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Rest? Is It Permitted?

Some Observations on Rest in the Chinese Cultural Context


I was born and raised in Taiwan and later came to the United States for graduate study. In the first half of my life, I was strongly shaped by Chinese culture, and, in the second half, by American. As a result, I ended up living within the tension between these two very opposite value systems. The observations shared here are based on my growing-up experiences, personal reflection, and years of working with the Chinese population, especially in church circles. This essay is not intended to generalize Chinese Christians’ experiences or address all issues related to “rest” among them; rather, it examines some possible cultural influences upon the concept of rest in the Chinese context.

When I was young, I would never dare to ask for rest. If I had asked my parents if I could take a break from studying or rest, they would have replied, “What are you talking about? What is rest? You are behind on your math questions. You are behind on your science project.” Even if I were on time with every assignment, they would have still said, “Just go preview the next lesson. Make sure you are ahead of the class. Make sure you know everything, even before the teacher instructs you.”

This is how my family views rest. “Rest” is a word that does not exist in our dictionary or daily life; Chinese people generally have a hard time knowing what rest is or how to rest. Working hard 努力 (nǔ lì) is the virtue to develop, and parents will do everything to make sure their children attain this characteristic because they believe this is the only way to succeed. This value is reinforced rigorously both at home and at school.

However, I did observe one kind of rest that was permitted in my family. When I was a little girl, I remember watching my grandmother rest; she took a nap after lunch every day which always lasted only about 30 or 40 minutes. Then she woke up from her nap and resumed her busy scurrying around the house. Everyone in the family respected her rest and never disturbed her nap. I was told, “She has worked so hard all her life that she deserves this rest.” It seemed like rest only came with elderly status after a life of hard work.

Confucianism and Rest

When looking at the cultural values and beliefs that might influence the Chinese concept of rest, we must begin with Confucianism. Confucianism is a shame-based, internal value operating system which has run for thousands of years in Chinese society, no matter whether the governing party is monarchal or democratic. One compelling and ground-setting teaching from Confucius 2,500 years ago was, “If you govern the people by rules and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue 德 () and control them with ritual 禮 (), they will develop their own sense of shame and thus correct themselves.”1 In simple words, if you want to have an orderly society with a low crime rate, create an internal shame system in your people so that they will self-regulate and self-monitor their behaviors. Moreover, they will watch each other and make sure that everyone is “doing the right thing.”

This governing system was welcomed and put into practice by many emperors throughout Chinese history. After thousands of years of implementation, Chinese people could not avoid becoming accustomed to this shame-based, internal operating system. Despite efforts during the Cultural Revolution to root out traditional Chinese culture, including Confucianism, this shame-based mentality still grasped Chinese hearts firmly and losing face 丟臉 (diū liǎn) is still the biggest offense someone can bring to oneself or one’s family or company.

How does this shame-based, internal operating system relate to rest? Since working hard is the model virtue, rest becomes its antagonist. When resting, you are not trying hard enough (不努力 bù nǔ lì) and the time to do more things is wasted (浪費光陰 làng feì guāng yīng). As a result, the choice to rest is recognized as a sign of laziness (懶惰 lǎn duò) or lack of endurance (不能吃苦bù néng chī kǔ) which are poor character traits to possess, consequently bringing shame to the person. Furthermore, in a society that highly values conformity, rest can be perceived as minding one’s individual wellbeing and neglecting the group’s benefits; in other words, being selfish or self-centered. Therefore, rest not only implies a character flaw but brings shame to a person in the collectivist culture.

Moreover, “吃苦 (chī kǔ) eating bitterness” is a highly regarded quality in Chinese culture. “Eating bitterness” could be understood as everlasting endurance and can be achieved by being diligent and working hard. Additionally, the ability to “eat bitterness” and the capacity of how much bitterness one can eat are considered as a true expression of one’s character. If nothing goes well, as long as one can eat bitterness, no shame will be brought to self, family, or the group he or she belongs to. One will actually earn praise and recognition by simply eating bitterness in spite of other failures. With this guaranteed honor and admiration, rest then becomes an obstacle to obtain this status. It might even be perceived as a sign of weakness or lack of determination.

Confucianism and Other Moral Principles in Practice

When I was in high school, there were about 1,000 students in each grade. In order to manage us well, the school divided us into different classes. Each class was named after one of the virtues. When I introduced myself outside the classroom, I would say, “I am a senior in the Honesty class.” Or another person would say, “Oh, I am a freshman in the Justice class.” Inside the classroom, we would study The Analects (論語 lún yǚ), a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius, as well as additional moral principles rooted in The Analects. We would be asked to memorize all of them by heart because we would not only be tested on these in the exams but were also expected to live them out throughout our lifetime.

To set the stage, here are some well-known Chinese proverbs regarding diligence and working hard which require “eating bitterness”:

  • Bend one’s body to the task and exhaust one’s energy until one’s heart ceases to beat (鞠躬尽瘁死而后已 jǘ gōng jìng cuì sǐ ér hòu yǐ).
  • Diligence is the means by which one makes up for one’s dullness (勤能补拙 qíng néng bǔ zhuó).
  • Diligence is the mother of success (勤奋是成功之母 qíng fèn shì chéng gōng zhī mǔ).
  • Strive unremittingly (奋斗不懈 fèn dòu bú xiè).
  • Every second counts (分秒必争 fēn miǎo bì zhēng).

In addition to The Analects and these Chinese proverbs, the Three Fundamental Bonds (三纲 sān gāng) and Five Constant Virtues (五常 wǔ cháng),2 Four Anchors (四维 sì wéi),3 and Eight Virtues (八德 bā dé)4 were taught repeatedly throughout our years of schooling. Outside school, we were reminded of them everywhere we turned. On the walls of the villages and the signs of many shops and restaurants, you would see virtues spelled out or incorporated. Even some streets are named after the virtues. Growing up surrounded by all these “principles of life,” we were so programmed in this value system that how we behaved, conducted ourselves, and functioned were naturally driven to meet these expectations. Rest seems to have no place in the Chinese way of life.

Rest and Chinese Workers

If you look at a schedule of a retreat for a Chinese church, you will see the schedule is packed with speakers and workshops with no downtime on the program. If a break is scheduled, people will try to get together and find something to “do,” instead of resting—”doing nothing.” This tendency of doing is not because people do not need rest but because not working hard or not being productive or diligent entails shame. No shame should be brought to the name of Jesus and the church; therefore, these Chinese Christians will persist in working hard and will not rest despite their true condition: empty, exhausted, and depleted.

Moreover, if we try to interpret and understand the concept of self-denial from the Confucian perspective, we throw out the need for rest. “Eating bitterness” becomes an important means to demonstrate one’s faith through self-sacrifice. Because of this, these Chinese Christian workers will ignore or suppress the need to rest (considering individual well-being) and push through all their tasks in order to accomplish the group goals. Not only can they save the group’s “face” by these self-denying acts, but they can also possibly win honor and recognition for the group, and even for Jesus. As a result, “eating bitterness” tends to become a measure of a Christian’s dedication to God and the church. Rest, again, is not taken into consideration when serving the Lord and others.

When talking to a Chinese worker about rest, one can anticipate some resistance due to the unique cultural makeup and influences. These Chinese workers do not dismiss rest intentionally; they simply might not be accustomed to the concept and the value of rest. Rest might even seem to be a foreign language to them for which they do not have the vocabulary due to lack of a common practice in the cultural context. Therefore, most Chinese workers might have to be introduced to rest through some solid biblical teaching before they can actually entertain the idea of rest.

Although rest is not encouraged or well-accepted among Chinese workers, it may be permitted with a solid biblical foundation and gentle guidance. When we become more and more aware of the context of our Chinese workers’ experiences, and the virtues that Chinese society values, it is possible to open up a dialogue and invite the Chinese workers into God’s shalom in a culturally sensitive way. After all, rest is not a task to be completed but a gift from our loving Father in heaven.

Endnotes

  1. The Analects of Confucius 2.3.
  2. The three fundamental bonds comprise society’s most basic relationships: father and son, husband and wife, and lord and retainer. The five constant virtues are benevolence (仁), righteousness (義), propriety (禮), wisdom (智), and trustworthiness (信); these serve as a shorthand for all Confucian virtues. See Sāngāng Wŭcháng. Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, s.v. “Three Fundamental Bonds and Five Cardinal Virtues.” Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Co., 2009. Accessed August 26, 2022. https://chinaconnectu.com/wp-content/pdf/ThreeFundamentalBondsandFiveConstantVirtues.pdf.
  3. Propriety (禮), justice (義), integrity (廉), and honor (恥). See Billy Shyu. “The Four Anchors Are Traditional Chinese Virtues.” Nspirement, April 21, 2022. Accessed August 26, 2022. https://www.nspirement.com/2022/04/21/virtues-of-the-four-anchors.html.
  4. Taken from a speech in which Dr. Sun Yat-sen outlined his Three Principles of the People, the eight virtues are loyalty (忠), filial piety (孝), benevolence (仁), love (愛), trustworthiness (信), justice (義), harmony (和), and peace (平). See “Four Cardinal Principles and Eight Virtues,” Wikipedia Foundation, last modified June 24, 2022, 03:22. Accessed August 26, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Cardinal_Principles_and_Eight_Virtues.
Image Credit: Courtesy of a friend of ChinaSource

PENG Xiaohui

PENG Xiaohui (pseudonym) is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Southern California.View Full Bio