Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

I've just returned from a three-week trip to Asia.  Most of the trip was a cruise, aboard the Diamond Princess, involving one-day visits to a large number of ports:  Tianjin, Busan, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Nha Tranh, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Bangkok.  We added extra days in Beijing and Bangkok.  Still, our shore excursions amounted to little more than brief glimpses of a city's life--sightseeing without much depth.

Superficial acquaintance, then, but still enough contact to prompt me to reflect (perhaps foolishly) on what I DID observe.

Let me begin by ruminating about Confucius, Mao, and Thomas Jefferson.  It seems to me that, when they're honest with themselves, Americans are usually inclined to equate personal happiness with the possession of wealth.  Oh, they know that money can't buy everything, but the general consensus is that the acquiring wealth is the best thing we can do to increase our chances of being happy and of obtaining status and esteem in our society.  Clearly, we tell ourselves, that is what Jefferson meant when he claimed (following Locke) that all human beings have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a pleasant-sounding synonym for Locke's more blunt "property.")

I guess Confucius, too, believed in pursuing happiness.  But he insisted that the deepest form of self-satisfaction resulted from serving an entity greater than oneself--the family, the community, the nation, the common culture (and all its traditions).  Not that he (or, at least, his interpreters) believed that acquiring wealth was not a good thing:  it's just that, for the Confucian, an individual's self-worth depends, not upon his personal fortune alone, but upon the fortune of the collectivities to which he belongs and contributes.

Hence, the aggressive, money-obsessed Shanghainsese might have motives and goals which are quite different from those of aggressive, money-obsessed New Yorker.  The Shanghainese wants to affirm his self-worth by contributing to the well-being of a unit to which he belongs, by being "good" at providing for, advancing and perpetuating this unit.  The New Yorker wants to affirm his self-worth by being "good" at providing for himself (and only secondarily for, perhaps, a spouse or a child; certainly he has virtually no interest in the community or the nation).

It's silly to assert (as Mao and the communists did/do) that the Chinese are not or should not be individualists or capitalists. They clearly ARE.  But I'm convinced that their individualism is so permeated with Confucian hierarchical values that almost no Chinese "individual" ever thinks of himself and his own self-actualization as the ultimate raison d'ĂȘtre of human existence--the absolute Good.

On the other hand, it's quite easy for an American, be he a businessman or an artist, to believe that the fulfillment of his own deeply subjective (and self-chosen) desires is, and should be, the definition of happiness--the absolute Good.

And so, even the greedy, grasping, avaricious street merchants in Shanghai and Guangzhou tend to regard themselves as functioning "together with others" in this struggle to get rich (even if the "others' are limited to the extended family)--capitalists with at least somewhat socialistic goals. Whereas the typical American is in the game alone--and for his own sake.

Perhaps this ingrained Confucianism is why the modern "communist" Chinese seem almost as willing as were their ancestors in the Qing, Ming, Song and Tang dynasties to submit to the authority of a central government claiming to serve the common good.  A Shanghainese restauranteur may yearn to own a car, but he understands (albeit grudgingly) why the government (via lottery and related fees) makes it nearly impossible for all but the very rich and "successful" to possess a vehicle in a city comprised of narrow alleyways and densely overpopulated neighborhoods.  He would be less accepting, of course, if this same government did not provide excellent and inexpensive public transport via subways, trams and buses.  In other words, if the government is going to LIMIT INDIVIDUAL freedoms, it cannot hope to be successful unless it PROVIDES COMPENSATION by actually serving the OVERALL GOOD.  This is what the emperors claimed to do (and what the good emperors actually did); this is what Mao claimed he would do--but failed miserably to achieve during the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution; this is what the current regime, ever since Deng Xiaoping, has struggled to do, with appreciable success, especially in the cities--by inventing and introducing a market-based but still unmistakably socialist economic system--an odd but pragmatically effective amalgam of marxist orthodoxy and free trade entrepreneurism.

It seems to me, then, that deep down in the Chinese subconscious, the emperor still demands obedience--and still commands a measure of respect, even if, on the surface, rebellion rages and protesters cynically (or self-righteously) justify their dissent by repeating the old adage, "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Am I wrong about this?  Maybe.  I'm very much an outsider.

But I'm not an outsider in America, so I'm certainly not wrong about an irony I can't resist underlining, to wit:  a considerable number of Americans--undoubtedly among the most freewheeling and unrestrained peoples of the earth--complain bitterly that our mountains aren't nearly high enough and that our "emperor" in Washington is so oppressively nearby that his gendarmes are even now surrounding the houses of all freedom-loving citizens and readying themselves to deprive true Americans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Gosh, do you think Confucius and Mao will be taking over soon?  Your opinions please: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.