China in the 21st century: Confucianist outside, confused inside

Kerry Brown and Sheng Keyi explore what Chinese people believe as their lives grow more materially rich and their country pursues its dream of national rejuvenation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 9:07pm

It’s a simple question: “What do Chinese people believe?” But answering it has never been easy. Does the ringing affirmation by the ruling Communist Party at its plenum this year that the People’s Republic is on track to finally become a middle-income country in the next five years, which will be rejuvenated and powerful, finally answer this vexed question? Is this faith in the “Chinese Dream” of national destiny what, in the end, unites all Chinese people?

For all the outward confidence of the officials, the reality is that China is now in a period of vast confusion. There is no clear moral path that Chinese follow, nor an easy faith they subscribe to, no matter how powerful and materially wealthy their country becomes. Indeed, morals and faith seem to have vanished. In modern times, the government has tried to erect new sources of belief, with Confucianism taking the lead position. These days, all over the country, you can see key words from the lexicon of Confucius plastered on the walls of houses – “proper behaviour”, “rights”, “wisdom”, “fidelity”. Even planes and airports have Confucian slogans daubed over them.

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But this only ends up seeming deeply ironic. While the vast majority of Chinese people are still scrimping and saving, plenty of those higher up who have become wealthy in the era of material enrichment since 1978 have multiple houses, bank accounts, businesses and lovers. Blithely talking about Confucian social order in this sort of context just comes across as empty words.

Confucianism gives great-looking outer clothing. But its real appeal to people’s hearts disappeared long ago

For the government, at least, Confucianism gives great-looking outer clothing. But its real appeal to people’s hearts disappeared long ago. Most people in China have become very good at telling apart what is said and what the real meaning is underneath. They are masters of piercing through formalism to the deeper reality. The main thing now is that, while people can say what they like, they still have to guard against stepping over the many red lines strewn around the place. And those legal lines in China, the lines of the permissible, are very vague. They are becoming ever easier to step across.

This sense of ever present danger means there is no modern Lu Xun, the great writer from the Republican era, to illuminate life with shafts of delicate irony. Intellectuals are largely silent. Lively young people on the internet use humour to handle the outside world. They describe a topsy-turvy world where reference to one thing points to another. Only, there are no easy rules of translation so at least they evade capture. In this context, where saying one thing almost invariably means you are talking about another, working out what Chinese in the 21st century believe in has become even harder. What do they have faith about?

Chinese themselves don’t have time to think about this sort of question. They feel they are always trying to catch up with everyone else. They are too busy working out what’s true and false in the crazy world around them. They focus on the immediate world around – their homes, families, networks. Some have faith, for sure. In a few rich villages, there are churches so large they have been destroyed by the local government, with believers being persecuted. Elites in the more developed areas have started to believe in an all-powerful God, but they can’t speak their faith out openly; they just have to keep it quiet to themselves in their souls. The most you can conclude when you look at Chinese society now is that the young don’t exactly believe anything, and they are not concerned about questions of spirit or soul. For them, it’s a matter of just finding out how to do things and getting by.

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Young Japanese and Chinese writers have a big difference. Japanese do have an interest in questions of philosophy and spirit. But the Chinese write about the here and now, things right before them; they are more materialistic. That reflects what life is like for people in China. They are preoccupied with all the pressures on their immediate, material lives. Spirit, meanings and faith seem very remote. As long as there is a bit of money in their pockets, some happiness in day-to-day life, then, the presiding world view goes, people don’t need to think too much. In some ways, it is better not to.

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The outside world thinking about China suffers from its own form of myopia. Most see the huge new buildings, and the splendour and glamour of the cities. They are transfixed by how much China has developed and changed over the past few decades. But about the inner lives of Chinese, the people who, after all, live in these impressive material landscapes, like those in Shanghai or Shenzhen, most non-Chinese would find them a complete mystery. They are like the thick polluted fog of a bad winter’s day in Beijing. And just as people cry out to close the window when the fog is too thick, so people divert their eyes when they are asked to actually work out what it is that Chinese people have in their hearts.

Of course, there is plenty of literature and writing to try to uncover what Chinese people really believe. But a lot of that never comes close to the key point. It’s distorted by political or other agendas, or tries to present a face only appropriate to outsiders, reflecting little or none of the reality behind it. There are exceptions, though. Through these, we glimpse the complex story underneath. If we read Lu Xun, we get real insight into the soul of the Republican period. If we read Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize winner, we can understand something of the souls of modern rural Chinese, and the story of the great famines. Yan Lianke allows us to really see the paradoxes and contradictions of Chinese society today. His latest book describes a situation which sums up China today – a whole town where people are plunged into the same dream one night, a dream in which they kill, rob and harm one another, but which, as dreamers, they are unwilling to pull themselves out of.

The Chinese in the end are like this – confused dreamers. Not an easy explanation of them, but the only really precise and honest one.

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics and director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London. Sheng Keyi is a Chinese novelist, and author of “Northern Girls” and “Death Fugue”. She is currently working on a novel about the great famines in China