Yin and Yang, conflict and compromise in the Chinese culture and politics
Based on a lecture I gave in Nov. 2009 in Switzerland.
I have lived for 25 years in China and for 23 years in Holland/Belgium. If you ask me what a major difference is between the Chinese way of thinking and the European way of thinking, I would probably say: The Chinese think in concepts of yin and yang and the Europeans think in concepts of good and bad. What does the concept of yin and yang mean?
I would like to talk about seven characteristics of the conceptual thinking in Yin and Yang as compared to the thinking in concepts of good and bad.
1. The Chinese do not believe there are values which are valid for all times, all places and for everybody. For example, love. Is love desirable for everyone? No, the Chinese would answer. The love from a virus, for example, if it falls in love with you, you are not sure if you can survive it. Democracy is another example. Is it good for everyone, every place and for all times? No, would be the answer of the Chinese. This answer not only applies for the Chinese, but also for you, westerners, I suppose.
Imagine this. You are a father with five children, aging from three to nine. One evening your wife goes shopping and you are alone with your kids. The eldest says he wants to watch a porno film on DVD, because he has heard it was fun. He makes his four brothers and sisters so enthusiastic that they also want to join him. What do you do? If you forbid them to watch and tell them that they are too young to be exposed to pornographic sex, they would say that you limit their freedom. If you allow them to watch, your wife would be angry if she comes home and discovers it. Furthermore, as a parent/educator you will fail if you yield too often to a demand like this.
Your eldest son sees your dilemma and says that if you do not agree with them, you are a dictator. He can conclude this, because you neglect the rights of the majority – one of fundamental principles of democracy. It is 1 (only you) against 5 (all of your kinds) on this issue. Would you choose to be called a dictator to protect the interests of your kids? Or would you prefer to be democratic and let your kids watch pornographic scenes which may negatively influence their mental and emotional growth?
It is the same thing with the one-child policy in China. Twenty-three years ago when I just moved to Holland, I was told that the Europeans considered this policy cruel. According to them it was a violation of the human rights (to multiply as abundantly as one wants) and a breach of individual freedom of choice (for a big family). In those days more that 70 percent of the Chinese people were peasants. Many of them were illiterate. Thousands of years Chinese were told that one the biggest crimes a person could commit was not to produce children (Confucianistic teaching).
If the Chinese government wanted to limit the growth of the gigantic population, persuasion alone would not suffice. Because before the peasants could realize the negative effects of a quickly growing population for themselves and could abandon their traditional ideas, maybe half of the world population would consist of Chinese.
The West has already a problem with illegal Chinese immigrants in their countries. If China had not forced the one-child-policy on its people thirty years ago, what would happen now? You would have had so many illegal Chinese immigrants in Europe that you might discover two Chinese families living in a tent your backyard. More than twenty years later, even with the ‘cruel’ one-child policy, there is still a surplus of peasants in China, who do not have enough land for a self-sufficient food production.
Europeans criticize the Chinese nowadays, because some of the Chinese cultivate farmland for food production in Africa, with African permission. Europeans are afraid of too much Chinese influence in Africa. For this reason some Western politicians say China colonizes Africa.
What should China do to be politically correct according to you? Abandon the one-child policy, with a result that half of the world population would be Chinese, so more Chinese would need to stay in the West illegally and more Chinese would go to Africa to cultivate the farmlands there? Or should China stick to its one-child policy and continue carrying the bad name of a dictator and a violator of human rights?
Calling names is easy. Judging from a distance often gives one a feeling of happiness. Look, what a kind heart I have! And a sense of moral superiority. Look, I am a kinder person than you! However, does it help to solve a problem? China has to deal with its many problems and the West may help it to do so by first of all trying to understand its dilemma’s instead of applying its own Western moral standards and ways of thinking on a totally different country, culture and its people.
If the West is not able to help another country, it can at least avoid adding more problems to that country, by not regarding its own Western moral standards, ways of thinking, ideological and political approach as the only right ones. The ‘universal’ ones, that can, should and must be put to use at all times, in all countries and for peoples. And if necessary, by means of wars, bombardments and through foreign imposed government changes.
The concept of yin and yang does not judge and allows for ways of solving a problem depending on the specific time, place, situation and person, while conceptual good and bad thinking is often based on an eternal, universal and self-righteous principle, which makes a person who thinks in this way dangerous. Because he or she inclines to force his of her ideas on other peoples, places and times.
In spite of what I wrote above, I still believe that democracy in general is one of the greatest achievements that our humanity has reached in the past few centuries. I do not think that anyone in the world can deny it. This political system, if used at the right time and in the place, for the right people and in the right way, is a blessing for us all. However, does it not apply for all systems?
2. The Chinese assume that every opinion is a point of view. No judgement of a human being can be totally neutral or independent. Shakespeare says: ‘There is no good or bad. Only thinking makes it so.’ Two weeks ago I read an article about overpopulation in the world in one big Dutch newspapers, but the same newspaper criticized hardly five years ago the Chinese one-child-policy. There was in the article a sentence, printed bold and black: ‘Maybe we should learn from China and also consider the introduction of the one-child-policy.’
The policy was called bad there and then and is here and now praised as wise. What has changed? Not the policy, but we have changed our view. The world is as it is. Some people think that it stinks, and other people think that it is beautiful. Who is right? Point of view is an interesting expression. Our view is decided by the point from which we look at things. Theoretically, no point of view is universal, because you only have to change your position to get a different view.
For example, some westerners call Mao a dictator and a cruel man. From their point of view I can understand it. However, do you want to know how many Chinese people think about him? They have their reasons to admire him. Thousands of years China was one of the richest countries and oldest civilizations in the world, until 1820. Japan, Russia, Great Britain, France and many other Western countries such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Holland and Australia invaded China. They used weapons and troops to force China to open its harbors and borders and to accept humiliating conditions to ‘do business’ with the West. From that moment an important part of China became colonized. Its natural resources and people were exploited.
The flourishing Chinese economy collapsed, together its sovereignty. Westerners killed and abused the Chinese and they said: ‘You can find more easily Chinese with two legs than frogs with three legs.’ That was their ‘reason’ to kill some Chinese without sense of guilt. In many Chinese cities Westerners built concessions: mini-colonies. There it was forbidden for Chinese to enter. At the entrance of some parks, you could see a board: ‘Forbidden for Chinese and dogs.’ That happened on the Chinese territory.
In 1949 Mao and the CCP declared on the Tianan Men Square: ‘The Chinese people have risen!’ From then on, no Japanese or Westerners were allowed to invade or colonize China any longer. Nor were they allowed to exploit and kill Chinese citizens. The Chinese were allowed enter their own parks on their own territory. The Chinese did not have to accept humiliating conditions any longer in doing business with other countries. From the Chinese point of view Mao has done a lot for the Chinese people. From the point of view Western colonists Mao was indeed not desirable, because he prevented the colonists to continue building their golden palace over the backs of the Chinese.
I grew up during the Cultural Revolution and I have to say that Mao, just like other political leaders and human beings, has made mistakes, with serious consequences for the whole nation. However, Mao’s contributions to the liberation of China from foreign colonists and to the new birth of China are very much appreciated by the Chinese people. Now the Chinese are trying very hard to learn from the West in terms of democracy and freedom as well as economic reform.
The concept of yin and yang in this matter helps us to see that no one can claim the patent for the definition/interpretation of good and bad. This yin and yang way of looking at life gives us all the space to have our own opinion, while leaving others space to form and hold onto theirs.
3. The Chinese are more pragmatic than ideological. The decision which the Chinese choose is usually not a good or bad one, but one that is the best possible in the situation concerned. The example I gave of the father with his five kids shows that he can only solve the problem by not contemplating discussions with his kids about the rights of the majority – a principle of democracy. And by doing what he needs to do at that moment. Maybe a little bit dictatorial. Years later, when his children get older, they will understand his decision.
The same applies to the example of the one-child policy. The Chinese government needed to force this policy on its people, not because the Chinese leaders enjoyed being cruel, but because they had to do so to win time and to prevent the vast population to grow explosively before it would be too late for such prevention. The question a Chinese person raises when you confront him with his decision is: do you have a better alternative? Instead of a European one: is it right or wrong?
The focus of the yin and yang concept is not towards right or wrong. This is why it allows for people to feel free to be pragmatic. Ideology is good, but it is only useful when it helps us to solve a problem. When ideology binds our hands and feet so that we can’t make a wise decision, it becomes a rigid dogma and it will do more harm than good, according to the Chinese.
The Renaissance meant a lot for the European great leap forward, both in culture/sciences and in economy/human society, because the Europeans freed themselves from the suffocating ideology of the Church. Christianity was and is good, but the Europeans realized at the end of the Middle-Ages that they should use their ideologie to improve the quality of their life and not to bind their hands and feet in their search for happiness and prosperity. They also realized that the Church used, in the name of God, the faith of its believers to reach its own unspeakable goals. May I plead for a second Renaissance in the West? In order to free ourselves from the self-righteous idea of good and bad, which causes unnecessary human sufferings and international conflicts in the name of democracy/freedom/human rights etc?
4. The Chinese believe that a point of view decides whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There is a Chinese saying: ‘We think first with our bottom and then with our head’. It implies that we choose first the side that we take/which chair we sit on and then we decide how we look at a matter. The example of Western colonists in old China shows how important it is to be aware of which sides you choose. There are of course examples in contemporary international relationships too. When do you call a leader in the Middle-East, Asia or Latin-America a dictator and when do you call a king or a queen a democratic leader? Often we see that when he listens to the U.S., he is a good leader and when he is not loyal to the United States anymore and he begins to protect the interests of his country and people, he becomes a dictator according to the American and directly after that according to the Western media.
The yin and yang principle leaves aside what is good or bad and acknowledges the importance of the side that one chooses in forming a point of view.
5. The Chinese think that an ideal world is one in which there is a balance between powers. Harmony, instead of a world in which all the ‘good’ countries have eliminated the ‘bad’ ones, so that only ‘good countries’ are left. Because of the importance of choosing side in forming a point of view, the Chinese ideal of a good society and a desirable world is harmony between different ideologies, opinions, social classes, peoples and countries. The Chinese do not believe that there are absolute ‘good’ or ‘evil’ peoples and countries. Therefore the Chinese do not accept that the ‘good’ countries eliminate the ‘evil’ ones just because the ‘good’ countries have the right to define who are good guys and who are bad guys and to clean up the world by killing the ‘evil’ countries. The Chinese are aware of the danger of the so-called moral superiority, which can be used as an alibi by some countries to distort the reality and to invade, exploit and attack other countries.
The yin and yang principle teaches the Chinese to strive for harmony between countries and they refuse to legitimate wars and attacks in the name of God, love, democracy, freedom, human rights or other beautiful words for the ears.
6. The balance between powers leads to the ancient Chinese ideas of freedom, equality and brotherhood. A balance or harmony between powers gives enough space to different social groups, individuals and countries to be themselves and to compete fairly with each other. The fierce competition between companies and individuals in China and the comparatively weak control over/fewer regulations for the Chinese market leads to a flourishing Chinese economy at this moment. This yin and yang idea is called ‘wu wei’ – do nothing. French missionaries who came to China in the 18-th and 19-th century were inspired by this idea and they introduced it to Europe. Wu wei was translated into ‘liberalism’ (laisser faire – do nothing, let it be).
Not only in economy the Chinese try to have harmony and balance of powers, but also in politics. About 300 year BC Confucius introduced the system of free education for all social classes. This led to a unique way of selecting civil servants – through the recurrent national exams. No matter what you were, the son of a peasant, a blacksmith, a minister or an aristocrat, if you passed this exam, you could aspire a position in the government. You could even be a minister in this way. This encouraged the social mobility in China. No wonder there is a saying in China: ‘Wealth does not stay in one family for more than three generations; an aristocratic title does not last for five generations’. While one generation equaled twenty years!
Not only this, but there was also one other unique Chinese phenomenon. That is, a governmental function/aristocratic title and the possession of wealth were oftentimes separated. When a minister or even an emperor stopped holding his position in the government, he might lose all his savings, houses, lands, wives, servants and other possessions. This fact was a constant warning for high positioned people, who always had to be careful in their work and personal behaviors. This precondition offered people of lower social classes the chance to take over when the ones in power malfunctioned.
French missionaries who went to China in the 18-th and 19-th century were inspired by this phenomenon. The French philosopher Diderot (I think) and his two colleague philosophers (Rousseau and Voltaire, I think) loved this liberal idea and they wrote a letter to the French king to invite a couple of hundred of Chinese mandarins to France to help the French government to set up such a system of selection of civil servants. The king did not grant their wish, but this idea of social mobility did not die and became two of the three modern French ideals: fraternity and equality (the third one was liberty, see above).
The same Confucius who made education possible for different social classes was also the one that said: ‘It is better to win the heart of the people of another country than to conquer another nation with weapons and troops.’ He devoted his whole life to propagate his harmony theory. He was not appreciated during his lifetime, but not long after his death his idea about harmony between people(s) and countries became the national philosophy of China and it has influenced the Chinese foreign policy for almost two thousand years. In a sense, his harmony theory still plays an important role in the Chinese decision making now.
The yin and yang principle offers different people(s), social groups, companies and countries the space to be themselves, to develop themselves and to make the best of their selves. Harmony does not exclude anyone because someone is ‘good’ and another is ‘bad’.
7. The harmony/balance idea leads also to the pacific character of the Chinese international policy.
In the four thousand years of the Chinese history, China never colonized another country or nation. Please do not hurry to remind me of Tibet, because Tibetan people are Chinese citizens. China has invented the gunpowder and the compass, but China used them for pacific purposes: fireworks for feasts and navigation for ships.
China was attacked in the 19-th century by some Western countries, which used the Chinese inventions of gunpowder and compass to build canons, rifles, pistols and warring ships to colonize China and other countries in Asia, Africa, South America and so on. During the British invasion of China in the 19-th century one hundred thousand Chinese soldiers were killed and conquered by a couple of thousands British soldiers, because the British aggressors used rifles, pistols and canons to attack Chinese soldiers who could only defend themselves with swords and kungfu. It was not a war, but a massacre. It was not killing, but slaughtering.
Since then the Chinese realized that they had to defend themselves by building modern weapons. China does not want to be invaded and conquered again by western troops. On the 1-st of October 2009, the celebration of the National Day of The PRC, the Chinese were glad to see that they have their own modern weapons to defend themselves. China has not invaded or colonized another country in the past four thousand years of its history and I hope that China will keep its pacific character and will maintain the Confucianistic idea of harmony passed on by its ancestors. Nowadays, some Western countries say that China can be a danger to the rest of the world. Who are the nations which colonized other countries in their ‘glorious’ history? Whom should we be afraid of as a potential aggressor (with a crime sheet)?
Because of above mentioned characteristics, the Chinese politics (both in its domestic and foreign policy) emphases
-balance between powers inside and outside China
-harmony between countries
However, no way of thinking can prevent a country or its people from making mistakes both in ancient and modern times. The political experiments by the Chinese in the past century have shown that they have deviated, both in the positive and negative sense of the word, from the yin and yang principles of their forefathers. This became apparent during the Cultural Revolution, for example. Because of the frequent international communication nowadays Chinese people are in touch with other ways of thinking and handling. They are adapting themselves or even changing themselves rapidly.
How China shall behave in the future depends on how they treat their own cultural heritage and to which elements of the foreign cultures they shall adapt.
I would like to conclude my speech with three notes:
First of all, in the examples that I used up till now I emphasized the differences between the Chinese way of thinking and the western one in order to help you see some characteristics of the two cultures more clearly – comparisons need to temporarily exclude the similarities between two objects to make a point, though we all know that a point never covers the whole story. There is no philosophy in the world that can create wonders or guarantee a perfect political system. Wisdom goes with time and experiences. No country or culture can escape this natural law. However, by studying the way of thinking of another country we can get inspired. If my lecture has invited you to look at some subjects you are familiar with from a totally new angel, I have reached my purpose – all the rest was a means to reach this goal, no more and no less than that.
Secondly, I might have sounded like a mouthpiece of China in my lecture, but I am not. If you have read my eight books, you will know that I very often criticize the negative sides of the Chinese politics, society and culture. Although some of my books are published in many countries (one even in 25 countries), none of my books is published in China. You can conclude from this whether or not I am a mouthpiece of China.
One of the reasons why I talk about the positive sides of the yin and yang principle is that I want to be pragmatic. It is better to learn from the positive sides of another culture, because this way we can improve ourselves. Of what use is it if I concentrate myself in the speech on the negative things of China? Can we learn anything from a ‘bad’ culture or an ‘evil’ country? Besides feeling superiority over others, we achieve nothing by attending to such a lecture. If I give a lecture in China, I shall talk a lot about the positive points of the West, so that the Chinese can learn from the West.
Another reason is that, by living years between two cultures, both China and the West, I have realized how important it is to examine our way of thinking. Another culture can be like a mirror to us, which helps us to leave our fixed way of thinking for a moment and to change the point of our view. We shall be able to discover a new continent and we can enrich our mental world. By learning from another culture we shall experience our personal Renaissance, which makes us constantly revive.
By the way, if you still need to know the mistakes that China makes or made, it is another lecture, which I also would like to give. Till next time.
Last but not least, the fact that I could give this speech here in Switzerland is a proof that democracy and the freedom of speech two of the greatest achievements that our society has reached in the past few centuries. I am grateful for the painstaking efforts that people in the whole world, in this case, the
Westerners, have made to realize, step for step, our dream for freedom.
With compliments to Dr. Mariska Stevens, who kindly edited my English text.
Yin and Yang, conflict and compromise in the Chinese culture and politics