Search for Meaning

‘Chinese people lack a sense of meaning’, he said. ‘They are lost, unsure of what counts, missing a core’.

Four of us sat around a small meal table, discussing the small, everyday things of life – such as life, death, politics and meaning.

‘But what about you?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a core set of beliefs by which you live your life?’

He nodded. ‘Yes, I do’.

‘And you?’ I said to woman next to him.

‘Yes, of course’, she said.

‘And you?’ Now to the woman next to me.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But that’s exactly the problem. In a recent survey, about 70% said that China lacks a core set of beliefs by which to live. But when each person was asked whether she or he has such beliefs, 70% of them said yes, they do’.

This paradox set me searching. Three areas drew me in as I talked with people across China, one concerning the exchange of ideas, another the question of religion and meaning, and a third xiao, filial piety.

Exchanging Ideas: Between East and West

My first foray did not bode well for my search. I was talking with a woman after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion.

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

After this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite distinct, the modes of thought and listening move differently. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.

Search for Religious Meaning

Wondering if I would ever find the answer, I found myself at Jining, the birthplace of Confucius no less, speaking with a beautiful woman, with fine features and a glorious smile. (Was my search fated to such encounters?)

‘What is your advice?’ She said bluntly. ‘What religion, if any, should I choose?’

She had approached me after listening to a discussion on Jesus and Confucius. We agreed to walk around the lake, through exquisite gardens along winding paths. She told me of her love of French (the language), of her three years in France, of her teaching, of her daughter and husband, of her study of accounting and her dislike of that subject, of desires to study further. I listened, asked questions, mistook what she sought … thinking it may be a conventional desire to study overseas.

But no, she was in a search for meaning. Difficult to express without sounding corny, but it was very much a personal search, a desire to locate some core that seemed to escape her. Here at last was someone who admitted that she lacked a core set of beliefs – rather than attributing it to others.

‘Chinese are very practical’, she said. ‘If one god will help us achieve something, we follow that god. If another provides a new possibility, we follow that one’.

She had been struck by my self-identification as a Christian communist and wished to know what that meant. After I had explained, we returned again to that question, ‘what should I choose’.

‘Of course, I can’t tell you that’, I said. ‘That is up to you’.

She felt that in the face of rapid changes, of a Chinese modernism, of the appropriation of some elements of capitalist economic relations – in the face of all this, the world she once knew had been turned upside down. Where to search? The West gave false hopes and facile propaganda. The deep return to the Chinese classics, Confucius included, signalled that search and many possible answers. It struck me that such a search is not a signal of crisis but of an extraordinarily creative period in modern Chinese history, one simply not possible in so many places in the world.

But then I asked about her parents. ‘They are communists’, she said.

‘What about you?’ I said.

‘I don’t know’.

‘Do you think it is worth re-examining that extraordinary heritage you have, of engaging in some really creative rethinking over it? After all, I envy you deeply since you actually have had a communist revolution’.

Parents, Children and Filial Piety (Xiao)

In the end, the answer to my exploration of this paradox of meaning may well be found at the mundane, everyday level of relations between parents and children. How do they really get on in China?

I was intrigued by this question, since so many elderly live with their offspring. The thought of my mother – no matter how much I love her – or indeed both our mothers living with us is enough to give me the most dreadful nightmares. So how do they manage in China?

To begin with, the Confucian virtue of ‘filial piety’ (xiao) plays a crucial role. This is the cultural assumption that children of whatever age will show respect and deference to their parents, indeed any elders. Even a brief visit to China will soon evince the great respect and admiration shown for the very old. Of course, people complain that it is breaking down (that kind of narrative is trotted out about every young generation), but it is really as strong as ever.

Intrigued about all of this, I asked a friend whose mother lives with her: ‘what is it like? Does your mother still tell you what to do, like mine?’

‘No, she doesn’t need to’, was the response.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘I know what I should do’, she said.

‘So your mother doesn’t tell you what you are doing wrong, ask where you have been, tell you should be doing something else?’

‘No’, she said.

‘But do you do what you are supposed to do?’ I asked.

‘Not always’, she said.

‘How does that work?’ I asked.

She went on to explain that even though she knows what she should do in respect to her mother, and even though her mother assumes that she is doing what she should do, she doesn’t always do it. Her mother never asks, and she never tells her mother, each one assuming that they are following the unwritten rules, while simultaneously knowing that they don’t.

Got it? It took me a while to figure out this deeper meaning of filial piety. But it makes sense, for in no other way would it be possible to live for years with one’s parents in the same place.

Is this perhaps the secret to the paradox with which I began? In this lived paradox of filial piety we might also find one answer to the paradox of the simultaneous absence and pervasive presence of meaning.