Is it possible to define what makes a culture distinct from other cultures? Or is the question an impossible one to answer?
David Keightley, a renowned sinologist, attempted to answer this question in regards to China. More specifically, he asked, what makes Chinese people distinctively Chinese? How, if at all, are the Chinese different from the ancient Greeks, a civilization that serves as a (partial) foundation for Western culture today? Keightly attempts to answer these questions by studying the ancient past.
I am greatly simplifying his answer for the sake of brevity, but here are a few of his conclusions.
The Chinese have a deeply ingrained hierarchical social order, in which everybody knows his or her proper role and acts accordingly. This hierarchy occurs not just in this life, but in the afterlife as well. If you are at the top of the social ladder in this life, you will remain on the top in the afterlife. Conversely, if you are low in social status in this life, you will remain low in the afterlife.
Whereas the West values the individual above all else, the Chinese focus on the needs of the group (such as the family or the state). Significant to this focus on the group is the emphasis on lineage and ancestor worship.
An ethic of service, obligation, and emulation (as opposed to an ethic of individual achievement and distinction dominant in the West.) This ethic is so strong, Keightley argues, that soldiers and other servants of the king willingly die and are buried with him so that they can continue their service in the afterlife.
Whereas the Greeks had a deep sense of tragedy and irony, Keightley argues that the Chinese do not share this world view. He suggests that this could be at least partly explained by their view that death does not mark a huge change for people: one remains with one’s family and in the same basic circumstances after death as before it.
Overall, Keightley suggests that a combative individualism reigns in the West, whereas a harmonious social humanism predominates in China.
I am taking an online Introduction to China course, and the two professors teaching the course disagree on the validity of Keightley’s argument as a way to explain Chinese culture. One of them believes Keightley made a strong argument for the difference between Chinese and Greek civilization, at least as it manifested itself in ancient times. The other, however, dismissed Keightley’s argument as a vast oversimplification that cannot explain the past few hundred years of China’s history.
What do you think? For those of you who are Chinese or familiar with Chinese culture, do you see any validity to Keightley’s argument? Do you think it is even possible to make generalizations about an entire civilization?
David N. Keightley, “Early Civilization in China: Reflections on How It Became Chinese” in Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization, edited by Paul S. Ropp. (c) 1990 by The Regents of the University of California. Published by University of California Press. pp. 15-54.
Five of us middle-aged academics were leaning back in our comfy chairs with our tired feet on stools, wiggling our well-worn toes in anticipation of some gentle rubbing. We were in Zhuhai, China. The room we were in looked more like an office of a low-level Communist official than a spa, but that didn’t matter. I assumed our Chinese foot massage would be a little like an American pedicure, except with a little more foot rubbing. Ha!
A team of young, tiny Chinese women marched into the room single-file, in unison. They were all wearing the same blue, short-sleeved polo shirts and clingy black capris. They were also all wearing high platform heels, leading to a “clump, clump clump” sound when they walked. I was not sure if they were our masseuses or a conga dance team hired for our entertainment. Everything they need was in unison, especially when they walked in and out of the office. They were quite chatty, but only among themselves—in Chinese, of course.
First they placed our feet in buckets of warm, herb-infused water to soak. It felt soothing, and I started to relax. Not for too long, though, because they soon barked out orders in Chinese to us to sit on the stools with our backs towards them. Of course, I did not understand the orders so I looked around the room dumbly until I figured out what they meant.
I duly turned my back to my masseuse and she started massaging my shoulders and upper-back, which is a routine part of a Chinese foot massage. (Apparently, everything is connected.) Fortunately, clothes are not removed in Chinese massage, even the full-body type. Otherwise, it would have been a little awkward in our mixed-gender group. I’ve had massages in the U.S. before. Usually they feel mostly good, with perhaps a little bit of light pain when the masseuse does deep-tissue massage.
This was different! Since my back was towards my masseuse, I could not believe how much pain this 80-pound woman was able to inflict on my back in the 10 or 15 minutes she spent on it. At one point, I knew she was leaning heavily on my back, probably throwing all of her weight on it—along with the weight of her extended family. (Or at least that’s what it felt like.) Our Chinese companion/translator told us we should let them know if it hurt too much. It definitely hurt too much, but I was determined not to say anything, for fear of being seen as a wimp. The man sitting next to me was moaning and groaning in ways that sounded a little too intimate for my comfort zone. My other companions were mostly taking it stoically, but one person did squeak a little bit, asking for mercy.
Eventually, my masseuse removed the weight of her entire extended family from my back. We were told to sit back on the chair and put our feet up on the stool. It was time for the foot massage. Whew! Now the gentle and soothing part could begin.
Or not! The masseuses spent maybe 30 minutes or so kneading, pounding, twisting, turning, pummeling, hitting and otherwise attempting to mutilate our feet. After that, they spent several minutes massaging our lower legs and calves as well. According to an online source I found, “the massage is often painful, particularly for first timers because it is believed that each part of the foot is connected to a part of the body. If soreness is felt in a particular part of the foot, it is believed the corresponding part of the body has a problem.” Holy cow. If that is true, I must have a whole body full of some serious problems. Click here Nonetheless, I soldiered on, determined not to complain—or call the American embassy to complain that I was being tortured by Chinese commies.
While we were leaning back “enjoying” our massage, the masseuses chatted amongst themselves. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course. I got the impression, though, that they were talking about us in a way that was not entirely complimentary. I asked our translator what they were saying, and she said, “Oh, nothing. They’re just chatting.” I was skeptical, so later I asked a member of our group who speaks Chinese what they were saying. She said they had indeed been discussing us part of the time.
They were complaining about our “thick American feet.” I guess American feet cause them to work a lot harder than do the delicate Asian feet they are used to. At least thy didn’t use the word for “fat”!
I did survive the ordeal. I’m still not entirely convinced this wasn’t just an excuse for the masseuses to torture us, in retaliation for the U.S. being an overbearing superpower. However, I did find that my feet and especially my legs felt much better afterwards. I would definitely do it again and am looking to find a similar experience here in the U.S. I believe the American version is called “reflexology.” I don’t know if the Americans are as hard-core as the Chinese are.
Have any of you tried American reflexology? What was your experience like?
I’m hoping some of you can help me out here. I saw this thing on the streets of Beijing, lying on top of a table full of inexpensive jewelry and other trinkets. The vendors did not speak English and I do not speak Chinese, so I could not ask them to explain why anyone would buy what looks like a bear claw. (I’m not even sure that’s what it is.)
Do any of you know what this is and why someone would buy it? I’m hoping to be enlightened!
For more pictures from my guqin lessons, see my previous photographic post here.
One of the highlights of my recent visit to United International College in Zhuhai, China was my introduction to guqin (aka guchin) music. Our group of visitors was treated to a brief introductory lesson in playing this stringed instrument. The guqin has been played for thousands of years in China, and it is considered a refined instrument for gentlemen and scholars.
I can understand why. We only had time to listen to one song played by our teacher, but even that brief introduction induced a meditative, contemplative feeling in me.
This is not the kind of music that makes you want to dance! For me, the experience seemed closer to a yoga class. The instructor made sure we were sitting with our feet firmly placed on the ground. Furthermore, she checked our posture to make sure our backs and shoulders were upright, but not tense. My initial impression was that if I practiced the guqin regularly, I would feel more grounded, more disciplined, but also simultaneously more uplifted.
I’d like to make an announcement: my wealth will be increasing soon, as will be happiness and general well-being. How do I know this? Because my new Chinese souvenirs told me so. Chinese culture is replete with symbolism, so it is no surprise that most of the souvenirs and gifts I bought when I was in China have symbolic significance.
Take, for example, this framed embroidery of two fish. My sources tell me that fish represent abundance, or “more of.” Therefore, by buying and displaying this embroidery, I will surely gain more wealth in the near future. (One source claim that black and red koi more specifically represent wealth, so it looks like I made a good investment here.)
I also bought some jade jewelry. Jade is BIG in China and has a great deal of significance attached to it.
The meaning of jade
My tour guide told our group that jade has some health benefit because it contains some sort of beneficial mineral. (I guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention because I don’t remember the details.) She also said Chinese women often wore jade bangles because it brought fertility.
The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say about jade and China:
“Jade occupies a special place in Chinese artistic culture, valued as gold is in the West but hallowed with even loftier moral connotations. The Shuowenjiezi (“Discussions of Writings and Explanations of Character”) of Xu Shen defined jade (yu) as follows:
A stone that is beautiful, it has five virtues. There is warmth in its lustre and brilliance; this is its quality of kindness; its soft interior may be viewed from the outside revealing [the goodness] within; this is its quality of rectitude; its tone is tranquil and high and carries far and wide; this is its quality of wisdom; it may be broken but cannot be twisted; this is its quality of bravery; its sharp edges are not intended for violence; this is its quality of purity. (Translation adapted from Zheng Dekun)”
That’s an awful lot of benefits to be had for an earring and a pendant. What a deal! Plus, the silver design in the middle of both the pendant and the earrings is the Chinese character for happiness. That means this jade will bring me happiness as well as health and moral virtue. I can’t wait!
But that’s not all. I also bought these chubby feet:
My sources told me that the feet represent satisfaction with life, and the engraved fish on them represent wealth (as previously discussed.) I figure it can’t hurt to double-up on my good luck charms.
Just to be on the safe side, though, I walked through the door of life to bring me more benefits. This gate/door is found at one of the Ming Tombs I wrote about earlier. I have to admit I didn’t completely follow what my tour guide was saying, but I do remember that she said to definitely NOT go through the door from the other side. That way, the door represents death and will bring evil into your life. (I did see one poor woman walk through it from the wrong side. She must not have had a tour guide. I hope she’s OK.) On the other hand, walking through it from this side (the side you see in the picture) makes it a door of life (or something like that) and brings all sorts of wonderful benefits.
And since a person can never have too much good luck, I also touched a few of the knobs on this door (found at the Forbidden City) This door is supposed to bring great luck to whomever touches the knob(s) because there are nine rows of nine knobs and nine is an auspicious number.
With all of these symbols working in my favor, I figure I’ve got to have a good year, right? I’ll keep you posted on the rise and fall of my fortunes.
If you know more about Chinese symbolism, please feel free to chime in. It’s a fascinating topic!
Red Azalea is Anchee Min’s memoir of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She was born in 1957 and left China for the United States in 1984. In her memoir, she focuses on her experience being sent (unwillingly) to do back-breaking labor on a collective farm, her love affair with a woman named Wan, and being sent to movie studio to try out for a major role in Madame Mao’s film Red Azalea.
I learned a great deal about growing up in China during this period. I think what stood out most to me, however, was the saying mentioned by Min that “poverty gives birth to evil personalities” (145). With very few exceptions, most of the interactions between people portrayed in this memoir were marred by resentment, envy, betrayal, or hatred. If Communism was supposed to lead to feeling of solidarity with the other Chinese people, it failed miserably—at least in the world portrayed by Anchee Min. People who were forced to work closely together fought like dogs over the occasional rare bone. Rather than living together in harmony, like chop sticks, instead, they “all carried [their] own thoughts, thoughts of how to kill one another” (120).
In addition to learning about how much Chinese people hated each other, I also learned some other useful information: Chinese sayings and techniques for insulting one another. In the rest of this post, I will share some of my newfound Chinese wisdom with you. That way, you will be better prepared should you ever journey to China yourself.
First of all, you will need a new name if you are a boring Westerner with a name like Jim or John or Jane or Jill. You will need something more evocative. It could express something about your personality or what your parents wished for you. Anchee Min’s name, for example, means Jade of Peace. Some good Communist parents named their children things like Guard of Red, Big Leap, Long March. If you are not ideologically inclined, you could just name yourself something pretty or fragrant, such as Autumn Leaves, Sound of Rain, Little Bell, or Firewood.
Personally, I have chosen to go with a name that matches where I live and how I spend most of my time: Minnesota Couch Warmer.
In order not to get into trouble, you will need to know how to show respect to your superiors. I learned from Min that the really powerful people are known simply by their titles: “When someone in this country was called by his title instead of his name, he was beyond general importance. For example, Mao was called the Chairman, and Chou, the Premier. The omission of the last name displayed the power of the persona.” So, to show proper respect to me, you could call me Madame Blogger or, better, yet “the Blogger.”
In addition to respecting your superiors, you should learn how to flatter them as well. Red Azalea suggests that agricultural metaphors work best for this process. As one person said, “I am Soviet Wong’s student. I am what she made of me. I am the soil and she is the cow who cultivates me. I am her harvest” (116). I think it would be acceptable to employ variations on this theme, such as, “I am the dirt, and she is the peat moss who made me fertile” or “I am the seed, and he is the Miracle Grow product that produces lovely blooms if used as directed.”
Although you will hate most everybody you meet, it’s possible you’ll have a little room for a close relationship with someone you actually like. In that case, you can express your intimacy by saying things like “you are a good sprout,” and “you know me better than the worms in my intestine” (132). If you want to vary this language, try to restrain yourself to creepy animals and/or disgusting body parts, such as, “You are as close to me as a wood tick whose head is stuck in my bloodstream and whose body is bloated with my blood.”
To Express Suffering. So far, all of the books I’ve read about China focus on the extensive suffering of the people. Be prepared, therefore, not only to suffer, but to express your suffering appropriately, as the following passages do.
We were rice shoots that had been pulled out of the mud. We lay, roots exposed. But we did not want to submit. We would never submit. We were heroines. We just tried to bridge the gap. We were trying out best. The rice shoots were trying to grow without mud. Trying to survive the impossible. We had been resisting the brutality of the beating weather.
It is difficult for a snake to go back to hell once it has tasted heaven.
Because of all the suffering you will endure, you will want to insult people frequently, either behind their backs or to their faces. Make sure you study this section carefully.
Insulting a woman’s looks is apparently a universal pastime, and here are a few suggestions on how you might do this, Chinese-style.
“She had a small thin mouth. So small that it looked like the anus of my hen Big Beard.”
That woman’s body reminds me of a piece of furniture—a door-thin back, flat breasts, nipples like drawer knobs, table-leg legs and the face of a cooked eggplant.
I’ve always said that you can never go wrong with eggplant and hen anus metaphors and these are classic examples of my philosophy.
China is still at least nominally a Communist country, so it wouldn’t hurt to have some handy Communist-style insults on hand to use in a pinch.
“They said you had been a bourgeois individualist, they said you always acted alone, you had no sense of groupism, you’re selfish, so you should be eliminated.”
“Everyone in the studio is convinced that you are the capitalist sprout.”
Some more general insults that can be used in a variety of circumstances are these:
“You rice worms have no ears!” (This is helpful if you are the leader of an orchestra, band, choir, or other musical ensemble.)
“She is seriously corrupted, like a stone in a manure pit—smelly and hard!”
A fly only parks on a cracked egg.
“You pig-shit-head, you louse-won’t-touch corpse, you have disappointed and dishonored me.”
“Spoiled rice shoot, pig ass, mating worm”
“A mother of a fart.”
Sometimes a person will insult you first, and you have to be able to respond appropriately. Here is an example from Red Azalea of an exchange between two women who hate each other
Lu said, “Comrade Secretary, I think you’ve got spiritual termites in the house of your mind.”
“Yeah?” Yan looked at Lu sideways. “You know where I got those termites? From you. You’ve got termites fully packed in your head. You have no clean beams or studs in the house of your mind. They were eaten up a long time ago. And now your termites are hungry, they are climbing out from your eyes, earholes, noseholes and asshole to eat up other people’s houses.”
It is generally a good idea to use a termite metaphor at least once a day, especially if said termite lodges in human body orifices.
I think that is enough for today’s lesson in Chinese culture. I would love to hear back from my readers, especially if they can practice using some of these phrases and concepts in their own sentences and paragraphs. Practice makes perfect! –Minnesota Couch Warmer, aka The Blogger
QUESTION FOR READERS: WHAT SHOULD YOUR CHINESE NAME BE?