Understanding Chinese Culture

August 6, 2009 (11:23AM)

Yes – the Chinese are inscrutable – but so are the Americans if you are Chinese. The gap between us is so much farther than the east is from the west, presumably a distance never to be breached.

We are opinionated, presumptions, immodest, and loud. We are also friendly and generous. They are modest, retiring, cautious, and opaque. They are also friendly and generous. Both are correct and each reflects the politics and culture of the homeland.

Americans have a rotten public educational system which forces all to partake no matter how time consuming or unproductive. The Chinese have an excellent educational system from which only a small minority can benefit with the balance relegated to economic insecurity. Americans have a free press; the Chinese think they might have one but they are not sure and they are too embarrassed to lose face by inquiring. The Chinese think all Americans except people of color are wealthy at $50,000 a year, while the Chinese average wage is $100 a month. No one has a comparative concept of the living standards of the other, their presumptions or assets. And Americans know that having piles of money is not necessarily a blessing. We have also squandered our personal income on trinkets and leisure. The Chinese would be horrified at this self-indulgence.

Americans think the Chinese have a cradle to grave social service system; they don’t. Americans find the Chinese obeisance to communism inexplicable; the Chinese can’t imagine not being team players, especially since they are told their sacrifice is for Mother China. Imagine trying to pull that Mother America thing on us! Cynics are romantics with their rose colored glasses off. The Chinese think the government pays for everything; Americans know that everyone pays for everything no matter where they live or who is in charge – one way or the other.

So if we wish to explain the breach we must look to the poets. American poets are primarily political figures like Jefferson “they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights” or Nathan Hale “I regret I have but one life to give for my country” or on the death of Lincoln “Oh Captain, my captain” all reflecting on the American political experiment. They mirror on what George Will calls our “secular religion” of liberty and our sacred founding documents. China has none of this. They revere their poets and applaud them back to the time of Christ. But the texts are quite different. They focus less on the body politic and more on eternal truths, nature and what we call wisdom literature. There is irony, sarcasm and humor too as do all poets, but it is not a body politic spoken created through their words.

Poetry is the product of personal sadness and loss. Our old poets spoke of the pain of creating a nation out of nothing with a disassociation with the failed patterns of past societies. (This might be hard to believe as we view some of today’s political blowhards.) We made this experiment and the liberty of ourselves and
other nations a focal point of all the pain of our wars and social adjustments. Today American pain is heard in rock music, the anger of the radical political left and the romantic sad songs of Country Music. Good print poets apparently are gone and even Broadway must have revivals of past productions to gain a new public.

China, in contrast, has not left its pain behind. They still do not have enough jobs, or enough food, or enough education, or enough freedom. They think that acquiescence to the nanny state will bring this – well it didn’t for the Soviets – but what are 1.5 billion people to do? As they have been powerless for 4,000 years against the warlords, so they are today. In their personal lives they are romantics, and in this sadness they wistfully hope for the people’s utopia BUT just in case they continue to work night and day, and send money home to the farm.

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