They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go
Chinese Culture not Found in Canonical Texts
A lot of what Westerners or “Westernised” Chinese believe about Chinese culture is largely something more imagined than understood, paradoxically especially for those who are particularly well read in it. The problem of course is that the posture of attempting to learn about a culture by reading it in “canonical” texts itself encodes a certain cultural assumption: the Western Protestant/Evangelical culture. The assumption is that the writings of Confucius play the same role in Chinese culture as the Bible does in Protestant/Evangelical cultures which promotes universal lay access to Bible and encourages frequent reading of those writings. Then from this frame the Westerner imagines a Chinese society largely shaped by the writings of these so-called “canonical texts”.
A better analogy for understanding the relationship of Chinese culture and their “canonical” texts would not be the Western Protestant culture but Latin/Southern European Roman Catholic cultures. The writings of Confucius have as much relation to Chinese culture as the Catechism of the Catholic Church has in relation to Roman Catholic culture, which is to say, not much at all. Most Chinese would not know what the main writings of Confucius are and even if they did, they would never have read it; much in the same way that most Roman Catholics have never heard of the Catechism, and even if they have heard of it, they would never ever touch it.
This point is even more acute in that at least the Roman Catholic is still connected, no matter how vaguely, to the clerics who are required to read the canonical texts and thus the texts still has a diffused effect upon Roman Catholics. The writings of Confucius on the other hand are mainly read by the Chinese intelligentsia who, traditionally, would go on to join the Chinese Imperial Civil Service and serve as judges and officials over the lay populace. The problem evidently is that the imperial civil service has died with the Chinese Empire and the diaspora especially no longer has any connection left to these canonical text. Thus the influence of Chinese canonical texts are now more or less restricted to the literati and the intelligentsia classes, especially the middle class, who themselves no longer have any influence over the vast majority of the Chinese populace.
To give a little of my own background, my own parents grew up and lived in a predominantly Chinese background. Their first language remains Chinese or one of the Chinese dialects. They only began speaking English at home after they had children for they wanted us to be able to learn how to speak English and do well in school which medium of instruction was, and still is, English. My mother in particular may have some Western influence in reading English literature in secondary school, but she never became a Christian, which is always a sure sign of one’s transition from Chinese to Western culture.
My first language is English since that was the language I was brought up in and I only became a Christian when I became 18. Otherwise, my own upbringing is largely occurred in a Chinese background. I watched Chinese dramas and classical epics on television and read Chinese comics about them. My mother particularly had a lot of opinions about people and life and we would often listen to her talk.
A good guide therefore for really understanding Chinese culture is to speak to someone whose first language is Chinese (whether Mandarin or one of the dialects) and who is not a contemporary member of the intelligentsia or literati. From my own observation and experience, I would say that, no matter what Confucian influence there may be in prescribing our duties to our elders, the form of life which underlies this is basically fatalism. We are all assigned certain lots in life and it is our “Fate” or duty to live it out. It is a very materialistic and empirical outlook on life, collapsing “ought” with “is”. Historical events are already predestined or predetermined, 天意, as we would say, and within this overall frame we are assigned our lot in life, our Fate or 天命, more literally, the will of Heaven for our life.
天命, Our Fate
Thus, there is a sense in which we have very little control over our lives even less over our environment. There isn’t the conviction that human lives have an inherent worth, but it is decided by events beyond our control. Our agency itself is delimited and largely determined by forces anterior to our subjective agency.
A good way to understand this is via the Japanese anime Hell Girl or Jigoku Shouju. The fundamental idea behind the anime is that if you hate or resent someone enough, you can contact Jigoku Shouju to exact vengeance on your behalf. She will immediately drag the object of resentment down to hell, however, the price is that you will be dragged down yourself after you die. Initially the show starts off with people contacting Jigoku Shouju to exact vengeance for injustices committed against them. However, later on the cases get stranger and people are contacting her to exact vengeance for the most trivial of reasons or sometimes without cause altogether. There was an episode where a man contacted Jigoku Shouju to drag another man down to hell, for no other reason than that he had posed a selfie in front of his burning house.
When Westerners complain about Jigoku Shouju exacting such a ridiculous vengeance, they fundamentally misunderstand what the show is about. The show is not about “justice” or objective ordering, good, or rationality. The show is about grudges or resentment. People simply are affected or “possessed” by these grudges, it doesn’t have a rhyme or reason. It is simply a positive empirical fact about someone which one can do very little about. In other words, he just doesn’t like your face. These grudges leads to external deeds which causes even more grudges and this goes on and on. Jigoku Shouju is not here to restore order or harmony or justice. She is here to carry out or deliver your grudge, whether it makes sense or not. The show depicts other main characters who tries to stop the “clients” of Jigoku Shouju from carrying out their grudges, but they more often than not fail. One has very limited control over one’s grudges.
Upon this fatalistic view of our individual life, a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and there is very little we can do to change it. Thus, our agency is constrained in its ability to create meaning for our lives, and whatever meaning it does possess is a contingent fact, subject to forces beyond our control, not a fundamental or necessary one. Along with this is the idea that therefore life does not have an inherent worth. I remember my mother talking about how if one accidentally kills someone in the poorer areas in Cambodia in a car accident, you can simply pay off the family without any further repercussions. They are so poor; they rather profit from their relative’s deaths and have some extra cash than have “justice” affirming the dignity of the person’s life or whatever. “Aiyah, life there is very cheap one.” my mother said. The worth of that person’s life is determined by all too material or empirical conditions. Justice or affirming the dignity of one’s life is subjected to economics. Sometimes we really can’t afford human dignity or justice and there is nothing we can do about that, that is just our Fate.
I was talking to another friend of mine whose first language is Chinese and who comes from a very Chinese lower middle class background. He has no opinions or elevated thoughts on politics or philosophy or whatever, he went to a polytechnic and works as a computer programmer. So once I was talking about American slavery and how hundreds of thousands of the black slaves starved to death and died after the Emancipation because they were no longer cared, clothed or fed by their white masters. So my friend, who is hardly a reactionary or a conservative or whatever, simply agreed with me that it would be better for them to be fed as slaves than to starve as freeman. That’s just their lot in life. As we would say in mandarin, 认命吧! Accept your Fate, literally, it means to accept your life or 命. There is a virtual identification of life with Fate.
This is something which is very hard for most Westerners to understand because the concept of Fate has more or less faded from their culture. Of course a lot of it has also to do with their Christianity which we will come to later. However the concept is still very much alive among us. Sometimes my own mother will talk about the difficulties in her own life and its pains and then she would just sigh and say, “What to do? This is just Fate.” And she means it sincerely. A lot of our Chinese wayangs, or plays, have to do tragedies inflicted, not as a result of character flaws or vices or human deeds, but simply as a result of external forces beyond our control. Protagonists often end up dead and sometimes are redeemed beyond this life via reincarnation or something.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great classics of Chinese literature is filled with the valiant deeds of heroes and armies. There are genius plots, cunning strategies, brave fights, epic battles, etc. Ironically however, no matter what talents or great deeds were performed by the heroes in the Three Kingdoms, all of them ironically fell and the three kingdoms were conquered by a scheming merchant. This is the futility of human agency and deeds, that no matter how glorious one’s deeds, in the end, it still came to nothing.
天意, the Will of Heaven
If we have very little control over our individual lives, we have even less over our environment as a whole, individually or collectively. The Mandate of Heaven, the “right to rule”, is a very ancient concept, it predates even Confucius itself. I guess this is why I particularly like the concept, it is primordial, embedded in the human condition, not something theoretically conceived. The Mandate of Heaven was employed very prominently by the first Zhou rulers to justify overthrowing the previous Shang dynasty. They allege that the Shang rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven because of their vices and administrative incompetence.
Again we have here a very close identification of “is” and “ought”. A ruler’s right to rule is justified by his performance, by his ability to exercise efficacious power to order the commonwealth and maintain functional institutions and civic ordinances. It is very close to a “might is right” theory in the fact that they make right a function of positive empirical facts, e.g. actual empirically discernible order and working institutions. However, it is not a “might is right” theory in that it is not sheer ability to terrorise and coerce obedience by force which gives ruler the right but also the ability to maintain functioning social institutions and bring about actual civic order. It would be more accurate to describe this as a “competence is right” theory.
It is for this reason that natural disasters, collapsing social order and times of extreme poverty have been taken as signs that the ruler is losing the Mandate of Heaven as these diminishes the ruler’s ability to rule efficaciously or maintain functioning civic ordinances. Once the ruler’s hold over the country weakens, then the Mandate of Heaven will simply pass over to someone who is powerful and competent enough to overturn the incompetence ruler and restore civic order. To tell if a rebel has the “Mandate of Heaven”, you simply see if he succeeds at his rebellion. If he does, he has it. If he fails, he does not have it.
The Mandate of Heaven is once more a fatalistic concept, because it makes politics a function of positive empirical facts, not humanly actionable movements. There is no actionable system or institution, elections or otherwise, which one can create to legitimise or select good rulers. The right to rule simply is whoever can exercise efficacious control. Either heaven blesses us with a virtuous and competent ruler, or he doesn’t. If he does, well and good for the empire whose ruler enacts orderly civil institutions and universal peace and harmony, if he doesn’t, well decades of chaos and civil unrest. And there is nothing most of us can do about it.
This is why the Chinese have a sort of obsession with the concept of decay. Finite good and civil peace and harmony is possible in this life and we can strive for it, but there is no “End of History” for us. History rather is cyclical. Dynasties will rise, the Empire prospers, and then begins the inevitable decay, the decline and the collapse before the next dynasty takes over and the entire process repeats itself. There is no such thing really as wide-scale “revolution” for us, the idea of radical changes or alterations and the ability to make a fundamental difference and “progress” or move beyond. Remember, human agency is circumscribed by external forces, and society is merely the sum of finite agents, thus itself finite in its ability to affect the human condition.
The Westerners, especially after Christendom, has a different view. Remember, revolutions do not seek to change the players of the status quo; they want to change the game itself. The narrative of revolution is on a grand historical/epic scale, possessing universal significance for the human condition itself. The Americans and the French revolutionaries did not merely object to King George III or King Louis the XVI; they rejected the entire system itself. Their claim is not merely that George and Louis were incompetent or bad kings; their objection is that they were kings. Thus they believe that they are inaugurating, not only a new reign but a new era, a new history. An era which is fundamentally different from what went before and makes a significant break from what has went on before. (At least that is the claim.) This confidence which the Westerners have at their ability to shape, not only individuals or even societies, but total historical forces and systems, is utterly alien to the Chinese mind. This confidence of course stems from their Christianity, a confident eschatology which believes in the fundamental destiny of the whole of mankind, a universal progress of mankind itself. Thus, changes are not merely internal to particular human phenomenon, changes can affect the whole of mankind, and there is a fundamental and not merely cosmetic difference to the human condition which is brought about by human agency. Humanity can change itself. The whole of history moves towards its End, the End of History.
On this view, there is really no such thing as “decay”. Certainly decay and collapse still does happen, but this decay merely precedes a more glorious rebirth or regeneration, emphasis on “more”. There is no cycle of rise and fall of reigns. Each collapse or decay is merely the prelude to greater things which will surpass the decay which went before. Even decay and collapse is not inevitable and can be arrested via the appropriate human agency or politics.
This however is obviously not so for the Chinese. We realise that civil peace and order are contingent facts, very much like the meaning and integrity of our own lives. Prosperity and the common good are not inevitable products of an unfolding progressive eschatology but contingent gifts of God. The appearance of a ruler who can stablise the nation is literally, a godsend, a gift from heaven, and we reverence and honour our authorities for the stability, peace and prosperity they bring. Unlike Westerners, we are sceptical of our ability to improve our overall civic condition, and agitating for change and upsetting a contingent order would rarely, if ever, lead to a better one but hasten the unavoidable process of decay of a prosperous reign. We accept that, inevitably, a reign will decay, virtuous and efficacious rulers will become more corrupt and incompetent, the nation unravels and collapses, and there is very little we can do about that until Heaven sends another contender to rise up and replace him.
Conclusion: Chinese Natural Theology
The concept of Fate, which in mandarin is literally synonymous with Heaven or God, is a pervasive one in Chinese culture. For most people, divinity is not located in special esoteric mystical experiences but at the limits of human agency. Beyond our agency, we are helplessly and perilously dependent upon these forces beyond our control, the will of Heaven. We acknowledge ultimately the contingency of our lives and our goods, and we know that all things are ultimately subject to Him who is beyond us and holds the world in his hands.
I guess this is why we Chinese make such great Calvinists.