Neo-Confucianism continues to show up in unexpected places. Most recently, cadres are told that “going home for dinner is honorable.” Of note, with the window and the parked car outside the window, “home” suddenly seems uncannily US suburban. I know, inquiring minds continue to wonder: just how “American” is the Chinese Dream?
Although China has been strengthening its anti-terrorism campaign over the past year or so, the Shenzhen anti-terrorism campaign is recent. Ideologically, the campaign promotes a Neo-Confucian message of family first–a value that terrorists are purported not to share. Unfortunately, terrorists are more or less consistently represented as Muslim. In fact, the stereotypes used in the campaign are familiar from conversations I’ve had with friends over the past decade, when I have been told that Islam is not a religion but a terrorist organization. More alarmingly, as in the United States, Chinese anti-terrorism feeds anti Muslim sentiments and justifies increasing militarization of public life. Sigh.
Of note: the May 22, 2014 attack (in which men in ski masks jumped out of two vans to attack people in Urumqi) has become the stereotype of terrorist attack in the campaign. The following Inside Story by Aljazeera attempts to understand the increasingly violent situation.
The difference between 礼貌 and 文明 matters because I bumped into a group in the Shekou Sihai park. They were members of 荣格 (RGLove). the charitable fund of the Shenzhen based high-tech company, 荣格科技集团. RGLove had brought in people from all over the country to explore and develop their civilization levels through Confucian studies. The goal, of course, is to intervene in the world by expressing correct relationships, that of course included 礼 which maybe 礼貌, but I’m not for sure. Meanwhile, inquiring minds want to know: just what does all this mean? Continue reading
Shenzhen parents worry about education — it’s quality, content, methods, and test results. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent unwilling to spend several hours discussing their child’s education, while activists raise social problems in terms of education.
I have recently received a revisinist version of the childhood classic, “Kong Rong Shares a Pear“. The rewrite is fun and illustrates one of the ways in which the United States (as a symbol) has been put to work in contemporary Chinese debates about the contradiction between a society that values an integrated whole at the expense of individual desire and a society that values individual desire at the expense of social integration.
Kong Rong Shares a Pear
For thousands of years, the moral tale of “Kong Rong Shares His Pear” has been told, becoming the standard for parents who want to teach their children manners. But how do American kids think about this story? Below is a transcript from a class of American students who are studying Chinese. The students range from 8-12 years old.
Teacher: When he was young, Kong Rong was an exceptionally bright student. When he was four, he could already recite many poems. He was polite and courteous. One day, his father’s friend brought a box of pears to the family. His father asked Kong Rong to share the pears with his brothers. Kong Rong took the smallest pear for himself, and the shared the pears based on age rank, giving the largest pear to the oldest, the second largest pear to the second oldest and so on. As he distributed the pears he said, ” I’m the youngest, so I should eat the smallest pear.” His proud father heard him and asked, “But you’re older than your baby brother. Why didn’t you give him the smallest pear?” Kong Rong said, “I am older than him, so I should give it to him.”
What do you think of this story?
Student: Why did the father’s friend give the Kong family pears?
Teacher: they were a gift.
Student: If it was a gift, then all the pears would be good. Why were there obviously big pears and small pears? Why weren’t they all the same size?
Student: Now, if there were big pears and little pears, why did the father put all that responsibility on a four year old’s shoulders? What would have happened if Kong Rong had made a mistake? Would the father have taken back the pears and distributed them correctly?
Student: Why did everyone have to eat a pear? Couldn’t alone leave the pears and let those who wanted a pear choose for themselves?
Teacher: That might have been unfair.
Student: But Kong Rong didn’t necessarily distribute the pears in a just manner. All the brothers had to accept whatever pear Kong Rong decided to give them. Their right to choose was violated. The brother who received the largest pear might have been the brother who hated pears.
Teacher: That’s correct. This story is based on the premise that everyone likes pears.
Student: Why did Kong Rong give pears to the oldest first? If he was going to use age rank, why not start with the youngest?
Teacher: He was being polite.
Student: But after he took the smallest for himself, he didn’t give anyone else a chance to be polite. Why didn’t he give anyone else a opportunity to share pears?
Teacher: So what do you think about Kong Rong?
Student: I don’t like him. What he did wasn’t fair to others, taking away their right to choose and their chance to be polite. Kong Rong isn’t sincere.
Student: This matter is internally contradictory. What if Kong Rong didn’t like pears, so he chose the smallest for himself? Nevertheless, his behavior earned praise? This is hypocritical. On the other hand, if he really liked pears, he should have said so. Otherwise, giving the biggest pears away wouldn’t have made him happy. When we like something we should bravely say so.
I also didn’t like his father.
Teacher: Why not?
Student: He didn’t take responsibility and asked a four year old to do something he couldn’t do. Also, he had no standards, he praised Kong Rong for being polite, but we’ve already seen that Kong Rong was disinterested in sharing the pears.
Student: This was a bad story. It encourages subjective standards and praises one for violating democratic rights. This kind of twisted logic story praises a child for developing unhealthy psychology.
Teacher: So what do you think Kong Rong should have done?
Student: Put the pears on the table and let people who wanted to eat pears take what they wanted.
Postscript: From the perspective of an American student, a Confucian classic becomes a tale of twisted psychological motivations. Where do you think the problem lies?
In Xintang, Baishizhou, this 60-year old gentleman has been protesting for a month. His demand? He wants the right to depend on his son for his old age care.
In Shenzhen, parents can transfer their hukou from hometowns to the SEZ based on their children’s hukou status. Once they have this hukou, they can take advantage of subsidized medical care from their 65th birthday. The problem? This gentleman’s son does not have a Shenzhen hukou. In addition, he does not own a house and is facing eviction upon the completion of negotiations to raze Baishizhou (admittedly at least two or three years in the future). At such time, he will loose his shop, and without equity in the building, will not receive compensation. So he is facing a perilous retirement.
The wording of the protest is of interest. 投靠 (tóu kào) literally means “throw oneself to depend upon”. It can also be translated as “become a retainer of”. Within the rhetoric of this protest, this gentleman is demanding the right to become his son’s retainer.
The form of his demand is similarly coached in feudal language; indeed his banners function as petitions to leaders rather than as social demands. He asks Xi Jinping, for example, if the General Secretary realizes that although in Beijing old people have welfare, the old people in Shenzhen have a different situation. He then asks Xi Jinping to visit Shenzhen and see the situation. Likewise, he asks Shenzhen Secretary Wang Rong and Shenzhen Mayor Xu Qin where the Communist Party is.
The moral economy of noblesse oblige gives these questions their oppositional force. The question put to Xi Jinping implies that if the General Secretary understood the true situation in Shenzhen, he would rectify it. The question put to Wang Rong is even more pointed: has the Communist Party abandoned its responsibility to take care of the people?
In order to make this moral claim, the gentleman also demonstrates that he has upheld his end of the moral contract between government and the future. First, he followed the one child policy and only gave birth to a son. Second, he came to Shenzhen twenty-three years ago to make a better life for himself and his family. During that time, his son was back in his hometown to go to school. Third, he never broke any other laws.
Shenzhen has been at the forefront of reforming its pension system. In practice, this has been the commodification of services. For those with Shenzhen hukou, there are still some benefits. However, as this gentleman reminds us, in the present real security comes through family ties and home ownership.
Yesterday on weixin, members of one of my livelier circles debated whether or not Christmas should be translated as “圣诞节 (shèng dàn jié )” or “耶诞节 (yē dàn jié )”. At stake in the debate is whether or not “Holy Birth Festival” — a literal translation of 圣诞节 — should refer to Jesus or to Confucius.
In Mandarin, 圣 (shèng) functions as both an adjective “holy” and also a noun “sage”. In contrast, 耶 (yē ) is a phonetic marker, appearing in Chinese expressions for Jesus (耶稣), Jehovah (耶和华), and the Book of Jeremiah (耶利米书). 耶 also appears in the transliterations of Yale, Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Lamentations. Advocates for putting the “耶稣” back in the translation for “Christmas” had two culturally relevent points. (1) historically, Chinese have used the character 耶 to designate words and institutions from the Judeo-Christian tradition; and (2) the Chinese sage was and remains Confucius. Consequently, they believe that the expression “holy birth festival”, which also means “the Sage’s birth festival” should designate Confucius’ birthday, September 28. The Center may or may not agree with those in the cultural right, after all they recently decided to move Teacher’s Festival from September 10 to September 28 in order to honor China’s original teacher.
The 圣 or 耶 debate is a contemporary example of intellectuals attempting to rectify names (正名), a quintessentially Confucian endeavor. Confucius explained that when we clearly perceive reality we call things by their proper names. It followed that by misusing names, we muddy the perceptual waters and make it difficult for people to understand reality. Importantly, for Confucius, moral relations infused reality. Consequently, to rectify names was in fact an effort to bring the world into harmony through proscribed relations. For the Confucians there was a great deal at stake in the rectification of names — moral certainty, harmonious society and the proper administration of punishments, i.e good government. Nevertheless, the difficulty of rectifying names, even translated names and even when one holds the cultural linguistic high ground, is that language does in fact spin out of control because each of us lives and uses and experiences words and names in divergent contexts and for different purposes.
So what’s at stake in the contemporary 圣 / 耶 debates?
In Shenzhen, Christmas is an international holiday, celebrated by non-Christians. Lovers and friends exchange gifts and eat together. The shopping malls offer all sorts of discounts and there is a general sense of happy consumption without the angst of family reunions. In fact, a Shenzhen Christmas has a particular demographic — high school and college students, as well as young white-collar workers. They still go to school and must go to work, but they use the day to celebrate themselves and their non-familial relationships. In other words, Christmas and its commodification have been appropriated to celebrate young modernity.
In contrast, the older generation emphasized the winter solstice (冬至), which was marked this past Sunday with sweet rice ball soup and noodles. In the north, they ate dumplings. The solstice was not marked by the level of Christmas consumption. Certainly, the Santa Clauses, tinsel and trees, candles and presents had nothing to do with the actual gatherings that took place around family tables.
Thought du jour: At stake in the 圣 / 耶 debate may be the extent to which commodity and youth cultures overlap in these globalizing times. Indeed, the recognizable Christmas traditions — gifts and trees and cookies and candles — didn’t actually come from the early Church, which maybe why they have so happily adopted in Shenzhen.
On November 29, 2012, in one of his first appearances as the General Party Secretary of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping defined “China’s Dream”, saying, “everyone is debating what China’s Dream is. I think that since the modern era, the greatest dream of the Chinese nation has been the renaissance of the Chinese people (大家都在讨论中国梦。我认为，实现中华民族伟大复兴，就是中华民族以来最伟大的梦想。).”
In support of Xi Jinping’s exhortation, the walls surrounding Shenzhen’s construction sites have been covered in posters that define this dream in terms of Chinese tradition. Visually, this is achieved through folk paintings of children learning to use a calligraphy brush or symbols of new year’s prosperity. However, given that folk nationalism was such an important part of early Maoism, these posters also reference the joys of labor and strengthening the country.
Shenzhen’s take on the campaign interests me because the posters reference Maoism indirectly through a visual rhetoric that reiterates 1950s folk nationalism. Traditional activities and visual styles further evoke a nostalgia for the good old days. Moreover, these posters explicitly celebrate Confucianism. All this to say, the current Shenzhen interpretation of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream takes the form of nostalgia for a past that ever happened creates a Chinese identity that is explicitly cultural, rather that political.
I’m not sure if Shenzhen’s take on China’s Dream is the same as in other cities. A quick google of 中国梦, for example, brings up illustrations that are more scientific and futuristic that these colorful posters. Thus, there is something determinedly anti-socialist realism in the Shenzhen campaign, which might lead us to think that Shenzhen’s leaders are ambivalent about the Party. Certainly, it leaves me wondering just how far the current regime will distance itself from its former incarnations in order to maintain hegemony without sharing power.
Examples of these posters, below: