influences from trade with foreign countries, corporations, business, etc. be a positive or negative force in China for the long run? I can’t say I have the answer to that, but I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

    Sincere regards,
    Menin


  2. I don’t think that it is just Chinese and Muslims who are struggling to come to terms with MTV and similar aspects of Western culture. I am wondering how to keep my daughter away from MTV and text speak as well. English may be the language of MTV but it is also the language of Shakespeare and Orwell. Where you get Brittany spears you also find Bach, Mozart, Handel, Jazz and Blues. Not all western culture is bad or polluting.

    My belief and hope is that smart people of all cultures will find their level no matter what is thrown at them.


  3. Hey Chris, been checking out your blog and stuff, and I’ll just note that anyone who has persevered in learning Chinese for a long time, and has even developed a high level of proficiency in the language, I have some automatic respect for. I’ve only been studying for a year, mostly by myself, so I feel like I have a bit of insight into the situation. It’s kind of crazy. Well done in that regard.

    The other thing was, despite noticing the Falun Gong comment, or perhaps because of it, I thought to give you a couple of links. I’ve practiced Falun Gong for close to four years and I’m not in any way anti-China. I’m anti the Chinese Communist Party, though. A recent article in the Weekly Standard, for example, may give some indication as to why: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/824qbcjr.asp

    There’s also another one: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/014/986himak.asp — finally, I thought to send you a video of a recent speech that I made while in Taiwan. I got third place in the national foreigners-speak-Chinese-day, and you might think it fun to take a look at. I’m Australian, by the way; a lowly arts graduate from ANU. I decided to take six months off to come to Taiwan to study Chinese. I have been procrastinating for the last half hour, and it was fun to browse your blog, so I will bookmark it.

    I hope you can spare a bit of time to read those articles above, I can assure you that it will be time well spent.

    Best,

    Matt.


  4. Oh I forgot the link to the speech. Here: http://www.im.tv/vlog/Personal/803814/5291140

    sorry if three links is too much. You know, I always resist the urge to post a dozen or more.

    Matt.


  5. I see. I guess I should have been a bit more in-depth when I expressed fears that Chinese culture would be damaged by Western culture. The Western culture I speak of is a large majority of modern-day Western culture. The culture of Britney Spears, Coca Cola, MTV, McDonalds, KFC, rap music, and mindless new age self-help books written by scam artists who know how to capitalize on low self-esteem. The works of Bach, Mozart, CS Lewis, Tolkien, Van Gogh, etc. are indeed great cultural achievements of the West in the past. The culture of the West today is very different from that of the past. And in my view, some aspects of modern day Western culture(not necessarily all) could be potentially damaging to Chinese society.

    In many ways I’m even a lot more socially traditional than the Communist Party itself(I hate using the word “conservative” because of all these clowns in the US known as Republicans and American conservatives).

    All the best
    Menin



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