Tag Archives: religion

Freedom

27 Oct

Lifting a finger in China requires, at least, a Masters in politics. Everything is the subject of complex and endless negotiations. Everything involves elaborate power display and threats.

At a basic level, everything is complicated. Alliance francaise, for instance, where I worked. In other countries, Alliance Francaise is run as a local association or a not-for-profit company. But there is no legal status for associations in China. So Alliance Francaise is run as a joint venture between France and Chinese Universities – which breeds endless complexities in hierarchical protocol, project development, and daily business administration.

In history class, I used to hear how people fought for Freedom of association in the late 19th century. But I took so much for granted that I didn’t understand what people were actually fighting for. Freedom of association does not exist in China. People belong to the State and their families.Father – and mother – dictate their rule. Children obey. The arbitrary demands of parents are ‘a form of love’, and as such, must be respected. Where they go, you follow.

I read in one Jacques Gernet’s Essays that Chinese culture can be interpreted as a tension between Confucianism on the one side – a semi-religion that proposes filial devotion as a way to social perfection – and taoism or buddhism on the other side, which on the contrary propose a return to nature and calm through personal meditation, and distance from existing social bonds.

But is the freedom of Buddhist meditation what a European or a Westerner would recognize as freedom? Gernet gives a beautiful analysis of the difference between Christian extasy and Buddhist mediation: “Whereas the extatic Christian mimes the fight between body and soul and the soul’s union with God, Indian meditation exercises aim to reach the depths of the spirit, and fuse it into an absolute beyond all distinctions. In the deepest meditations, there is no ‘subject’ any more. Therefore, there can be no soul and body or, for that regard, fight of the one against the other.’ The self and the world are one. Whereas extasy is extreme tension, dramatic fight, meditation is conceived of as a return to the original quietness. It allows those who have mastered it to reach universal being, in their own depth.”

Is there something definitely ‘Western’ in that extreme assertion of the self? The self asserting its resemblance to the creating God by fighting against its angel. Honouring your ancestors and father by resisting, as they did – including resisting your own father. Hence heroes: Hector, Patroclus, Christian Martyrs, or Che Guevara: all figures of resistance. In the face of evil (or the enemy), they do not embrace the flux of life, but stand hard against it. They were defeated, but they stood upright – and therefore, their defeat became a victory.

Nothing of the sort in Chinese tradition, where supreme victory, quite the opposite, is victory without a fight. China does not have martyrs, or hero worship. Chinese heroes are those who survive hardships, and live on to tell their story.

In the European tradition, freedom is the opposite of slavery. It is the possibility to self-determine, rather than submit to the will of another. Courage is a prerequisite for freedom. Freedom is the resolution to say ‘no’ when we disagree, and live – or die – with the consequences.

The Chinese word for freedom is ‘Zi You’ – to posess oneself. Self possession, in the Chinese context, is actually the result of a hard fight. Like in the West, the willingness to die can be the touchstone of freedom. And there have been Buddhist monks who decided to suicide, or sacrifice parts of their bodies, as an ultimate form of freedom. Yet they were not part of a heroic resistance, in the Western sense. Dying for your ideas is not a particular cause for praise – not dying, and pushing them ahead is probably better.

People talk about restrictions on freedom in China. They accuse communism, they want political diversity, multiple political parties. Why not? But as a Chinese friend was telling me, this is not the heart of the matter. A very dense web of tyranny runs through all layers of society. Through families, friends, neighbours, superiors, and the complex system of GuanXi that rules virtually everything.

Yet all hope is not lost. There is some progress happening, in individual freedom, through web communities, feminism, gay rights, and relaxed HuKou laws allowing people to change cities more easily, so as to get away from their families and clans. QQ groups and a relaxed attitude to dating, all of those are slowly building a circle of personal freedom, outside family domination. The apolitical youth is, actually, planting and growing the seeds of freedom – like young people in Moliere and Marivaux’s comedies, when advocating for the freedom to choose their romantic partner as their spouse, were preparing consciences for the French revolution.

Untill people wash off the tyrannical ethos, breeding fear and agression, making a joke of civic virtue – what can be the point of multiple parties ? But maybe, step by step, young generations will start saying no to their parents, or bosses; and assert their control over their bodies and their time. Gaining concrete freedom, in their day to day life; and preparing for more, in the future.

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Categories

24 Aug

Each language carries its own worldview. You learn that in your first week of linguistics. Categories do not overlap. Understanding  a foreign culture is not about memorising new sounds to name the same things we already know. It is about mapping the world afresh.

As a visitor to China, you regularly need to interrogate your own implicit categories.

This, for instance, is how the big Beijing library classifies its copies of the Bible. What does it tell us about religion in China?

Aaron took me to the temple of the Queen of Heaven, next to the old culture street in Tianjin. I asked him why people went to the temple, what they did there – ‘sightseeing’, he replied. I had a similar experience earlier, in the Beijing Temple of Heaven. I was with a Chinese friend and pointed at some tables with characters on them, asking what they were. ‘These are the Gods that do not exist – only the names’, she said.

Many people have the little household Gods in their living rooms – but they seem to hover somewhere between decoration, folklore, and lucky charms. So, well, maybe religion comes into the wide range of ‘lifestyle’ pursuits here, somewhere between massages and gardening.

I’ve got another interpretation of the Beijing categorising. Have you ever seen such books as The Tao of Pooh and A treaty on Zen and motorcycles. Have you seen how, in our libraries, books on the Tao hover somewhere between philosophy and self-help. Why wouldn’t a Chinese bookshop do the same to Christianism?

But then, judging from the list of interdictions in that Tianjin church – Christianism had to make radical concessions to be accepted.

Or is it just a problem with the translation, maybe?

Abundance

13 Aug

Is it years of abstinence, is it the crowds, or is it something else? I don’t know, but there is a definite aesthetics of abundance at play in Chinese shops. I noticed that while walking around the ground floor galleries of the E-mart centre.

Some of it could be just the old kid’s dream of a mountain of lollies and toys.

Or sometimes, the shop will display a teenage girls’ luxurious fantasy of absolute indulgence,

But it’s not just about having it all – it’s about the commodities having a certain life of themselves, and, somehow, being part of a composition – a family. The chair you buy is not just ‘eekström’ or ‘Hjallkäd’. It has a history of its own, it lives its own life, among other chairs, and then comes into your world, like a pet – or a friend.

In a country that, still, when religious, will worship multiple gods – literally idolatrous – it is not surprising, after all, that objects should have a certain aura. The statues of the gods are on sale two shops down from the chairs, right after the pillows, opposite the lollies.

But is it surprising, or sacrilegious, that it should be so? After all, the purpose of these household gods was to bring fortune inside – like the famous Japanese paw-waving cat at the entrance of many Asian shops, also on sale. But is it an element of decoration for home or shop, or a genuine religious item?

So shouldn’t the experience of shopping, somehow, have a religious side to it? And why shouldn’t a chair be, somehow, on a continuum with a god-statue?