East and West in Moderation

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.

4 thoughts on “East and West in Moderation”

  1. Interesting stuff – I do think China is a wonderful place. One caveat though – I don’t think we avoid translation issues as such, in the West, particularly the Graeco-Latin inheritance. I recently spent an entire sermon outlining how the word ‘logos’ (λογόσ) is rendered dull and banal by being translated as ‘word’…

    I think it was Goethe who said that if we learn a second language we acquire a second soul – I agree that the differences are that profound.

  2. I think you’re right.

    I guess it wasn’t really our Greek / Latin heritage, so much as our mono-language thinking in everyday situations – which misleads us into thinking another language is just a matter of translation.

    The etymolgy is evolving in any tradition, and the branches in the language trees are the points of interest. (It’s another Hofstadter loop actually – recursion of language on thought – and interestingly another string to Hofstadter’s bow is in fact translation itself – from German and Russian I seem to recall)

  3. Hi Ian
    Interesting to read your colleagues comments regarding feelings of culpability in the context of being mugged. Last time I was in China I felt a strong vibe that the concept of blame played a big role in Chinese culture. E.g. on the *news* there it seemed like finding and naming a relevant scapegoat was the norm in most items. Also, I felt this fit in with other aspects of the culture which somehow sought to support the communist ideology – i.e. it was never the party line that was at fault, just the individuals acting wrongly and therefore to blame if and when something went wrong. Linking this back to the instance of being mugged, which although is not pleasant and even in my experience not a frequent experience of what it is like living in the UK, the risk of being mugged and instances of crime are of course not something we are that shocked by in our society anymore. On the one hand it is often said that crime is a side effect of democracy, and on the other we are fairly accepting of it – but still critical, and rightly so, of our own government’s role in fighting it. I did feel in China that many people seemed oblivious to any negative type behaviour going on in their own country or in the ‘outside world’, so I could imagine that encountering it personally while in the West would be cause for soul-searching along the ‘why me?’ train of thought. However, we would probably not ascribe blame to the situation at all. We would probably think how unfortunate it was and unpleasant, being fairly empathetic, and maybe muse as to the extent the person who got mugged had been informed or made aware of the potential likelihood of that kind of thing happening where he/she was.
    But blame is a strange concept to apply here I feel, as who should we point the finger of blame at? The poor guy who got robbed? Hardly! The mugger? His parents for lack of care and attention that might have helped him not be a mugger? The education system? The police? Our social system with its inequalities? To me this is so complex and *systemic* that attributing blame to the situation is kind of futile as it really doesn’t tell you anything. Maybe though, we should give more care to visitors to our country, as we should to each other, and try and look after them a bit more so that this type of thing is less likely to happen. This is one thing I did feel very positive about while in China – I felt very looked after and I can’t imagine having been mugged while there. Not necessarily because mugging is non existent, but certainly because I was cared about by others.
    Cheers, Carol
    ps – thanks for your hotel site recommendation Ian! 🙂

  4. Hi Carol,

    Your (western) perception of Chinese authority “repression” is of course normal and acknowledged in the piece. I think the aspect we need to be careful of is presuming that somehow the Chinese people are naively unaware of this. The point here is not to condemn it from our position of holding democratic freedom most dear (above all else), but to maybe accept that some intermediate position is also valid.

    In the same way as we some consequences of the rights of wrongdoers as the price of democracy, they see the existence of some consequences of state authority as a price worth paying. Just a thought.

    In reality, as you say, the main issue is one of complexity – taking an oversimplified view, neither extreme is likely to be wholly correct.

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