Chinese Exceptionalism -义理和人情
1. My English translation of the key terms (义理, 人情, 隐忍) might be a bit off. Suggestions are welcome.
2. If you disagree, please trash, ridicule, tear it apart or ignore. Don’t worry about me committing suicide out of shame.
Many phenomena in the Chinese family, social and political lives make no sense to outsiders. Why do the Chinese authorities (and their projects like the Olympics) enjoy “popular support” given the track record of the “oppressive regime”? The Western mind tends to explain this with the stereotype of the Chinese as “brain-washed” (by media control), manipulated and oppressed victims who cannot help themselves, or that the Chinese are culturally amoral and have “made a deal with the devil”. These explanations lead to the conclusion of a need for Western liberation and redemption. “We need to get the Chinese out of their miserable and sinful situations. They don’t know better but it is our responsibility.” To the Chinese ear, this rhetoric sounds like the “Whiteman’s Burden” all over again.
Can we explain the Chinese social and political behaviors that so intrigue the Western mind? Why did young and educated Chinese living in free Western democracies fully exposed to the Western media loudly support the Chinese authorities in the Olympic torch relays, instead of calling for the downfall of the oppressive CCP regime?
We need simple concepts to build a framework that can help make some sense of these puzzling phenomena.
It seems to me that one of the most significant motivational forces driving Chinese behavior and experience is “义理和人情”, which I translate as “relational duty and (human) bonding”. In a gross generalization, Westerners’ actions are designed to fulfill pragmatic functions. Westerners judge actions (and relations) from a functional perspective; one may ask “does it (e.g., the marriage) work?” Moral reasoning is framed in the same functional framework. “Does the action (e.g., supporting CCP) lead to moral or evil results?” Chinese social actions have more complicated meanings. Whatever pragmatic functions they serve, they are judged universally with respect to their implications on relational duty and bonding, which is purely experiential.
I have always admired Westerners’ abilities to articulate the rationales of their actions. They know what they are doing and why. As a Chinese, even when I know in my guts what the right thing to do is, I often cannot explain my rationale. For instance, in the Chinese culture there is a stigma on Chinese who badmouth China to foreigners. The most effective procedure for the Chinese authorities to neuter a political dissident is to make him an exile in the West, preferably let him appear in one of those “Panda-bashing” hearings in the United States Congress. Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng et al. can testify how effective this procedure is for erasing a dissident’s credibility with the Chinese. Is it wrong for a Chinese dissident to relate his displeasure with the Chinese government to foreign organizations? There is nothing wrong from a functional perspective (it leads to no negative consequences). Maybe the dissidents intend to bring good to China and its people and are successful in doing this by exposing the Chinese regime’s atrocities in the United States Congress. These actions are still distasteful to the Chinese because they violate “relational duty and human bonding” that one is born with (“违背义理人情”), in terms of ignoring in-group/out-group boundaries and family/outsider distinctions (内外有别， 人伦有常). The reaction is visceral and difficult to articulate; it is like reacting to incest (乱伦, practical consequences like birth defects are beside the point). In contrast, Americans do not trust the defectors they receive from a different, purely functional perspective. “If he can betray once, he can betray again.” The Western functional rationale can be clearly articulated.
Another concept that goes together with duty and bonding in Chinese social/political actions is 隐忍 (“silently enduring personal distress, disgrace and misunderstanding”). Although this concept refers to victimization and a dysfunctional coping strategy in the West, it has a positive meaning of fulfillment to the Chinese. (The best way to understand how a person functions, how he/she prioritizes his/her values and needs, is to observe how he/she copes with his/her own dysfunctions (which everyone has).)
In America, you would not try to borrow a substantial amount of money even from your friends. Americans go to the bank and get loans in the professional (commercial) way. A Chinese undergraduate can testify that among his 5 roommates, he can walk away with half of a month’s allowance (生活费) with a handshake from 4 of them (the last one is odd), when there is real need. The Chinese cares as much about money as anybody. However, the value of money is warped in a Chinese relationship; it is no longer functional, commercial or financial, but viewed through the prism of duty and bonding. “Even borrowing money from him is like pulling a tooth. He is a joke of a friend.” There is shock and disbelief in a Chinese upon learning that some American married couples keep their money separate. “What kind of family is that?” They do not care that it might be a more efficient way of managing family finance (“it functions”).
Borrowing money indiscriminately from relationship partners is dysfunctional everywhere. It complicates the relationship and causes hassle and distress and sometimes misunderstanding in both parties. The dysfunction and distress are silently endured, contained and coped with, for the purpose of fulfilling duty and bonding. Relationship means enduring and sacrifice. This attitude may be dysfunctional but far from meaningless or nonsensical. The meaning and sense is in the fulfillment of duty and bonding.
I am not suggesting that ordinary Chinese brutalized by the Chinese authorities should put up with their grievances silently. They should fight for their rights and other people (Chinese and foreign) should help them fight. However, in Chinese political life, for those who have political ambitions, an essential virtue is “fulfilling one’s duty while bearing the burden of disgrace.” (忍辱负重,). A related concept is “顾全大局” or “以大局为重”. This mentality helps explain why the Chinese populace puts up with an oppressive regime, makes a deal with the devil, as long as there is somebody in the regime (e.g. Wen Jiaobao and Zhou Enlai) they perceive as still honoring relational duty and bonding. The social contract between the Chinese and their rulers is relational duty and bonding, just like in Chinese personal relationship. This is the piece of Chinese exceptionalism I feel strongly about.
Prominent political figures that embody duty and bonding are the previous and current premiers Zhou Enlai and Wen Jiabao. Zhou is revered because he had silently endured pressure, distress and misperception to hold the country together, and fulfill his loyalty to Chairman Mao. He remained silent on many issues about the Cultural Revolution. People “know” he had endured and put up with a lot. He is a good guy. Perception is all that matters; truth and validity are separate issues. Similarly but in a different context, Wen Jiabao (AKA “Zhou Enlai Junior”) stood behind Zhao Ziyang on the Tiananmen Square just before Zhao’s official downfall and the tragic incident of June 4th, 1989, wearing a facial expression belying internal struggle and silent suffering. He knew Zhao’s political fate had been sealed and the consequences for showing up on the Square with Zhao. He went anyway, on camera. The loyalty, sense of duty and a minimal ego that led him to endure silently struck a chord among the Chinese. “苟利国家生死以，岂因福祸避趋之。”
One may wonder how came Wen did not get purged after June 4th, but ended up running the country. He not only stood behind Zhao Ziyang when he made his most incriminating speech on the Square on camera, but had been Zhao’s major aide. How does the CCP conduct its personnel evaluations? Do they also care about relational duty and bonding, to the degree of transcending ideology? Whatever the CCP was thinking, as an ordinary Chinese I was relieved that Wen stayed. Something about the Chinese system makes it viable. At least it did not violate duty and bonding too egregiously. Therefore we should leave them in Zhongnanhai and seek compromise with them. In the Chinese family everyone knows the value of “silently bearing the burden” for the holistic sake of the family as a gestalt.
Of course, power delegated via relational duty and bonding can be abused, just like power delegated via democratic processes.
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