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China's 'Moral Sandstorms' and 'National Character Problem' by Yi Zhongtian

by marco Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 08:22:47 AM EST

The following is an interview with Chinese historian and blogger 易中天  Yì Zhōngtiān in Guangdong news magazine 时代周报 The Time Weekly (2009 December 31).  I discovered it via 洪晃 Hóng Huǎng, another prominent Chinese blogger, who introduced the piece writing:

最近总想写,总写不出来。终于有人写出来了,而且如此精辟。贴出来和大家分享吧。

As much I've wanted to, I haven't managed to write recently. In the end, others have managed to write, and have done so incisively. Posting here to share with everybody.

Huǎng

It's probably more "incisive" in the original Chinese than in my translation, but I found it it intriguing nonetheless.

About 易中天  Yì Zhōngtiān:

易中天  Yì Zhōngtiān (born 1947) is a Chinese historian, author, scholar and TV personality. He is a professor at Xiamen University. ...

______

Second in a series of attempts to translate essays by prominent Chinese bloggers into English, the first of which was 'China Must Lead the Emissions Reduction Century' by Xue Yong

front-paged by afew


道德沙塵暴與國民性問題 |
易中天1001的BLOG
(2010-01-01 10:41:44)
Moral Sandstorms and the Question of China's National Character | Yì Zhōngtiān's 1001 Blog (2010-01-01 10:41:44)
時代周報: 您如何評價當下中國的道德情況?Time Weekly: What is your assessment of the state of morality of China today?
易中天: 我哪有這資格?評價沒有,感覺有一點。Yì Zhōngtiān: How am I qualified to answer this? I don't have any assessment, just a bit of a feeling.
時代周報: 甚麼感覺?Time Weekly: What kind of feeling?
易中天: 成問題,沒辦法,不甘心。貪官前腐後繼續,企業坑蒙拐騙,高校抄襲成風,球場弄虛作假。從官方到民間,那個領域,那個行業,完全乾乾淨淨,一點事沒有?Yì Zhōngtiān: That there is a problem, and that we can't just sit back and do nothing about it. In the aftermath of the initial rot of corrupt officials, we have businesses defrauding, cheating and swindling; then plagiary in high schools becomes the norm; and now there's corruption in sports. From top to bottom [literally, "From government to the people"], is there any place or activity that is completely clean and doesn't have at least one stain?
時代周報: 那您怎麼描述?Time Weekly: Well then how would you describe the situation?
易中天: 沙塵暴。我認為當下中國的道德狀況,可稱為“沙塵暴頻發”,就是老有駭人听聞的“缺德事”發生。比如三鹿奶粉案,比如杭州飆車案、鄧玉嬌案等等。但我們不能說,全中國都變成“道德沙漠”了。畢 竟還有那麼多的善舉善行,比如志願者,比如地震捐款行動。Yì Zhōngtiān: Sandstorms. I think the moral state of China today could be called a "recurring sandstorm". I mean, appalling "immoralities" are constantly occurring. For example, the Sanlu milk powder incident, the Hangzou drag-racing incident, the Deng Yujiao incident, and so on. And yet, China isn't altogether barren of morality. After all, there are still many kind acts and good deeds, for example, the volunteerism and donation drives after the [Sichuan] earthquake.
但“道德沙塵暴”太凶了,動不動就出人命。更讓人憂慮的,是止不住。比如酒後駕車,成都那邊剛判了個孫偉銘,南京這邊又出了個張明寶,連撞九人,五死四傷。公眾就會想,這樣下去,怎麼得了啊!However, these "moral sandstorms" are fearsome, and all too often end up taking human lives. What's also troubling is how they never stop. Look at drunk driving: over in Chengdu they just sentenced Sun Weiming [to death for killing four people], and then here in Nanjing they sentenced Zhang Mingbao [to life imprisonment] for crashing his car into nine pedestrians, killing five and injuring four. People need to consider, if we go on like this, what will the consequences be!
時代周報 政府應會有所作為的啊?Time Weekly: What then should the Chinese government do?
易中天: 在道德問題上,政府最好不要管,不該管,不能管,也管不了。政府管道德,對公民和政府都會造成傷害。政府管道德,無非擔任兩個角色,一是倡導者,二是仲裁者。當仲裁者,對公民不利。因為政府手中有公權力呀,權力還很大。這就很容易把道德裁判變成“法外施刑”,把有道德污點的人變成“過街老鼠”。當倡導者,則對政府不利。因為這會對政府官員的道德水平,提出極高的要求。他們甚至必須是全民的道德楷模,否則就不好意思當倡導者。結果是什麼呢?是一旦出現貪腐,則政府威望盡失。Yì Zhōngtiān: The government had best not, must not, cannot, and will not administrate the morality issue. If the government tries to administrate morality, it will harm both the people and the government itself. If the government tries to administrate morality, it will have to play two roles: (1) as morality arbiter, and (2) as morality promoter. If the government becomes the arbiter of morality, that will not be good for the people. With public authority in its hands, the government's power is enormous. Governmental moral adjudication could easily turn into an "extra-legal" system of punishment, and make morally tainted people the targets of witch hunts and popular hatred1. On the other hand, being morality promoter will not be good for the government. For it will raise unreasonably high expectations on the ethics of government officials. So much so that they will have to become the very models of morality before the entire population. Otherwise, promoting morality will get very awkward. So what'll happen? Some corruption scandal breaks out, and then the government's standing goes out the window.
時代周報: 設立“國教”,借助宗教的力量行不行?Time Weekly: Setting up a "state religion", to leverage the power of religion, would that work?
易中天: 學術界確實有一部分人提出來,說要有信仰,甚至主張建立國教。比方說,將儒學變為儒教,再把儒教定為國教,認為這可以解決道德問題。因為在西方社會,道德的使命很大程度上是由宗教來完成的。可惜這同樣行不通。第一,中華民族是沒有宗教感的,不然早創造出來了。第二,儒學在本質上是反宗教的。儒學的主張,是 “以人為本”,不是“以神為本”;是“人本主義”,不是“神本主義”,怎麼可能變成宗教?第三,一個現代的、民主的、法治的國家,是不能建立國教的。中華人民共和國憲法,也規定公民有信仰的自由。這就包括有信教和不信教的自由,也包括如果信教,信哪個教的自由。如果把儒學定為國教,是違憲的。Yì Zhōngtiān: It's true that in academic circles there are some who say we must have religious beliefs, and even go so far as to advocate establishing a state religion. Say, for example, let Confucianism-the-academic-discipline [儒學 Rúxué] become Confucianism-the-religion [儒教 Rújiào], and then make Confucianism the state religion. They think that this would solve the morality problem. For in Western society, morality's job2 was largely accomplished by religion. What a pity then that it won't work in the same way here. First, the Chinese people do not have an affinity for religion, otherwise they would have created one already. Second, Confucianism [the academic discipline] is itself essentially anti-religious. Confucian principles are "people-centered", not "God-centered", "humanist", not "theist". So how could it be made into a religion? Third, a modern, democratic country governed by the rule of law cannot establish a state religion. The Constitution of the People's Republic of China stipulates that citizens have the freedom of belief/faith. This includes the freedom to believe in a religion or not to believe in a religion, and for those who do believe in a religion, it includes the freedom to choose which religion to believe in3. Making Confucianism the state religion would violate the Constitution.
時代周報: 有人說,只有人類共同的弱點,沒什麼中國人特有的“國民劣根性”。所謂“國民劣根性”,是殖民主義者的臆造。你怎麼看?Time Weekly: Some say that all weaknesses are shared by all of humanity; that there are no "national character flaws" particular to Chinese people; that these so-called "national character flaws" are colonialist fabrications. How do you see it?
易中天: 我們有三千年的文明史啊!我們是道德感極強的“禮儀之邦”啊!這會兒居然刮起“道德沙塵暴”來,誰甘心啊?所以,我們的態度,是擔憂而不絕望。絕望,這個民族就完了。但要從根本上解決問題,還得改造國民性。Yì Zhōngtiān: Our civilization is three-thousand years old. We are a "country of propriety4" with the highest moral sensibility. And now these "moral sandstorms" come sweeping in. Are we going to sit down and take this? We should be worried about our manners, but we mustn't become hopeless. If we become hopeless, then this nation is done for. Still, we have to deal with this problem on a fundamental level, and must transform our national character.
世界各民族,是不是都只有人類共性,沒有民族個性?如果有,就不能說只有人類共同弱點了。再比方說,什麼叫“劣根性”?是不是與生俱來、不可更改的?如果是,那就誰都沒有。所有的缺點和毛病,都是後天的,也都是可以改變的嘛!所以,問題並不在于叫不叫 “國民劣根性”,而在于是否承認我們的國民性有問題。Do the various peoples of the world only have one shared personality, and no unique personalities of their own? If not, then we cannot say that all weaknesses are shared by all of humanity. For example, what are "character flaws"5? Are they something innate, that cannot be changed? If so, then no one has "character flaws" [i.e. innate and unchanging flaws in character5]. For all faults and shortcomings are acquired, and they all can be changed! Therefore, the problem does not lie in what we call or don't call "national character flaws", but rather in whether or not we admit that our national character has problems.
時代周報: 您認為有問題嗎?中國人要站起來,必須破除消滅民族自信心的魔咒,你怎麼看?Time Weekly: You think it has problems? Shouldn't the Chinese people stand up, and rid themselves of this curse of vanished national confidence. How do you see this?
易中天: 冰凍三尺,非一日之寒。今天的“道德沙塵暴”,恰恰源于積重難返的“國民性問題”。中國沒有“公德”,也沒有“私德”,只有在熟人之間,才講道德。其他地方,就不講。這樣一種道德,顯然是靠不住的,甚至不是道德。如果利益的誘惑足夠大,為朋友兩肋插刀,就很可能變成“把刀插在朋友肋上”。Yì Zhōngtiān: Rome was not built in a day. The origin of today's "moral sandstorms" lies right in this hard-to-get-rid-of deep-seated6 "national character problem". There isn't any "social/public morality" in China, nor any "personal/private morality". We only talk about morality among people we know. Otherwise, we just don't talk about it. Such a kind of morality is obviously not reliable. When the lure of one's own interests becomes great enough, the friend who would take a bullet for you may well turn into the friend who puts a bullet in you.
真正的自信心,是可以被摧毀的嗎?如果可以,那他並不自信。如果自信,那就不能摧毀。要讓一個人沒有自信,只能在他還沒有建立起自信心的時候,比如小孩子。可是,有著三千年文明史的民族,還是小孩子嗎?Genuine self-confidence, can it be destroyed? If so, then that isn't self-confidence at all. If it were real self-confidence, then it just couldn't be destroyed. If you want someone not to have self-confidence, that is only possible when they haven't yet built it up in the first place, as with small children. But is this nation, with its three-thousand year history of civilization, still a small child?

My notes:

1“過街老鼠”: An expression meaning, "as popular as rats crossing the street"

2道德的使命: Literally, the "objectives/purpose/mission of morality"

3Unless of course the founder of that religion claims that "aliens have introduced modern machinery like computers and airplanes", that "if cloning human beings succeeds, the aliens can officially replace humans," and that "U.S. technology has already detected some aliens". ("One type looks like a human, but has a nose that is made of bone. Others look like ghosts. At first they thought that I was trying to help them. Now they know that I am sweeping them away. ... Modern science does not understand this, so governments can do nothing. The only person in the entire world who knows this is myself alone.")

4“禮儀之邦”: Literally, a "state/nation/country (邦) of etiquette/manners/refinement/ceremony/propriety (禮儀)"

5On "(national) character flaws", see this thread below.

6積重難返: hard to get rid of, long-standing, deep-seated (in reference to faults and bad habits); see this comment below.

Display:
That is most interesting. Thank you so much. I think that I'll need to read it a couple of more times before I can start to really digest it.
by Richard Lyon (rllyon@gmail.com) on Thu Feb 18th, 2010 at 03:25:02 PM EST
thank you. An interesting insight into some of the viewpoints within China

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Feb 18th, 2010 at 04:49:03 PM EST
Just goes to show you: It is tough all over!

I am very glad we have a sharp pair of eyes on the Chinese blogosphere. What China is currently undergoing is unprecedented in scope and speed in the world. In 1945 China was still largely a traditional society. Now they are the most curious hybrid ever on display. Fascinating stuff.

For more than 2000 years China had been a single government over many peoples and has ruled through a highly educated Mandrinate. The CPC became the new Mandrins in 1949. The methods used were extremely efficient for the society with which they dealt. But these methods will not work for the type of society to which they wish to transition. Can they create the social infrastructure sufficiently quickly?  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 12:04:01 AM EST
ARGeezer: The CPC became the new Mandrins in 1949. The methods used were extremely efficient for the society with which they dealt. But these methods will not work for the type of society to which they wish to transition.

Absolutely.  But the methods of 1949 were abandoned at least once  (and depending on how you define them, arguably more than once) with the Reform and Opening (改革開放 găigé kāifàng) following Mao's death in 1976.  So far, the post-Mao approach has been working remarkably well for the large majority of the population on the economic front, albeit with horrible consequences for the environment (in turn with effects back onto the population).  At the same time, the extraordinary scale and speed of this success is becoming a curse, having raised the hopes and feelings of entitlement of the entire population, made acute and unrealistic by obscene socioeconomic inequalities.  The question is, by what methods can they manage this manic merry-go-round so that it doesn't fly off the axle?

ARGeezer: Can they create the social infrastructure sufficiently quickly?

That's a big piece of the puzzle.  Another big piece -- subtly related to social infrastructure, I think -- is the psychological outlook, attitudes, customs and behavior of the people, which is what Yì Zhōngtiān discusses in this interview.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 04:01:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
 in this discussion is the question that contains:

European Tribune - China's 'Moral Sandstorms' and 'National Character Problem' by Yi Zhongtian

this curse of vanished national confidence

What is the interviewer referring to? Is it the feeling that the Chinese' self-image as a nation* has been sullied by the perception of a high incidence of greedy, rapacious ("immoral") behaviour? Do you think this corresponds to anything you have been able to observe (in media representations of current behaviour and of "national" feeling about it, or anecdotally, in people around you)?

(*) which people in China share the national sentiment, the feeling of belonging to a nation?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 03:08:06 AM EST
afew:

What is the interviewer referring to? Is it the feeling that the Chinese' self-image as a nation* has been sullied by the perception of a high incidence of greedy, rapacious ("immoral") behaviour?

I don't think it refers to that.  It is much deeper, and more chronic.  It refers to a feeling that I suspect and believe is shared by many people in developing countries, especially those that were colonized or occupied in the last few hundred years.  But I think it is felt particularly strongly in China, because of the abject devastation, humiliation and suffering they perceive themselves to have experienced as a country and as a people since the first half of the 19th century.  Today, the aftermath of this disastrous recent history is patent in China's economic and some (including perhaps Yì Zhōngtiān) would say social or moral retardment.

afew: Do you think this corresponds to anything you have been able to observe (in media representations of current behaviour and of "national" feeling about it, or anecdotally, in people around you)?

In short, yes.  There is something in the defiant national pride I sense in many Chinese that reminds me of the affected confidence of adolescent boys, the sort that hides and disguises a poignant insecurity that it wouldn't do at all to let others in on.  But there is something else that is very common:  a deeply felt notion of having been a victim, and having had to endure that, with no help from anyone else, and having done so fairly stoically.  This feeling is instilled, cultivated and encouraged in large part by China's education system and media -- in large part, but not completely, maybe not even for the most part.

afew: which people in China share the national sentiment, the feeling of belonging to a nation?

The overwhelming majority.  Naturally, the Han Chinese (92% of the population) probably feel it in its most undiluted form. But my teacher, who is from Yunnan and is a member of an ethnic minority in that region, definitely feels that national sentiment -- while at the same time feeling very much a member of her ethnic minority and Yunnan.  The same goes for Tibetans and Mongolians that I met when I was living in Sichuan: they were extremely proud, electrifyingly so, of their ethnic cultural heritages, but definitely identified themselves as Chinese.  On the other hand, I have met Uighurs in Shanghai, extremely well educated, whose contempt for the Chinese government, and their resentment of many Han Chinese people from whom they feel prejudice and racism every day, are painfully evident, despite how discreet and good-humored they try to be about it.  On top of that, there is intra-national/intra-ethnic competitiveness sliding into antipathy and prejudices between regions in China: nasty comments about "those southerners in Guangdong" or those "Northeasterners" or those "Sichuan people", or those "non-Beijingers" (Beijingers are one goddamned proud lot), or worse, "those peasants from [take your pick of less economically developed rural provinces]" (such comments are voiced in mixed company, because you never know who is from the provinces and has since succeeded in passing as a successful urbanite, but apparently those prejudices are quite strong among city-folk).  Despite this diversity, this multidimensionality, and these contradictions though, the feeling of being Zhōnggúorén Chinese is quite strong in the vast majority of people, I would bet.

Having said that, one wonders how long that will be the case if the economy collapses, or even just slows down to a critically low rate.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 04:57:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
marco:
Today, the aftermath of this disastrous recent history is patent in China's economic and some (including perhaps Yì Zhōngtiān) would say social or moral retardment.

Ah, so the "moral" problems they are discussing are not seen as related to rapid economic development?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 05:08:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
afew: Ah, so the "moral" problems they are discussing are not seen as related to rapid economic development?

Incidentally, perhaps, but not fundamentally.  Specifically, the moral problem becomes more manifest amidst the unprecedented wealth and freedom of contemporary China, and no doubt is exacerbated by them (the "lure of one's own interests" that Yì Zhōngtiān refers to).  But the origins go deeper, and earlier.  At least, as I read it.

There was a phrase in one of the answers that was difficult to translate, both because I was not familiar with it before, and also because I couldn't find the right equivalent in English.  In fact, this is common when dealing with Chinese, because they so often use proverbs and idioms that originate with myths, history, and folk sayings and concentrate the "lesson" or "message" of these stories into pithy (often four-character) formulae called chéngyǔ 成語.  In this case, the chéngyǔ in question was 積重難返 Jīzhòngnánfǎn in the sentence:

The origin of today's "moral sandstorms" lies right in this hard-to-get-rid-of "national character problem".

where I used the hyphenated hack "hard-to-get-rid-of" to translate 積重難返 Jīzhòngnánfǎn.  However, that phrase on its own is variously translated as:

  1. Bad old practices die hard.
  2. It is difficult to get rid of deep-rooted practices.
  3. Ingrained habits cannot be cast off overnight.
  4. Ingrained habits are hard to overcome.
  5. Old habits are difficult to get rid of.
  6. It is difficult to break a habit of long standing.

Old, deep-rooted, ingrained, long standing: as you can see, the issue is  probably not thought to be either recent or originating in contemporary circumstances, such as the rapid economic development of the last thirty years.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 06:21:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
marco: as you can see, the issue is  probably not thought to be either recent or originating in contemporary circumstances, such as the rapid economic development of the last thirty years.

Of course, this begs the question: What counts as "old" / "deeply ingrained" / "long standing" vs. "recent" / "contemporary", etc.?

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 06:43:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, he seems to want to get back beyond the accumulation of recent examples of uncivic behaviour.

What I'm wondering about is semantic field of what you translate by "morality"?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 07:02:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
afew: What I'm wondering about is semantic field of what you translate by "morality"?

I've been wondering about this myself, and it's actually worth a diary on its own (for which I have to do a bit of research).  For lack of time, for now I can only point you to these dictionary references.  I'll try to get back to it soon.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 08:20:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's a vital point to explain, thanks.

Is this passage what he actually wrote?

European Tribune - China's 'Moral Sandstorms' and 'National Character Problem' by Yi Zhongtian

what are "character flaws"? Are they something innate, that cannot be changed? If so, then no one has character flaws. For all faults and shortcomings are acquired, and they all can be changed!

If so If not ?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 07:00:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
afew:
what are "character flaws"? Are they something innate, that cannot be changed? If so, then no one has character flaws. For all faults and shortcomings are acquired, and they all can be changed!

If so If not ?

That paragraph was the most confusing one to me.  Maybe it's lucid to a native Chinese speaker, but I had a hard time following the logic of his grammar and reasoning.

I think what he is saying is:  We may have flaws in our character (whether national or individual), but these flaws are all acquired after birth through experience, environment and education, and they can be modified.  So if we conceive or define "character flaws" as flaws that are innate and unchangeable, then we cannot use this term ("character flaws") to refer to the flaws that we in fact do have, since we have just postulated that any flaws we do have are neither innate nor unchangeable.  In short, we all may have flaws in our character, but no one has "[innate] character flaws" as defined in this way.

Hope that makes sense.  I should probably add quotes around "character flaws" in the text.

It may be worth adding some remarks about the choice of "character flaw" to translate the Chinese.  The word "劣根性" liègēnxìng is translated in different dictionaries as,

  • deep-rooted bad habits
  • inherent flaw
  • scoundrelism

The "deep-rooted" and the "inherent" suggest that the defect is to a certain degree endemic.  This goes along with the fact that the last two characters 根 gēn and 性 xìng mean "root" and "nature" respectively.  The first character, 劣 liè means "inferior; bad; slightly".  So:  "inferior/bad root nature".

Having said this, the fact that Yì Zhōngtiān questions whether or not these "劣根性" liègēnxìng are "innate / inherent / inborn/native" (與生俱來 yǔshēngjùlái) and "unchangeable / unalterable / final" (不可更改 bùkěgènggǎi) left me the impression that these aspects of the term, though typical, might not be essential to it.  I reckoned that the same is true with phrase: "character flaw".  While the suggestion that the flaw is innate/inherent in the person is much lighter in English, it is nevertheless there to a certain degree.  Also, if I had used a phrase referring to innateness, like "inherent flaw", then I worried that Yì Zhōngtiān's comments would sound contradictory and strange.  On the other hand, "deep-rooted bad habits" did not capture the "character", "nature", "personality" aspect of the word's meaning, aside from its awkwardness.

Unfortunately, using the term "character flaw" may add some further confusion in my translation, when it is used as part of the phrase "national character flaw".  Namely, do we parse it as national-character flaw (i.e. "flaw in the collective 'national character' [whatever that is]") or as national character-flaw (i.e. "character flaw that is present among the people of that nation")?  This parsing question may just boil down to a distinction without a difference (which is what I was betting on when choosing to use "character flaw").  But it does touch on the potentially interesting issue of the relationship between culture and individual personality and how each affects / determines / limits the other.

Actually, strictly grammatically speaking, 國民劣根性 guómín liègēnxìng ("national character flaw") can only be parsed in the second way, i.e. as national character-flaw.  However, in effect, I believe the ambiguity just described also exists in the Chinese.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 08:07:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
marco: However, in effect, I believe the ambiguity just described also exists in the Chinese.

I mean, the semantic ambiguity also exists in the Chinese.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 08:47:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm interested, re this subject of "innate" characteristics versus "acquired" or "culturally induced" characteristics, in what the state of accepted understanding is in general, in China, about cognitive science and the move away from the "Blank Slate*" theory of human mind toward the "modifiable bundle of pretty strong instincts" theory, exemplified by *Pinker and Toobey/Cosmides.

I ask because it seems that such a foundational change in understanding of human personality structure would, if accepted by a sufficiently academic group of politicians, successfully leap across that time gap inherent in changing a society. Especially one trying to overcome feelings of inferiority and victimhood and nonetheless avoid foolish nationalism and feelings of unwarranted superiority.

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!

by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Tue Mar 2nd, 2010 at 12:13:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Doesn't he just mean that something innate to one's being cannot honestly be a called a flaw. That is, if lying is an innate characteristic of a of a person, it cannot honestly be described as a character flaw any more than having blue eyes can be called a flaw.  It might be something you want to change for externally imposed social reasons, but that doesn't mean there is anything inherently wrong with it.
by santiago on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 01:40:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think so.  His point is that the Chinese should not just throw their hands up in the air and say, "We can't do anything about this problem, it's innate to us, it cannot be changed."  The question is not whether something is inherently a flaw or inherently wrong, but whether it's inherently part of a person's "character".

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.
by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 02:37:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But my interpretation is what supports that point.  He doesn't believe that such things are innate to the Chinese, and he offers as argument that if they were, we couldn't really even call them flaws in the first place. So those who argue that corruption is just a foreign definition imposed on Chinese ways of doing things in order to make the Chinese conform to foreign values must be wrong if they still also believe that corruption is wrong.
by santiago on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 03:39:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm afraid I must still not be following your interpretation.

santiago: He doesn't believe that such things are innate to the Chinese

Yes, I am with you up to here.

santiago: and he offers as argument that if they were, we couldn't really even call them flaws in the first place.

No.  He would say that they were still flaws.  If some trait X turns out actually actually to be innate, X still remains a flaw.  In that case, Yì Zhōngtiān would not say that X is no longer a flaw (just because it's innate).  Rather, he would abandon his premise that there is no such thing as innate character flaws.

santiago: So those who argue that corruption is just a foreign definition imposed on Chinese ways of doing things in order to make the Chinese conform to foreign values must be wrong if they still also believe that corruption is wrong.

Yì Zhōngtiān would agree that "those who argue that corruption is just a foreign definition imposed on Chinese ways of doing things in order to make the Chinese conform to foreign values" are wrong.  But they are not wrong because "they still also believe that corruption is wrong".  They are wrong because corruption is (according to him) a particularly acute problem in Chinese society, and whether or not the Chinese or foreigners label it a "national character flaw [i.e. an innate one]" is irrelevant.  As far as he is concerned, corruption is neither innate nor irremediable, but it is a flaw, it is wrong, and it must be corrected, not just dismissed as a false and meaningless foreign aspersion.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 07:43:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How does the "nature" vs. "nurture" question play in Chinese culture?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 09:37:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ARGeezer: How does the "nature" vs. "nurture" question play in Chinese culture?

I deferred on this question in the hopes I would have time to research it a bit, but I don't think that's going to happen.  Too big and complex a question, but off the top of my head, two points come to mind:

On the one hand, there may be a subtle sort of Chinese ethnic, maybe racial, supremacism, where "Chinese" is understood to denote the overwhelmingly predominant Chinese "Han ethnicity"*.  (It's similar to Japanese ethnic/racial supremacism, or exceptionalism, except that the Chinese version is blighted by over a hundred years of humiliating invasions and subordination suffered at the hands of foreigners.)  If so, it would imply a belief that certain racial/ethnic characteristics -- good or bad -- are inherent and unchangeable.

On the other hand, there is this:

Compared to American mothers, Chinese and Japanese mothers believe that scholastic achievement is far more dependent on the amount of effort a child expends than on his or her innate intelligence (Stevenson & Lee, 1990).  In other words, Asian parents adopt a more incremental perspective on ability than American parents do -- a perspective that seems to carry over to their children and may prevent Asian youngsters from acting helpless when they experience difficulties with their lessons.  We will explore this intriguing cultural difference in more detail when we consider the topic of schooling and scholastic influences in Chapter 12.

David R. Shaffer, Social and Personality Development (Edition 6: 2008) p.225

Both of these are massive generalizations that should be taken with correspondingly massive grains of salt (though the second is based on actual research, presumably, and the first is based on my own very limited and subjective perceptions).  But if there is any kernel of truth in them, according to these perspectives, nature would trump nurture among nations/ethnicities/races, but nurture would trump nature within the Chinese/Han population.

*I put "Han ethnicity" in quotes, because I suspect that lots of supposed "Han" Chinese are in fact descended from various other ethnic groups who were assimilated and amalgamated into the Han through the centuries.

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 10:33:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
With Chinese civilization being autochthnous it would be interesting to see how this issue is framed in that culture.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 03:08:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
marco:
If some trait X turns out actually actually to be innate, X still remains a flaw.

I think this is exactly what he is disputing.  He appears to be arguing that if some trait X were truly innate, that is, an integral part of one's being, X cannot honestly be categorized as a flaw, so it would make no sense to try to correct it in people. You could compensate for it through external mechanisms, but not correct it. But he appears to saying instead that corruption is not innate. Rather it is a true flaw calling out for improvement within the Chinese character itself.

by santiago on Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 05:51:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
maybe it's quite a radical idea that we can change our characters, like now we have club foot surgery, whereas before we took it for granted that something like that was for life.

i happen to agree with him, but would add that it is very hard work to change individuals, and take them far enough along a new way that returning becomes unthinkable, if the rest of society and culture is paddling the world canoe in the opposite direction.

that's why the first 99 monkeys is solid graft, after that the thing takes off on its own.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 06:26:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
While trying to avoid non-PC comments, I still have to say that the length of evolutionary time that developed hair, skin color, body shapes and intelligence differences, could have also evolved different responses to collectively induced cultural behaviors, and in a sufficiently cohered culture, these traits might not be distinguishable from learned lessons.

I find hints of this here and there in the edge literature in cognitive science, and it means that different "races" might have differing propensities toward gambling, for instance, or individualism.

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!

by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Tue Mar 2nd, 2010 at 12:33:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
marco:
 But I think it is felt particularly strongly in China, because of the abject devastation, humiliation and suffering they perceive themselves to have experienced as a country and as a people since the first half of the 19th century.  Today, the aftermath of this disastrous recent history is patent in China's economic and some (including perhaps Yì Zhōngtiān) would say social or moral retardment.

blowback is a bitch, and people have much longer memories for slights, both real and imagined, than they do for compliments or favours.

the britpire committed some of the most cynical colonial maneuvers in history to the chinese, and they have been nursing the grudge against 'the west' ever since, mao got a lot of mileage out of that, and now his descendants have inherited the slow burn resentment.

it is interesting to watch china dispense with some the shy masks it needed to wear to be invited to the table of world trade, (thanks nixon).

now it plays our game better than we do, it remains to be seen how magnanimous they'll be in economic victory.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 06:18:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
now it plays our game better than we do, it remains to be seen how magnanimous they'll be in economic victory.

Ah, but they play our game by their rules. They are the only country to succeed in that trick that comes to mind. But the game is still afoot.

There is many a slip
twixt the cup and the lip  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Feb 19th, 2010 at 09:42:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, but they play our game by their rules

yes they do, and one can certainly see why, seeing as ours are so patently inhuman and unfair.

the problem is theirs may be worse...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Feb 20th, 2010 at 01:39:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And there is always the possibility that a large portion of Chinese might get so well educated in world history and sociology that they just dropped the slow burns and old hates and jumped into the future, which is going to have to be very culturally accepting and forgiving.

China hasn't always been nice to its empire.

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!

by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Tue Mar 2nd, 2010 at 12:36:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think it refers to that.  It is much deeper, and more chronic.  It refers to a feeling that I suspect and believe is shared by many people in developing countries, especially those that were colonized or occupied in the last few hundred years.

I have a slightly different reading on this (but wouldn't I). Rather than being rooted in a simple analysis bof popular nationalist feelings, I think it reflects a hard nationalist reaction to the perceived attitude of fellow nationals. The same way as in this passage:

Some say that all weaknesses are shared by all of humanity; that there are no "national character flaws" particular to Chinese people; that these so-called "national character flaws" are colonialist fabrications...

The above describes an attitude of active rejection of national introspection.

That is, hard nationalists perceive fellow nationals as insufficiently nationalistic, with a weak-kneed attitude that supposedly prevents the nation from holding firm and rising up.

Great diary, BTW, only now did I get to it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 01:45:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks.

DoDo: Rather than being rooted in a simple analysis bof popular nationalist feelings, I think it reflects a hard nationalist reaction to the perceived attitude of fellow nationals.

Okay, it took me a while, but I think I finally understand what you are saying -- and agree with you.  With a tiny precision.

The interviewer is indeed articulating the "hard nationalist" attitude that the Chinese should reject the "colonial fabrications" of "national character problems" and move beyond the "curse of vanished national confidence" in order to "stand up" and fulfill their potential to be a great nation.  My tiny precision is simply that the journalist may not themself share this view, but is simply presenting them as one held by a certain number of Chinese.

Nevertheless, although "hard nationalists" believe that the "curse of vanished national confidence" is unfounded and self-defeating, they do not deny its existence.  And it's the nature and origin of that phenomenon -- which even hard nationalists concede -- that I was trying to describe in my response to afew.

Having said all this, as with santiago in another thread, I may not be clearly understanding your reading.  (Actually, I wonder if your interpretation of "character flaws" agrees with his?  If so, that may shed some light on your point here.)

The march of civilizations is a series of defenses that man has put up against the dread of pure existence.

by marco on Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 04:26:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My tiny precision is simply that the journalist may not themself share this view, but is simply presenting them as one held by a certain number of Chinese.

I agree with that -- sorry for not being clear. The journalist is asking how Yì Zhōngtiān would react to critics.

I may not be clearly understanding your reading.

No, it seems to me you did :-)

Perhaps I should add that my interpretation is based on my experience of other nationalisms (with that vanished national confidence to boot) closer to home.

Actually, I wonder if your interpretation of "character flaws" agrees with his?

I think Yì Zhōngtiān was simply unclear about what he thinks (or didn't even think it through), and you two went off in different directions when trying to reconcile his two absolute statements (santiago by keeping the second as absolute).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Feb 23rd, 2010 at 10:29:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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