Archives for December 2014

Shanghai Impression: Part 3

 The overall problem in China I experienced and made it harder to adjust here was traffic problem. Cars did not read the sign at all in most cases. Shanghai drivers could not be exempt from this criticism. Still, while I was in Shanghai only, I thought urban legends about Chinese traffic accidents were a little overstated. However, when I visited other cities, I realized that it was not overstated at all. Especially, when I went to Xian, known as the city with the highest car accident related death cases, I was more surprised. Traffic example only sheds narrow light to understanding morality of contemporary Chinese, but in many cases, not only limited to this, Shanghainese often shows more refined sense of morality then people from other cities.

How so? Are they somewhat born to be better person? Not quite. It’s more relevant to what happened in recent century. Cultural Revolution and uprising of Red Guard brought about significant change in common Chinese people’s psyche. Before then, Chinese ethic was mostly grounded on Confucianism, through a mechanism called hierarchical discipline. Cultural Revolution whole-heartedly undermined the very ground and mechanism. Tradition and Confucian symbols were attacked as being anti-communist and the most important rule in Confucian world – 長幼有序 – was annihilated by Red-Guards. Meanwhile, Shanghai was tightly protected from such disorders by 周恩來’s special orders. This shows how contemporary Shanghainese came to have different mindset, compared to the totally renewed other contemporary Chinese people.

Now we move on to poor hygiene. I remember visiting 張家界, a small town in 湖南 省 known for its tourism, especially among Koreans. Overall look of the city was extremely different from that of Shanghai. It lacked infrastructure, had massive slum and not a small number of motels didn’t even have hot water. This city, apart from East Coast of China for about 1000km, showed me how economically diverse – and bipolarized – whole China is. At the rich end, there would be Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and other East Coast cities, while inland and western regions will be at the other end.

Concept of hygiene will be different in each cities depending on their economic level. Therefore, when Shanghainese feel repented about outlanders’ poor hygiene, it not only shows the difference in hygiene but also in whole economy. Shanghai is a port city, which has always been full of trades. Easily accessed by western investors, its economy stayed in starkly different level from other regions. In world education ranking, Shanghai competes Number 1 with Korea and Hong Kong, while its mother country stays in two digit ranks. Economically speaking, it is almost a different country from elsewhere.

Then loudness? This is more relevant to different values people hold in Shanghai and other places. We can compare Beijing and Shanghai. When I spoke in Korean in Shanghai, I’ve not seen that much people reacting. We must know that there are way more Korean students in Beijing than in Shanghai, and therefore, people here are more likely to be surprised by my presence than people in Beijing. Now, when I went to Beijing, some of them even asked me for my number. Also, the time I spent in becoming friends with each other was way shorter with Beijingers than with Shanghainese. These two comparisons show that Shanghainese are often more introverted, and care less about surroundings or others’ business. Beijing people were extroverted and extremely curious. This doesn’t seem to be only limited to Beijingers but to other Chinese as well.

Clearly, Shanghai is a peculiar city. Its people show a lot of difference from people from other places of China. It is not strange that Shanghainese feel difference and become exclusive towards other Chinese due to the stark contrasts in economy, psychology and values. It is also understandable that Shanghainese sometimes feel more familiar with other Asians – such as Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans. Such a peculiarity is charming, yet for its coexistence and cooperation with other regions in China, exclusionism needs to be loosened. After all, it’s a part of China anyway and Shanghainese come from all parts of China; just as my language partner being Northeast person, my best friend coming from Xinjiang, and my significant other born in Henan.

Shanghai Impression: Part 2

Why did people then think of European and Non-European culture as superior and inferior? Clearly, it’s because of successful colonization. In fact, not only Japan’s but also most of the Non-European countries’ elites would have thought same. Advanced weaponry and science of Europe was shock and awe to most of Asia and so to China.Shanghai was one of the few cities that first forcedly opened by British Empire. Beijing was not in the list, and before this opening, Shanghai was merely a small fishing town.

This leads to the conclusion that Shanghai as a City, actually cannot identify itself as Chinese city. Urban center of current Shanghai all used to be the part of foreigner district, divided by French, British, American and so on concessions. Maybe Shanghai was on the land of Qing Empire, but city Shanghai was constructed by those Europeans.

In the meantime, Shanghainese were somehow way more passionate about learning foreign culture and language than people of other cities. It had biggest number of foreign language learning center – even more than the bigger city back then, Beijing. This passion has not died even in nowadays. So many girls I got to know here were extremely for making English-speaking boyfriend, including mine now. When my friends are out for night club, they would often say when they come back that it seems they went out not for dance but cross-culture and language lessons.

However, history doesn’t completely explain animosity against other Chinese. It only explains how Shanghai is psychologically different from other regions, and maybe the residents feel a slight superiority over others who are less modern. Then what would make then so exclusive? The answer lies in what they find repenting in outside people. Usually, what I can read from comments of Shanghainese regarding outsiders is their dislike of outlanders’ 1) lack of morality, 2) poor hygiene, and 3) loudness.

Shanghai Impression: Part 1

“I don’t think of myself as Chinese.”

“You clearly are, my friend. Your name tells me.”

“OK. I STILL HATE THEM. Dirty, stupid, lazy blah blah blah…”

Due to this dialogue, the first so-called, “True Shanghainese” I met ever since I arrived at Shanghai didn’t give me that good impression. To me, one hating one’s own ethnicity sounded somewhat irrational and overly proud. That is not so different from spitting on one’s own face – a self-disdain. And for what on earth are they so GREAT? Still, it was interesting. I’ve previously seen similar cases among Korean students in U.S. colleges. They would intentionally avoid socializing with Koreans or enjoying Korean culture. Their exclusionism against me was somewhat alike Shanghainese’ exclusionism against 外地人.

However, one big difference is that aforementioned Korean students are from everywhere and are living in different country, while Shanghainese are from one place, Shanghai, and live their everyday life together with the Chinese they disdain / fear. Not all cars on the Shanghai road have 湖 sign on its back. Some cars are from nearby cities and often times from really far places, for instance, Chengdu. I’ve also seen tremendous amount of people who speak in Beijing accent or Cantonese that I frankly cannot understand.

This city is that bustling with diversity. It’s not like only Shanghai native and foreigners. Yet, Shanghainese somehow manage to keep them alarmed against Chinese from other regions (and remain as probably only Chinese city that majority of population likes Japan.) This weird phenomenon drew my interest, and I thought it was relatable to Shanghai’speculiar and dynamic contemporary history.

Why do some people want to deny their root, even though that will hurt their own dignity in the course? In most cases, and especially among Asians, it is deeply relevant to Cultural Absolutism. Earliest form of such thoughts could be found in late 19th and early / mid 20th century Japan, by studying the phrase 脫亞入歐. The phrase literally means, “escaping from Asia and entering to Europe.” This phrase was widely spread among rich and educated class, especially among political scientists. It could be easily inferred that Japanese people back then defined Asia as a pronoun of inferiority or what they have to come out of, and Europe as their ideal destination.


民間道敎 as Religion of the People: Journey to the West, Part 3.

Within this novel which is full of criticism against religions, the character that manifests all that is good – an ideal man in thoughts of Wu Cheng En – is 孫悟空. He has talents outstanding numerous generals and 神仙 of the heaven in battle or spell. Given the sensible decisions he made throughout the journey, he seems to be quite clever as well. With all these diverse capabilities, he also detests unfair authorities. He is also an only reasonable thinker along with 太上老君 within this novel which is full of characters with the mentality we cannot easily understand.

It seems that Wu Cheng En tried to express his desire to drive unjust court and authorities of 明代 into the character of 孫悟空, the incarnation of talented and good-hearted Taoist 神仙. The character shares some aspects with “Superman” of Nietzsche, one who is infinitely reasonable by overcoming humane limits. Not only he is talented, but considering that he endured all the hardships 玄奘 caused and still served him to the end, he shows somewhat astonishing endurance too. 孫悟空 also has a good deal of leadership in situation of crises. All in all, perhaps these might be the features that Wu Cheng En desired in his ideal leader: wise and talented, yet very just one with, more than any other things, practical mind.

As I said at the beginning, you can only think about higher concepts or afterlife, when you are done with concerns about this life. Survival – necessary wealth thereof – is the primary concern, the better life the next, and something irrelevant to this life and this world will be the last concern. For so many people, neither most religions nor most leaders provided real-life comforts. Most elites were chasing their own aim, which was not in the physical realm. Their abstract thoughts and formalisms did not enhance people’s life. Religions were not different. They had too complex theories for average people to understand, and would not show what people can benefit from them in real life.

While such was the case of established religions and imperial court, folk religions concentrated in dealing with people’s ongoing hardships. They often listened to the cries and answered by promising fortune in return for the prayer and a little bit of donation. Then people began to wait for messiah – not the one who will make everybody disappointed with idealism, but make their lives actually better with brightness and practicality. Such a desire always used to exist in history: the desire for real human 孫悟空.

民間道敎 as Religion of the People: Journey to the West, Part 2.

We must start our discussion from author. Author Wu Cheng En has relatively humble background, compared to other major literary figures in Chinese history. He was born in the family of small merchant. Though he didn’t have economic hardships, his social position is the lowest according to the Confucian division of labor’s preciousness (士農工商 – obviously, he was the last one) Only to add difficulty, his family had absolutely no connection with mainstream politicians. Under these conditions, though he had high talents, he never made it though 科考.

The 科考, when it was first introduced in 唐代, effectively served the role of providing government the real smart human resources, strictly judged on their ability – merit. However, by 明代, corruption took over scoring process, eventually taking away chance of hiring people like Wu Cheng En. Indeed, he held quite a grudge against this phenomenon and quotes in one of the poems he has written: Ugliness of the reality is due to rulers’ nepotism. Not only him, but the whole low class people were thinking the same. Analyzing the history, we can find out that whenever there were Taoism-led insurgences, common men replied passionately (Take an example, 白蓮敎 or 黃巾賊.) Why would that be? It obviously was because Confucianism pretending gentleness or Buddhism chasing ultimate emptiness, both could not save people.

His merchant lineage also made him to contact with Civilian Taoism quite often. Just like lower class people of China back then, his father used to pray in various temples for the success of running business. Following him, Wu Cheng En naturally came across various aspects of Taoism. Also, he enjoyed in hearing to weird tales and owning rare paintings – the referential resources that helped him writing Journey to the West. These features combined make 西遊記 a novel which criticizes Buddhism and Confucianism in Taoist world view.

Let me first go with how Confucianism was criticized. First of all, author shows satire against both nepotism and corruption. Heaven depicted in Journey to the West is not much different from imperial court back then. Though supposedly moral and gentle Confucianism ruled, bureaucrats were extremely corrupt. If you compare 玉皇上帝 to the Emperor and heaven’s corrupt bureaucrats and demons to Confucian officials in reality, this appears clearer. Since ‘Heaven’ is corrupt too, people have nowhere to depend on.

Author also criticizes inability of Confucianism. In the beginning, when 孫悟空 started riot against Heaven and 龍王, even extremely high ranked officials – including those ranked higher than 孫悟空 – could not defeat him. Everything went back to place only when 太上老君 engaged the battle. Officials and bureaucrats didn’t have ability because they were hired according to nepotism, not by ability. There seems to be an additional criticism against extreme formalism and harsh punishment. 沙悟淨 was hit by rod 800 times and driven to the earth because he broke a single vase. The reality wasn’t much different. Even to some minimal crimes, punishment could be unreasonably harsh.

Though little less criticized than Confucianism, Buddhism is also under criticism. One might think, since the whole story of this novel is about monk brining Buddhism bible from India, the author would be favorable to it, but that’s not true. To begin with, 玄奘, who is the main character, seems to be created entirely for satire against Buddhist. He always emphasizes extremely impractical and needlessly moral rules such as mercy against monsters ahead of his way. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem that he has capability to defeat such monsters – he would rather sit and cry only. Yet he always criticizes 孫悟空, who is trying hardest to think of solutions and eventually resolve the situation, simply because 悟空 didn’t follow some minimal rules of Buddhism. He in fact, is the biggest reason why the travel of four people becomes difficult and dangerous.

Criticism against Buddhism also includes one against absurdly impractical and inflexible idealism thereof. Travel itself is a little bit difficult to understand. 玄奘 argues that it is not meaningful if he brings bible back to China easily dependant to the cloud of 悟空. I personally wonder whether riding the cloud and getting bible conveniently, safely, and fastly will change the content. After all, he was bringing bible to save the people, not to discipline himself. More absurdly, at the end of the travel, 如來 orders 悟空 to drop 玄奘 because they are 8 days short from number of days they have to spend on the road, and lack of one hardship to experience from 81 hardships. It seems that 如來 has totally about the original reason of bringing bible from India: to save 衆生 from hardships and encourage the development of Buddhism. Normal, sane and reasonable person would never think this way.