How Good Is Good Enough?

4 September 2010

I’m posting this under cross cultural issues because I want to highlight a cultural difference between Western and Chinese thought concerning the ideas of duty and family.  Chinese culture is Confucian.  Western culture is not. 

Before I went to China, I had never thought about Confucianism or what it meant.  I still am not an expert on Confucianism.  Confucianism is a moral code, an attitude toward the world, not only a right way of living but a system of thought that also governs all of our social structures (including government). 

What are the fundamental tenets of Confucianism?  Well, the books I purchased while living in China are still all packed away, so I can’t go look it up straight from the source.  However, at its most fundamental level, Confucianism is a virtue based system of ethics, with a hierarchy of right relationships that one must honor. 

As stated in W-pedia (a site blocked in China itself),

“A simple way to appreciate Confucian thought is to consider it as being based on varying levels of honesty, and a simple way to understand Confucian thought is to examine the world by using the logic of humanity. In practice, the elements of Confucianism accumulated over time. There is classical Wuchang (五常) consisting of five elements: Ren (仁, Humanity), Yi (義, Righteousness), Li (禮, Ritual), Zhi (智, Knowledge), Xin (信, Integrity), and there is also classical Sizi (四字) with four elements: Zhong (忠, Loyalty), Xiao (孝, Filial piety), Jie (節, Continency), Yi (義, Righteousness). There are still many other elements, such as Cheng (誠, honesty), Shu (恕, kindness and forgiveness), Lian (廉, honesty and cleanness), Chi (恥, shame, judge and sense of right and wrong), Yong (勇, bravery), Wen (溫, kind and gentle), Liang (良, good, kindhearted), Gong (恭, respectful, reverent), Jian(儉, frugal), Rang (讓, modestly, self-effacing). Among all elements, Ren (Humanity) and Yi (Righteousness) are fundamental. Sometimes morality is interpreted as the phantom of Humanity and Righteousness[2]. . . .  Ritual and filial piety are indeed the ways in which one should act towards others, but from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius’ concept of humaneness (Chinese: ; pinyin: rén) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule: "do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you."

Extending this concept of what we in the West would call the “Golden Rule,” Confucianism has developed a complex system of thought concerning how we ought to behave toward others.  Key to this system of thought is the idea of Filial Piety.  What is meant by this?  As further discussed in Wiki: 

“Filial piety (Chinese: ; pinyin: xiào) is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead (including even remote ancestors). The term "filial" (meaning "of a child") characterizes the respect that a child, originally a son, should show to his parents. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships (Chinese: ; pinyin: wǔlún):[5]

The Five Bonds

  • Ruler to Ruled
  • Father to Son
  • Husband to Wife
  • Elder Brother to Younger Brother
  • Friend to Friend

Specific duties were prescribed to each of the participants in these sets of relationships. Such duties were also extended to the dead, where the living stood as sons to their deceased family. This led to the veneration of ancestors. The only relationship where respect for elders wasn’t stressed was the Friend to Friend relationship. In all other relationships, high reverence was held for elders.”

A significance of this respect for Elder is also the idea of guilt.  A child must care for their elders, or they are not a good child.  I’m not saying that children don’t normally or voluntarily live according to duty, but in my observation, guilt and a strong sense of duty is a demanding taskmaster driving many interactions between parents and children.  A strong sense of duty is also necessary.  In Chinese society, children are expected to care for their parents in old age.  This goes well beyond anything that is expected of Western children.  Chinese children literally support their parents, in every way, including having the parents come live with them in their old age. 

The difference in how Chinese treat their Elders has certainly come as a big shock to Westerns who married Chinese, only to find out that their spouse expected them to purchase a house for the in-laws or, perhaps, expected the in-laws to come live in the marital home.  That is not a shocking thought to a Chinese person.  They may be aware that this will create challenging interpersonal dynamics, but it’s not surprising or unexpected, and every good Chinese expects to provide substantial material support to their parents.  But … that’s not actually why I’m writing. 

I want to write about GUILT.  How do parents get their children to provide for them in old age?  You got it!  They’re motivated by guilt! 

It took me several years to learn, to realize, that Chinese culture is embedded with a sense of guilt to a degree that I can barely imagine.  And, what is the opposite of this?   To my way of thinking, the opposite way of experiencing life is through GRACE. 

To live a life of guilt is to be bound by, and ruled by, an acute awareness of brokenness and sin.  We are always trying to dig out of a pit of being not-quite-good-enough. We are always trying to redeem ourselves, to buy back the good graces of the person we are indebted to. 

One of my Chinese friends, at one point, shared with me that he sent his mother a large portion of his income even though she was wealthy already and he was not.  He was in the beginning stages of starting a professional practice, and the income he sent to his mother would have objectively been better spent on his career and professional life.  It almost bankrupted him to send his mother something she didn’t even need.  Why did he do it?  Because his mother wanted to be able to tell her friends that her son was supporting her.  When pressed further, he replied that she supported him when he was small, so he owed it to her to support her now. 

Filial piety.  It really means something. 

But it also brings with it the risk that a person will be more valued for what they bring to the table rather than simply for who they are:  “I raised you, so now you own me!”  

Once upon a time, I became friends with someone in China.  We became quite close friends, not even sure why.  And one day, that person asked me, “Why do you care about me?! I am just a nobody.  [I can’t reciprocate.] I have nothing.” 

The question really made me think.  Why do I care for someone?  Do I expect something in return?  If I am honest, the answer probably sometimes is, “yes”.  But that’s not actually, usually, the case.  In the case of my friend, I was drawn by something unique.  Something that was more than what this person “gave” me or could ever “contribute”.  I realized that the real reason we were friends was that there was something about this person that made me see this person as valuable in and of themselves, regardless of what they brought to the “gimme” table.  Regardless of whether they could give back.  I was seeing someone who was valuable and worth loving simply because they were a child of God. 

Which brings me to something I realized was a striking contrast between my value system and some others:  I believe in Grace.  I believe that there is nothing I can do on my own to make myself “good”, objectively speaking.  I will always be imperfect.  I trust that there will be some others in my life who are willing to overlook my imperfect-ness to see through that and see the better part of me. 

So, what is Grace?  Grace is unmerited favor.  It is being loved simply because we are.  It’s not something earned or deserved.  It’s like the love a parent has for a child.  It comes from the Christian influence in Western Civilization, as stated by John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes on him should not perish but have eternal life.”  What does this really mean?  It means I have assurance of a loving God, a God who loves me, individually, and a God who also loves Y-O-U.  Each person, individually.  That’s how much the Christian perceives that, no matter who he or she is, he or she is loved by God, worthy for no other reason.  “Unmerited Favor”.  There’s nothing you can do to earn it or to deserve it.  When we say the word “Grace,” that’s what we mean.  A God who loves us so much that he would give his own life for us, taking our place to face judgment and condemnation.  And when we face trials in life or challenging times, we fall back on ample reassurances that no matter what we go through, our God is there with us to comfort us: 

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

Luke 11:11-13

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