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In the name of the father: bureaucracy and family still dominate daily life in China with traditions that go back thousands of years.

When Confucius was asked, twenty-five centuries ago, how to bring perfect order to society, he replied, "Let fathers be fathers, let sons be sons." He assumed that the family was the basic unit of society. If every family was properly organized (with the duties and rights of both superiors and inferiors understood and respected), society as a whole would be properly organized too. The whole fabric of Chinese society was modelled on the proper relationship between fathers and sons.

Confucius was born in Shandong Province in about 551 BC; he died in 479 BC He lived at the end of a troubled age called the "Spring and Autumn" period -- a time when the states of the old Zhou empire were fighting for supremacy. The resulting chaos led many thinkers to search for basic principles of social order and harmony.

Religion and philosophy in China both have put family first and community a close second. These come ahead of any aims in life such as individual happiness or freedom. The state also supported the family with its laws, modelling itself on a stem father in its dealings with its subjects. For 2,000 years it enforced, intermittently, systems of collective responsibility on groups of ten families, so that if one committed a crime, all suffered.

The Chinese live in mesh of relationships and obligations and they work toward conformity from the first moments of life. Babies are made to sleep only on their backs. Thumb sucking and security blankets are prohibited. Crawling, the main way infants explore their environment, is discouraged. Toilet training starts at one month and is usually completed at one year. Left-handedness is banned. Conformity and order are stressed at nurseries.

Western thinking is another story. It comes from ancient Greece; from Aristotle who valued individual equality, privacy, and liberty above social efficiency and power. He emphasized reason, human rights, equality, justice, and the ultimate goal of achieving personal fulfillment and happiness.

Eastern thinking sees individual liberty coming as a result of social harmony and order. Westerners believe that respecting every individual's rights and liberties is the surest route to social order and harmony.

As political scientist Brian Orend says, these differences shouldn't really surprise us: "The West was born in the cradle of ancient Greece, the world's first (limited) democracy. The East was born in ancient China, which was ruled by dynastic monarchs.

"The Chinese philosopher Confucius advocated the so-called `Little Tradition:'an emphasis on the health, security, harmony, and vitality of the community; a deference to elders and authority; a premium on civic responsibilities over civil rights; a personal obligation concerning the family; the need to work hard and save money; and the overwhelming importance of education and mutual respect."

There have been huge differences in political development between China and the West over hundreds of years. The West has had a long experience of differing political ideologies and systems of government. From 221 BC, when China was first unified, until the 20th century, Chinese government has for the most part been centralized, authoritarian, and bureaucratic, with Confucianism as the dominant ideology.

The community is central to Confucian political culture, explains Mr. Orend. The state exists to protect and enhance the whole community and hence is expected to show both moral virtue and technical expertise. Power flows from the state to the individual, who is supposed to find his or her fulfillment by submitting to the moral requirements of the community. Duty, honour, skill, prosperity, community -- these are the watchwords of a Confucian political culture.

"Where the East says `duty,' the West says `rights;' where the East says `honour,'the West says `happiness; `and, where the East says `community and harmony,' the West says `individuality and freedom.'

"But the chief difference between Confucius and Aristotle concerns the truth. Confucius focussed on how to behave in civil society. Aristotle was more concerned with discovering the objective truth about the universe than with telling somebody how to fit into some community.

"The great emphasis on harmony over freedom in the East gives weight to such East Asian sayings as: "The nail that sticks out must be hammered down." Contrast this with the American revolutionary Patrick Henry's proclamation: "Give me liberty or give me death!"

An example of the clash of Eastern and Western values concerns freedom of expression and the press. Westerners assert that freedom of expression is the most fundamental human right because only once it is respected can other rights be claimed and discussed. Freedom of expression is seen as the source of all rights. Confucian cultures in the East, by contrast, do not think as highly of freedom of expression. The average dissident in China serves a three-year prison term for criticizing the regime.

While Old China may live on in many ways, some see China's inability to live with the modern world as "its enduring problem;" stressing that it needs to adopt a more Western attitude to progress.

"This was as true in the 1840s as it is today," writes George Hicks in The Broken Mirror, China after Tiananmen. "For the last century China has sought @Western technology with Chinese essence' but has failed to realize that societies which innovate and generate wealth do so in part because they have rule of law, property rights, civil freedoms, and competitive markets . . . True modernization will never come to China without a shift toward the universal values which alone free the creative spirit."

In Beijing in May 1995, 45 prominent intellectuals also challenged the Eastern view that democracy leads to indiscipline and disorderly conduct. They argued that allowing democratic freedoms to flourish would spur, rather than impede, the country's modernization. Chinese science and culture cannot evolve, they said, unless authorities "stop treating as enemies those people who engage in independent thinking or have independent beliefs."

A leading natural scientist said: "The lack of the spirit of tolerance is the major obstacle m achieving China's modernization."

Optimists think that Eastern and Western thought ultimately will integrate. As the East adopts Western democracy and capitalism, the West will place greater emphasis on responsibilities over rights, on the rights of society over the rights of the individual, on traditional family values, and law and order -- a blend that one observer describes as a possibly "glorious cultural synthesis of the best of both worlds."


1. Every Chinese sees himself or herself as part of a lineage extending from the past into the future. The family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of society. The family is not regarded as a static unit at a moment in time, but part of an ongoing continuum. Ancestors are venerated, and it is a sacred obligation to produce descendants. Contrast this with Western concepts of family by finding out how many students in class can name their great-grandparents.

2. Western govemments should not try to impose Western concepts of human rights on the Chinese, given that such ideals are completely alien to 4, 000 years of Chinese history. Discuss this comment.
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Author:Taylor, Linda E.
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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