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Historically China was the world’s most advanced and cultured society – is that still the case today?
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In the late 20th century, the United States was inarguably the world’s global superpower. The nation dominated much of the world militarily and was a fount of technological and artistic innovation, influencing other cultures throughout the globe. Immigrants flocked to the country by the millions, establishing cosmopolitan multi-ethnic communities.
Rewind history back to the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. and you’d be forced to concede that China was the world’s superpower. The country, then under the Tang Dynasty, was hugely innovative and its vast cities, with populations in the millions, drew immigrants from throughout Asia. The “cultural appropriators” of that era were the Chinese, with Buddhist monks traveling from China to India seeking scriptures to haul back to the Middle Kingdom. The architecture, cuisine, painting, poetry, writing and religious practices of Tang Dynasty China left a huge impact on its neighbors in Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
Looking at China today, it’s only just beginning to reclaim some of its past glory. Its military spending has been increasing but it would be hard to surpass the United States on that score any time soon. The United States and the West, as well as Japan, remain the major cultural influencers throughout the world; China more often shamelessly copies the films, television shows and music coming from the West than it innovates itself. China also attracts relatively few immigrants, and attaining a green card or Chinese citizenship as a foreigner is notoriously difficult.
But if China is not today’s dominant “civilization”, I believe China still retains some aspects of its culture and everyday practice that remain more “civilized” than those in the West. By “civilized” I mean my own subjective perception of what constitutes rational and humane behavior in a society. Civilized behavior is refined and subtle, optimizing kindness and empathy at the expense of selfishness. In my eyes, societies that qualify as civilizations may not necessarily be civilized. Depending on its cultural practices, a hunter-gatherer tribe can be as civilized, quite possibly more so, than a modern state-society with a standing army and a system of writing.
The title of this post is deliberately provocative. On the one hand, some nationalistic Westerners might be outraged by the suggestion that another culture could be superior to their own. I know many Western foreigners here in China who believe this on the basis of their interaction with China, turning up their nose at the litter, pollution, noise and general “rudeness” of Chinese people.
On the other hand, as someone who studied anthropology in college, I know many liberal-minded people who bristle at this usage of the term “civilized.” Civilization should be an objective category for classifying different societies in the interest of unbiased comparison – whether a society uses a system of writing or has class stratification for example – not a judgmental term that generalizes about and denigrates an entire group of people while unfairly elevating another group.
I’m not particularly receptive to these points-of-view, however. While living in China has made me appreciate the good qualities of my native culture, I also try to dwell upon ways that Chinese culture might be superior (and conversely how it might also be inferior). And while I understand the historical and anthropological definition of “civilization”, I also disagree with the language policing of cultural relativists who insist that world cultures can’t be compared in terms of morality. I believe we can and should elevate some cultures and deem other cultures deficient when the consequences of not doing so are obvious.
Also – on whether we should generalize about groups of people – as humans we make sense of the chaos of existence by making generalizations. To refuse to see the commonalities that bind communities and cultures together is to relinquish all effort at understanding. Arriving at truths about societies is not a process of undermining generalities by finding every inevitable outlier – but of refining our generalities in light of new data.
While “civilization” is an objective term for classifying societies, I’m using “civilized” in its subjective sense which means that the points below are down to my personal viewpoint. Some of the points are more defensible or backed up by data than others. I will also be mentioning plenty of caveats – but generally I hope to highlight some ways in which China’s society is a “step-ahead” of the West’s.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Italian and French food and I recognize that a lot of time and effort goes into properly making foie gras and there’s a lot of subtlety to the flavor of Bouillabaisse – not to mention the long and storied histories associated with the national cuisines of Europe. To my mind, however, no country on Earth can rival China for its commitment and obsession with its own food.
First, in terms of preparation, many dishes you’ll be compelled by your Chinese friends and colleagues to order and sample in any run-of-the-mill street side restaurant have probably taken quite some time to prepare, no matter the budget or “class” of the restaurant you’re eating in. For instance, there are 1,000 year old eggs, which aren’t really 1,000 years old, just three-months, preserved in a mixture of lime, salt, ash and tea. There’s also Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, which takes two days to prepare and can contain upwards of 30 ingredients. Myths and legends surround the origins of the complicated recipes for dishes like Beggar’s Chicken and Pockmarked Grandma’s Tofu. These dishes are quite common. For more info check out this post from The Spruce.
Next, in terms of subtlety of flavor, I believe that every Chinese person has a palette as discerning as any leading Western food critic. Have a meal with Chinese people and 60% of the conversation will be about the food – the spices used, the texture of the meat or vegetables, whether it’s too hot or cold, its presentation, comparing the local version of a dish with the way it’s prepared in their hometown. Chinese like talking about food so much that they have an extended vocabulary for the topic. The Chinese word 麻 má refers to the numbing sensation elicited when cooking with Sichuan peppercorn, and is a flavor term as vital in the language as the equivalents for spicy, salty, sweet, sour and bitter.
There’s also a religious and spiritual component to the preparation of Chinese food. Not only must the flavors mentioned above be balanced, even in stereotypically piping hot cuisines like those of Sichuan and Hunan, but there has to be a balance in the spiritual forces associated with each ingredient, whether it’s hot (imbued with the male element Yang) or cold (the female element Yin). There’s a Chinese saying which goes 民以食为天 – min yi shi wei tian – and which roughly translates as “for the people, food is heaven.” This is not only a reflection of China’s perennial problem with mass starvation in its history but also of the spiritual value its people place in food.
There’s something highly “civilized” not only in the complexity of Chinese food itself, but also in the way it is traditionally eaten and enjoyed. China is stereotypically communal and this is evident at mealtimes when the practice is most often to share from large platters, circulated easily from person to person using a spinning glass platform, dabbing at the food with your chopsticks, depositing the morsels into your comparatively tiny bowl. The individual bowl or plate is of lesser importance than the group, the large communal plates. To me, there is something immediately more endearing about this practice than the Western custom of hoarding your own food on your own massive plate and where if you want to sample someone else’s food you have to tentatively ask permission. In China, decisions on what to order are made as a group with consideration for every individual’s needs.
2. Public Transit
This one is a no-brainer and is often included on lists of the virtues of China’s modern system. Sure, France has the TGV and South Korea and Japan have excellent metro systems and trains – but China has the longest line, the 1,428 mile Beijing to Guangzhou high speed rail, as well as the world’s first magnetic levitation line, the Shanghai maglev. For a massive developing country like China, this is an impressive achievement – especially considering the number 1 economy in the world and a country of similar size, the United States, hasn’t been able to muster the ability to achieve something similar.
And this isn’t just considering long-distance trains, China’s urban metros and bus systems are also incredibly cheap and convenient to use. Hong Kong’s MTR was profiled in The Atlantic, as a model of public transit management. Chinese cities are also typically more bike and pedestrian friendly than their American counterparts. Many cities are currently experimenting with new bike-share schemes on top of the rentable public bicycles already largely available. This is down to China’s relatively low rates of car ownership proportionate to its huge population. While that remains the case (car ownership is increasing rapidly and many Chinese people don’t seem to appreciate what they have enough) I think there is something more civilized in China’s more environmentally friendly and communitarian approach to transportation.
3. Aesthetic Sense
This is another entirely subjective consideration, but hear me out. Yes, many tourists who arrive in China are often struck by the ugliness of China’s cities with their decrepit and generic forests of apartment blocks, endless vistas of construction sites shrouded in smog and litter strewn, congested roads.
However, there are three areas where I think China surpasses the West aesthetically – its traditional art forms, its historic architecture and its public parks.
First, in terms of traditional art forms, I don’t think I’m alone in considering Chinese porcelain and other ceramic artwork to be superior to much of what the West has produced. Porcelain was hugely influential and sought after in Europe after-all. But there are also other forms such as the green celadon ware and the Tang Dynasty sancai or three-color pottery, produced to a high art of sensitivity and delicacy at a time when Europe was mainly churning out tacky, gaudy, gilded trinkets, often more functional than formal.
Another of my opinions, edging more toward blasphemy, is that Chinese landscape painting is also superior to its Western equivalent. Since the Renaissance, Western landscape painting has swung between exact faithfulness in depicting a scene and using a landscape to express the painter’s feelings and emotions. Traditional Chinese landscape painting has dwelled upon the latter with abstracted landscapes, encapsulated in images of mountains shrouded in swirling mist. But while the Romantic landscape painters of Europe often imbue their scenes with frenzied, violent emotion, like brooding man-children – Chinese landscapes evoke peace and serenity, an acceptance of humankind’s insignificance. The latter sensibility seems the more mature.
I also have a high appreciation for traditional Chinese poetry, embodied in ancient figures like Li Bai, Du Fu and Su Dongpo, who express so much in so few words. Take Li Bai’s poem, Thoughts on a Still Night
Before my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think that it is frost upon the ground.
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.
For me at least, these four simple lines elicit bright bursts of visual and emotional imagery, raise questions about the narrator and force me to wonder at the author’s ability to express so much emotion so simply and clearly. Here in the 8th century poet Li Bai, you find the kind of vibrant poet-personality that wouldn’t emerge in the West for nearly another 1,000 years. There’s also great diversity in the world of Chinese poetry, even though it’s impossible to designate a “Chinese equivalent” of Shakespeare, Homer, Keats or T.S. Eliot. The attempt to do so will force you to make concessions to differences in cultural impact, time-period, form and subject-matter. I concede it would be hard to argue that Chinese poetry, on the whole, is superior to Western poetry or to that of any world culture, but China might have the longest track record of excellence.
Next there’s historic architecture and while I love me some European castles, royal manors and cathedrals, they can’t hold a candle in my view to China’s temples and palaces. To me, castles in Europe are hulking and forbidding, the palace of Versailles is tacky and overdone and Gothic cathedrals are largely spiky, frantic, grotesque monstrosities. Greco-Roman architecture is sterile and too geometrically perfect. I know that’s unfair and entirely personal, but whatever. To me there’s something simply more elegant, pleasing and civilized about traditional Chinese architecture in its combination of linearity with fractal slopes, spirals and repetitive layers suggesting the confluence of nature and humankind and in its ingenious melding of form and function.
I wrote an entire blog post on why I think Chinese public parks are the best in the world. I’m too lazy to repeat myself, so check out that post if you’re interested.
Finally, lest you think I’ve only attempted to demonstrate why ancient and medieval China is great, as opposed to modern China, keep in mind that despite the traumas of recent history, like World War II and the Cultural Revolution, China’s artistic legacy continues and now more than ever China’s people are riffing on the accomplishments of their ancestors, experimenting with pottery, painting, poetry and architecture. In Ningbo, where I used to live, Wang Shu won the Pritzker prize for architecture for his design of the city’s history museum. The government often gets in the way, however. In fact, it deemed architecture trends were getting too crazy and innovative, issuing a directive for local governments to tone down the extravagance.
4. Treatment of the Elderly
China’s Confucian tradition is well-known for the emphasis it places on filial piety. Traditionally, Chinese sons and daughters are compelled to look after their elderly parents through their parents’ old age, sacrificing whatever time, money and house space necessary. I often view this tradition somewhat critically, since it encourages a slavish devotion to the whims of one’s parents. It also doesn’t take into consideration the changing circumstances of modern China in which a generation of only-children is being asked to shoulder the responsibility to look after two or more aging relatives – all in the absence of much in the way of a social safety net.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to find the lack of age-shaming in China endearing. Old people in China traditionally ruled the roost, and although Westernization has lessened this to an extent, the elderly are more respected here than in the West. The Chinese government recently issued a directive, admittedly heavy handed, encouraging young people to visit their parents more often. See again my blog post on public parks for another side to this.
Confucianism also encourages, in theory, consideration for one’s place in wider society, at the expense of individual ego. This incentivizes generosity for family members and neighbors. You could find many aspects of the Confucian legacy problematic, and I do (its justification of social hierarchy solidifies classism and sexism for example), but the selfishness rampant in Chinese society today is more a legacy of Communism than of Confucianism.
5. Temper, temper
The case below is classic. The foreign tourist arrives at the Chinese airport and hops in a cab. The taxi driver hurtles through traffic, accelerating and braking uncomfortably quickly, weaving around cars, taking wild meandering detours through narrow alleys and going the wrong way on one-way streets, all while honking loudly and incessantly. Queuing for train tickets, people cut in line. On the bus, the crowds are stifling and people push and violently brush against the foreign tourist as they get off. Upon alighting from the bus, the tourist sees a young child unabashedly relieving himself on a bush in full view of the passing public.
The foreign tourist sees all this and thinks, how barbaric. Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to dwell upon what we see, as opposed to what we don’t see. And what you don’t often see in China are people losing their tempers. I’ve heard it said that Chinese people have a high threshold for tolerating small annoyances, and this is true in my experience. They certainly have a higher threshold than I do. I’ve found myself, to my shame, driven to the brink of yelling at strangers for bumping into me in the street – Watch where you’re going! – or yelling at queue jumpers and instantly feeling like a fool as the people nearby stare at me like I’m the uncivilized barbarian.
It’s easy to look at China’s chaotic traffic and think it’s uncivilized, and I suppose it is. But then everyone’s calm in China. Think about the fuss Americans make when someone doesn’t use their turn signal or the road rage elicited by cutting someone off. I know we have safety standards for a reason but Americans can be a tad dramatic sometimes.
I often lament the fact that Chinese people are so calm and placid in the face of publicly anti-social behavior. I think that if Chinese people got publically angry more often, there would be fewer line-cutters and children pissing in the streets. But then again, this cool-headedness is also what makes China an incredibly safe country despite its relatively small street-police presence. It’s a contradiction – or a paradox? (I’m not sure). China’s uncivilized public behavior also encapsulates what is civilized about Chinese public behavior.
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China can be an admittedly frustrating place to live in and yet I still love it. The list above was an attempt to remind myself as well as perhaps enlighten others about what makes China such a cool place. Despite the title of this post, I don’t actually believe that China is more civilized than the West. On the whole, Western society today is more humane than Chinese society. But China has a rich legacy in its culture and history to draw upon, whether for good or ill. Let’s hope that in the future the good sides of this country rise pure out of the muck of the bad, like the lotus plant.
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