Archive for February, 2007

恩义 En- Yi` or Kindness and Obligations

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Indeed, if you look at all the traditional Chinese romantic accounts about husband and wife, the most important operative term is not love (爱 ai` or oi-3 in Cantonese), but “en- yi` (恩义)”, or kindness and obligations. Sometimes the term used is “en` ai`” (恩爱 “yun-1 oi-3″ in Cantonese), which means “kindness and love”. Sex between the spouses is considered the mutual bestowing of “en`”–Chinese in the old days don’t have that Western hang-up about sex as being some dark carnal act, unless adultery is involved.

In fact, in traditional China, if you want to really insult someone, if you want to really say that someone is a low-life scum, you call him “wang` en- fu` yi`” (忘恩负义 “mong-4 yun-1 foo-6 yee-6″ in Cantonese), or “forgetting kindness and reneging on obligations.”

There is a story in the historical novel “Three Kingdoms” where one of the arch villains, a powerful official, gets saved from certain death by the novel’s heroes. At the time they don’t know that he is the villain who will wreak death and destruction on China; they only know that they are saving a high government official. Once the arch villain hears, however, that the leader of the heroes is just one of the ordinary folk and not some high official, the villain becomes very arrogant to the head hero and shoos him from the room. On hearing this, one of our heroes bellows, “this guy forgets kindness and reneges on obligations!” Then he pulls out his sword and starts to charge into the room to kill the villian. Of course, his leader stops him; still, the novelist comments in a verse at the end of the chapter, “Would that we have more straight people like this hero, and go after all the obligation-reneging people in the world!”

Feng Xin-ming


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Repaying En- 恩 or Kindness, the Five (or Six) Cardinal Relations

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

The concept of the repayment of “en-” 恩 (- = first tone; this is my “home-made” pinyin for easy keyboarding) or in Cantonese, “yun-1″ (-1 = Cantonese first tone), is a very important one in traditional Chinese culture. “en-” means a kindness, a significant, great kindness, not just a little tip to the waiter or something like that. In traditional Chinese culture, it is very important to repay kindness. In fact, repaying “en-” is considered to be the basis of society itself.

To repay the kindness (the “en-”) bestowed one by one’s parents is the basis of “xiao” (”how-3″ in Cantonese) or “being good to parents.” Now “xiao” or being good to parents is considered in traditional Chinese society as being the basis of civil society and the most fundamental guarantee of moral conduct. So, by extension, repaying kindness or “en-”, in this case that from one’s parents, is regarded as the fundamental foundation of civil society in traditional China. Repaying of “en-” is indeed considered very important.

In traditional China, what transpires between the parties in society’s Five Cardinal Relations (wu^ lun’ 五伦 or ng-3 lueun-4 in Cantonese), is described by the term “en- yi`” 恩义 (”yun-1 yee-6″ in Cantonese). “en-”, as we already know, is kindness. Now “yi` (义)” is a bit harder to translate, as in Chinese it’s used for a lot of different things. In this context I think the correct translation is “obligation”. So what transpires between the parties in society’s Five Cardinal Relations is kindness and obligation.

To explain, the Five Cardinal Relations are those between the ruler and the subject (between government and citizen), between the father (parent) and the son (offspring), between the older and the younger brothers (siblings), between husband and wife, and between friend and friend. These comprise the most important relations in society. Of course, today we would add a sixth, that between buyer and seller, where buyer also includes the employer since he’s buying labor power, and seller includes the employee who is selling his labor power.

So, in the traditional Chinese thinking, what the parties in society’s fundamental relations do is to bestow kindness on and carry out obligations to, each other.

Feng Xin-ming


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Reply: Comment on Mulan Article, American Dream in Imperial China, foot-binding

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

This is my reply to the letter published in my last blog entry:

Dear Caoyuan:

Yes, saying that “the American Dream prevails in Imperial China” in my Mulan article may be a stretch–I only mean that one aspect of the American Dream of the poor boy making good prevails in Imperial China. People may read into it many other aspects of the American Dream, so I will revise that sentence to “In fact, the idea central to the American Dream has prevailed long ago in Imperial China: anyone can aspire to the highest position in life. Stories of poor boys make good abound.” And I’ll footnote it with some poor boy make good stories. Good suggestion. Thank you.

Many of the poor boy make good stories are through the Imperial Exams: succeeding in the Imperial Exams means an automatic spot in the social elite, i.e. a post in the Civil Service. Usually economic gain follows. Prestige is very high for the Imperial Exam Laureates; the First Imperial Laureate, for example, is the only one besides the Emperor himself allowed to enter and exit through the central one of the three openings of the Imperial Palace’s various gates. Some examples of the Imperial Chinese success stories: the legendary Emperor Shun from purportedly 2233-2184 B.C., who is a peasant raised to the throne for his virtue. Zhu Mai Chen, d. 115 B.C. and held up as a model in the almost univerally read primer for children San Zi Jing, is originally a cowherd whose wife divorces him for his poverty. Lu Wen Shu, also extolled in San Zi Jing, is so poor when younger that he has to use his straw mat to write on instead of paper. Lu Meng Zheng, 944-1011 A.D., is supposedly so poor before succeeding in the Imperial Exams that the butcher barges into the kitchen to take back the meat bought on credit and the father-in-law tries to pressure Lu’s wife into divorcing him. The famous patriotic general Yue Fei, 1103-1142 A.D., is so poor when young that he uses sand and twig to learn to write. Examples go on and on.

As for foot binding, I never mean for the article to come across as condoning the practice for reasons of cultural relativism. I’ve thought that I’ve made myself pretty clear I condemn foot binding, having called it revolting and rightly so, foolish, and ignorant. In my mind, it’s a matter of advance in science and in health-related knowledge, not so much a matter of a moral scale of right or wrong, good or bad. The practice of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea, where one eats and thus internalizes the remains of one’s dead relative as a sign of affection and respect, is also revolting, foolish, and ignorant, because that practice is responsible for widespread Kuru, a disease of premature dementia, among those people. And I am pretty confident that one day people will condemn the practice of pulling at least 4 healthy teeth and then bracing the remaining as causing some deleterious health conditions later in life. These practices are deleterious and wrong for health reasons, not for reasons of deliberate cruelty or oppression of a segment of the population. No, the victims of these practices often feel privileged to be the recipients (only the daughters of affluent families get to have foot binding). My point in the foot binding paragraph is not to say that foot binding is right, but only to say that foot binding is not meant to be deliberately cruel and vile to females, and is not an example of female life being worthless in traditional China.

Not that I pretend there’s equality between the sexes, but I think female life is worth a lot more in traditional China than in some other traditional cultures.

Feng Xin-ming


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Comment on Mulan Article

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

This is from a reader of my Tsoidug.org website:

Dear Mr. Feng:

Some thoughts as I read the article on Mulan:

“The American Dream Prevails in China” idea. I feel that this may be overly general. I think you make the really good point that people often underestimate the degree to which movement between classes in Imperial China is potentially fluid - eg. by examination and the fact that class was not hereditary. But it seems that the “Dream” remains but “a Dream” to most in Imperial China (probably not that unlike the American Dream) - the actual hurdles in a society without public education, social welfare, public healthcare etc. must be tremendous for someone without personal resources to advance in society. The other thought is that “the American Dream” has a strong component of individual liberty in it - which I feel is not a part of the public philosophy in Imperial China.

I sense also a bit of cultural relativism - that standards of good/bad are relative to the cultural background under which they are evaluated. This comes through most clearly in the example about footbinding vs. braces for teeth. We can vindicate (at least to some extent) the current perceived wrongs of footbinding by taking into account the cultural norms prevalent at that time in Imperial China. Along the same lines, we can hold the belief that some time in the future, people will be right in condemning braces as it is practiced today. There may be a slippery slope here - by what objective standard can one judge good and bad? If we endorse a radical cultural relativism, then how confident we we talk about the “bad old days of backwardness and ignorance”? Is this a judgment based on some norms as they are prevalent today? If so, how can one be sure that such norms will be not seen as wrong sometime in the future in the same way as the current practice of braces?

Caoyuan

I’ll answer him in my next blog entry.

Feng Xin-ming


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Self Esteem

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Happy New Year everyone! Chinese New Year, that is. Being a website promoting Asian culture, it’s only fitting that we start this blog on Chinese New Year’s Day.

There has been a bunch of feedback on the Mulan article. One person writes:
“Something that has struck a chord with me particularly is your noting that Chinese minds have become feeble. Not that they are not intelligent, nor necessarily hardworking. It is more the ability to understand who they are, where they come from, and developing a secure sense of place and life project. I feel a lot of young Chinese people (both in China and ethnic Chinese abroad) lack a deep confidence. And I think the cultural/political turmoil that China has been through in modern history has a lot to do with it.”

I wholeheartedly agree. It is sad, but I think that modern Chinese culture is a culture of inferiority complex, a culture that lacks self esteem.

Look at any Chinese work that deals with history, a historical movie, like “Hero” for example, or a historical soap opera, like the recent “Emperor of the Great Han (Da Ha Tian Zi)” for example. There it’s always shown, with an air of resignation, how the hero, though kind and good-hearted, nonetheless needs to perform some heinous deeds such as killing a loyal subordinate along with his entire family, “for the greater good.” While in Western works the hero may have personal faults, he never has to do anything so criminal as the Chinese “hero.” When the Chinese hero doesn’t have to do anything heinous, he ends up being tragically beaten, as in the recent movie “Huo Yuan Jia.” Sure, “Huo Yuan Jia’s” producers will say, he was never beaten; he had actually beaten the Japanese fighter; he died at the end of the fight only because he was poisoned! But he was still beaten. He was beaten, and China was beaten, in the sense that China had lost its best fighter by far as a result of the match with the Japanese fighter. In the more popular Western movies the hero doesn’t come to that kind of end! Our heroes are definitely inferior to theirs! Boo hoo for self esteem!

The reason that Chinese culture lacks self esteem is the lack of a recognized, affirmed Chinese history, and the lack of a recognized, affirmed set of core values. By the way, I suspect that’s actually common to all non-Western peoples. At any rate, Chinese history is said to be glorious, but if it’s so glorious where have we gone wrong? Why have we been and why are we still so poor and backward? Answers abound, from the Marxist one to the “Blue Culture, Yellow Culture” one to various unconvincing or even outright racist ones. And what are the core values? Confucianism has been thoroughly thrown out the window. The process has started in 1895, when Japan defeats China over Korea and Liang Qi Qiao and Kang You Wei start their campaign to strip the power of the Son of Heaven down to that of a constitutional monarch. The process rises to a fever pitch in 1924 with the cry of “Down with the Confucius Shop!” during the May Fourth Movement. The process ends with the grand finale of the 1966 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Today much of Mainland China is devoid of traditional Chinese ideals, mores, norms, and traditional Chinese common courtesy. Yet the replacement, the revolutionary ideals, mores and norms of the Marxist class struggle, have also been thrown out. So what core values are we left with? A void.

Look at American history and American core values in contrast. Every American knows that the 1776 Revolution is just and great, the conquest of the continent, Alaska, and Hawaii has been a manifest destiny blessed by Providence, and every war that America has been in has been just and, except for Vietnam and Korea, victorious. As for core values, most Americans rally around freedom, equality and democracy, and most Americans will tell you that the most important thing to possess is love.

Recognizing and reaffirming Chinese history and Chinese core values, i.e. reaffirming Chinese culture, that’s indeed why I’ve started this website.

This is even sadder, but I think the Chinese inferiorty complex has gotten worse, not better. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, though most Chinese, i.e. mainland Chinese, were wrong that communism and Maoism had given China the most advanced social system and China would overtake the West within a generation, at least most Chinese were confident that China was still the Middle Kingldom and the center of the world. Now, it is pretty unanimous that China is backward and significantly behind the West, and worse, no one can figure out a way to catch up soon. The accepted wisdom from Mainland officialdom and mainland scholars of prominence is that it will take another fifty years for China to reach the level of the mid tier income countries, like Brazil and Portugal! As for catching up with the USA, well, that’s not seen anywhere in the future. Sigh! This lack of confidence on the part of Chinese people, young Chinese people included, is going to persist for a while!

Feng Xin-ming


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