I am writing this at the end of my ninth visit to China in ten years. This is the result of what I have seen over that ten-year period and by the experiences I have had with dear friends who I cherish a great deal. It is a product that has been guided by my own thoughts as I have collected them, but there is information imbedded in this that comes from several books. The first of these was River Town by Peter Hessler. It overlaps with the time I spend a semester teaching in China and is remarkable and eerily similar to my experiences in so many ways. He provides a great contrast view of the damming of the Yangzte River.
I have been more recently been reading another book by Will Hutton entitled The Writing on the Wall. These have both clearly helped me shape more understanding but it is the things from this latter book that fit into the text I will share here. I owe the inspiration for this reflection to one person who has stimulated my thoughts in a rare way. This influence was not expected, but has been tremendous and been what has awakened me an urge to write another reflection. I did this when I return from that first trip to China in the summer of 1997. I have placed a title on this “alligators to worms” in a sense of the journey I have had since I was once called “eat and run” by some of my dear Chinese friends. I have learned to appreciate Chinese culture and the people I have as friends.
I have learned the importance of sitting and eating and listening and learning. Over the ten years I have truly learned a lot but find with each return to China I have more to learn. On this trip I ate both alligators and worms with true friends. I can't say I enjoyed this food experience very well, but I did enjoy the company very much. My Chinese friends have been my teachers one and all. The dearest of friends read a poem by Du Fu, in part, in my honor. I will end with that poem.
It is full of paradoxes that seem incongruent at times but always seem to blend into something that is uniquely Chinese. It is a world swirling in dynamics. It is a country with a rich history and with problems it shares with the world at large today. It is said that this may be the century of China and I have no doubt this century has started that way at least. Having been to cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, it is clear that western influences are found extensively.
From the presence of Wal-Marts and Starbuck's to MacDonald's and KFC, the nature of some of China is more like something else. Other parts of China are more traditional and far more Chinese. Some people like to observe Christmas or Valentine's Day but others are content celebrating Spring Festival, Qing Ming, Dragon Boat Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival.
One friend put it this way - China is a swirl of paradox. We have been learning about communism since the 1910s and still don't quite understand it. Yet that same person commented that it was unclear that China would follow a western way and be totally capitalistic either.
The world today has more people living in cities than in rural areas. However, China, like so much of the world, has historically been rural. In the 1780's, only about 6% of the Chinese population, then about 290 million people lived in cities. Since 1978, it is estimated that 150 million workers have moved to cities.
City population now is roughly 20% of the population. Today cities are places with high-rise cranes and it is so evident that urban life is now a theme. Nearly 70% of the products sold in Wal-Mart are made in China, and yet the benefit of products made in China to American consumers is estimated to be about 100 billion dollars. China's economy in 2006 was about 9 times what it was in 1978. During that same time frame some 400 million people were brought out of poverty. During that same time, the average per capita income rose by about six fold. The income in places like Shanghai and Guangdong Province has risen to a level comparable to developed countries.
When you look around, you are caught by a third world appearance yet China has a first-world infrastructure of ultramodern ports, highways, and container ships. Beneath this is a huge capacity to produce products. The production of goods in Guangdong Province is tremendous based on low cost labor. Between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, there is a mass of manufacturing taking place making this one of the richest areas in China. Yet the pollution and congestion of traffic reflect the strain of this growth. Shenzhen is a remarkable part of human history beginning as a relative small city in 1978 with a population in the neighborhood of 10 million today.
This is unparalleled growth in the world's history. In 1980 the share in trade in China's GDP (exports plus imports) was about 15 percent but in 2005 it exceeded 70 percent. Yet places such as ShenZhen illustrate the affects of change in many ways. To me, this is a city caught in a globalization process that is leading to greater affluence and all of the issues that stems from that. China on the whole is like that. All one needs to do is look at the mass advertisement found in Beijing to realize that most of the faces you see are “western” and not Chinese. For Chinese ShenZhen is an expensive place to shop but for people from Hong Kong it is cheaper and even a good place to live and commute back into Hong Kong to work.
ShenZhen is also a place of a marked contrast that needs to be considered. It is a place with wealth and with very poor. The gap of wealth and poverty is extreme in China. It is what drives so much concern and even within this city it is apparent to Chinese. The larger issue is the gap that exists between cities and rural areas in terms of wealth. Efforts to equalize the imbalance have been undertaken on a national level in the past year, but the nature of the divide is so great one has to wonder if it will really work.
There is clearly a middle class in China too. Yet how large and how stable this is a question that I have no insight into other than to know I have been within it. I have been to homes that reflect what we as Americans think of as middle class. Judging this as an outsider is difficult. One Chinese friend put it this way - how much does a waitress in America earn in contrast to one in China? In other words, how does less than $200 compare if that is what is earned in ShenZhen?
In 2003, China graduated about 700,000 scientists in contrast to only 60,000 in the United States that same year.
To generate $1 of GDP, China uses about three times the global average energy and about four times that of the United States and eight times that of Japan. There is an insatiable appetite for energy. There is an incredible surge in the number of automobiles. To own a bicycle is no longer the goal. Once I was told that to be “civilized according to Beijing standards” meant to have a colored television.
The object of your life today is to earn money to buy an apartment, condo, or even a home along with at least one car. There are two car families now. Parking is a nightmare at times, but it pales in contrast to the traffic of Beijing. One individual was celebrating his second child in a world of a “one child policy.” He said he paid a fine so he could have his second son. That was not a big deal in a world where money is available. Another was shaping her life with her husband with two apartments and something like four or five parking places for their two cars. I remember a night walking in ChongQing along the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) and being amazed at how many people were walking their dogs along the park that ran along the river.
I met former students who I had not seen for at least a year and a half or more. They all are working with husbands now, for the most part, and cars and apartments.
One has been to Paris, New York, and works for a leading Chinese clothes designer in a very prominent role for the company. I met graduates of a university working in business that produce a staggering amount of products from cookies and crackers measuring production in the millions of tons to Christmas decorations. In these individuals is the drive of China's move to be a better place. Yet, there were honest discussions about the problems facing China today as moves into the future. Concerns over the environment and the affects of globalization were all expressed over and over again.
It should strike we Americans as odd that China is now a country that considered whether English should be the second official language. We are hearing in our own country cries of some who want English as the sole official language or efforts to find something in the neighborhood of 12 to 14 million illegal aliens and send them out of our country.
To understand China you need to understand its history and sense of how it defines itself.
The ancient sense of “society” in China is based on the word Sheji. This is a word that takes one deep into understanding the agrarian base of China. She means land or earth god; and ji refers to millet. So this sense of society is based on the land and what it produces.
Nearly 2500 years ago there was a system of national granaries in China that were said to store a 6-month supply of food. Peasant families farmed the land as their ancestors did. They were there because of ancestral ties to the land. The imperial government held power by divine right of the “mandate of heaven” but it was the rights of people that came from their ancestors that was perhaps more significant in ancient times. It has been argued that Chinese up until the 1800s were as well fed or better fed than their counterparts in Europe. During the Tang and Ming periods, China was producing perhaps as much as twice the amount of food it needed for consumption. How that was distributed and made available to people is a matter of how one interprets history. In the early 1400s,
China sent out a fleet of 28,000 men under the control of ZhengHe. There was great power in China at the time. The Ming were building the Forbidden City and reconstructing the Great Wall. It was truly a moment when China was as great as it could be. It was to fade and China was to fall behind the west in many aspects and ultimately be controlled by foreign forces. Another of the major contrasts that one finds in exploring the nature of China is this paradox of having been so advanced and yet to find itself by 1949 in a place where it needed to catch up.
History is written by people who want to record what they want people to believe. To look at history is some times confusing because there are different accounts written for different purposes. Whether we look at the history surround Tibet or the cultural revolution, there are different versions. Chinese would tell me that the poet Du Fu wrote about hardships in the Tang Dynasty period and yet other history would tell us there was a surplus of food at the time. History as known by Chinese is not always what is shared by the western world and there in lies a huge paradox.
Even Chairman Mao is a paradox and is seen as good and bad or maybe mostly good and some bad. He is seen by different generations in different lights. For some he is a god-like protector much like GuangGong. Someone who led China to be what it is today. Yet some would see the hunger for power that Mao had in later years. They would see millions of Chinese in Tiananmen Square all with their little red books following blindly a leader who was consumed with being a cult figure. On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, China was faced with this paradox and found a middle road that would satisfy everyone.
China is a place where religion is present in many forms. There is a folk religion that informally is practices in homes, businesses or temples. It is a religion where a real person who lives nearly 2,000 years ago can become a god. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms produced a man called GuanYu who is now venerated for his loyalty and strong defense of the figure LiuBei as GuangGong - the red faced guy who protects businesses and homes far from where he lived as a real person. You have Buddhists, Moslems, and Christians. You have youth who turn to Christianity for answers to the stress of the life in modern China. You have youth who really don't accept any of these things and cope through reliance upon themselves.
China is a land where the economy is somewhat capitalism but it has its own stamp different from what we in the United States think of it. China is a communist state with an “authoritarian” rule to many who look at it from the exterior. Yet it is more socialistic with a mix of ideology from Marx and Lenin and Mao. It is a unique political system. It is shaped by the vast population of China and has a deep seed that takes you back at least 2,000 years to the Han dynasty. Yet, the roots of the synthesis shaped by the Han lie further back in time. The influences of Confucius, Laotsi, and Sun all can be felt today in a world of change and globalization. It is a land of contrasts that becomes difficult to understand because it is a swirl of so much old and new.
With all of this, China is stretched in many directions as it grows one of the most powerful economies in the world. In 2004, there were some 3.7 million protests across China. There were approximately 22,600 strikes in China in 2003 with some 800,000 people involved. This is despite the fact that China is a country where things are controlled. There is censorship of Google. There are limits to what is on the Internet. Yet blogs and text messages and QQ can create a force within China that organizes strikes against canteens on an university campus or create national attention to a “nail house” in ChongQing where fair market values were at stake. While I was there this time, a city reversed a decision to build a factory in the downtown because of pressures from an organized protest that might have generated a huge following. This was organized with the technology world and again the government of China listened to the people. It is a land of contrasts with authoritarian control and a delicate balance with the people who have a will to shape their own futures.
For one month, twenty-two students and two faculty from Mesa Community College were in this land of contrasts. Two universities hosted us. The first was the Teacher's College of Beijing Union University in Beijing.
This provided a format for visiting historic places such as the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. It also provided discussion with students at the university on the nature of social and economic change in Beijing and the impact that the 2008 Olympic games will have on the city and on China as a whole. The second university is located in Guangdong Province in the heart of where so much manufacturing is taking place.
This was the sixth year that Wuyi University has hosted our delegation of students. Here the openness of the society was contrasted with that of Beijing. Tours of factories and places that typify the social and economic changes taking place here were crucial in setting a base for student reflections. Conversations with students provide a second major focus on exploration. Where are the dreams, aspirations, fears, and concerns of Chinese students and how do these compare with those of students in the United States? These were to be the things that were explored in classrooms and externally from the confines of those classrooms.
This is a program that is based on a learning environment. It is not about sitting in class so much as experiencing. This places a responsibility on students to operate on their own terms negotiating opportunities to go beyond what is involved in the program per se. It requires someone like myself to shape the program in cooperation with the Foreign Affairs Offices of both universities. This enables opportunities for students to use to shape their own directions for learning based on their personal interests. It is also a program that places responsibility on students to interact with and learn from Chinese students. These are the future of China and they both know Chinese culture and feel the affects of what is a dramatic change in that culture today.
Some students were able to visit rural schools and homes that were not part of the scheduled activities. They were able to use their time to participate in special education programs for learning English on the weekends - Children programs. They were able to visit factories or businesses after reaching out in English corner conversations. There were incredible discussions that occurred as we walked with Chinese students.
Personally, I was enriched with one of these as I crossed Tiananmen Square with a very special student. We talked philosophy and politics in a deep way contrasting and comparing our different perspectives. This is a program where we can learn of the influence of the Art of War or Confucian philosophy without a lecture. We are learning from people who understand it far better than someone from the outside might. This was my ninth trip to China since 1997 and I am still learning. I am learning within the same framework that I help shape for students.
Since we began bringing students to Wuyi in 2000, one thing is clear. Some students simply never really grasp what it is that they are seeing. For many it is a life altering experience. For some there is a rich experience where they process cultural difference in a profound way. What seems to be the issue is how deeply ingrained values are within individuals. For some, who are very rigidly defined in terms of values, they struggle to understand the lessons that are there.
This was true of faculty who have gone to Wuyi University in my opinion as well. American culture is both defined by individualism but also by a deep religious nature. These are difficult to escape when set within a world that is so contrasting. There is a fear of authoritarian government that exists for some. The very word “communism” has been ingrained deeply into our views and nothing about it is positive for many Americans.
China today can easily be seen as a threat to American life for some. For some it is religion that leaves them judging both the Chinese and the American behavior leaving little room to explore the nature of what is being seen beyond that level. This is frustrating for someone who wants students to learn but has to witness what culture does to protect itself - wrap people in a protective coat of ethnocentrism. When confronted with something as contrasting as China, how open one's mind is when they begin this exploration determines what will be imported. Sometimes the closed nature is so closed that very little is allowed in and that leaves me frustrated and students frustrated. There is nothing I can do to help that since life histories impact what and how we learn.
The program is designed around a simple concept - live within a foreign culture for one month and learn what you can in that time. In this case a very contrasting culture with what we Americans are use to. Individualism meets collectivism and one sees what this has as an impact. Three tables of food in China is different than three tables of food in America. One table would never have food that the others do not have nor would anyone at any table order for themselves. Chinese would share a large coke, but Americans might grab it for ourselves and expect everyone to get a large coke for themselves. We do these things and seem not to appreciate what the Chinese have - well some don't and some do.
We have a sense of time that is different than Chinese and we never have a curfew once we reach a certain age. In China there is a rigid nature of eating at a certain time or having to be back at a certain time. We seem to be unable to understand and live with these when placed in another culture - we see our culture as superior to the one we are in and live by our rules in their world. It is a collision of world views at that point. This neither good or bad but something that is part of how the world works when cultures contrast.
What was sad for me was an email that I received shortly after I returned. It was from a Chinese student who said she and her classmates had talked about how some of the American students seemed to not like Chinese people and China. They were sad about that. That email has caused me to reflect on this a great deal since then. I can remember one comment from a student that they felt bored going into classes and talking with the Chinese students after a while. It was the same discussion over and over again. At the time, that was a frustration for me because this was an exchange. It was supposed to be an opportunity for both sides to learn from each other. Another Chinese student told me when we there that this was a chance to do something they may never have a chance to do again - talk to Americans free of their teachers and anyone else.
I have thought long and hard about what Jamake Highwater once said - the greatest distance between two people is not geography but it is culture.
Cultures tend to be there to protect us and guide us. It is the protecting that is the most troubling. You can define ethnocentrism but having someone learn it is another thing. We are most comfortable in what we know. Yet the world desperately in my mind needs to escape from ethnocentric views long enough to understand how other people in other cultures see the world. We don't have to change to be like they are but we do need to understand them. This has been the real purpose of this exchange. What has been the result is that some students on either side will never make it to a point of understanding and accepting the differences as such. Some will and they are the ones who in my opinion fair better in the world of the future.
Over that decade, I have witnessed a phenomenal change. In 1997 there were no cell phones, no Internet or QQ, very few cars and only motorcycle taxis and so many bicycles. I felt in danger from being consumed by bicycles as I crossed the Wuyi campus even as late as 2002. I carried the Internet into a classroom for the first time in 1997. There were only a few computers on the entire campus with Internet access. I was there with an Apple server (with the help of Al Teran of Apple Computer.) Now there are cars everywhere and nearly 40 percent of the faculty live off campus and commute. Now students all have cell phones and use the Internet on a regular basis to find information. They text message like crazy because it is cheaper than calling. The cell phones are more advanced that ours. We in America are charged more for unlimited text messaging so this form of communication seems foreign to me when I am there. Students of all ages, beginning in grade shool, are addicted to QQ. You can find a boyfriend or girlfriend on QQ and fall in love. I am caught by the fact that ten years ago the Internet had little impact on the life at Wuyi and now it does. There are classroom with projectors and Internet connections. Now there is even a course online for advanced writing. For me personally, I can now chat using my own QQ account and finally I can better understand the craze of QQ'ing.
The pressure for jobs has increased and is a major issue for students. The environmental degradation caused by the massive effort to manufacture is a subject all too frequently welcomed in conversations. The goals of earning money to have a car or a nice place to live are clearly articulated in discussions in the classroom. Yet students seem to be amazed that their competition is not just from Chinese but also from people anywhere in the world - even Argentina.
The lack of awareness of American life can be felt in many respects within the business world of China. It is hard for me to believe that a company that makes and distributes Christmas decorations has little idea of the marketing world in the United States nor of even how American really spend this important holiday. They are unaware of the highly competitive nature of decorating the exterior of homes in the United States. They seem to focus on “dollar” stores and “Macy's” or Wal-Mart without thinking of Michael's or even Target. There is a gap between Thomas Friedman's “The World is Flat” in a real sense in China. They are partially aware of things that shape the world but only “partially.” So too are Americans as we too much lack an understanding and appreciation for what is happening in China or elsewhere for that matter.
Even the Chinese are lost in what is happening within their own culture. One student said it was a whirl of things that were happening. Tradition was habit for her. Things that use to be important were not that important. The meaning of someone like GuanYin or guanggong were not the same as they use to be. They were just there to be observed and not appreciated. Another student put it this way:
If every person does what he likes to do, society cannot be harmonized .You can imagine it should be like a machine. if everyone is brought into play, it functions like the machine and will run better. In china, people didn't use to have individuality like now. They only see money in their eyes now. Money is more important than every thing in their future. Businessmen will do anything and even violate the law. Workers work hard every second. Students study in school from day to night. All that may make the economy grow. At the same time, it has a long-term impact on all of us.
There is a concern for that future that now is something that is discussed more freely than at any point in the past. I think this is because Chinese are searching for themselves for some answers to what all the change means.
I am taken back to something I wrote after my very first visit in 1997. A dear friend who opened a door to me at that time contributed her own perspective on something shortly after that. I am struggling to figure out how I went from that point to where I am now. The contrasts and paradoxes are all around me and I struggle to make it all fit somehow. That is the journey I am on and I will simply keep trying to figure it all out. Some of what I saw then is still viable but so much has changed. (See the texts of what was written in 1997/8 attached to this.)
The landscape to me has changed. The building goes on. There seems more development of housing areas. There was a factory that had been closed along the river near Jiangmen because it polluted. There were the same farm areas that I could remember as we drove to Kaiping but the freeways and roads going in different directions were all odd and out of place for me. There were buildings half finished including a major construction project on the campus at Wuyi. Two floors of a major shopping center were vacant. These were signs of rapid growth outstripping the demand for the space and probably signs of money problems that lie below the surface. The homes we visited in Jiangmen that belong to faculty and other acquaintances were a sign of change that I would have never anticipated ten years ago. Yet, with 40 percent of the Wuyi faculty now living off campus and discussions by new, young faculty about buying apartments is clear indication of change. This is a part of the emergence of the middle class in China. How strong this is and how deep it may go across China is a great question. This is a measure of GuangDong and that is something that needs to always be factored into what is said. You cannot characterize on this country with a look at one small part of it. There are far too many contrasts to do that.
The neatest part of any trip to China for me has been meeting new people. I was especially fortunate this trip to find “fate” leading me toward new friends. This is a special part of what I find each and every trip. I watched as one person I met two years ago was completing her senior paper and about to graduate. I am proud of this individual for what she has accomplished and for the fact that she is meeting the challenges of the “real” world in her pursuit of a career. I encountered someone who graduated a year ago and now is working in Jiangmen. She opened up some new concepts of the business world that I had not seen before and I welcomed that.
Equally significant was an encounter of someone who was interested in Anthropology. Her inquisitive nature and ability to seek answers to great questions led to an incredibly fascinating discourse that kept on going night after night. It has continued even after I returned with each of us exploring how this encounter has changed our lives. To her I am a “dream” and a challenge to learn English more, but for me she is a world of potential that I will enjoy being around to mentor and encourage.
There are the little things you do as a stranger from another world that do matter. Two years ago I had a ride in Charles Song's car across campus. He informed me that he was a new driver and that he drove slowly. That was an understatement. In Chinese culture, gifts are part of relationship. I gave Charles a copy of Thomas Friedman's book “The World is Flat.” Little did I expect the world to change so much in that time. Charles died of cancer last October leaving a void - he was a marvelous teacher and person. I took back a picture of Charles that was taken with me the last time I was there. In return, I was presented with a partially translated Chinese version of the Friedman's book - done by Charles and his sister Betty as his illness progressed. He was trying to leave it for others to understand.
For the faculty who have come from Wuyi and stayed with me, there is a special bond of friendship that seems never to fade. My time was consumed in part by these bonds. To Chinese the term “guanxi” is everything. It is relationship and it is the net of this that accumulates and is important. This is true of “doing business in China” and is having relationships on any scale. I am caught some times by the pressure to simply respond to every email I get from a student from China.
They seem to be hurt if you don't respond.
For some, I am eating out a lot or avoiding activities that are part of the exchange. However, this is part of the participant observation that anthropology entails. It is taking part in the culture and working within it to make things happen. So much of what happens in the exchange is based on “guanxi” and not on anything else. Some times what is done in the setting up the exchange activities is to do as much as is possible to help us. That means we are left with a busy and often tiring schedule. Yet in reality it is what has been built since the first faculty came to Wuyi in 1997. It is the “net of guanxi” that matters.
This brings me to a man who I love dearly. He is a model of humanity for me. He calls me his “teacher” but it is he who sets an example for me. At 83 he still rides his bicycle and swims daily. He and his wife will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in another two years. He is working on a new edition of his business English textbook. He is recognized as one of the few on the faculty at Wuyi to be recognized for his contributions to teaching. He is a friend and he shared this poem at a banquet he help in part in my honor. I end with this because over the ten years this is the refreshing thing I have learned that resides deeply inside of me. I have more friends as a result of my visits to China and they are what will always keep me coming back. I have new friends who I will cherish for the rest of my life. I have old friends I will cherish as well. These are my family and always will be. I will always toast them across the ocean that separates me from them as it was a fence of bamboo.
To the south and north of my cottage there's springs waters;
The groups of gulls only are my daily visitors.
The floral path hasn't been swept as no one happens to come, but now for you the wicket doors opens.
Far from the market,
on frugal meal to dine,
a needy household can offer but home-brewed wine.
Would you care to drink with my venerable neighbor,
Toasting the last cups,
across the fence of bamboo?
Du Fu (Tang Dynasty)
On a Sunday morning in June, I was fortunate enough to be visit a part of China that intrigued me from the very moment I learned I was going to spend time in China. This is my reflection on that visit. I am greatly indebted to the individual who invited me and to the family that was such a wonderful host. I trust this description will do them justice. It is my personal reflection on what I thought about and experienced that rainy day in June.
What I knew about Chinese society was that it was based on a traditional agrarian foundation. Throughout the centuries some 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese population have been farmers. The farmers supported a small number of specialized craftsmen and traders and also an even smaller number of land- and office-holding elite families who ran the society. Although the peasant farmers and their families resembled counterparts in other societies, the traditional Chinese elite, often referred to in English as the gentry, had no peers in other societies. The national elite, who comprised perhaps 1 percent of China's population, had a number of distinctive features. They were dispersed across the country and often lived in rural areas, where they were the dominant figures on the local scene. Although they held land, which they rented to tenant farmers, they neither possessed large estates like European nobles nor held hereditary titles. They achieved their highest and most prestigious titles by their performance on the central government's civil service examinations. These titles had to be earned by each generation, and since the examinations had strict numerical quotas, competition was fierce. Government officials were selected from those who passed the examinations, which tested for mastery of the Confucian Classics. Elite families, like everyone else in China, practiced partible inheritance, dividing the estate equally among all sons. The combination of partible inheritance and the competition for success in the examinations meant that rates of mobility into and out of the elite were relatively high for a traditional agrarian society.
Even now the Chinese people are still mostly farmers tilling the soil, living mainly in villages, in houses of brown to reddish with concrete or even earthen floors. Much of their income, little as it is in comparison to United States standards, goes for food and the necessities of life. The Chinese still lack the luxury of space. Houses are ample yet small in terms of American standards. The home I visited had a kitchen, bathroom, and three rooms, two of which were bedrooms, all for a family of six. It was my understanding that sometimes family members of both sexes and two or three generations all sleep in the same bedroom. The main room was a living and dining room. There was a television in the room along with a shrine for fortune, pictures of ancestors, and a red cloth on the wall commemorating the marriage and passage of generations within the household. On the television was the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls final championship game broadcast in Chinese.
To Americans with our higher standard of living, the amazing thing about the Chinese people has been their ability to maintain a quality of life under what we would consider poorer conditions. The answer to this lies in their social institutions such as the family and friendships that have been the backbone of Chinese life for millennia through a history of hardship and shortage. From what I learned in my brief stay in China, it is through family and friends that China has drawn strength and resilience to hardship. And unlike American culture where individuality is stressed, Chinese culture emphasizes the family and friendships in a collective sense over the individual. It is the welfare of family that is of utmost importance in Chinese culture. Obedience to family is at the roots of Chinese values and is a reflection of what is the ideal for the loyalty to the ruler or state authority, which is strongly reinforced through Confucius ideology.
The function of the family is to raise sons who would become loyal subjects to the country. This is why limiting family size in China is a hardship on what traditional family meant. Contrary to what we in the west might believe, Chinese families have not been all that large. (John Fairbanks provides the following insight: "The scarcity of land, as well as disease and famine, set a limit to the number of people likely to survive in each family unit historically. The large joint family of several married sons with many children all within one compound, which has often been regarded as typical of China, appears to have been the ideal exception, a luxury that only the well to do could afford.
The average family was limited to four, five, or six persons in total. Division of the land among the sons constantly checked the accumulation of property and savings, and the typical family had little opportunity to rise on the social scale. Peasants were bound to the soil not by law and custom so much as by their own numbers.")
The size of the Chinese family appears to have been large enough to accommodate the passage of generations through the birth of sons. That was its goal. I was visiting a family with four daughters, all born before any legal limitations on family size had been imposed. All of the daughters except for one lived away from the family but kept close ties to home. The one daughter at home was married with a son. Her husband lived in the house with his wife's family contrary to what I had read was the normal residence pattern after marriage. Yet, he served as a continuation to the land represented by the logical place for a son.
Historically, the father was a supreme authority within the family, with control over the use of all family property and income and a decisive voice in arranging the marriages of the children. The mixed love, fear, and awe of children for their father traditionally was strengthened by a great respect paid to those of age. An old man's loss of vigor was more than offset by his growth in wisdom. Confucius philosophy supports this idea as Confucius said that as he aged he found the natural growth in wisdom to follow.
Before I went to China I was not aware that by tradition, a father could sell his children into slavery or even execute them for improper conduct.
Yet Chinese parents were by custom as well as by nature particularly loving toward small children, and they were also bound by a reciprocal code of responsibility for their children as family members. But law and custom provided paternal authority tremendous latitude even to the extremes of slavery and execution.
The domination of age over youth within the old-style family was matched by the domination of male over female. Even today, Chinese marriage can be arranged and not for love. The traditional bride left her own home for her husband's family's home through a paternal connection that spanned generations. She might see secondary wives or concubines brought into the household historically, particularly if she did not bear a male heir. Her husband for various reasons could repudiate her. If he died, she could not easily remarry. All this reflected the fact that a woman had no economic independence. Her labor was absorbed in household tasks and brought her no income. Farmwomen were almost universally illiterate. They had few or no property rights. In a sense there are parallels in American society where historically women were treated differentially than men. Issues such as women's suffrage and equal pay for work are illustrative of the historical legacy that women have had to face in the United States.
Today, as in the United States, the picture is quite different. The home I visited was one in which two of the daughters had gone to college. One was teaching at a university and had traveled to America for a year of study. The daughters worked and had good jobs. The one married daughter had an arranged marriage, but that was not necessarily going to happen for all of the other daughters.
The role of women has clearly changed. They are more now an important part of Chinese society with increasing social mobility, esteem and recognition.
China has viewed the world as the product of two interacting complementary elements, yin and yang. Yin was the attribute of all things female, dark, weak, and passive. Yang was the attribute of all things male, bright, strong, and active. While male and female were both necessary and complementary, one was by nature passive toward the other. Yet as in all societies, inequality is variable and forceful women in China could control their family through subtle ways and have always been a steadying force in Chinese family life. The social status of women was part of a hierarchical structure in society at large. Confucius philosophy dictated that hierarchy so it has been manifested in China for millennia.
John Fairbanks puts it well: "Status within the family was codified in the famous "three bonds" emphasized by the Confucian philosophers: the bond of loyalty on the part of subject to ruler (minister to prince), of filial obedience on the part of son to father (children to parents), and of chastity on the part of wives but not of husbands. To an egalitarian Westerner the most striking thing about this doctrine is that two of the three relationships were within the family, and all were between superior and subordinate. The relationship of mother and son, which in Western life often allows matriarchal domination, was not streed in theory, though it was natural important in fact."
In Chinese society, the roles of men and women and parents and children within the family were clearly defined in this structured existence. The advantage that exists is that one is secure in knowing that if he does his part within this structured world that there will be a reciprocal return by others. Keep in mind that Chinese family exists as a large extended family with relatives far more distant than we here in the United States are accustomed to calling family. The bride of your brother may be viewed as a sister in relationship. In this sense, even in-laws are incorporated into the family itself through kin terms and in real day-to-day life.
To the Chinese, family relationships however distant were important and carried real responsibilities. Traditionally, one had to appropriately address someone according to family position and that was important. In social change terms, China continues to bond via family and relationships. This is a mechanism important to China because it forms the bonds between many people in a society filled with people. It would be easy to become competitive for space and resources in such as populous world. In the United States, we find urbanization has led to increased aggression and violence. I would argue this is the biological reaction one would expect from crowding. It is in the same sense what happens in an elevator where we find ourselves too close to others. We avoid eye contact deliberately in an effort to avoid any sense of conflict. It was interesting in China that Chinese in a crowded elevator in the administration building of Wuyi did not avoid eye contact and smiled at one another and at me frequently. I was the one who was uncomfortable. I believe that the foundation of family and friends is a cultural response that Chinese have developed to cope with large numbers of people. It is a coping mechanism to maximize relationships so that the biological reaction can be suppressed. This means it becomes a cultural reaction rather than a biological one aimed at the ever-present balance within relationships, the Yin and Yang of the Chinese world.
Traditionally, families were formed along what anthropologists would call lineages. Each claimed descent from a founding ancestor and held ancestral lands and gravesites. Lineage relationships were a social network of kin who supported one another through a common bond and ancestry. Many things reinforced this common bond of ancestry - holidays, house shrines, or pictures on walls. Again, we can look to Fairbanks for a description, even a rather technical one, but one that provides insights into the traditional nature of Chinese family:
The Chinese kinship system in both the North and South is patrilineal, the family headship passing in the male line from father to eldest son. Thus the men stay in the family, while the women marry into other family households, in neither case following the life pattern that Western individuals take as a matter of course. Until recently a Chinese boy and girl did not choose each other as life mates, nor are they likely even today to set up an independent household together after marriage. Instead, they usually enter the husband's father's household and assume responsibilities for its maintenance, subordinating married life to family life in a way that many Westerners would consider insupportable.
As we walked around the Village, it was described as a place with gateways to family areas. In a sense, the village was modernized in ways such as televisions and electricity. Yet it was structured as it always had been. One could move from family area to family area and understand the organization as one that was segmented by kinship. One could see Aunts or Uncles as one walked through the village. One could also recognize neighbors who had been neighbors for probably centuries. The village consisted of parts and was, in turn, a part of a larger world that incorporated it in a political sense into a city realm. The village name is technically Long Xi, Duran, Xin Hui, Guang Dong. Long Xi is a part of Duran which is in turn part of Xin Hui within Guang Dong province. This forms an administrative structure over the village itself. Internally, it is structured by lineages or families.
Primatologist Franz DeWaal has noted recently that reciprocity can exist without morality; there can be no morality without reciprocity. Given this, is becomes clearer why DeWaal has uncovered the very first step in the direction of the Golden Rule in Chimpanzees who began following the reciprocity rule "Do as the other did, and expect the other to do as you did. This is what we might think of as Reciprocal Altruism, which has three characteristics:
This process is evidently a lot more complicated than simultaneous cooperation. There is, for example, the problem of the first helpful act - a gamble, since not every partner necessarily knows to follow the rule that they need to reciprocate. The first individual to help with something could not be sure that the same act or something similar would logically follow.
Reciprocal altruism differs from other patterns of cooperation in that it is fraught with risk, depends on trust, and requires that individuals whose contributions fall short be shunned or punished, lest the whole system collapse. Yet Reciprocal Altruism is at the heart of human societies that we think of as "simple cultures" in an anthropological sense.
The chief purpose of friendship as anthropologists have discovered is mutual support and only naturally this develops primarily between individuals with common interests - who need to work for the mutual benefit of each other. Monkeys and apes make sharp distinctions between kin and nonkin as well as between enemies and friends. What seems to make human societies so durable and successful is out ability to magnify the Golden Rule that chimpanzees follow.
What is most vivid is the character of friendship in Chinese society when one looks back on the "Great Adventure". As an anthropologist, I found the Reciprocal Altruism of the people to be a mainstay of society as strong as kinship bonds that China is known for. People give without real tangible return. They take gambles in their giving but if forms the basis of friendships, which is the real benefit. Giving is done without an expectation of return but there is a general expectation that if one gives then something good will occur at some point in the future. It does not have to be from the one who received but is defined as a general return of some sort. In other words, Chinese don't count as they give; they just do.
Chinese philosophy is rich in this sense of Reciprocal Altruism and is rooted again in the writings of Confucius. Chinese philosophy is not directed toward what may lie beyond the known world. It is not to increase positive knowledge but to elevate the mind and reach out for the values that are "higher than the moral ones". It is about one's behavior in society. One can easily expect that this stems from the fact that China has always been a populated place over the last four or five thousand years since domestication initiated people's ability to manage their own food supply. In daily life, this philosophy is the "way" or the "path" that one should strive to follow and should guide the lives of everyone.
China is based on an agricultural way of life that focuses on loyalty, unselfishness, obedience, relationships to ancestors, and a strong family. Greek philosophy that drives much of our behavior in this country is not derived from this same base and is a distinct as a result.
There are four values that one needs to understand that underpin the Reciprocal Altruism one finds in China today. These are ancient values that are tacitly passed through the generations. They are: righteousness (or Yi), benevolence (or Ren), conscientiousness (or chung), and altruism (or shu). Loving others is the essence of the human condition. Human heartedness is founded in loving others and the ability to perform duty in society without tangible rewards. The essence of "chung" is to do to others what you wish yourself and of shu it is do not do to others what you do not wish yourself. It is interesting to an anthropologist that the Chinese for our discipline is "ren lei xue". This translates roughly as human - kind - study of. Ren is the crucial word. It actually can be written in two ways. The first is as it applies to the term "anthropologist" - as human. In its second form it stands for the relationships between two people. It stands for the virtue that one should strive to achieve.
The philosopher Mencius saw two important aspects of human behavior. The first of these is the practice of loyalty and tolerance. Chinese are loyal to friends. They are tolerant of things around them and can easily forgive a friend. The second aspect of Mencius we ought to explore briefly is a saying that goes: if men have satisfied their hunger, have clothes to wear, and live at least but lack good teaching, they are close to birds and beasts...and between friends there should good faith. Again one finds the essence of forming a basis for Reciprocal Altruism. Good faith, loyalty, and forgiveness are at the heart of a solid friendship.
I examine myself three times daily:
Have I done something unfaithful to others?
Have I done something insincere to my friends?
Have I reviewed what I learned?
A great man has a good knowledge of righteousness whereas a small man has that of profit- making.
Everyone desires wealth and higher rank.
Nevertheless, one should not accept them if his aim is not achieved in a right way. Everyone dislikes poverty and lower rank.
Nevertheless, one should not try to get rid of them if his aim is not achieved in a right way.
I would still feel happy even if I had to eat coarse food, drink nothing but water, and take my arms as a pillow when asleep.
Wealth and higher rank, if gained without righteousness, mean no more than a flying cloud to me.
A superior man is generous but not wasteful; he is diligent without complaint; he has desires but is not greedy; he is great but not arrogant thereby; he is awesome but not fierce.
Superior men keep harmonious relations with each other but they never form cliques. On the contrary, inferior men tend to form cliques but fail to keep harmonious relations with each other.
There are three sorts of friends that are helpful, and three sorts that are harmful.
Friendship with the upright, with the trustworthy, and with the learned is helpful.
Friendship with the obsequious, with the outwardly kind but inwardly wicked, and with those of cunning words is harmful.
The village even today forms the bedrock of Chinese society and is still built out of family units that are permanently settled from one generation to the next and depend upon the use of family lands. It is difficult to know what effect the Cultural Revolution and the policies of the People's Republic of China had on how land is held.
Land is now used rather than owned. We were taken to a hill that the family had used to raise chickens, but on the way were told this use to be done on other land now used by another family. The option to continue the use apparently was there but not exercised in favor of other options.
In the context of the village, each family or household is both a social and an economic unit. Its members derive their sustenance from working the fields and their social status from membership in the family. The life cycle of the individual in a farming village is still inextricably interwoven with the seasonal cycle of intensive agriculture upon the land.
The significance of this intensive agriculture is the varied application of crops within a landscape abundant in food. There is rice of course but there are so many other plants growing around this staple crop. From peanuts to cucumbers to corn to different kinds of beans to the ever-present rice, what strikes you is the variety.
Then there are the chickens, pigs, and fish that can be raised in the midst of all this growth of vegetation. (Interestingly, it is these that require protection from theft. We found dogs and people who had been hired to guard chickens.) This mosaic of food was striking for someone who was raised in Wisconsin and was use to vast fields of corn, wheat, and other crops devoid of the variety. I recall driving through miles upon miles of the same crop in the Midwest or south or even in Arizona where cotton is so ever-present.
Chinese life from a village perspective has not normally been confined to a single village but rather to a whole group of villages that form an area to market goods. Geographers have found the spacing between villages and market areas to be some of the most regular in any section of the world. This pattern can be seen as a honeycomb structure of communities, each centered on a larger town. In other words, this forms a ring of satellite villages.
The traditional (pre1950) Chinese countryside was a pattern of these relatively self-sufficient areas. From the market town, paths (or sometimes waterways) radiated out to a first ring of about six villages and continued on to a second ring of, say, twelve villages. Each of these villages had perhaps 75 households, and each family household averaged five persons - parents, perhaps two children, and grandparents if they were alive. No village was more than about two and a half miles from the larger town - within an easy day's round trip with a carrying-pole, barrow, or donkey (or a boat on a waterway). __
Now the market areas and politics of the area are founded in a larger city that surrounds the village. In this case Xin Hui. Transportation is easier and enables people to move more freely across the landscape. More members of families now live in urban areas such as Xin Hui or Jiangmen. There has been rapid growth in cities over the past several decades in China altering the traditional landscape. Yet, the village forms the base of life for millions of Chinese. It is still largely self-sufficient but has access to many more commodities. Villages can participate in the larger economy with freedom. The family that we visited appears to be the norm now with daughters working in urban environments with very strong links back to home. The family can live apart in today's China but it is emotionally still tied together in strong bonds as it always has been. Loyalty to family is first and foremost.
A day in Long Xi was a glimpse into Chinese values and culture.
Most striking is the setting of life within an abundance of food. Chinese are very aware that this abundance can be fleeting and that some day hardship may once again return. This is one of the reasons students gave for support for the one-child policy.
Unlike the United States, Chinese people have witnessed hardship during the "cultural revolution" of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This reality shapes their perception of the future. Historically, Chinese have experienced similar hardships and shortages of the very thing that one notes around Long Xi - food.
Tradition tells farmers how to raise abundance without impact to the soil nutrient base. Tradition also tells them of the importance of relationships within and external to the family. Whether one lives in a village such as Long Xi or comes from one or lives today in cities such as Jiangmen, the tradition of the village permeates Chinese life and culture.
Most of China's population was composed of farmers, whose basic role in supporting the rulers and the rest of society was recognized as a positive one in Confucian ideology. In practical terms, farming was considered a hard and insecure life and one that was best left if an opportunity was available. Yet, this way of life forms the core values of Chinese culture.
Formal education provided the best and most respected avenue of upward mobility in traditional Chinese culture. By the nineteenth century, literacy rates in China were high within traditional rural society. Chances of receiving a good education were highest, of course, for those most able to afford it.
Yet education was valued highly by traditional Chinese. The family I visited typifies this value of education. If schooling was not available, there were other avenues of mobility. Rural people could move to cities to seek their fortunes. This is truer today, particularly in the more affluent Pearl River delta areas such as around the five county region of Wuyi.
Mobility in modern China is far more accessible than it was in the past.
China is changing rapidly these days. It is a change that will be shaped by a strong heritage and tradition. In a way, China will face many of the same problems the United States has but will avoid others because of this strong heritage and tradition. China has always been different from the western world and will continue to be different. In the United States, we hear a lot about human rights and China.
From my perspective, there is far more freedom than one expects. It may be a small glimpse of China the following observation that I made when I first received Chinese money is significant to share. A few years ago, the United States made an effort to put a woman on the face of money.
The Susan B. Anthony dollar was something short of a blip in United State history. It certainly never took hold and we might have a lot of argue over why. In China, I received money that had pictures of ordinary people representing minorities and women as well as men. Over and over I saw a message that China officially was giving to the world. It was a message of diversity and visible to everyone in the form of money used on a daily basis. It is not the European, male image seen on money in the United States.
At the end of the so-called Cultural Revolution, China printed new money with a new kind of message about the ethnic make-up in China and the place of women in society. It is a reflection of the new China; a view we here in the United States have not acknowledged or learned much about.
The very first letter I received from China once I returned was from a student. She sent me a collection of stamps on the envelope representing different house types from across China. Again, a clear statement on diversity. I began to look closely and we can see American heritage in our stamps as well. It is interesting to me that stamps more than our money say something true about our society. It made me realize that I did not have a Susan B. Anthony dollar.
I wish to add further commentary on the new China. China permits faculty and to a lesser degree students at Wuyi to exchange ideas and messages through email. It is more a limit of access to computer and cost than censorship that limits this contact. Wuyi University does not have the resources as we do here in the United States to provide access to the Internet or email as readily to all faculty and every student. With continued economic growth, one may find China more able to make the Internet and the global world that it opens available to more Chinese.
To understand the China of today, one needs to look beyond the surface of what we might be led to believe through media and our government in some cases. We must also remember that China must change on its own terms. It will never be like the United States. China and the United States have their own separate historical pathways that lead them to be unique. Economically we may be inextricably linked, but culturally we will always be distinctive. To an anthropologist that is expected and "politically correct".
Let me share something that I find tremendously interesting. It is the prediction of H.G. Wells made in 1920 in context of his book The Outline of History:
At the present time, it is probable that there is more good brain matter and more devoted men working out the modernization and the reorganization of the Chinese civilization than we should find directed to the welfare of any single European people.
China will presently have a modernization practical script, a press, new and vigorous modern universities, a reorganized industrial system, and a growing body of scientific and economic inquiry. The natural industry and ingenuity of her vast population will be released to co-operate upon terms of equality with the Western world. She may have great internal difficulties ahead of her; of that no many can judge.
Nevertheless, the time may not be very distant when the Federated State of China may be at one with the United States of America and a pacified and reconciled Europe in upholding the organized peace of the world.
How true that statement of H.G. Wells may be as we approach the new millennium. If we are to understand the China of the next millennium, we must remember to first look to the heritage and tradition of China's past because it will shape China in the future.
Perhaps there are aspects of what we see that we may wish to incorporate as well move into this new millennium. Clearly, the most striking lesson I left with from the visit to Long Xi was a sense of importance of family and recognition of how impermeable was the abundance that I rode through on that rainy Sunday. I was left with little doubt of the past but very aware of changes for the future and how much I still had to learn about this dynamic China I had witnessed that day.
I was born in 1973, a very interesting time when new ideas and old ideas came together in China. I was three years old when my younger sister Jian (a.k.a. Gin) was born. Unlike me who was nicknamed "Monkey Yin or Doll Yin" at the time, Gin was big and looked like a boy. When my neighbors saw the baby, they always said, "too bad you have a boy's head, but a girl's behind." Whatever they said didn't mean much to me; it was just a piece of conversation. Yet it meant a lot to my mother, a traditional village woman who was deeply influenced by the old morality that a woman gained credits by giving birth to a boy.
She felt guilty at the birth of my sister and didn't know whether she should have another child. She went to a popular blind fortuneteller in our village (Blind Wun by name) before Gin's birth, and Wun told her that if her fourth child wasn't a boy, the fifth must be. Should she trust him?
He'd been a friend of grandfather's since childhood. According to my grandfather, although born a blind man, he was able to tell exactly where the other kids hid when they were playing hide-and-seek. Another problem that my mother had to face was how the family could feed so many mouths.
Before 1978, everybody in the village worked for the local community. They didn't have their own fields; all the land belonged to the local government. They worked and got labor credits from the community, the lowest division of the local government what we called Dui. Our village is called Shi Za Dui, and since all the villagers have the same family name Chen and are of the same ancestor far back over a century's ago, we also call it the Chen Dui. The men got more credits than the women for a day's work. We had nine family members then. My grandpa was tailor. One of my uncles worked in a factory, and the other uncle was at service in the Army. Thus, my parents had to work day and night to support the whole family.
Life was tough for us. It was my grandfather who was the savior of the family. My grandfather was a self-made man. He always looked on the bright side of life. He had never seen his father his whole life. His father had to leave the family and went to Southeast Asia to make money before my grandfather was born. As my great-grandmother had some mental problems, my great-grandfather sent the money he made back home to his neighbors whom he trusted.
He asked them to build a house for his wife and his son, whom you've seen, and to give his wife some money whenever she needed it. His neighbors, however, didn't quite follow what my grandfather had told them. They told my grandmother that she could borrow money from them if she needed any. Nevertheless my grandmother was too timid to ask for any even though she couldn't make ends meet. When my grandfather was nine years old, he went to his cousin's home and learned how to cook. He went to Hong Kong and became a chef when he was thirteen. When he had owned enough money, he took a private course in tailing. He was so serious with his job that he became a professional tailor in a short time. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, he came back to the main land.
My grandfather got married at the age of sixteen. My grandmother was a beautiful and warm-hearted young lady. She brought the best out of my grandfather. She took care of my grandfather, her children, and her neighbor's children. Then she got sick, but the family didn't have enough money for medicine to save her life. She was just 46 years old when she died. My grandfather was broken hearted; he kept my grandmother's only belongs--three out-of-date Japanese bills that he found in her pocket--till the end of his day. He taught his children to respect girls and women.
He treated my mother like his own daughter. He told my mother not to feel sorry for her for not having a son. He said to my mother, "You've done a lot for the family. As a matter of fact, I prefer girls to boys, because the girls usually behave and are thoughtful. If you give a boy a dime, he is going to spend it right away; if you give a girl a dime, she's going to keep it." He had a lot of customers coming in and out of our family. Whenever they learned that he had four granddaughters, they said sympathetically to my grandpa, "Oh, your sky must be all dark." "Just the opposite." my grandpa said, " The whole sky is bright. I've got four golden flowers." When the one-child policy started, my grandfather suggested my father have sterilization provided by the government.
Although my grandfather gave my mother great encouragement, she still got pressure from the community, the villagers always tried to put our family down. They said mean things to us. At one time, we (the four girls) were so mad that we had a real fight with one of our neighbors. I still remember what we said to her, "It's none of your business that we have four girls in our family. Furthermore, you don't have a son yourself. Why are you being so mean to us?" She shut up and never dared to hurt us any more. There were all kinds of problems when people didn't treat each other equally. Almost every morning, we heard dog barking, greetings, and quarrelling mixing together in the village.
Saturday, April 18, 1998.