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Wisdom from the Middle Kingdom

from the archive, 2018

The mixed image of China

China bulks large in the world. Daily we are reminded of her economic might, rivalling that of the United States. Also our media conveys the suggestion of a vague threat associated with China; not simply the formidable competition of its economic reach; nor the geopolitical influence of its Belt and Road project, and its expansion over the seas. The suggestion is that its money and influence could compromise Australian or western values. The claim is backed by turning an unflattering spotlight onto the way the state and the Chinese Communist Party deals with dissidents, religious minorities and would-be autonomous territories. By the same token we acknowledge the Chinese success story of lifting millions out of poverty and entering into the international marketplace and cultural exchange. The post-Deng Xiaoping China - the China of today - is not the China of yesterday - the land of atheistic, Maoist repression. It’s a China the west has opened to and wants to work with.

The formative role of Confucianism and Taoism

Followers of Jesus should behold the Middle Kingdom with a fair gaze, and advance cultural exchange by appreciating the underlying, inspiring spiritual values. The traditions of Confucianism and Taoism are vital in this regard. While Buddhism was imported, these two were native. They have cultivated the soul of China for two-and-a-half thousand years.

This short reflection, at the risk of oversimplification and conflation, wishes to focus upon the salient, shared spiritual value and virtue of Confucianism and Taoism : namely, harmony. This is especially important on account of the stark contrast of the west’s prizing of competition. Competition in business, in public life - in life, generally. The western notions of liberty, independence and autonomy also make for a juxtaposition with Chinese values of interdependence, family loyalty, and the bonds of obligation. An occidental might be taught to fling the truth fearlessly in the face of an opponent and spare no feelings; an oriental might be enjoined to save the “face” of the antagonist, in the interest of social cohesion.

That’s what Confucius sought : social cohesion, and a well-ordered society, even if necessarily hierarchical. That’s also close to Lao Tzu’s conception of the Tao, where everything was part of the one, harmonious flow of life. Both the Confucian civic and ethical code and the Taoist Way, if not easily categorised as ‘faith traditions’, inculcate deep respect for the other (including the Golden Rule); and the need to cooperate for peace in the social order. Freedom without order, or apparent individual gains that leave one’s neighbour behind, runs against the grain of the Chinese spirit.

Not being one-eyed about Chinese influence

We hear such sentiments resonating in the speeches and rhetoric of today’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping. A trade war is not his way - not the Chinese way. China seeks cooperation with other world powers. It wants to collaborate in building regional and global security with partners on a basis of equality. This is what China plausibly says because such an ethic is in her DNA, and is what made her a great civilisation over the millenia. If we others who have not experienced the Chinese culture first hand, from the inside, hear these pronouncements through the filter of an individualistic and competitive lens, we shall be prone to cynicism and scepticism. We’ll hunt down ulterior, threatening motives, that play better in the competitive paradigm. This is what happens when we distrust a commercial giant like Huawei with a large chunk of our infrastructure, or when we fear espionage, or the growing influence of Communist Party affiliates in Australian educational institutions and political parties, advocating for state interests and territorial claims. Where there is a lot of people, there will potentially be a lot of money; and where there is a lot of money, there is potentially the buying of influence.

There is also a real concern about the repression in China of public manifestations of religion, especially Falun Gong (since 1999), Christianity and Islam. The Uighur Muslims have been subjected to “reprogramming” by the Party, while Christians have been forced into their own living rooms if they acknowledge a higher authority than the state. Critics talk of the “Sinicising” of the Church. In addressing these, as with all, problems, it is important to eschew hypocrisy, and to recognise the source culture’s neglectful diminution of its own traditions. For example, for many centuries now in much of the western world it has been (wrongly) assumed that religion is a purely a private and personal affair and should not rear its head in the public space. China, on this point, is basically giving physical effect to something defaulted on by those who identify as Christians.

To feel safe in relationship with the People’s Republic, we need the confidence of promoting our values without demonising the Chinese. Values like liberty, rights, freedom of worship, creativity and innovation. Achieving such confident promotion without demonisation depends on understanding that freedom and order need not - should not - be in conflict. Else it might be licence rather than liberty that we sow. Democracy, the leveller, must come to terms with hierarchy, the bureaucratic organiser.

Learning from Chinese family values and culture

Let’s live our own lives but forget not our families. Consider the marathon journeys city workers make to their rural kinsfolk at Chinese New year. Yes, everyone has an opinion, but some also have extensive experience. The Confucian deference to elders for their distilled life wisdom is a lesson we in Australia can take to heart (at the time of writing) as we launch a Royal Commission into the Aged Care sector. As for health care, the traditional Chinese concept of bioenergy, Qi, can bring a much needed shot of vitality to existing ‘allopathic’ medicine.

Paradox, which characterises some of the great Christian writers like G.K.Chesterton, is accommodated naturally in the mutual embrace of Yin and Yang. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes vulnerability is stronger than strength. It is a fuller vision when we fix one eye on the eternal and the other on the impermanent. The I Ching classic is the Book of Changes. From the Tao emerges the yin and yang, the feminine and masculine, whose interplay gives rise to the myriad permutations and combinations empatterned in the Book of Changes. One theme present therein, as well as in the teaching of Confucius, is the sacred structure of interdependent, familial relationships : between a parent and a child, between an elder and a younger sibling, and so on. This reminds us that there is an intrinsic beauty in the relationships that are given, quite apart from the ones that are chosen.

Harmony and complementarity

Without harmony in the home, how is harmony to be brought to the state? How is harmony generated in the home without family members performing their proper roles in an unbroken chain of duties? A home (and society) where anybody can wear the pants, or take the superior seat, or stage a coup by rallying a treasonous faction, is going to be lacking in stability, peace and unity. We need look no further than the revolving-door Australian prime ministership.

Election must be balanced by stable succession, lest the polity be plunged into chaos. So too the economy, if free market anarchy remains untempered by fair codes of conduct, standards and regulations evolving out of industries’ concern for their members and service to the wider community. Both aspects have been experienced in different historical periods of western civilisation, like the modern and the medieval. So the polarity is familiar. Further, it is possible to see a taoistic, yin-yang rhythm at play between the west and the east. A civilisation which lionises social mobility and the fact that everything’s up for grabs could both teach and learn from a civilisation wherein everyone and thing has a settled place in a heaven-established cosmic order.

The follower of Jesus cannot help but see the universal relevance of traditional Chinese values, and their centrality to building a peaceful global civilisation.

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