Given the wide circulation of the New York Times, many Silicon Valley residents have probably read an opinion piece titled “Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?” by Mr. Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. The way the article blames Chinese traditions for the epidemic may cause those unfamiliar with Chinese culture to find it contemptible and perhaps even think less of local Chinese immigrants. That makes it necessary to clarify the comprehensiveness of Chinese culture.
Mr. Lian focuses too much on Confucianism and subjectively portrays regional consumption of game meats and dog meat in China as something “firmly embedded in the Chinese collective consciousness.”
With about 1.4 billion in China and more than 50 million in the rest of the world (according to a statistic of year 2014), ethnically Chinese people cannot be overgeneralized. Many, probably most, of the ethnically Chinese worldwide have never even tried any game meat or dog meat. Highly educated Chinese people especially stay away from those meats.
Even if Westernized Chinese immigrants in the West are not taken into account, it would still be inaccurate to call game meat consumption an element of Chinese culture. At least in the lower Yangtze region of China (to which Shanghai belongs), where both sides of my grandparents came from, local specialties have always excluded game meats, and people don’t eat dog meat there. As far as I know, many other regions of China do not normally consume game meats or dog meat, either.
Chinese culture is complex. It includes multiple regional cultures, but none of the subcultures’ distinctive traits can stand for the overall Chinese culture, just as neither California nor Texas can represent everything about American culture.
While there may be too many people who slaughter wild animals in certain regions of China, that is not just a Chinese issue. A friend told me that she had seen exotic meats on restaurant menus while traveling in the Rocky Mountain area.
There are hunters in the West, too, probably fewer, but given the huge total number of the Chinese, of course there are more Chinese hunters. Animal rights activists cannot stigmatize the entire Chinese race simply because some Chinese people kill wild animals for food. Neither should Mr. Lian.
As mentioned earlier, overgeneralization is the main problem with Mr. Lian’s article. Although Mr. Lian is right about China’s long history of punishing the messenger, which indeed made it too late to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, he fails to pinpoint that silencing bad news is a side effect of Confucianism, which requires subordinates to absolutely obey the higher-ups (who are supposed to be benevolent dictators), and that Confucianism is only part of Chinese culture.
Even though Confucianism is not regional, and it really has dominated Chinese culture for thousands of years, there are still other components of Chinese culture that should not be neglected. It is especially noteworthy that Taoism and the yin-yang theory have always taught the Chinese to live in harmony with nature.
In China, classical gardens have all been landscaped in environmentally friendly ways based on the principles of Taoism and the yin-yang theory. Those gardens were often built around natural ponds, and their designers kept them connected with the ecosystem outside the garden walls.
Another key component of traditional Chinese culture is Buddhism. Though originally from India, Buddhism was deeply rooted in China for centuries until the mid 20th century. It used to make the Chinese believe in reincarnation and behave ethically in order to avoid misery in the next life. It promoted vegetarianism among the Chinese as well. This is another strong reason for stopping Mr. Lian from calling traditional Chinese culture the culprit for wildlife killing in China.
Perhaps Mr. Lian ignores Buddhism, Taoism, and the yin-yang theory because they are no longer influential. After China’s Cultural Revolution, only Confucianism has made a strong comeback because the government likes it for the unchallengeable hierarchy it stipulates. Other components of Chinese culture have declined along with China’s modernization, unfortunately.
Equally notable is what has happened in Taiwan, where the overwhelming majority of people are ethnically Chinese. Taiwan did not go through a Cultural Revolution but gradually put Chinese culture aside in the process of modernization, too.
Taiwan was already very modernized when I was born there, and I moved to the US at a relatively early age, so I grew up bilingual but Westernized. I knew little about traditional Chinese culture until starting to do research on it in recent years as a writer. Thanks to my high-level Chinese reading skills, I have caught up quickly.
Why do I read about traditional Chinese culture in Chinese and write about it in English then? It’s because my curiosity about my cultural roots, aroused by my maternal grandfather’s memoirs, has led me to quite a number of lost treasures, which I would love to share with the whole world.
In Chinese culture, Confucianism is mainstream but not among the lost treasures I have discovered. Ironically, Confucianism has been holding China back by discouraging innovations that could challenge the authorities. Even so, Confucianism was mostly practiced in the workplace, also at social events and family gatherings; it left some space for people to pursue their interests when they were alone in their free time. That explains why arts and sciences flourished in ancient China.
Most of the traditional Chinese arts and sciences are worth preserving. Yes, even the sciences. For instance, ancient Chinese astronomers’ definition of the four seasons actually still makes sense. It is more scientific than anyone in the 21st century may think. It presents the summer solstice as the peak or midpoint of summer rather than the beginning, because the day has the longest sunlight of the year. Who can prove that wrong?
By contrast, the modern astronomical definition of the four seasons makes each season start about six weeks later because of thermo lag, which means the lapse of time for temperatures to go up or down. This modern view is all about the weather conditions people perceive and therefore human-centric, versus the nature-centric Chinese approach prior to China’s industrialization.
Nowadays the Chinese seem to be the least environmental people on earth, but that’s because China has been poor and is overpopulated. When those living in the crowded cities of China are eager to get ahead, they give up cultural traditions without any hesitation.
Hopefully, the coronavirus outbreak in China has given those people a wake-up call, which will make them more environmentally conscious from now on. In the meantime, no one can blame traditional Chinese culture as a whole for the current epidemic in China and the global threat it poses. Quite to the contrary, China and the rest of the world should seek wisdom from traditional Chinese culture to restore balance in nature and ensure sustainability in the future.
By Crystal Tai