Monday, 12 April 2021




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Some insights into Chinese culture from the field of Sinology (I):

Chinese culture vs. the culture of China



It is usually argued, and Chinese people take pride in that, that Chinese culture is a somehow homogeneous conglomerate of traditions which has been handed down since the time of Confucius with few (if any) changes. Sometimes social Darwinism is added to the equation, and we find Confucian culture actively and smartly moving through history in order to reach its climax with the foundation of the Communist Party, regardless of the fact that its founders were eager anti-Confucians.

When we sinologists speak about Chinese culture, we are usually referring to the former and, implicitly, acknowledging its influence on the later, an influence that may be seen, we say, in other countries like South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan or even Singapore. Seldom do we speak about the culture of China today, and rarely are we seen making a difference between Chinese culture and the culture of China.

The objective of this short discussion is not to clarify whether China is “Chinese” in the sense of its modern culture being a development of Classical Chinese culture, neither is it my purpose to prove if Confucianism had a great influence on Chinese societies from Tang to Qing (618-1912). What I wish to dispute here, however, is the legitimacy of the so-called “cultural apology”, the idea that any behavior found to be different from the “Western” ways –which usually stands for “foreign ways” –, no matter how inappropriate, offensive, or vicious it is, should be excused as some kind of “cultural difference” that the foreigner is unable to understand, because it is part of the sacred, five thousand years old Chinese culture.

I believe it is important to acknowledge these problems, and it is even more important for Chinese people to do so, because that is the only way they are going to be corrected: through self-criticism.


Boiled water

Let’s start with the most common behaviors any foreigner can see when he walks around China –actions that can also be found in the West, yet not in such a degree and never under the pretext of being part of any particular culture. Chinese people, like most people in countries with not so good hygienic conditions, usually drink boiled or hot water, even in summer. This is usually portrayed as some “Chinese way”, since we foreigners have the bad habit of drinking cold water or cold drinks, especially in summer. The same may be said about food and, more specifically, soup: if it does not bore through your throat it is not Chinese enough! Never mind the fact that boiled water and hot soup were the rule in any Western country before we reached an acceptable level of hygiene. But, unlike Chinese people, we never excused our lack of hygiene by talking about millenary traditions. The main issue with boiled water in China is twofold: firstly, boiling polluted water does not remove heavy metals, which are the real problem here. Chinese water may have parasites and bacteria particles, but it also has different amounts of fluorine, iron, arsenic or manganese, which cannot be eliminated by simply boiling them away. Drinking hot water, then, only speaks about the defective conditions of water in China, and it is in no way a safe measure.

            Secondly, we should ask if this is in fact “Chinese culture” or just “the culture of China”. Since “Chinese culture” is usually sold as Confucius 101, for example, by the Confucius Institutes, we can take a look at the Classics and see what they tell us about drinking hot water and soup. In Mencius, we find the following passage:



“In winter we drink things hot, in summer we drink things cold” (11.5/58/13).


James Legge translation may seem wrong at first sight, since the literal translations would be “We drink soup because it is winter, we drink water because it is summer”, but in fact Legge was very acute in his reading of this passage, because Mencius is contrasting concepts to make an argument about the origin of feelings: even if we have different feelings for different people, the feelings depend on us, not on what is external. Likewise, even if we drunk or eat different depending on the season, the feeling of eating is within us.


Taking a shower

Another important cultural difference any foreigner will find in China is the adequate moment for taking a shower. Personally I don´t see why taking a shower in the morning or before sleeping should have such an incredible amount of “cultural force”, but it is seen as something very important and distinguishing in China. Now, I have found no scientific study on this issue, but I don´t see any logic on avoiding taking a morning shower: it wakes you up and you go to work with a clean body that will not chase away any normal person being around you in your way back home at night (try the Guangzhou subway at 6 p.m. and you will know what I mean). Also, if you had an intense day, or if your job demands some physical effort, taking a night shower may be also a good idea. However, the question remains: is it a millenary Chinese tradition to enjoy a night shower? How should the Confucian exemplary person or junzi proceed when faced with a deadly bathtub?

            A quick search on bathing procedures according to the Chinese classics reveals something very different. For example, the Liji or Classic of Rites, a work edited by Confucius according to tradition, reads:



“Husband and wife rose early, bathed and dressed” (Neize, 64)


君子... 日五盥,沐稷而靧粱,櫛用樿櫛,發曦用象櫛,進禨進羞,工乃升歌。浴用二巾,上絺下綌,出杅,履蒯席,連用湯,履蒲席,衣布曦身,乃屨進飲。

“The gentleman... washed his hands five times a day. He used millet-water in washing his head, and maize-water in washing his face. For his hair (when wet) he used a comb of white-grained wood, and an ivory comb for it when dry. (After his toilet), there were brought to him the (usual) cup and some delicacy; and the musicians came up and sang. In bathing he used two towels; a fine one for the upper part (of his body), and a coarser for the lower part. When he got out of the tub, he stepped on a straw mat; and having next washed his feet with hot water, he stepped on the rush one. Then in his (bathing) robe of cloth, he dried his body (again), and put on his shoes; and a drink was then brought into him” (Yuzao, 7).



“Rising early (the morning after marriage), the young wife washed her head and bathed her person” (Hunyi, 5).


Spitting, burping and other disgusting actions

This is a fact: everyone has done it once, but no one makes it “cultural”, with the exception of Chinese people. This can be fully appreciated in the connection between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. I have been told more than once by serious people that “sounding spitting” has its roots in the Confucian custom of expelling body fluids. Again, there is nothing wrong with expelling body fluids or even gases, but it is quite repulsive when we do it in front of others or in the middle of the street. Should such a behavior be excused because it is part of some “Chinese culture”? Again, we may ask the Classic of Rites how should the Confucian gentleman discharge his body fluids and gases:



“They should not presume to eructate, sneeze, or cough, to yawn or stretch themselves, to stand on one foot, or to lean against anything, or to look askance. They should not dare to spit” (Neize, 12).


Also in another Confucian work, the Shuoyan, we read:



 “The sound of the throat when spiting should not be heard” (19.28/167/26).


Another behavior one can especially see in Southern China in summer, due to hot weather, is young people walking around with their shirts over their belly –this can also be seen, indeed, in the European countryside and in South America. Amazingly, wise Confucius also spoke about this:



“They should not hold up their clothes. Of their private dress and coverlet, they should not display the inside”(Neize, 12).


So it looks, neither the culture of China nor sagging pants qualify for a Confucian scholar.


The politics of filial piety

The last point I would like to address in the first part of this insight into Chinese culture is filial piety or xiao. Filial piety is considered the most important Chinese virtue because it is first rooted in the family, and it is through our respect to our parents and elder ones that we achieve any other virtue, such as our respect for and loyalty to our ruler. Although academic Sinology already got rid of the false idea that filial piety means that children should blindly follow what parents say, this is common lore for any inhabitant of modern China. And there is a reason for this, as we shall see. But first of all, let´s see what the Classic of Filial Piety –a very short book that recalls a conversation between Confucius and his disciple Zengzi– has to say. Chapter 15 reads:



“The disciple Zeng said, ‘I have heard your instructions on the affection of love, on respect and reverence, on giving repose to (the minds of) our parents, and on making our names famous. I would venture to ask if (simple) obedience to the orders of one's father can be pronounced filial piety.’ The Master replied, ‘What words are these! What words are these! Anciently, if the Son of Heaven had seven ministers who would remonstrate with him, although he had not right methods of government, he would not lose his possession of the kingdom. If the prince of a state had five such ministers, though his measures might be equally wrong, he would not lose his state. If a great officer had three, he would not, in a similar case, lose (the headship of) his clan. If an inferior officer had a friend who would remonstrate with him, a good name would not cease to be connected with his character. And the father who had a son that would remonstrate with him would not sink into the gulf of unrighteous deeds. Therefore when a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of unrighteous conduct, how can (simple) obedience to the orders of a father be accounted filial piety?’”.


Which can be thus resumed: if you obey the orders of your parents and do not complain when you believe they are wrong, you are not being filial. And when a minister obeys the orders of his ruler and does not complain when he believes he is wrong, he is not being loyal. Which brings us to the former question: if we acknowledge that a son should remonstrate with his father, we should also acknowledge that a minister or any vassal should remonstrate with his ruler.

          But submission to a tyrannical state was by no means criticized only by Confucius. Mencius has a full discussion on regicide:





“The king said, ‘May a minister then put his sovereign to death?’

Mencius said, ‘He who outrages the benevolence proper to his nature, is called a robber; he who outrages righteousness, is called a ruffian. The robber and ruffian we call a mere fellow. I have heard of the cutting off of the fellow Zhou, but I have not heard of the putting a sovereign to death, in his case.’”


Or putting it simple: A sovereign who does not act like a sovereign but a robber is not a sovereign, and it should be punished or even killed. Something that, I believe, the current government of China will not really appreciate even if it was uttered by the old, wise Confucius, as it was by our Western philosophers and historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Hume, and many others.