Hong Kong localism and independence

Culture clash: Chinese value unity of country over separatism, unlike in the West 

Xie Maosong says the Chinese veneration for their ancestors is the basis for a deep-seated cultural abhorrence for a divided family or country, and any attempt at division will earn the Chinese people’s ire

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 1:45pm

Ching Ming is the most important festival for Chinese people after the Spring Festival. 

Eating dinner with the family on the eve of the Lunar New Year symbolises family reunion. Ancestors, too, are remembered in various rites. But it is during Ching Ming that ancestor veneration becomes the main reason families large and small gather together, with even those living abroad returning home for the occasion. In some parts of southern China, the rites can last weeks. 

Ancestral worship is a tradition born of thousands of years of Chinese civilisation. As the Song philosopher Lu Xiangshan (1139-1193) observed in a poem: that people can’t help but feel sad on seeing a tomb, and respectful on seeing an ancestral hall, shows that such feelings are part of our basic human nature. His words reveal the deep feelings that lie behind the custom of ancestral veneration. 

In Chinese tradition, the severest punishment one can inflict on those who betray their family and country is not imposed on the body or property; the worst punishment is to be removed from the clan book and denied a place in one’s genealogy. People who turn their backs on their ancestors are reviled as being no better than “beasts”. In fact, the most powerful insult you can throw at a Chinese person is: “You are not human.”

There are reasons for the Chinese people’s attachment to ancestral worship. Since ancient times, Chinese society has been organised around ancestral descent. The offspring of a common ancestor share not only a surname but also their very roots. These bonds tie them forever to the deceased, and to each other. Among the living, the bonds are strengthened through working together, and helping and trusting one another. 

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In Lu Xiangshan’s view, the national equivalent of the family ancestral temple is a group of temples and altars serving different functions: the imperial ancestral temple, where ceremonies were held to honour the imperial family’s ancestors, the altar of land and grain, the temple of heaven, and others. At every level, the family structure corresponds to the country’s. 

Chinese culture is characterised by the integration of family and country, and the country is an extension of the family. Thus, one who loves the family will also love the country. 

Chinese people value their ties to the family and country, and are willing to sacrifice their own benefit for the greater good. This explains the development of a trait in Chinese civilisation: a strong preference for “integration” over “partition”. Unification is considered the normal state of affairs in Chinese civilisation, in line with the people’s wishes. Division is abnormal and will eventually return to unification. 

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This is borne out in history. In China’s long history, unity was accepted as the norm, while division was abnormal. When the country was divided, many lost their homes and suffered, and people looked for a fix so life could return to normal. Because unity was what people wanted, any division would end up being bridged by a higher level of unity. 

To keep a big country unified requires a gradual integration of politics and culture. Thus, in history, ethnic minorities tended to assimilate into Chinese culture. For example, Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (467–499) launched a Sinicisation campaign as part of his reform efforts, which included requiring ethnic minorities to use Chinese surnames. And in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the Manchu government was self-aware enough to make a large number of adaptations to Chinese culture.

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The opposite is true in the history of the West since ancient Greece – a collection of small states was the norm, while a unified big country was abnormal. Big empires such as the Roman empire could not stay intact for long; once divided, it could not be reunified. That was followed by the emergence of many small states in Europe during the medieval era, which then evolved into modern nation-states. Although France then Germany both harboured dreams of becoming the Third Rome, their dreams did not materialise. The European Union today may share the vision and goal of unity, but it has found it difficult to achieve.

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The reason is that Western civilisation is shaped predominantly by atomic, individualised thinking, which led to the creation of a collection of small states. By contrast, Chinese civilisation is marked by relational thinking, which led to the creation of a unified big country. That is why Western people do not have rituals to venerate their ancestors. Western modernity is characterised by constant differentiation, and the harmful consequences of such a tendency are becoming ever more apparent.

Today, some people in Hong Kong have given voice to absurd views on unity and division. These views are contrary to public opinion and the direction in which our society is heading. It is obvious that these people are being used as pawns by some countries to impede China’s rejuvenation. They will be abandoned when they are no longer useful. 

The West has double standards. For instance, countries such as the United States and Spain have fiercely attacked separatism in their own countries. If a professor of a government-funded university in those countries had said what had been said by these Hong Kong people, he would not have been allowed to stay in his job. 

Xie Maosong is a senior researcher of the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy. This is translated from the Chinese