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Cultural Chop Suey

In the past year, we have heard numerous reports of the Party’s attempts to promote traditional Chinese cultural values and to warn against the pernicious influence of western cultural values.

But are the traditional values even there anymore? In the third section of the article ”The Shadow of Chinese History," Huo Shui takes a look at the destruction of traditional Chinese values and wonders on what values will China base her future development.

The nucleus of Chinese culture is Confucianism. Ancient Chinese often exhibited characteristics such as gentleness, humility, diligence, courtesy and incorruptibleness that are traditional virtues in Chinese culture. Nevertheless, these virtues have been under attack—or eradicated—as China has gone through the storms of revolution over the past hundred years. Under communism, these virtues were replaced by the new “struggle” (Dou Zheng) philosophy by people who wanted to be “liberated.” Class struggle, ethnic struggle, philosophical struggle, political struggle, military struggle, civil struggle—regardless of style or substance, everything was decided by one of these “struggles.” Mao Zedong said, “Communist party philosophy is a philosophy of ‘struggles.’”

To struggle, you must have tools. The slogan “political power comes out of the barrel of a gun” became a great tool for the Communists. They believed in using violent revolution to acquire and maintain their own political power. Dictatorship through harsh repression was substituted for democracy and the rule of law. It was not until the late 20th century, when people realized all these struggles brought much harm to China, that the nation became desperate for an alternative. It was then she finally gave up class struggle and started economic reform.

More than 20 years have passed. As the rest of the world can see, China’s economic growth has been nothing less than phenomenal. At the same time, morality in China has declined. Corruption and crime fill the new China. In the absence of balance and accountability within the dictatorship, morality and virtue are merely empty slogans. Lying, cheating, and materialism fill the society. Traditional Chinese values are nowhere to be found.

It is quite obvious that Communism’s own morality and virtues have failed completely while it has successfully erased traditional morality and virtues. The moral crisis in China has been one of the hot topics since the early 80s—even in the media. Almost everyone understands that one cannot have material life without spiritual life. As the Chinese abandon their faith in Communism, they look back in history with the hope of rediscovering old-fashioned virtues. Recently, the government released Guidelines for Construction of Civility. By resurrecting the old morality and virtues, they hope it will somehow make up for the lack of morality and virtue in the new China.

How can China travel this road? The answer is simple: she can’t. Once traditional values were eradicated and communism abandoned, how can two systems that failed individually be combined and expected to now work together? The combination looks like a huge “chop suey.” Trying to knit together pieces of moral teachings and expecting them to actually fill the deepest needs of mankind is doomed from the beginning.

Many of China’s industries are going to be severely impacted by the WTO entry and many people will lose their jobs in the short term. Dissatisfaction, pressure and instability will become more severe and be further worsened by existing problems in the environment, resources, population and ethnic conflicts. Whether China will experience another uprising, or even a split, depends on the Chinese leaders’ abilities to deal with these problems. It depends on whether the traditional Chinese values are strong enough to hold the society together and on whether the Chinese are able to return to positive aspects of Confucian philosophy such as family values. It also depends on balanced views winning out over extremist views.

I once heard someone say that “Mao set out to destroy Confucianism and succeeded; Deng set out to destroy Maoism; and succeeded. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to replace it with anything.” This is an important point for helping us understand the rise of religious belief in general, and Christianity in particular in recent years.

Image credit: Chop Suey, by Thomas Hawk, via Flickr
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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