Disintegration of Chinese Cultural Structure


      Disintegration and Doom of Chinese Cultural Structure


                                     Wang Lixiong 


   China is now undergoing a change that attracts worldwide attention. Generally speaking, most of current observation, analyses, comments and prediction tend to focus on the economic, political and social development and change in China, placing its culture in a secondary position. Economy, politics and society are tangible entities that can be grasped with statistics whereas culture is intangible and it is hard to tell what function it can perform in the social transformations of China. Therefore, intentionally or unintentionally, culture is put into a subordinate position, and it is believed that it will undoubtedly evolve as the tangible politics and economy develop ( similar to the Marxist belief that “the economic basis determines the superstructure”) and will not have decisive influence upon social development.

   However, some others hold that culture can exert a positive impact on economic development and they give as an example the economic takeoff in the Confucian cultural region of East Asia. Deducing from this belief, one can say that China, being the birthplace of the Confucian culture, will also enjoy a bright future and even assume the central role in the “Grand Chinese Cultural Region” that will dominate the future world so long as it carries forward its tradition. Today, on the surface, Chinese traditional culture seems to have moved from the blockade and suffocation of the Mao’s era into a complete “restoration”. With the cream of the cultural heritage being revered again, its dross and dregs are also easily found everywhere. But does it follow that Chinese traditional culture has been truly restored?

   Some more optimistic people argue that the present Chinese culture is not a simple return to the tradition. In their opinion, it has mingled and fused with Western culture and is going through a positive, substantial transformation, thus repossessing a higher vitality and quite possibly showing a new way out to the mankind that has on the whole come to a dead end.

   I am not that optimistic. On the contrary, just because I attach great importance to the decisive role culture plays in a society, I am very pessimistic. I certainly agree that Chinese culture has undergone and is undergoing tremendous changes, but changes are transformation and the whole thing may fall apart again. If the culture of a nation is seen as a structure, I think Chinese culture is at this moment showing clear signs of an irrecoverable disintegration.

   Aesthetic activities, entertainment, creation of wisdom, dissemination of knowledge and many other utilitarian functions of culture are no doubt key components of culture, but in my opinion, the most important function of culture is to integrate a society, that is, to regulate and adjust on the most extensive level the relationship among its social members. This integrative function can only come from the whole structure of culture. Without this structure, even with more Peking operas, qigong, joss stick burning before Buddha, calligraphy and paintings or large roofs with upturned eaves, China cannot be said to have restored its culture and tradition. All it has is no more than a variety show of shadows.

   Disintegration of cultural structure is not a problem contemporary China is faced with alone. But this time, China, which has been lagging behind the mainstream of the world in the modern history, is in the forefront of this problem. And what makes China unique in this regard is that the disintegration of Chinese cultural structure is not caused entirely by oppressions from outside, but instead is to a large degree a result of “a conscious revolution”.  

   After the May Fourth Movement and the first cry of “Down with Confucius and sons!”, in groping the way to make China a powerful nation, to choose Marxism or to choose capitalism both meant in nature a kind of conscious or unconscious sublation of Chinese culture. The core of Chinese culture lies in the “family” which extends from the family to the clan and then to the country. “Loyalty”, “filial piety”, “benevolence” and “uprighteousness” are four pillars which surround the “family” core and build up Chinese cultural structure, and most of meanings, values, ethics and moral systems in Chinese culture derive from these four pillars. “Loyalty”, “filial piety”, “benevolence” and “uprighteousness” used to support one another in all directions and form an organic framework that could not be broken up, but the Chinese government established in 1949 regarded family and clan as a threat and began to destroy the last three pillars in an uprooting manner, leaving there only “loyalty” pushed to the extreme. The entire nation was brought into the only “big family” and loyal to the only “patriarch”. The destruction was quite a total one: “Filial piety” gave way to “class consciousness”, “benevolence” was hypocritical and “uprighteousness” was bad. All actions against family were considered exemplary. Father and son became enemies; husband and wife fell out; relatives turned each other in and made a clean break with one another; nongovernmental societies were eradicated and all social cells were brought into the state system.

   The experiences of those years manifest from the opposite side the integrative power of Chinese traditional culture: “loyalty”, the only thing left, could still make Marxism based on it in China an equal to the most fanatic religion in the world, the Party superior to all deities and Mao Tse-tung supreme to all kings and emperors. China was integrated into something like an iron bucket, and even grannies with bound feet held “little red books” in hand and danced “loyalty dances”. However, without the clan culture as its supporting base, “loyalty” in the extreme would lose balance and go to the opposite. It was bound to lead to an increasingly strict demand on loyalty to the “Central Authority” and the supreme leader, and no other “loyalties”, even within its own system, could be tolerated. The Cultural Revolution was in fact a general offensive based on “rebel is right” against all the authorities outside the “Central Authority”. Except the supreme “Great Leader” and the “Central Authority” in his command, the state powers and cadres at all levels were “pulled off the horse”, and even the President was forced to wear a tall paper hat and paraded through the street, denounced as demon.

  With the death of Mao Tse-tung was gone only the authority that belonged solely to him, which he did not share with others in his life and therefore could not pass to anyone after it. But the reform launched by Deng Xiaoping who had been persecuted several times by Mao, in order to reach the pragmatic goal of economic takeoff as soon as possible, started to cut off the “loyalty” to the “Central Authority”. While a marked economic achievement has been made, the central authority also dissolves sociopsychologically and the “loyalty” already on its clay feet is at last hacked down.

   The framework that used to support the cultural structure now totally collapses, and the social ethics that clang to it cannot exist on a void. The rampant materialism comes as a further blow and the “single child” policy makes the structure of Chinese traditional family culture crumb into piece from its foundation. Today, the integrated system of human relationship that was built up in the past by ancestry, generation, marriage, relatives, friends, hereditary house and neighbours has virtually ceased to exist or has been distorted. And because of the disintegration of the family cultural structure, the Chinese families, though the number of which ranks first in the world, have only an animalistic meaning of mating and breeding and become like scattering sands in structure.

   By saying all these I do not mean that the cultural structure should only remain fixed and need no transformation. The traditional Chinese culture indeed contains quite a lot of unhealthy things and finds it especially hard to adjust itself to the modern world and international society. It should not remain unchanged and nor can it remain unchanged. But the problem is that if the old structure is destroyed and at the same time a new structure has not yet come into being to replace it, the society will be faced with a crisis for want of a cultural integration.

   Law, system, organization and powerful institution are all the means to integrate a society but to integrate the scattered individuals born with animal instinct into an orderly, cooperative, human society on a large scale with everyone in his proper place, the most effective force can only come from the inner heart of every social member. Only when there is a “conscious judge” sitting in the inner heart of every social member can social balance and stability be secured and a good economic and social development be possible. This is where culture performs its decisive function in human society.

   The crisis brought about by the disintegration of cultural structure can be described figuratively as “brittling”. The relationship of social “molecules”, or in other words the interpersonal relationship, has lost its adhesive quality; random collisions between these “molecules” build up into a general tension(“brittling”). Though law and police can keep the society in order for a short while, they are actually like iron chains tied upon glass containers. Once there is a tremor such as from a falling, they will, instead of preventing those containers from being broken, help break them.  

   Authority was an important mechanism of social integration in the traditional China. It differed from power in that it was considered sacred in the heart of people and respected by them. But today there is almost nothing sacred in the heart of Chinese people; they believe nothing and they fear nothing. They make no distinction between the superior and the inferior, see no difference between the old and the young, follow no rules and regulations, and defy all laws human and divine. There is no right and wrong; there is only gain and loss. Believing nothing, one can do anything: here lies the reason why crime and corruption spread at such a surprising speed in today’s China. There have already been symptoms of nationwide corruption and crime has become an increasingly serious problem. Although the police force and budget have doubled, the ability to deal with crime is increasingly weak. Police is forever the few; if the many fail to obey the law and need to be watched by police, it will only result in a situation where the few always find themselves unable to guard against the many. What’s more, one criminal usually takes ten or even a hundred policemen to catch. With such a high cost of security and with an even higher crime rate, the day will come when things reach an unbearable degree and the society is trapped in a real predicament of absurdity. At present, I am working on an allegoric novel about future China, which is entitled The Death of Heart and unfolds its story in this perspective.

   Up till now, all social structures of mankind are three dimensional, in which exist hierarchy, stratum and division of labour. For such societies, cultural integration is indispensable. Only law and hatchet men cannot keep the hierarchical structure stable. In the old China, people at the lower social strata assumed a “resign yourself to fate” attitude when faced with the gap between them and people at the upper social strata; they saw the wealth of the few as another world which had nothing to do with their own life. They did not feel discontented about it and nor did they strive to climb up. The gap between classes then was much larger than it is today, but the society could still maintain its stability and cooperativeness. The socialist revolution in China started by its efforts to eliminate social hierarchy. Even though hierarchy still exists in reality, egalitarian awareness is already deeply rooted in the mind of most Chinese, especially the idea of being economically equal. Against such a sociopsychological background, the widening gap, which has been the motivation of reform in China, is bound to become the source of social conflicts. And to complicate matters, the popularization of TV sets helps expose the gap inside and out--even exaggerate it--to everyone, and it stimulates the conflicts more extensively and more directly. In this respect, the discontent of Chinese peasants with their status and their eagerness to improve it will certainly become an important factor that influences the future society of China. The hostility of the country toward the city, the large horde of migrants formed by the jobless rural population, and the increasing crime rate of peasants have already become big headaches in China today. The accumulative effect of any trend of this social group of more than eight or nine hundred million people will be astonishing. Besides, countryside is where the state control is the weakest. Once it is out of control, to send soldiers and police there even by millions will be like trying to quench a big fire with a glass of water. Observations of the Chinese history show that the so called uncultured countryside has in fact always been the place which depends most on the rule of the traditional culture instead of on that of the state and law. Without tradition and culture, the realization of the integration of this enormous community would be beyond imagination, and China today is actually faced with such a reality.

   The passenger train that travels the longest distance in China is   between Shanghai and Urumqi. Last year there were as many as over 800 violent incidents resulting directly from the sudden breakdown of some  mentally diseased of its passengers. Those who have never traveled by an ordinary train in china would found it very hard to imagine the reasons for this, but I have had a lot of experiences of it. Most trains in China are packed and passengers are like canned sardines and have no place to sit down; a few are even standing in the one square metered toilet. The stench on the train is suffocating, water is a luxury, and there is nowhere to excrete. People brush against each other and can hardly move about. Everyone is striving for space, nervous and angry, so there is a high probability of conflicts. And the fact that there is no leeway can only aggravate and escalate the conflicts. The train between Shanghai and Urumqi travels three days and four nights on end. Suffering in such a narrow space, under such a terrible condition and for such a long time, some passengers who show no sign of mental illness under a normal condition often break down suddenly. They start to attack innocent people around them, or damage facilities on the train, or break the window to jump out, or torture themselves and even commit suicide.

   To me, China is such a train.

  The disintegration of the cultural structure has removed the “doorkeeper” of the inner heart of every individual, and thus unprecedented human lust and greed gush out. Timed by 1.2 billion population, this kind of greed can be the strongest and most terrible one in the world today. If China had enough natural resources for its population, there could be a leeway and its people could explore them to satisfy their material desires. Even from the viewpoint of his self interest, one knows that cooperation can make better use of natural resources than rivalry. Unfortunately, the per capita natural resources are scarce in China. This September the World Bank published a new method of calculating the wealth of a country. With the calculation of natural resources included, the per capita wealth of China ranks 162 in the world, just 1/126 of that of Australia(ranking first) and 1/13 of the world average. And in it the capital of nature only holds 3% (it is 71% in Australia). How scarce the per capita natural resources are in China is very obvious. Not to mention that greed can never be satisfied, even to reach the living standard of American people today as many Chinese have stated, to realize the American dream of 1.2 billion Chinese, the total consumption of resources in China, according to some calculation, has to increase at least by 60 times. This is an impossibility and as a result people can only take to another way to satisfy their desires, that is, to scramble for material gains. Certainly, not all the scramble is law breaking and crime in broad daylight. It may be in the form of availing oneself of the loopholes in the law, or passing poor quality goods off as good ones in business, or forcing his employees to work overtime, or keeping a wallet he finds in the street... Treated separately, these are all minor problems, and only able to cause small,local clashes and conflicts. But the thing is, if all social “molecules” are involved in this kind of selfish scramble, calculation and estrangement, after accumulation, conglomeration and transmission in echelon, the result will be that the society becomes more “brittle”, breeding political and economic storms on the whole and finally even leading to the disintegration of the society.

   For these reasons, I think the most realistic prospect and the most serious crisis of future China are less relevant to its politics and economy than to the disintegration of the cultural structure. Mere politics and economy are at shallow layers of the society and their crisis, if any, is not difficult to pass, but the spiritual chaos caused by the disintegration of the cultural structure can bring fundamental destruction upon the society. Into this argument I have also brought the factor of time. Political structure and economic structure can be readjusted and even rebuilt within a few years or a few decades, but the formation of a cultural structure must take several centuries or even a thousand years(not one great civilization in the human history has been an exception in its formation), and furthermore the culture structure cannot be artificially designed and constructed. Once it disintegrates, there will be nothing to support the society. The futility of the current “construction of spiritual civilization” carried out by Chinese government has already reflected this state of helplessness.

   Of course, the disintegration of the cultural structure will not lead immediately to the disintegration of the society. Lives of several generations are just a blink in the long river of history and one perhaps may not feel doomed in his everyday life. Put a frog into the boiling water and it will at once jump out, but heat the cold water up slowly and the frog will drift in the water, fall to sleep comfortably and finally die unawares. So many splendid great civilizations have declined and fallen in the human history and it is not without reason to believe this will happen again.

   All this is sad enough, but in fact crisis does not exist only in China and countries differ only in degree. All over the world, east or west, the spiritual mansion is crumbling and collapsing. Men and women have been helplessly trapped in a spiritual confusion and psychological diseases spread at an unprecedented speed; people regard each other as enemies and become indifferent and cruel; religious belief shrinks, spiritual ideals are shattered, the truth and faith are contaminated by relativism and the meaning of life becomes more and more nihilistic; human understandings of the physical world have never been more comprehensive and profound, yet its inner world has become increasingly vague and alien; and the social apathy, conflict or unbalance brought about by these problems has become critical issues worldwide.

   So I think, in order to escape this doom, we should again look for inspiration in the ancient wisdom, but we must also always bear this in mind: we have gone too far and behind us has already appeared a huge, impassable gap. Even if we have by now realized again the value of conservation, there is really not much left for us to conserve. Perhaps we have to start from scratch, and only by moving forward can we find the way out of the ruins.

   I don’t know whether we can succeed or not, but what we can do is try our best.                       




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