I initially came to China for all the typical clichéd reasons; escaping shameless consumerism, an unwillingness to become paranoid over social status, and in an attempt to embrace an Eastern culture that would offer me something refreshing. To whether my aims have been achieved I’m not wholly sure.I definitely have been offered something refreshing, and my earnings compared to the prices of commodities allows me to live in a kingly fashion (hence avoiding status anxiety), however, I certainly haven’t escaped unapologetic consumerism, and my experience with Eastern traditions and history has not been as head-on as I would have hoped.
I came over to China in the full-knowledge that I would have no knowledge for the first few months. My Mandarin was on a par with the linguistic ability of an infant Neanderthal; and my understandingof Chinese history and culture was about as insightful as a panel show hosted by a cackle of fortune-tellers. However, once I had settled I began to plummet into the vast history of China, while also picking up survival Mandarin without too much arduous work. The first thing that struck me as peculiar in regard to China is the subtlety to which it reveres its historical structures: the emphasis on the new is more overt than its glorification of its ancient past. However in the background lurks this culture of antiquity – tai chi in the park, group singing sessions, public aerobics, among many other communal recreational activities that suggest towards something other than the stereotyped ‘bread chaser’ mentality-something that constantly leaks out of China’s pores, a scent of its deep embedded structures: family, socialising, etiquette. In my opinion, it starts with Confucius.
He was born in 551 BC in the Shandong province, and spent a good majority of his life travelling the provinces, aiding provincial governments, and spreading his teachings. His famous work, named the Analects,consists of numerous sayings and snippets of philosophy that are meant to govern how the moral man should live his life and conduct his affairs. It is of course a seminal work, and I would advise anyone to familiarise themselves with it, if not only for the influence it has had on Chinese culture and identity. I do find it strange however that the teachings of Confucius have remained so firm, regardless of certain twentieth century attitudes towardsthem, as the teachings themselves seem to all boil down to etiquette (‘without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?’) andapatriarchal order of social positioning (‘the strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home’). Although he was interested in, he mostly refuted any mystical possibilities and he was never really concerned with anything beyond the material realm – so it is evident to see his appeal, a well-grounded and pragmatic philosopher, who values social pleasantries and well established harmonic order. Perhaps Confucius’ long lasting reign in China -his permanence on a par if not exceeding Plato – is on the basis that he is extremely compatible with many other modes of thought and systems?
Now the other long lasting strand of thought that has chimed its bell throughout Chinese history is that of Buddhism, arguably it landed in China around 200BC – although falling in and out of fashion since then, its aesthetical, political and artistic impact is irrefutable. In this sense it shares a similar history to Confucianism, as both have been in and out of favour with the dynasties, nevertheless, after the Cultural Revolution, whereby both were rejected in favour of the Great Leap Forward, theysimultaneously shared a common revival withinChinese culture and thought, which still goes on today. Young schools of Buddhists can be seen making their usual rounds; and in regards to Confucius, after a child decided to throw a book at my head in the classroom, his father insisted on giving me The Analects as I way to remind both me and his son that moral behaviour is of the primary importance.But to what greater effect will this have on modern China? Well, architecturally, quite a large on: rather than erecting wooden temples – short sighted to say the least – stone ones will be built in order to ensure their permanence. Culturally, it will aid China in the same way Christendom does for the West: offering a sense of identity and a way to understand history and the world order. In saying this, Buddhism still feels like any other institutionalized religion here; although it has definitely been in bed with China much longer than any other has – the Jesuits made a good attempt but failed -yet as the monks go round begging for their donations, it is clear that there is little sympathy to be found, and the divide between China and Buddhism is more apparent than the architecture suggests.Buddhism has not influenced internal and foreign policy the same way Christianity has for the West, because China refuses to mix its toast with its cereal. So we have in China a divide that isn’t apparent in the West – a separation of religion and state – which has been said to be of the paramount importance. Well the bloody shores of Europe have not made such distinction,our juridical and political institutions are smothered in Christian morality, nonetheless, in China – the godless land – they’ve done well to not pray on their doorstep.