Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Entry Six: What is Freedom?

Although I spent a lot of time with the other foreign teachers when I first arrived, I have since been working hard to build relationships with Chinese teachers at the school. After all, that is why I am here.

Two younger Chinese English teachers at the high school were kind enough to take me to dinner. Rather than help me explore some foreign dish or traditional fare, they wished to give me what they thought would be a taste of home: Pizza Hut.

Keep in mind that this was not your typical Pizza Hut! It was serious fine dining mixed with what you’d expect: rack of lamb next to a personal pan pizza. It was a strange hybrid of East and West. We used forks and not chopsticks, yet still we all shared every plate of food in the middle of the table. There was a salad bar, but each table would only order one turn at the salad bar and send up the best engineer to cram as much as possible into one bowl for everyone to share. People actually stack cucumber slices 20 high around the edge of the bowl to increase the volume, and then fill it with yogurt and fruit! It is the strangest thing I have seen here; a perfect example of two cultures blending together into something neither of us can recognize.

The meal was very expensive, about $17 US per person, almost $50 US for the entire meal– enough money to feed a modest family for weeks. Yet, they were eager to pay and insisted I do not contribute. Part hospitality, part pride; the burgeoning middle class in China has an appetite to demonstrate their wealth. As I sat there, in a country that struggled for much of the 20th Century, I sipped a cold Pepsi product and enjoyed a meat lover’s pizza while looking out the window at a KFC and a Wal-Mart. Extraordinary.

Our discussion only casually addressed politics, however when I commented on the general wealth of the community, one of the teachers answered excitedly: “We can have anything we want; there is a lot of freedom for us here.” She gave a big smile, and then poured some more ketchup on her pizza, another Chinese habit that surprised me at first.

As an American History teacher, what she said really caught my interest. To describe freedom as the ability to “have” something is a little different from how I would view it. But, I did not press on with questions about her statement and kept the mood casual as we finished the fantastic meal.

One week later I was sitting on a cushy sofa, 8 stories above the street in the new apartment home of a bright young couple. Every fixture in the house was new, the fridge full of good food, and the furniture very comfortable. It is clear that the lifestyle of many people in China today is something to be envied by most of the world, including many in America.

My hosts that evening were two teachers from the school. We enjoyed a magnificent dinner made of five savory dishes. The Chinese English teacher who had invited me spent much of her night translating the ideas, questions and comments of her boyfriend. The boyfriend, aside from being one heck of a cook, has been teaching at the high school since he graduated from the university. He has a round face and wears square glasses, has a serious passion for history, and smiles at controversy with the curious enthusiasm of a scholar.

We spoke freely about world history, both of us energized at the opportunity to chat privately with someone from the “other side” who shares a common interest. He was surprised that some Americans describe Korea as the “forgotten war,” diplomatically expressed his opinion that America’s prosperity was born from imperial activity against Spain, and spoke with emotion about China’s positive direction in the world.

While we did not see eye-to-eye on everything, we were able to speak easily about it all; from the Sudan to American foreign policy in Iraq. He was open, even critical at times, and felt very strongly about issues related to development and economic imperialism.

In a moment of transition between subjects, I expressed that it seems the American media’s portrayal of everyday life in China is an exaggeration. For the most part, people here have freedom. He calmly shifted his position on the sofa.

This time he himself answered in English without help. “Yes, we have freedom to do what we want, but of course we must also follow the law.” On the surface, this statement can also be said about living in America. But here, even culturally, loyalty to the government seems to be more highly valued. I have been politely trying to ask questions about this observation for the last week, but I found the best insights in an ancient Chinese novel.

A friend here recently lent me a book: Reviews of Selected Chinese Classics, published by China Reconstructs Press in 1988. The book is a sort of cliff notes addition of multiple classics from Chinese literature, and a first edition in English.

The afternoon before I wrote this entry I read the first selection, a 14th Century novel entitled The Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The plot of the book has three kingdoms in a 3rd century conflict over who will unite and control all of China. Typical of the period, the novel promoted the traditional “supreme virtue” of loyalty to a dynasty rather than a conviction. Luo’s characters were compelling and admirable examples of unquestioning loyalty. The story also promoted benevolent leadership where rulers care honestly for the welfare of their subjects. Yet, and somewhat paradoxically, the story’s conclusion was a tragedy. In the end, the long warring rulers became “foolish and decadent” and a fourth kingdom emerged to conquer all three; all of the sacrifice was in vain.

This story, and for that matter what I witnessed at Pizza Hut, puzzles me – but I am certain it helps to explain how Chinese traditional culture approaches the concept of freedom.

The Chinese desire the freedom to enjoy life and condemn tyranny just as we do. Yet, the traditional story views loyalty to a government as a higher virtue than loyalty to a conviction. On the one hand, this view is very pragmatic; after all, your convictions will probably not put food on the table, but stability and a good government can. Yet, as an American, my instinct is to be weary of government and prize my principles ahead of any leader. What at first puzzled me now feels more familiar, and similar to a classical debate about the nature of man and his relationship with government.

From an American perspective, and in a very fundamental way, our concept of freedom is imbued to value independent thinking. At least that is the ideal.

I am growing to believe that the Chinese approach to freedom is far more pragmatic. It values the opportunities created by the stability that loyalty to a government can achieve.

In other words, in China, if everyone is loyal to the government, then the government can accomplish something and create more opportunity for people to enjoy life. The ability, and lets call it “freedom,” to feed your children is more of a priority than the freedom to protest against some relatively minor issue (an act, by the way, which could be counterproductive because it creates chaos).

So, with this mindset, the best indicator that you have freedom is your ability to have things because it demonstrates that the system is working. And, to be frank, it appears to be working in Jinhua even if it is different from my perspective.

Now, I am not writing this to forsake my own American world view, and also please know that most Chinese people I have spoken with are far more complicated than the simplified extreme of the novel The Three Kingdoms or my black-and-white analysis.

So please, do not take me too seriously; I do not. Instead, I only offer this reflection in hopes of sparking conversation about a subject so central to our own identity as Americans.

What is freedom? Is it more closely related to the ability to act as an individual or survive within a group? Is it best demonstrated by the ability to have what you want, or do what you want?

Please comment.


Michael said...

I'd hate to proclaim that I think you're incorrect, but it seems I would have to.
Though this is just my opinion, I would think most Chinese would agree with me. Freedom is nice, but the most important thing for a Chinese person would be getting on with life. As long as you can make a living, most would not care about losing some liberties, this is mainly the reason why the Manchus managed to continue ruling China for almost 300 years even though they were brutally oppressive at the start and highly racist throughout their rule.
The Three Kingdoms was written as entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. The roles portrayed within it are semi-idealistic for the Chinese, but having been written 6 centures ago, those ideals are not as relevant as they used to be.

Megan Osgood said...

Thank you for writing this blog, I found it very interesting. The Chinese view of the government is much different than what is commonly assumed. Your explanation on this matter is very logical. Many Americans hold a great resentment against our government (me included), and in return, our experience as Americans is greatly tainted. I am not saying our government is a I do imagine that if the govt. and the people coexisted harmoniously, our country would be a LOT different.

On another note, I personally found it a little disappointing to read that Chinese people do, in fact, eat a lot of meat. I always thought the Chinese menus in America were an exaggeration. Perhaps it was once that their diets consisted of mostly vegetables and rice, but now, everybody has a McDonald's just around the block. What can ya do...

Thanks again for sharing your experiences!

vikinginchina08 said...

Response to Michael:

Thank you for your comment. I apologize for my lack clarity, and/or
how I framed my observation. Your argument sees the primacy of "as
long as you can make a living" as the most important thing in China. I
agree with you.

When I explained that the most important part for the Chinese is
"economic opportunity," I meant exactly what you said with "make a
living." On this I agree with you completely. What I was trying to do
for my primary audience (students at OHCHS) was frame this observation
in a comparative way using political theory that my students are
familiar with.

I believe that the difference between us is not in our conclusion, but
the lens from which we view it.

I took the angle of social contract theory - an agreement between
people and government designed to enhance survival. From this
perspective, the primary concern of "make a living" is part of the
theoretical relationship between the Chinese people and their
government. It is similar to the Thomas Hobbes view on social
contract: survival is important and personal liberty is not. This
differs from the Lockean approach, which is more or less carried in
American ideals.

By framing my observations as I did, I was trying to lead my students
into a discussion using our curriculum to think comparatively about
China. By asking the question "What is freedom" I had hoped students
would evaluate what they value more - to have what you need vs. do
what you want. I make no judgment about which is better, but admit my
bias as an American.

So, for the most part, I think we agree but take a different road to
get there - at the end of the day, survival is the primary concern.

One final note. Your comment about The Three Kingdoms is warranted. I
included it as a teacher looking to enrich an reading for students,
not as a scholar hoping to prove a thesis.

Thank you again for your comment : )