Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 8 Feb 2008
All cultural behavior is rooted in the subjective truth that the culture subscribes to. For example, the infamous Indian headshake has its roots in Indian philosophy where truth is contextual: depending on the situation, the answer to a given question can be either ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ which means nothing is definite, it is always open-ended. Likewise, the Chinese obsession with ‘saving face’ and the practice of saying ‘yes’ emphatically to communicate ‘no’ has its roots in the Chinese way of thinking. But what is this Chinese way of thinking? And how is it different from the Indian way of thinking? One way of appreciating the difference is to compare and contrast the mythologies of the two cultures because mythology is the body of stories, symbols and rituals that communicates a people’s understanding of the world. It reflects and resolves their conflicts.
Chinese mythology is unique in that though it is populated by hundreds of gods and goddesses and supernatural beings like dragons, there is no concept of an all powerful divine entity or God. Conflicts related to rebirth (found in Hinduism) and sin (found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are conspicuous by their absence. Chinese culture is very this-worldly. What matters is the here and the now. Social ethics and morality matter more than spiritual issues. Three thought processes have influenced Chinese thought – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Taoism is the mystical face of China. The underlying principle of Taoism is that the whole world functions on an interplay of two forces which expand and limit each other: the yang and the yin. Yang is all that is masculine, hot, sharp, bright, heavy and dry while yin is feminine, cold, soft, dark, light and wet. Disharmony between the two leads to disorder and disease. From these beliefs comes the occult art of interior decoration known as Fengshui that influences the flow of energy through various objects and colors so as to draw good luck and fortune in a particular direction. Some say the extremely popular Chinese art of divination, I Ching, also has roots in Taoism.
Taoism mingled and merged with folk and tribal beliefs and practices giving rise to a vast pantheon of spirits and deities such as gods of fire, water, wind, rain, rivers, rice, doorways, moats, gates, walls. Most of the Chinese deities are deified ancestors, warriors, kings, dignitaries, elders and sages. For example, the Eight Immortals were ordinary mortals who, through good works and good lives, were rewarded by being given the peaches of everlasting life to eat. These deities guide and help humanity from time to time.
The Chinese believe in numerous heavens and numerous hells. These are places of reward and punishment. The most righteous end up as gods in the highest heaven ruled by the Jade Emperor, who comes closest to being the Chinese equivalent of God. The Jade Emperor’s heavenly court resembles the earthly court in all ways, having an army, a bureaucracy, a royal family and parasitical courtiers. The Jade Emperor’s rule is orderly and without caprice. The seasons come and go as they should, yin is balanced with yang, good is rewarded and evil is punished. The Jade Emperor sees and hears everything; even the softest whisper is as loud as thunder to the Jade Emperor.
During the Chinese New Year, the Chinese burn ritualistic paper money to pay for the travel of the household gods who make their way to the Jade Emperor’s court to pay their respects and report on household affairs. Another ritual is to smear malt sugar on the lips of the Kitchen God, one of the traveling deities, to ensure that he either submits a favorable report to the Jade Emperor or keeps silent. Both these rituals indicate the worldly nature of the Chinese culture and the great value given to social reputation.
In keeping with its worldly philosophies, the Buddhism that became popular in China was the Mahayana school where the aim was not to become a Buddha through individual effort (prescribed by the older Thervada school) but to invoke the intervention of compassionate Bodhisattvas who could make the material world more bearable. One of the most popular Bodhisattavas, elevated to the status of goddess, was Kwan Yin who was so kind and compassionate that she was expelled from hell by the lords of the underworld because her presence made it difficult to torture the wicked. Her temples even today are filled by a throng of pilgrims shaking rattles and setting off firecrackers to get her attention.
Confucianism is less mystical and focused on worldly matters like family and state. The Confucian system revolves around five relationships: between Emperor and subjects, between husband and wife, between father and son, between elder brother and younger brother and between friends. It states that everything and everyone in heaven and earth has its proper position and so long as everyone retained his proper position through restraint, respect, righteousness and ritual there would be order and peace all around.
From the Confucian way of thinking came the idea that Chinese culture attempts to create on earth the perfection of Tian or the heavens. The Great Wall was built to protect the perfect culture on earth. The Chinese emperor was the earthly counterpart of the Jade Emperor, who ruled over the highest heaven. His bureaucracy and his army and his palace, the Forbidden City, were earthly counterparts of the bureaucracy, army and palace in heaven.
The Chinese Emperor had the Mandate of Heaven to govern his people well. However, if a Chinese Emperor failed to do so, he could be overthrown. That is why Chinese history is full of rebellion and revolutions and wars, where the prime motivation was to establish a new Emperor whose governance was more in line with the Mandate of Heaven. In many ways, the Communist regime in China by overthrowing the old feudal and imperial systems has inherited the Mandate of Heaven. That they continued to govern China from the ancient seat of the Emperors, Beijing, shows a tacit acceptance of this widely held belief.
Confucianism gave great value to organization, hierarchy, ceremonies, rituals and formality because it helped established order, ensured all was done appropriately and kept everything in the right place. The Chinese obsession for ‘saving face’ and for not being too expressive with facial expressions and bodily movements and for avoiding open conflict and confrontation, has its roots here. Confucian thinking also gave primary importance to the organization over the individual. Hence for the sake of the family or the country, one was exhorted to sacrifice individual dreams. This is why, one suspects, it is possible for the Communist regime to just demolish old cities and embark on grand projects like Shanghai and the Three Gorges dam, something that the Indian government governed by vote bank politics, which are rooted in the ancient caste system, is just unable to do.