Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thoughts on China, Culture

I don't particularly like the whole topic of culture, as simply bringing up the topic almost immediately results in being sucked into the vortex of multiculturalism, identity politics, and cultural relativism, none of which do I subscribe to. Bringing it up will necessarily get me into a sticky situation, especially with respect to vocabulary and articulating thoughts in a way that is both honest and respectful, and at which I often fail. I am far more of an absolutist than most who enthusiastically partake of these discussions will accept, or often even respect, and I will not back away from the notion one culture may be objectively "superior" to another, with the caveat that such an evaluation is necessarily extremely complex, and quite possibly beyond the capacity of mere mortals with any degree of exactitude. Generally speaking, I prefer to deal in the more "concrete" abstract, the world of economic theory, than the far more personal world of the here and now, where emotions and agendas can often cloud our way of thinking. But the stark differences between what we see in one place versus another, as well as similarities we might not have expected, can often be quite revealing, and it really is true that having participated intimately in another culture will open your eyes in a way you can't imagine until you have done it. It is like turning up the contrast dial on your brain. It brings all sorts of details and insights into focus that you never would have noticed otherwise, and I must say that it is now a major, major, influence in the way I understand economic and historical cause-and-effect. We like to think of ourselves as super-rational robots, able to objectively see whatever passes before our eyes and able to understand anything if we apply ourselves and it is explained well enough. But this is simply not true. We are limited creatures. Even if we could understand it all, and were not limited by intelligence, we would still be limited by time, memory and the sheer vastness of what there is to know. We cannot and will not understand everything, and on top of this, we are inescapably evil. Our minds will refuse to understand many important lessons. This is why the "Man as God" complex is so incredibly wrong and dangerous. We desperately need our religions, cultures and rules to keep us out of trouble, accepting on faith the wisdom of those who have come before us to know things that would take a lifetime for us to discover on our own. We also cannot grasp many things on the basis of simple explanation. Sometimes we just have to see and experience to believe. Experience is as good or better a learning tool as any other, so one would be remiss to pass over such a powerful opportunity to on the simple basis of discomfort. And I refuse to abandon such a rich source of insight or deny what it may offer to others for the sheer difficulty of articulation. It is therefore highly worthwhile in my opinion, to attempt the following discussion, despite the risks. So, to proceed... Some Observations China is difficult to describe to someone who has never been. Of course, it works both ways. My wife found many situations here in the US to be unbelievably strange when she encounters them, and she finds it quite difficult to explain them to her folks back home. One of the biggest shockers to Westerners as they first exit the airport and enter Chinese streets is the traffic situation. Normally, I am pretty much limited to prose in conveying my ideas, but in this case videos abound and convey the experience quite well, so I will readily relinquish the keyboard and allow a few to speak for themselves: Another: Lest you think this is all fun and games, it can have deadly consequences: A not very funny statistic:
With some 2% of the world’s cars, China has 15% of the world’s road fatalities.
Employing my pathetic math skills, that sounds to me like "Chinese-style driving" is roughly 7.5 times as likely to get you killed as the global average. Which is a staggering thing when one considers that they are competing with the Indians: Most people expect overcrowding, but few expect this, and having been to Mexico as well, I can report that things are much the same there, though possibly a little less chaotic. I don't recall seeing cars cruising down sidewalks to avoid traffic there or using the left hand side of the road almost interchangeably with the right, at least. But suffice it to say, for an American, simply walking down the street in these places can be a challenge. One absolutely has to be alert and focused at all times or he will wind up roadkill. I do not mean to make a big deal out of what is, really, a trivial observation that occurs to anybody who has been to these places, only to point it out in light of other observations. Without drawing any conclusions from what we see here, but keeping it in mind, consider some of the more "perplexing" observations my wife encountered here in the US. The first "bizarre" thing she encountered was our tendency to leave pens lying around, sometimes attached to chains or strings but sometimes not, in places like banks and at church where people might commonly need to do some writing. This is to say nothing of the hymnals and Bibles in pew racks, and the deposit slips and envelopes at the bank, for anyone to use. Such an observation flabbergasted her, but seems mundane to us. But to her, this seemed like an incredibly stupid and naive way to do things. What she could not comprehend was how in the blazes those things managed to stay put. Week after week, the same Bibles were there in the pews. You could even mark them to see that they were the same books. Simply amazing. But not to us. Another bizarre fact about Americans: if you put out a bunch of pens or samples for people to take free of charge, for advertising or the like, people will actually only take one of them and leave the rest, even without being watched. Some people don't even take one! It was bizarre to her that nobody simply walked up and took all of them at once. After all, one could. (This did actually happen a few times in graduate school, as I remember. Nobody could figure out what was going on at the time, though now it is obvious to me.) Return policies at department stores, and even grocery stores for consumable goods, credit cards that let you purchase and pay later, and a host of other American practices were all strange and, in her initial estimation, incredibly stupid. In fact, if you go to China, you will generally not see smallish items lying around in public places. Restrooms are devoid of toilet paper and soap, and are generally quite dirty. Many tourists erroneously take this to mean that, generally, cleanliness is not a high priority in this culture. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The dwellings I visited were all quite clean, some to the point of being immaculately so, and I would have to confess that pretty much every home I visited was cleaner than my own here in the US. Further, it did not take long to discover that they actually considered that I was dirty! Why? They have an elaborate system of cleanliness habits, which I was violating on a regular basis. (It occurs to me that sometime I should write a post on Chinese table manners. It could actually prove quite useful for visitors to the country. Perhaps for another day.) Again, concerning these observations, file them away for later... I could go on and on with similar observations, but I think that will suffice. I will now proceed to "cultural analysis." First, I will state the conclusion outright, then give a sketch at how I believe the Chinese worldview arrived at this point, as it illuminates a lot of the behaviors described above. Again, all of this is simply my opinion. Voluntary Restraint Eventually, through many discussions of our various observations of the divergences we had observed, my wife and I arrived at the main conclusion: Americans tend to allow rules and codes of conduct to constrain their behavior much more so than the Chinese. I think in the specific case we were discussing, my wife concluded that America was wealthier than China not because it was free, for in a great many ways it very much is not, but because Americans obey rules to a far greater degree. Chinese behavior tends to be more governed by aversion to public reprimand and punishment than concern with breaking rules, at least in my observation. Sadly, a post-doc friend of mine in a lab I had once worked for had tried to articulate exactly this idea to me long before, but I was not able to understand him. He was expressing frustration that Chinese society as a whole was unable to regulate ethical conduct, as evidenced by the frequency of such events as the adultering of baby formula with melamine. Americans could ban such acts, and erect regulatory agencies to see that they don't happen with a fair level of success. But somehow, effective dissuasion of such behavior evades Chinese society. He tried to explain to me what caused the differences between us, but I could not understand him. Eventually, I just had to figure it out for myself. See what I mean about sometimes you just have to experience things? The difference he had been trying to articulate was a very large difference in voluntary restraint, the ability and willingness to act in an ethical manner when doing so results in personal harm or the foregoing of personal gain. Voluntary restraint critical to the well-being of a society, as there is simply no way that even a small fraction of all behavior of all people may be governed all the time through force. Even uber-libertarians like Vox Day are well aware of just how important it is to obey rules on one's own volition, even the small ones. In fact, I suspect he would even argue that the personal codes and voluntary restraint were far more important than adhering to written law period. So in some respects, it seems that voluntary restraint leaves even rule of law in the dust! The lesser the degree of voluntary restraint, the greater time and resources a society will devote to ensuring individual safety in person and property, and the less effort and fewer risks will be devoted to improving one's personal situation, as whatever is gained will be subject to a higher risk of loss. Note that this conclusion should ABSOLUTELY NOT be construed to mean that Chinese culture or all Chinese individuals are somehow deliberately, knowingly, and willfully degenerate. I am quite certain that both our populations span the entire gamut of scumbag to saint. The point is that, on the whole, this very different approach to the regulation of personal conduct has a profound impact on social outcomes, as it skews behavior regardless of one's personal ethical beliefs and commitment to ethical behavior. A discussion of how the Chinese worldview differs from the West and leads to this outcome is highly illuminating, particularly in that regard. Despair For anyone interested in this topic, I highly, highly recommend watching the movie To Live. If you are an American, you probably won't like it; see it anyway. The story basically covers the sorrows and travails of a family living through WWII, the Chinese Civil War, and the Cultural revolution. The main thing to take away from seeing it is the light it tries to portray the family in. Pathetic, helpless, and hopeless, the family simply does its best to survive. Not once does any character take any initiative for the righting of wrongs or the betterment of his situation, particularly the father, who is a compulsive gambler and a drunk, at least at the beginning of the movie. You might think that the despairing mood is just a result of the subject matter of this particular movie. But watch any Chinese movie and you will see virtually the same message of general hopelessness being driven home. I have yet to see a single Chinese movie with anything approaching the standard conflict resolution and happy ending so typical of the American genre. Most of the time, the evil strong man kills all his rivals and everybody dies. At best, there is an element of a character being able to find some tiny nook or cranny of a dark and evil world to escape the worst of it and find some tiny shred of peace. But never do the good-guys win and ride away into the sunset. That evil powers will eventually rule the day is taken to be inevitable. When I have had occasion to discuss this particular movie with native Chinese, they usually talk about how "true" and "honest" the movie is. Usually, reviews are good. But my reaction, and my reaction to virtually every Chinese movie I have ever seen, is one of disappointment and anger. I very much despise this barrage of hopelessness and despair, the message about life that it beats into the viewer's head, mainly because I know that these messages are untrue and I understand the consequences of accepting them, as we shall see. But the fact is that I think it speaks very accurately to the pervasive despair, hopelessness, and pessimism of the Chinese cultural mindset, which sets the stage for all that follows. Survival Because of the deep pessimism I have just described, there is something of an overriding preoccupation with "survival." One might argue that this is entirely warranted considering the recent history of that country. It is certainly understandable. However, in my experience it has been blown completely out of proportion to the point of becoming a pathological obsession. There is an overwhelming perception of life as a zero-sum game, which it is not, and a world of very scant resources, particularly opportunity. Also not true, but that is the perception. Play the game of mah jong, Chinese rules, and you will what I think is an illustration of this in action. Payouts to the winner depend on where the winning piece comes from. Everyone is trying to guess the winning piece and either avoid playing it himself or trick someone else into playing it. Near the end of the game, players are destroying their own hands and therefore their own chances of winning in a passive-aggressive type strategy to avoid the payout. But unlike poker, there is no exit to the game through folding! I have never experienced a Western card game with similar rules. The funny thing is, when I have played this game with other Westerners, they rarely seem to grasp the necessity of this strategy, though I admit that could be because they don't usually play long enough for it to become apparent. I myself understand it, but find myself unable to think in such a way as to be very competitive. I still want to play to win too badly and wind up making large payouts that wipe me out. Certainly nobody I know would be competitive with the players I have seen in China. It is a fun game, but it makes you wonder about the mentality of someone who would come up with such rules and how they understand the world to operate. The net result is that, scarce as opportunity is taken to be, and evil as the world is, each and every choice is perceived to be a matter of survival. As one might guess, the frequent invoking of "survival" tends to serve far too often as a justification of lowest common denominator behavior. Competition The perception of very limited opportunity, of belonging to an unfair, inescapable system that is evil to the core, and having so many others competing against you leads to the inescapable conclusion that in order to achieve anything approaching a decent life, one must be an absolutely ardent competitor in life's rat race. And, undoubtedly, it leads to more despair and frustration. The mindset of competition in China is unbelievably fierce. Of course, this is probably not news to most people. The sense of competitive struggle in Chinese society is legendary. But hopefully this discussion sheds some light on why it is so. I wish that I could recall all of the stories that my wife has told me of the sinister things done in the name of competition. I have heard a story of a girl poisoning her friend over a love rivalry. I have heard multiple stories of sabotage, including a stranger sabotaging another student's application to a top school. Even my own wife conducted her job search in absolute secrecy, fearing the spread of knowledge of open positions would hurt her own opportunities, despite the fact that these were casual conversations with people not even searching for jobs. Explain that such actions will have virtually no impact on the probability of their own acceptance or success given the sheer numbers of such applications, and you will be met with a blank stare. They know. It doesn't matter. Every little bit counts. Opportunity is limited. Every advantage is real. You do what you have to do. Again, I would imagine that some of these stories were in all likelihood false. But like the movies, whether or not they are true, they speak to the mindset of those who are apt to believe and repeat them. The sense of desperate competition also, in my opinion, helps explain another prevalent aspect of Chinese culture: obsession with perfection, or at least the absence of flaw, particularly with respect to one's person, abilities and behavior. There is a strong tendency for those with something to offer to demand nothing less than absolute perfection from applicants, and for competitors and compatriots alike to turn on one another at the first hint of deficiency. Like a school of piranhas, a single drop of blood in the water results in a feeding frenzy, as the fiercely competitive school devours one of its own. This, I think, is the source the fabled "Asian pride" and the practice of "saving face." I do not think it is really so much of an issue of pride as one of fear, particularly of this type of behavior. In such fiercely competitive society, there is a long line of applicants for every position, a long line of takers vying for every offer. The mark of a flaw is a mark of death. One is either perfect, or one is worthless. There is no room nor mercy shown for mistakes. At least, that is the perception. Calculated Oblivionism Thus the average Chinese finds himself trapped in a "moral vise" which he cannot escape. He understands and feels committed to his ethical codes, yet at the same time understands the world to be so highly competitive, so intolerant of the slightest fault, and so powerfully evil that he is forever a hair's breadth from undeserved ruin. At any moment, he may be destroyed by forces far outside of his control, let alone by the discovery of fault in him. The necessity of ethical breach is overwhelming, yet his conscience nags. The dual jaws of the moral vise threaten to break him. The result is the adoption of an outlook that I would call "calculated oblivionism." There is a deliberate effort to focus on one's own self and one's own needs and to ignore any externalities until the point that they physically intervene, much like the speeding automobiles in the videos at the beginning of this essay. It is not a question of how one would like to behave; hewing to rules and codes is simply unthinkable, a childish way of thinking about the world that most people learn to repress when they "grow up." Indeed, I have heard such documents as the Declaration of Independence criticized as childish. America is a young nation; mature civilizations recognize how naive such an outlook is. It doesn't matter whether or not such arguments are true. They are dismissed as immature and unworkable, as they obviously are. In my opinion, the way those folks are driving in the videos is exactly they way appear to be driving: oblivious to others and to codes of conduct on the road. Signal lights and driving conventions are simply shut out of mind, as are the movements of others unless they directly impinge upon your own movement. On top of that, it is perfectly fair game to use your own positioning to force others to allow you to get where you need to go. Unless the laws of physics or an officer of the law intervenes, (and who has time for that?) that is the end of the story. Likewise the other scenarios. To take simple-minded ethics more seriously than a theoretical, dreamy debate of utopianism is suicide. Remember: we are talking about survival here! This is the source of exculpation that calculated oblivionism provides. It is not that anyone desires to violate ethical principles, it is that doing so is predetermined. It is necessary for existence. It therefore is a ubiquitous and inescapable fact of life. This is why I said that one should not conclude that Chinese culture was willfully degenerate, despite the awful stories we hear. There is no perception of choice in the matter. It is perceived as an involuntary state of existence. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Unfortunately, it is not hard to imagine that such a mentality is a self-reinforcing system. Opportunity really is limited when resources are squandered in a corrupt and theft-ridden system. Perfection really is necessary when everyone accepts that it is, and cheating really is necessary to have a shot at a decent life when everyone else is doing it. Life itself is transformed from the potential for flowing abundance to a pit of despair. In my opinion, the greatest difference between China and the West is Christianity. Christianity provides the hope that is the "way out" of the despair-survival-competition-oblivion vortex. It provides the forward thinking and eternal reward of virtue that allows people to accept hardship in the here-and-now for the sake of ethics and future reward. Even those Westerners who have given up our ancient religion still share a lot of these outlooks, though to some extent I think they are operating on cultural inertia. I do believe that a complete death of Christianity would cause a severe collapse of our way of life, as its slow erosion over the 20th century demonstrated with its series of deadly wars, and the abandonment of our ancient ethics is now wreaking havoc on our financial systems. The reality is, we in the West are the strange ones. I did not discuss it much, but there are many commonalities between Chinese culture and others. In graduate school, I was surrounded by Indians, Chinese, Africans, etc. Invariably, they could relate to one another far better than they could relate to Americans. Our point of view makes us different, and it leads to the vastly different outcomes in our civilizations. I can completely understand the Chinese point of view, as well as the views of others, and completely understand how it appears utterly coherent and inescapable. And if anyone has ever been close to any number of Chinese, he will know how, despite this outlook and any present hardships, he will always find a warm and genuine smile of hapiness on the face of his friend. Of everything I know of Chinese culture, I find this the most redeeming characteristic. But how much sadder does it make the situation that the point of view is wrong! It is clearly refuted by the existence of societies of relative abundance. It is clearly refuted by the success of a different outlook on life. Success and happiness can be had in all the more abundance with a change of outlook. It is just too bad that is so hard to get across.


  1. OK, there, I've finally gone and done it.

    I put my thoughts out there in the best, most coherent fashion that I could, though undoubtedly they're not perfect. Another one is coming soon.

    Feel free to begin taking your swipes.

  2. Swipes? this is a very thoughtful, clearly written and yet also emotional essay. i agree with a lot of what you say here -- i have had many similar thoughts/experiences while in China. Give me some time to digest and come up with something interesting to respond with. I find I also am looking for the "redeeeming characteristics" eg a mah jiong session is not only an example of the desperate struggle for survival but also the community that binds desparing competing individuals together.