Moral embarrassment

Shanghai Star. 2001-11-08
Many Shanghai people defy basic traffic rules in the street.

AN Australian colleague once showed me a photo of a Chinese-English an nouncement board erected at a neighbouring scenic spot.

He pointed at a line which reads "Don't excrete faeces and urine here," and laughed.

As a Chinese, I found myself embarrassed and unable to appreciate his amusement.

To promote public morality, such signs outlining behaviour guidelines can be found in many public places in China.

What is behind these boards is the sad fact that China is still a society where public morality is not valued. Everyone can fall victim to indifference to public interests, which are often regarded as "others' affairs."

The indifference can be fatal.

Hit on the head by a flying stone thoughtlessly thrown out of the window of an apartment building, an 80-year-old man died on his birthday.

An 11-year-old boy was crushed to death under bus wheels as the adults who should have been protecting him fought to get on a bus first so they could get seats. The boy's death was finally treated by officials as an accident for no willing witness came forward.

These two tragedies happened recently in Shanghai - one of China's most modern cities.

Everyday, similar misfortunes are repeated throughout the country.

Witnessing the contaminated environment, rude passengers and fierce street quarrels, foreigners are not overwhelmed by China's 5,000 years civilization.

Puzzled by the prevailing tolerant attitude towards irrational rules and unfair treatment of the public, newcomers to China doubt the Chinese sense of justice and can't help asking: Why don't you argue or even fight for your rights through joint efforts? Is China a nation lacking in public spirit?

Actually, such puzzlement has confused China for over a century.

Survival concern

China's 20th century was unveiled in humiliation.

In 1900, the eight-power allied forces invaded the ancient nation, which had already suffered two Opium Wars and many unequal treaties during the previous 60 years.

One year later, China concluded the Xinchou Treaty with 11 countries, another grave, unequal deal which brought the nation to the verge of perishing.

Facing the crisis, worried about the deeply divided, indifferent souls and minds of the Chinese people, Liang Qichao, a renowned scholar and reformist wrote an influential article in 1902 titled, "On Public Morality."

The article began with the declaration that Chinese people lacked the public morality which serves as the unifying force of a nation.

Liang pointed out that a major blame for the nation's rapid decline lay in the dominant presence of people who followed the self-protective philosophy of "no contribution, no blunder."

In Liang's opinion, public morality or spirit is almost unheard of in traditional Chinese moral principles as they are represented by Confucian ethics. These principles are based on the family system and mainly exercised at the private level.

The article ended with Liang's call for a morality revolution.

Liang's thoughts was later echoed by many elite Chinese. Lin Yutang, a prominent writer and scholar is one of them.

In his witty masterpiece "My Country and My People." published in 1935, which is still regarded as one of the best English written books about Chinese culture, Lin wrote: "Chinese games do not divide the players into two parties, as in cricket, with one team playing against the other. Teamwork is unknown. In Chinese card games, each man plays for himself. The Chinese like poker, and do not like bridge. They have always played mahjong, which is nearer to poker than to bridge. In this philosophy of mahjong may be seen the essence of Chinese individualism."

Compared with Liang, Lin took a forward step in explaining why the attitude of indifference prevails in China.

"In a society where legal protection is not given to personal rights, indifference is always safe and has an attractive side to it difficult for Westerners to appreciate," Lin wrote.

Lin anxiously anticipated the emergence of a widely supported, firm leadership in China, a nation which was described as "a tray of loose sand."

Japan's savage invasion finally united the Chinese people through patriotism, which was the major force in building a modern China.

Moral globalization

The year 2001 has been a propitious year for China.

With the successful 2008 Beijing Olympic Games bid, 2002 soccer World Cup finals qualification and the upcoming entry into the WTO, Chinese people gain more and more confidence in building a prosperous country in the new century.

Active involvement in the global economy is forcing the Chinese people to reconsider these age-old cultural malpractices, which have brought infamy and practical damage to the nation's image and development.

Dong Xi Nan Bai, a Changchun based magazine recently published an article titled "It is time to abandon some 'quintessence of Chinese culture,"' which listed some of the most notorious public behaviours.

Besides widespread spitting, the mob psychology at work in queue jumping and fighting for seats on public transportation, crossing streets blindly and seldom expressing apologies to others, the most interesting one on the list maybe is the "stadium patriotism."

The newly coined term features the sharp contrast between the devotion and craze showed by Chinese people in watching international sports games and their laziness and carelessness in daily work.

In the past decades, patient efforts have been made to improve public spirit and legal protection as an echo of Liang and Lin's calls.

Nationwide learning from moral models was represented in the 1960s by Lei Feng, who was full of public spirit always willing to share it.

Our legal system has been improved greatly as more and more laws have been adopted.

But people's private-oriented mentality still dominates, and despite the new laws people feel no safer in expressing public spirit.

As Lin Yutang satirized: "We are great enough to elaborate a perfect system of official impeachment and civil service and traffic regulations and library reading-room rules, but we are also great enough to break all systems, to ignore them, circumvent them, play with them, and become superior to them."

When facing tyranny and extortion in the absence of the enforcement of the laws, most Chinese tend to turn to personal relationships.

"In such an atmosphere originated favour, which came from a personal relationship between the man in power and the man in need of protection. It can, however, take the place of justice, and it often does so," Lin wrote. "In this way, a social inequality arises between the powerful, the rich and the well-connected, and the poor who are not so fortunately circumstanced."

A people who abide by the philosophy of not meddling with public affairs can only expect that people in power will offer them in the form of favours what actually should be their rights.

When it is taken as a part of the laws of nature that the improvement of public interests should be mainly powered by official favour, no efficient social progress can be expected.

Maybe globalization - not a campaign of this title or that, not the enormous power of the spotless model - will be a shot in the arm to arouse Chinese people's public spirit in a era when better communication and co-operation are desperately needed.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.