Capitalist, Romantic and Carefree are seldom words you would attribute to China and its citizens today. A central authoritarian government dictates what corporations and individuals can or cannot in absolute minutiae in a market economy. Sex is either used as a currency, a favor, or a weapon for political and financial purpose. Finally, there is no privacy or personal space to speak of in Chinese society – The surveillance state captures information about every citizen on social media and imposes Communist Party Secretaries in every private corporation, public university, elementary school, and residential street to make sure everyone adheres to the Chinese Communist Party’s guidelines.
If a modern Chinese individual tells you they are “traditionally Chinese”, chances are, they have no idea what that entails. They have, at best, a loose understanding of Chinese traditions, and are shockingly ignorant of the values and customs of the past. The reality is that China’s politics in the last 60 years have turned China into a cultural wasteland. Traditions and values of the past are reinterpreted with major deformations to suit a political doctrine and regurgitated to the masses ad nauseum until popular acceptance. People are led to believe that class struggle, xenophobia, and boorish social behavior are the norm and always was.
I’m not really here to criticize what is, but I do want to ask about what was.
So what were Traditional Chinese values? What if traditional Chinese values were shockingly similar to modern Conservativism? What if I told you that China is not really Chinese?
First, we must understand a little about traditional Chinese philosophies.
Daoism had a profound influence on Chinese values. While some call it a religion, it is most certainly a philosophy. While later iterations of Daoism added “deities” and figures of worship to anthropomorphize the religion, Daoism had no such practices in its traditional form.
Daosim’s traditional principles are best described as being in a state of naturalness. Those who adhere to the principles should be wholesome and genuine. They should not fall out of the symbiosis of nature and strive to be down-to-earth individuals. Adherents are further expected to mind their own lives, improve themselves by reflecting on past mistakes, and live a life of moderation and simplicity.
Today, Daoists believe in nature conservation (and not eco-activism), laissez-faire capitalism, and a low-key approach to relationships, romance, and life free from social constructs and opinions of others.
Confucianism was the primary competitor in ruling philosophy in Chinese history. Like Daoism, Confucianism didn’t worship any particular deities and was closer to a philosophy than a religion.
Confucianism holds that people who participated in an organized society had duties to perform. They should be governed by etiquette – A strong respect for parents, a sense of honor to one’s duties, and a desire for improving one’s community – rather than law and order. Confucianism relied on pervasive, innate and invisible ethics to guide Chinese society.
Today, a Confucian would advocate character education, strict adherence to social ethics based on respect and formalities, a strong pursuit for perfection in life, an undying sense of professionalism in all things one does and small governments formed in service of its people.
China promotes few of these values today.
Chinese people not only lack professionalism, but look down at those who do; Goods manufactured in China often contain stolen intellectual property and are seldom close to the quality of their originals.
Chinese sense of “honor” and “face” means denial of wrongdoings and barraging accusers with “what-about-ism”. They not only lack self-reflection, but outright lie to cover up mistakes and ignore responsible approaches to problem solving.
Chinese relationships and romance aren’t about the organic or natural development of respect or love between individuals. Instead, it’s a culture of transaction and alliance, where families grouped or banded together based on financial power and social influence.
What Modern China does possess are perversions of the traditional values and etiquettes. Communism took what it deemed as useful to its own agenda – Daoist principles of mans’ natural desire to be good and Confucian principles of social ethics – and weaponized them. The Chinese Communist Party named itself the force for good, and the sole arbiter of social etiquette. It was good to be loyal to the CCP, and people should respect it like they would their parents. Everything and everyone else not related to the CCP is wrong. What remains is a Chinese people who lack common sense, social respect, or communal benevolence.
Thankfully, traditional Chinese values are not lost and are preserved in more ways than one can imagine.
Taiwan and Japan
After being defeated by the Communists in China, the remnants of Chinese Nationalists established their government in Taiwan and remained there ever since. Today, Taiwan enjoys a vibrant capitalist democracy. Its people are kind, polite, and genuine with a strong respect for law and order. The society does not scrutinize individual choice, and relationships are not viewed as exchanges or transactions. In short, Taiwanese society represents the values and principles of what a Daoist China would have looked like – A blend of Chinese humility and modern Conservatism. These are the values that a Daoist would have been proud to have.
Japan is unique in that, while it was heavily influenced by Confucian principles, it blossomed into its own success story as a nation. As they perpetually battled the loss of landmass and limited resources, Japanese people united for a brighter future. Today, Japanese education focuses heavily on character education in early childhood. Society places a great deal of weight on social etiquette and common sense. Japanese craftsmanship and attention to detail in all things large and small are second-to-none, and their society is highly harmonic and courteous. Had China continued its path of Confucianism, Japan would have been the result of what China could have achieved.
Modern Chinese Value?
As Chinese-Canadian, I’m often asked questions about the Chinese Culture and its many characteristics and idiosyncrasies. In actuality, calling China Chinese is much like smacking a vodka label on a bottle of water – They certainly look the same, but have almost nothing in common.
Heck, even South Korea has more traditional Confucian principles than China does. Today, we enjoy pervasive South Korean cultural exports in Korean TV dramas and music. This is because South Korean values humanity and etiquette much like the rest of the world. There’s a reason Chinese TV shows and music seldom make a splash internationally – Its current culture has almost nothing in common with the rest of the world.
Communist China will spend the rest of its existence in isolation from the world while they indoctrinate their own citizens with utopian falsities. In the meantime, we should stop calling China “Chinese”.
A Chinese Daoist.