One day, two cultures, one destiny
Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-01-26
The conjunction of Australia Day and Chinese New Year has caused me again to reflect on the two cultural traditions, the lessons and the cautionary tales we must offer each other, and accept.
The most obvious and trivial "compare and contrast" between the two celebrations is the food: what would you rather have: barbeque and beer, or a smorgasbord of asian delicacies? Besides, the urban legend of being hungry half an hour after eating Chinese is another huge advantage in favor of the Chinese celebration.
The other big difference is that Chinese New Year is multinational and joyous: it lacks the jingoism, crass nationalism, the focus on the trivial, and the hints of "displacement guilt" that can so often taint the experience of Australia Day.
But the real lessons are deeper, and never has the adoption by each culture of the lessons from the other been so important, so urgent.
Consider, for example, the headline sentence of Rudd’s Australia Day message:
As we celebrate Australia Day with our friends and families – over barbeques, picnic tables and beach towels – I know that many of you share my concerns about the impact of the global financial crisis on our families.
Oh dear! Important enough to be highlighted by Rudd in the opening, the thing to grab the reader’s attention, this is nothing more than an unintentional but all-to-accurate analysis of our selfish focus on the threat to satisfaction of our affluenza, our addiction to the sybaritic and lotophagic.
As to the jingoism, the smug self-congratulation, the attempt to differentiate ourselves with attributes that are hardly uniquely Australian, but often found in greater abundance in other cultures that are more oppressed by nature and poverty, we need go no further than Rudd’s speech mentioned above, and his Australia Day Citizenship ceremony.
In that speech, there is a constant mantra of the following:
courage, resilience and compassion
It gets worse, for Rudd defines courage as follows:
Courage, knowing the dangers that lie ahead on the road, but defying those dangers and taking the decision to proceed.
This from a government that has done not one thing that is politically courageous, apart from not proceeding with an appropriate response to the dangers of climate change, an approach that is at odds with the will of the people, but doubtless in line with the need to raise funds for the party from big business.
Seriously, Rudd has never shown courage, not in the sense I’d define it, as defying danger, not because that danger is unavoidable regardless of choice, but choosing an option that places you in danger, chosen because of a perceived responsibility to others.
And when not being unjustifiably jingoistic and smug…?
The vast bulk of Rudd’s message to new citizens was inappropriately not about the timeless and existential, not something even more relevant to new citizens than in an address to long-standing citizens that highlights the differences from one year to another, but about the current financial crisis, the threat to our comforts: a threat those who lived in past times, during world wars, during the depression, would regard as trivial.
Finally on Rudd, while his addresses mentioned multi-culturalism, did he even acknowledge the conjunction with the New Year celebrations of another culture, one that has been important to members of our society since the gold rush, something we’d expect a self-proclaimed sinophile to understand? No.
Still, it’s better that the advertising campaign last year, when the Rudd government permitted exhortations, however satirical, asking us to attack one another as an essential part of celebrating Australia Day.
Enough on the trivial, the hypocritical, the only-to-be-expected from the political!
While I’ve always found the philosophical traditions of Chinese culture fascinating, and I’ve “got” their philosophical traditions because they map very well to Western classical traditions (even some translations into Chinese of John 1:1 use “Tao” for “Logos”, and “Jen” can be mapped to “Agape”), I’ve never been able to get a grasp of Chinese history, other than (1) pre-history, (2) warring states, (3) pre-Mongolian, (4) Mongolian, (5) post-Mongolian, (6) European domination, (7) Communist. This poor understanding of history, and a complete ignorance of even the rudiments of the language (I cannot read a single word apart from “man”) saddens me.
As I see it, the essential part of Chinese culture (not the nation, but the attitude) has been Confucian, the understanding of responsibilities, admittedly the greatest to one’s family and neighbors, but clearly extending to everyone one the planet. While Chinese culture has always been the most "bookish" of the Eastern cultures, making it the most attractive to me, it shares with most Eastern cultures a focus on the well-being of the group, the collective, rather than the focus on the self, a self-centredness that, because of the long poisoning of Western culture by the Abrahamic dogma of an immortal, indivisible and individual soul, is sadly too common in Australia.
This difference is perhaps most strikingly demonstrated in a psychological test given to children, an example of a thematic apperception test: they are presented with a picture of many fish, all but one going in the same direction and asked to talk about the fish going in the different direction.
Occidental children consider that one fish as the happiest, being able to express its individuality.
Oriental children talk of the poor little fish, who must feel lonely, an outsider.
While Australia Day is essentially exclusionary, indeed many point to the divisiveness it can create between citizens of immigrant versus aboriginal descent, my experience of Chinese New Year has always been inclusive.
Since a young adult, whenever living in Geelong, I’d usually attend the New Year celebrations of the Geelong asian friendship association. Over the years, we’d connect again, and watch each other mature, have kids, and watch those kids in turn mature.
The oldies originally only playing mahjong in the back room increasingly also played Western games such as blackjack. The western kids would learn impatience for the chocolate coins in red paper bags, just as they were always impatient to open up whatever Santa had left them on Xmas. They’d learn to ask questions about how the animal would be represented this year: a tethered goat, a guy in a monkey suit, the horse-and-carriage rides around the block. I’m not sure if things like horse-rides for the year of the horse, and similar things at those parties, are traditional Chinese celebrations, but if such practices were innovations here, it represents a lovely merging of ideas, and is consistent with the Chinese ideas of extended inclusiveness.
In contrast to Rudd’s claims about "resilience" being something that can be used to differentiate Australia from other nations, it is the resilience of Chinese culture over many millenia, even re-asserted in response to alien invasion, that is remarkable.
Where Chinese culture can be exclusionary, it is usually from the sense of being self-sufficient, that others do not understand caution, unlike the Chinese, who have only had bad experiences with rapid change, be it the guns and opium of the Europeans, or Mao’s cultural revolution.
This brings me finally to the essential differences between the two cultures, the differences that are both strengths and weaknesses of each culture, and the need to move to a synthesis, something that it best highlighted today when our celebrations are simultaneous.
The strengths of the west are from reductionism and haste. The ancient Greeks ignored the world’s complexity, believed they could hold a ruler up to each element of Nature, and understand the whole, so delved deeply into the details, missing emergent phenomena. Technologies were generally adopted before we understood their full implications, which has led to rapid advancement and frequent misery.
The ancient Chinese, however, were holistic and cautious. Seeing the complexity, they concentrated on totality, and failed to understand the small. They were cautious, which helped reach stability, but a stability that sometimes went too far, becoming stagnation.
To survive the disruptions and disasters of climate change, and for any country to prosper through these tumultuous times, we need to create a culture that combines these two attitudes, a combination that uses the strengths of each, understanding the weaknesses of each.
We need to balance the individual freedoms derived from Greek political philosophy, with the understanding from Confucious that collective strength, subsuming individual advantage, is more critical.
We must avoid both Greek rashness, and Chinese inflexibility to reach sustained adaptability.
We must support the idiosyncrasies of individuals, receiving their gifts and innovations, but avoid using them rashly and for individual advantage, instead understanding how they can contribute to the bigger solutions we need, using them to advance together and more surely, not separately and with uncertainty.
Here starts the lesson of the day.
- A post earlier today, but concentrating on Oz, comparing now not to the culture of another country, but to the other country of our own past (hmmm, L.P. Hartley… "The past is a different country, they do things differently there"), is "Australia – can we rekindle our past promise?" (2009-01-26). Reading Rudd’s addresses only makes my criticisms more relevant.
- I’ve just watched "Hero", a wonderful film from China, a bit like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but ultimately, a meditation on nationhood (and the need for unification of "all under heaven"), which also plays to the previous "Australia – can we rekindle our past promise" post.
p.s. Before you criticize I didn’t say three cultures… I’m talking about the dominant mindsets. Ideally, our culture should be like yum cha or friend rice, lots of different things that add up to something tasty and nutritious when combined.