Another week goes by and still I have not caught up with blogging... Oh well, all I can do to rectify the situation is: blog...
Last wee Kai Pan, over at china/divide put up a short post entitled: "Is Chinese Society Materialistic? Are Chinese people?" He is really just raising some questions, not making a sustained argument. But I want to take up some of the questions he asks. Let's take this excerpt:
I'm not saying that materialism as a bonafide concept isn't arguably observed in modern Chinese society. I'm just not sure its a meaningful or unique observation. Frankly, anything with statistically significant pervasiveness that could be attributed to materialism in Chinese society I can see with similar statistically significant pervasiveness in many other societies.
I think he's right in the sense that materialism in China is not unique to that society or that people. Clearly, complaints about materialism in American society are legion. But the comparative point is less significant here than the historical and cultural interpretations.
The observation that China is now a materialistic society, or is more materialistic than some time in the past, might imply that Chinese society, in some timeless, essentialist way, should not be as materialistic as it is now, or, at least, was not significantly materialistic in the past. And I think that assumption is likely wrong.
To be most blunt about it: I think Chinese society has always been materialistic. Thus, while it might be, for particular historical and economic reasons, more materialistic now, that variation is more quantitative than qualitative.
There is a stereotype of "traditional China" out there that imagines a society of upstanding Confucian gentlemen and their families, carefully observing the aversion to profit and commerce that the Sage preached, interspersed with irregular collections of Daoist aesthetes, huddled in their caves renouncing the world. This is almost certainly wrong. More accurate, I believe, is a picture of a thriving entrepreneurial society, driven by strong commercial interests and a skill for adapting existing technologies to solve concrete problems. This latter view would explain how the imperial state was able to maintain and reproduce an extensive bureaucracy and a sophisticated civilization: it needed a strong material, economic foundation which provided the resources for political centralization, military power and cultural hegemony. The Chinese Empire, for much of its history, especially after the economic transformations of the Song, was a wealthy and prosperous place. And wealth and prosperity are not produced by reading the Analects or the Daodejing. Wealth and prosperity are created by people, often following material incentives, who pursue wealth and prosperity - one of the aspects of "materialism" that we are considering.
Yes, it's true, when confronted with Western imperialism the Chinese empire did not measure up in certain areas of military technology and tactics. Perhaps the self-imposed relative isolation of the Ming (and I say "relative" because China has never been wholly cut off from the world economy) after Emperor Yongle contributed to China falling behind Europe's economic growth and transformation (I will defer to better informed historians on this point). But even recognizing all that, Chinese society has always held within it a powerful materialistic, commercial dynamic. Imperialism did not extinguish Chinese materialism, it just channeled it in new directions.
This was true going way back, to the time of Confucius himself. We can read Confucius and Mencius as prescriptive, pointing out to readers what Chinese society should be, not what it actually was. They were pushing against the materialism that then existed in Chinese society. Same with the great Daoist texts. Think about passage 12:
The five colors blind eyes. The five tones deafen ears. The five tastes blur tongues. Fast horses and breathtaking hunts make minds wild and crazy. Things rare and expensive make people lose their way.
That's why a sage tends to the belly, not the eye, always ignores that and chooses this.
"Things rare and expensive" are a problem: the pursuit of luxury and wealth distracts people from the natural unfolding of Way (Dao). In other words, materialism, of a sort, was present and problematic (at least from Daoists) in early China.
So when materialism in present day China is lamented, we should resist the temptation to conjure up a past of marvelously spiritual and organic and Confucian-ethical Chinese society. Perhaps China is more materialistic now than it was a hundred years ago. But that is not to say that traditional Chinese society was somehow not materialistic at all. Quite the contrary, it is more likely that a kind of materialism produced much of what we associate with Chinese civilization....