Had an interesting conversation with a Chinese colleague, sitting on a flight from Fuzhou to Beijing the other day.
Western educated, just completed a PhD in Manchester, England, and therefore lived in UK for 4 years or so, he was commenting on cultural differences and how he liked being back in Beijing, after I had commented about how frustrating I had been finding the lack of BBC (or any Western news channels) and Google in China for a whole week. Whole range of topics in general discussion.
Part of the discussion had started around the local behaviour in business meetings – and a strong “listening” culture amongst the locals, verging on disengagement to western perception. A recognition that “translation of understanding” was a very slow process, not because of symbolic lingusitic differences, but because the thinking was quite different – We compared notes on the “quaint” english translations on consumer goods and business / retail premises, that we in the west find so amusing – that is itself quite indicative of that different world model behind the two languages.
I remarked on the enormous boom in the Chinese economy, and how so much of the outcome was going visibly into more monumental buildings and malls (and human bodies) filled with Western “fashion” brands and consumerism, and how even the smallest shacks doing local business were decked out in multicoloured flashing neon. How in fact, in some ways hard to put a finger on, it was reassuring that there was still some conservatism in authority to resist the excesses of western “freedom”. He said, western attitudes to Chinese repressions (Tiananmen Square and all that) were much more extreme than most Chinese. He remarked on a personal street mugging experience in the UK, and discovering that there really were no-go areas of intolerance to outsiders, and how the balance of rights of the victim vs those of the attacker (and criminals in general in media reporting) seemed wrong. He’d come to feel it was his own fault he’d been mugged, and he found that idea strange. He couldn’t imagine feeling that in a Chinese city, in fact he couldn’t imagine feeling similarly threatened in the first place. And there were ever greater wealth class variations in the booming economy – walking in areas in any one of several Chinese cities we had both experienced, there was a highly visible “shanty-town” economy living in bamboo and corrugated sheet dwellings plugging the gaps and sprouting from the roofs of the higher rise developments, and still a strong attraction to the urban from the rural. People scratching out livings side by side with those consuming what the malls have to offer. Conversely having scraped together enough, there was still a strong trend to return to rural roots, rather than aspire to greater urban weath.
Western rights and freedoms were OK, but in moderation he said. I showed him I was reading Nagarjuna’s “Mulamadhyamakakarika” (The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) in an attempt to find that moderation. He smiled.
Some of the interest in reading such a work is in the translation itself – from Sanskrit directly to English and in some cases via Tibetan dialect. The range of possible phrasing involved in any given translation highlights the enormous subtlety in succesfully grasping the actual thoughts and meaning being conveyed. Quite different for those of us with a Greek / Latin heritage in our thinking.