Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Individuality" and the Chinese Lifestyle

When everyone has essentially the same lifestyle, everyone adheres to essentially the same value system. Perseverance, focus, consistency, and cool temper are the traits most prized by the Chinese as well as the traits most necessary to succeed in a standardized education system or a six-day-per-week job.

College admissions essays typically challenge students to reveal their values, and nearly all Chinese students choose these four same words to describe themselves at their best (an exception is the word "passion," which is usually meant in the sense of "the passion to keep working"). The reasons they give are the same, as well: these are the traits that enable a student to succeed on standardized tests, to remain in the education system, and to earn a job that will permit them to continue surviving. If they're lucky, theses traits might even earn them a ticket out of the country.

Among the workforce, vacation is comparatively rare and living is comparatively inconvenient, conspiring to make personal hobbies difficult to pursue even when income allows. A typical Chinese may spend six days a week working, two hours a day on public transport, and the seventh day doing housework. After deducting personal time spent taking meals with family, there is very little time left to be an "individual"-- to become an expert on an obscure topic, to develop a unique skill, or to produce a creative work. Cultivating individuality takes time; particularly time alone or with a purpose-driven community, but this time simply doesn't exist for most Chinese.

Whether aversion to individualism and preference for the current order preceded or caused the current state of affairs is debatable, but at any rate, a typical Chinese couldn't find the time to be an "individual" even if they wanted to.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Development and Ethics

Recently, the Chinese periodical Southern Weekend published an editorial by Duo Yu, who grew up in the fields before seizing a chance to attend university in the city.

"Only after attending university did I understand what is meant by 'urban-rural binary structure,'" Duo Yu recalls, "and that food producers having no food to eat is actually a policy scheme." The long-term estrangement between Chinese cities and countryside, he claims, has led to deep misunderstandings between burghers and farmers. Closing the gap between the two worlds is not a question of the city "saving" the countryside; rather, it's a mission to build mutual understanding, and to allow people on both sides to make informed decisions as they will. Furthermore, he concludes, an urbanite who derides a good-hearted farmer ought to question how "civilized" he really is.

Duo Yu's memoir demonstrates, among other things, that the developing-developed conflict within China is highly analogous to the developing-developed conflict between countries, in that:
1. The "developed" group relies on the "developing" group for basic necessities
2. The "developed" group patronizes the "developing" group by understanding it systematically rather than as a group of self-deciding individuals
3. The "developed" group is derisive of the customs of the "developing" group.
All this serves as fairly persuasive evidence that:
1. Ethically, the “developed” group is less developed than the "developing" group, and therefore, that
2. Development is unethical.
(If we assume that "unethical"="bad," whilst "development"="growth," that "growth" is a property of "nature," and that "nature” is "good," so thus all its properties are good; thus, "good"="growth"="development,") then we find that:

Let's call it the paradox of advancement. You take one step forward: learn a key fact, big word, new technique, or even a clever political theory; and all of a sudden, everyone who hasn't joined you is the Cause of All that is Wrong with the World. Take for example the US coastal dwellers' view of the center of the country, many second-generation Americans' embarrassment over their parents' accent, or the vile connotations carried by the word "immature." You've learned more, but become less. Then, say, you go on to run a mile: you learn all the words, invent some new techniques, and come to a deeper understanding of humanity; and all of a sudden, it feels as though you've gone nowhere at all. You start wondering if hunter-gatherers weren't happier, whether you really enjoy computing, and if we couldn't have avoided war simply by never having invented the wheel. And all of us can be at different places at once, depending on the issue and the group with which we identify.

Whatever the case, social betterment doesn't take place in Euclidean space, and words like "developed" or "civilized," which suggest situation at a fixed point, or even "progress" or "advancement," which indicate direction, derail productive conversations on the topic of betterment; they are the terms of a material, spacial paradigm; not an ethical one.