Comment on Mulan Article

This is from a reader of my 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?


I’ll answer him in my next blog entry.

Feng Xin-ming

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