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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 ]

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