A friend of mine in Delhi has come up with a term, “social mindfulness.” This very political, deeply spiritual athiest friend is trying to articulate a belief system based on Buddhist philosophy to challenge the conservative right in the United States. I’ll keep you posted…

What follows are some email exchanges I’ve had with my friend that lives in China and an email written by a friend of a friend that lives there as well regardging (mostly) the Tibet situation.

Dada (Sister),
This perspective from your student is great and thanks for sharing!
I would say that my experience in China has provided me with a similar perspective.
My only concern when living in China is that although the majority of 1.3 billion people may support their government and believe this side of the story, people are not taught (or allowed) to think freely about sociopolitical ideas or spirtuality/religion.  So how can we expect critical thinking and self reflection from this kind of system?  That is the danger, in my opinion, that a society is so inclined to tunnel vision, so patriotic, and not inclined to question itself, its ethos, its ego, its government and its ideology.  The fact that the young generation so commonly fits this mold, as your former student described, is even more concerning to me.
Today I keep a Kosher diet and am pretty much a vegetarian.  As a senior in high school, my favorite lunch sandwich was bacon, chicken and cheese. This is not Kosher for two reasons: pork and meat/milk combination.  The summer after I graduated high school, I received two books from a very religious Jewish man.  Both books were about questions.  One was on why one should believe that there is G-d.  The other was on why one should believe that G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah.  The first book was more convincing, and the second book was good too, although I am not totally convinced (don’t personally think it matters) that G-d physically handed the Jewish people the Torah, or if this is a more allegoric story.  Nonetheless, my entire life changed after high school because I was disposed to ask questions and hear what the answers were.
Even my most open and “free-thinking” Chinese friends have difficulties questioning their sociopolitical views and internal compass (although they have no problem questioning economics, which generates great dialogue in China), and so many people I know in China are so sure about how the world works and what is “good” and “bad”.
I suppose most of the US fits into the same boat.  But at least there is an important segment of our society, even if it sits largely in academia, which is constantly pushing the envelope of society, and has a mandate to do so, even if it is an indirect mandate towards teaching and learning that only indirectly results in questioning the status quo.
So, yes, there is another very valid perspective from China.  But without space in China for thinking and reflection about sociopolitical ideas and religion/spirituality, I remain concerned about how such an enormous Chinese culture and society will relate to the world, especially as it becomes so much more economically (and militarily) influential.
Thanks also for the article on Confucian Humanism.
On one hand, I see this with great hope, as the wherewithal for guarding against hyper-capitalistic individualism that seems to grow in dominance in China with each day in a one-child dominated society that seeks its “rightful” position in the world, after having been cut off from its ancestral roots by thirty years of Maoism.  In many ways, with the Buddhist (or Daoist even less) connection largely ruptured by the Communist/Maoist experience, perhaps it is Confucianism that managed to slip through the cracks and can provide the historic continuity towards self and societal improvement.
On the other hand, my understanding of Confucism is as a philosophy and system that stratifies society and provides pre-defined roles for people out of which it is very difficult to rise.  While Confucian Humanism may focus on the more egalitarian or humanistic elements of Confucianism, a lot of Confucian philosophy and ideas, from my understanding, may not fit this mold.
Anyway, these are just my thoughts on some very difficult issues…
Subject: Fwd: the other side of the story
thought you might find this interesting.
—– Original Message —–
A former student of mine has been living and studying in China for nearly a year now on a junior year abroad from college.  In a recent group email she sent out she addressed the issue of China,  the Olympic torch and the Tibet protests.  I found the perspective from an American living in China very eye opening, especially after we have talked about trying to understand both sides.  I thought you might enjoy reading Ashley’s insights into the Chinese people’s psyche.  I wrote back to her and asked if it was okay to share this.  She replied with some updates that are also included here.
—– Original Message —–
Everyone is asking me about what’s going on with China in terms of the Olympic torch and Tibet protests so I guess I’ll give you a little bit about what I think has been going on here. Basically, the Chinese government is spewing all kinds of propaganda about the whole thing. If you don’t believe me just go to the China Daily website. The editorials are especially incendiary. For a while it was hard to get a hold of western articles because China was blocking all the major western news sites and youtube. We all used proxies to get around the block sites. With the western outcry over the Olympics, China has been forced to unblock a lot of sites including youtube and wikipedia (which has always been blocked). Some of you looked at my pictures when I was home over Christmas break. Remember the Tibetan village I lived in for a few days? Or the city where the Hui (the Muslim minority), Han and Tibetans all lived together? That was in Gansu Province. The city I was talking about was Xiahe, site of Labrang Monastery. When the protests first started spreading throughout Tibetan provinces in China the monastery and city were in chaos. Foreign reporters were ordered to stay in their hotel rooms and eventually escorted out. Everything seems to be opening up now, but I’m sure a return visit would find things looking very different.
Everyone in the U.S. seems to think that Beijing is all aflutter with protests. It’s not. Most people in China believe that Tibet is a part of mainland China and that the Dalai Llama is more or less a terrorist trying to break up Chinese unity. They’re angry with the west for reacting the way it has. At the beginning of the riots, western media pretty much only focused on the plight of the Tibetan people. The Chinese were extremely upset that the west sympathized with the Tibetans causing the riots instead of the Han Chinese who were killed or who’s livelihoods were destroyed. Most Han Chinese in Tibet are migrant workers who are barely making a l iving and most Chinese believe that sending them is helping a poor province develop economically. A lot of Han Chinese go to Tibet to work or volunteer in the same way that we might think of spending a summer working in a poor part of Appalachia. It’s something different, it’s lacks modern convenience, you feel like you’re helping to develop of part of the country that is struggling and there’s a sense of adventure in going.
This is even true of college students. Yes, Peking University is known as the University where many historical movements began, but the movement right now is pretty much in support of the Chinese government. You will see students get heated about the issue. But mostly it’s out of anger towards the West. They aren’t angry with the Chinese government, they’re angry with the rest of the world. They don’t understand why the West has to demonize China. They also don’t understand why all of this has to overshadow the Olympics. Having the Olympics is such a point of pride with the Chinese people. They have an intense sense of patriotism and they want the rest of the world to see how much they have developed. Beijing 2008 is EVERYWHERE you look. All my students this summer could draw the little cartoon mascots and knew their names. Yes, that’s partially due to the advertisement (read: propaganda) concerning it… but it really is something they know will influence the world view of China. Most Chinese feel like development in their country is no longer something to ashamed of. They can be proud and stand next to the superpowers in the world. They are offended by western attacks and want to prove them wrong. Imagine one day someone told you that Hawaii didn’t want to be a part of the United States. That there had actually secretly been a movement going on for decades and finally violence had broken out. It would challenge everything you had known to be true about the United States for your entire life. You would be pissed that Hawaii suddenly wanted independence and you would support the government’s desire to keep the nation together. Now imagine the rest of the world was supporting Hawaii and its exiled leader. Then people began protesting the one event your country has been banking on to help it show the world how far it’s come in the last 20 years. It’s entirely understandable given the circumstances/perspective. There’s actually a good article on this in the NY Times.
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/opinion/13forney.html?ex=1208750400&en=bee 09e70da30f998&ei=5070&emc=eta1
It talks about today’s youth and how they are actually one of the more patriotic segments of society. They are just as passionate and opinionated as the students of past generations… their opinions just happen to fall in line with the government. In the states we tend to associate youth movements with opposition movements that challenge the status quo. That is definitely not true at this time in China. I overheard one conversation at a cafe near Beida between an American student and his Chinese tutor. She was telling him that the Dalai Llama is a bad man. He asked her why she thought that and she simply said because she knew it was true. He reminded her that she had told him she quit teaching because she was told to teach things she didn’t believe in. He asked why she thought this was any different. And she said they didn’t have anything to do with each other. She simply knew the Dalai Llama is a bad man because it is the truth. Those of us raised in America have been taught since birth that our system is the best system in the world. So that’s what we believe. Chinese students are raised to believe that the concept of mainland China is the ONLY concept of China. Taiwan is part of China and Tibet is part of China with no exceptions. It’s hard to challenge someones fundament al beliefs about their own country. Anyway, that’s my perspective on what’s happening here.
Thank you! I feel like it’s something everyone needs to understand. There is another side to the story! I’m not saying you should agree with it, but you can’t just ignore it! Pretending 1.3 billion people don’t have an opinion is a pretty stupid diplomatic (not to mention public relations) move.
The backlash here is getting worse. This weekend protests happened outside the French embassy and Chinese people have started to boycott Carrefour (the French grocery store that is popular here). Of course, the Chinese police are doing little to stop THESE protests because they are pro-China. I was in Shanghai this weekend and my friend’s host brother went out to dinner with us. He loves the West and wants to move to America after he graduates. Out of nowhere he said “Oh, did you guys here that we all hate French people now? Yeah, we’re aren’t shopping at Carrefour anymore because of the Torch relay.” There have been protests happening outside of the stores for the past few days. I guess it got pretty intense this weekend in Beijing and a few of the stores shut down. Apparently some people came out to remind the protesters that even though it’s a French store, Chinese people wold lose jobs if they actually shut down. They’ve now opened back up. Cab drivers want to know if you’re French (the correct answer is no, by the way) before they take you somewhere. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
Of course you can share it with your students. You can share it with the whole class if you like! They can even send me questions if they want. Co ming from a western perspective and only hearing other western opinions makes it hard to really understand what’s going on on the other side. I’m in the perfect situation because I’m living in China and seeing everything first hand, but I’ve also come into it with a western perspective. There’s a lot of misunderstanding on both sides of the issue and if the West keeps up all the name calling they are NOT going to find the Chinese very receptive in August. Somehow the West condemns China and its government but forgets that there are over a billion people living here that for the most part support the government (at least on this issue). The west is alienating the Chinese people more than it’s causing any change in the government’s treatment of Tibet. China will never let go of Tibet because of the loss of face to its own people. The more the Chinese people feel like the west is out to get them the more they will support China holding on to Tibet. They feel like they are being treated unfairly. That that Olympics shouldn’t be political. You should totally look up some articles on Tibet in the China Daily to share with your students. Sure, most of it sounds suspiciously like propaganda… but some of the articles really express the Chinese people’s anger and confusion over the sudden change of opinion on China. Putting out the flame of the Olympic torch may have been a powerful message to free Tibet groups… but over here it’s just an unwarranted attack on China from the west.
Anyway, I hope it helps your kids put things into perspective and deepen their understanding of the issue as a whole. Yeah, once I get back to NH I’ll probably miss being here… or at least miss being around other people that understand what it’s like to live in China. There’s this whole expat culture that I’ll miss too! We speak Chinglish and we make jokes about China and everyone gets it. Now I have to go back to the states and be around people that want me to explain China to them in 20 words or less. I’m NOT looking forward to it…