Archive for June, 2015

Essays from the Far East: Ethnographic Survey

June 5, 2015

This summer, my study abroad course anonymously surveyed Chinese students attending Guangxi Normal University about their religious lives and philosophical thought. Of the questions asked, two were of primary interest to me as a philosophy student: (1) Where do Ethics come from? (2) What do you consider yourself—Religious, Philosophical, Superstitious, Scientific, or Other? Prior to examining the data collected via our surveys, I had the assumption that the answer to (1) would be Philosophy and Religion; much of our course material on Chinese religious life and philosophical thought led me to believe that such values would permeate the life of those we surveyed. I would have expected ideas such as filial piety (Confucianism), non-attachment (Buddhism), for instance, to come to the fore, given the course material we have studied. My second assumption before data examination was that the answer to (2) would be largely religious, despite the Chinese government being explicitly atheistic. However, reflecting on the data has revealed it to overwhelmingly be the case that neither of my assumptions were accurate. Sixty out of one-hundred surveyed students answered that (1) science is the source of ethical values, and seventy-one out of one-hundred students answered that (2) they consider themselves scientific, not religious. This is in contrast to my assumptions, which polled in at (1) thirty students answering Philosophy, nine answering Religious, and (2) only three students answering religious. Given these surprising results, this paper is an exploration of potential reasons why these data don’t map on to my assumptions about Chinese culture, and investigate the implications of these findings. Primarily, I attempt to postulate as to why “science” is such a weighty answer in the question of ethics and belief throughout the Chinese university culture.

The idea that science can be a foundation for an ethical life is not a particularly new one. Noteworthy scientists and anti-theists, such as Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, have been more than vocal about their assertion that scientific inquiry can (and does) lead to a more rational, moral society. Their reasoning comes relies on the fact that science produces tangible results about human welfare and well-being. Religion and philosophy, they often argue, are left to the realm of speculation. Scientific investigation yields statistics and data which, they argue, can give us direct insight into the states in which humans are most likely to flourish and, therefore, can help us optimize our society in such a way that best allows for these conditions. Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, is one of the more frequently brandished books on the front lines of those who promote this worldview, and will be a lens under which I scrutinize the data regarding the Chinese students we surveyed.

For Harris, science builds an ethics in the sense that the collection and examination of data allows for the establishment of moral facts. (For the sake of brevity, the terms “moral” and “ethical” will henceforth be interchangeably used.) This line of reasoning seems to contradict the folk psychological sense in the West that some, if not all, ethical motivations are subjective, not objective. Without touting moral relativism, Harris clarifies in his book that moral facts are simply “facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.” Whereas much of our legal system is premised on a top-down management of people’s behavior, a lot of our day-to-day ethical judgments come from a bottom-up sequence of situational impulses. These impulses are often inconsistent, revealing how unsophisticated our ethical reasoning truly is. Harris proposes that we can study these inconsistencies, test for how we behave, and predict outcomes in situations that result in a better society for all. This sounds a lot like science—and, for Harris, is science. Yet, it remains unclear how strong the connection between Harris’ book and Chinese philosophical thought really is. In other words, it is prudent to look at the ways in which science has made itself known throughout China and seek potential connections with ethical thought.

At the pinnacle of salience for this examination is the fact that China, in the last few decades, has become one of the world’s leading centers of science, both in research and in publishing. I looked up a few Chinese academic journals, and a surprising amount of them contained both the words “science” and “ethics” in their names. This is common for American publishing journals as well. Perhaps the reasoning for these survey findings is that science, broadly speaking, requires a strong, rigorous system of ethics in place for experiments to be conducted. Particularly where humans are concerned, participants in scientific studies are required to sign a waiver of consent. Other such ethical restrictions are often, ideally, in place throughout scientific testing. I can imagine that Chinese thought easily interchanges and associates these terms, “ethical” and “scientific,” in such a way that allows for ethics to arise from scientific inquiry and discourse (i.e. a scientific inquiry is ethical, and unethical experiments are to be condemned, etc.). In other words, scientific endeavors can be thought of, in some sense, as ethical. This is one possible explanation for the findings of our survey, but seems not to fully satisfy what we’re looking to find here.

There is also the recent upsurge in the visibility of science throughout Chinese everyday life—most notably Western Medicine becoming widely accessible, and computer technology becoming popularized—which is extremely pertinent to consider in light of our research findings. These developments have smoothly integrated their way into the pockets and cabinets of many Chinese citizens, likely even more so for Chinese college students. The ubiquity of science improving the quality of everyday life, I imagine, has not only laid a foundation for trust in science, but a reverence for science in the eyes of the average Chinese citizen. It would make sense, then, that one might associate an increase in science with the increase in well-being. Furthermore, that an increase in science is an ethical step forward for society as a whole. This sounds a lot like Harris’ argument, and seems more on track, but still insufficient to encompass the entirety of the picture. It’s important to remember here that roughly 75% of our surveyed students identified most strongly with the label, “scientific.” In considering this, if science really is equated with ethics, then it isn’t too far of a jump to speculate that these students want to increase the well-being of their society through the increase of science. It seems to be no coincidence that the majority of surveyed students aligned these two beliefs.

The interpretation of the data that most convinces me comes, again, from Harris’ Moral Landscape: The investigation into beliefs. Science, as an enterprise and a practice, is not concerned with belief values of the individual (i.e. what offends me personally, the order in which I choose to care about things, etc.). Rather, science can reveal how radically wrong our thought about the world tends to be. In considering an empirical approach to ethics, the question seems to lurk in the background: What should I believe, and why should I believe it? Science, here, might actually have something to say about such speculation. As adumbrated above, science measures and reveal facts about the human mind, quantifies things such as impacts on health from new practices, etc. The lack of certainty one might feel towards determining the net effect of utilitarianism vs. virtue ethics could, theoretically, be solved—or at least aided—through scientific inquiry (i.e. data analysis). We could, in other words, test for the direct impact of vegetarianism vs. omnivorism, not only on our heath, but on the environment as a whole, etc. Science could, in this light, determine and dictate the way in which ethics are done and considered.

This is by no means a solution to the problems that the gamut of ethical study poses. Yet, examining the question of the origin of ethics in the context of Chinese culture is certainly illuminated by an examination of data and, perhaps, through scientific inquiry. The question remains: Does science have a role to play in sculpting the boundaries of what is right or wrong? Either way, I’m sure the data will bear it out.

Survey Data:

1) Where do Ethics come from?
Philosophy – 30
Religion – 9
Science – 60
Other – 14

2) What do you consider yourself?
Religious – 3
Philosophical – 19
Superstitious – 3
Scientific – 71
Other – 2

21 June 2015

Essays from the Far East: Construction Concerns

June 5, 2015

I’ve noticed something about the cities in China which I’d like to briefly explore here, which is rather hard to explain. Each city we’ve visited has had ongoing construction of large living quarters—usually apartments—which seem to be built alongside or near similar, empty living quarters. This kind of construction is not necessarily ubiquitous throughout the entirety of each city, but it’s common enough to have nearly left no skyline untouched by giant, still cranes.

I find this notable because of the economic disparity which is very visible throughout all the parts of China that we have visited. Firstly, I struggle to wrap my mind around a justifiable rationale for this all-permeating construction of living quarters. That is, in each city we’ve visited, there are a handful of fully built, unoccupied buildings which look as though no one has touched them since construction ceased. My question: Why build more if you can’t fill the ones already existing? But, further, the aforementioned economic disparity is manifest usually within sight of rather nice/new/upscale areas in the cities. For instance, I perused the entirety of an expensive walking street in Chengdu, with five-star restaurants featuring wine cellars at the entrance, only to turn around the last building into slums with roofs caving in. It seems that a lot of construction here, then, serves to cover up the unattractive parts of the cities. I can’t help but feel for these people living in, essentially, poverty. It’s worsened by the fact that there are available buildings with plumbing, electricity, space, etc. to move into right around the corner.

It also stresses me out that these buildings are being thrown up seemingly everywhere because of what I plan on studying in my masters program: Environmental Ethics. In short, it costs quite a bit to the planet’s resources and local air quality to build skyscraper after skyscraper. In the long term, it is indeed better to stack people in tighter and higher, rather than rip down hectare after hectare for a suburban sprawl. I would feel less anxious about all these buildings if they were actually used. But they aren’t. Or at least they give every indication of being unused.

There are two potential explanations I have synthesized in thinking about this is: (1) China wants to give the appearance of being impressively developed, modern, and booming with city life, and (2) China is preparing for a continued increase in their population in the cities. The first explanation seems more likely to be the case than the second, mostly because China’s one-child policy would theoretically result in a stabilized population. China is trying to/succeeding in overtaking the United States as the world’s most dominant economic power. If and when China overtakes the US entirely, it is plausible to posit that more people would seek to live in China’s cities. But why build them now? Surely it can’t be profitable for companies to erect costly buildings, only to abandon their potential return on investment. Maybe capitalism is bleeding through me here, but I can’t wrap my head around an upright business model which justifies the inflation of needless construction. Even if it were the case that companies bottomed out because no one filled their expensive constructions, then it would seem to follow that there would be a negative economic incentive to keep doing this. But that isn’t the case, apparently. I have counted easily a dozen of these enormous, empty structures since arriving in China, many of which are still under development.

I’m not satisfied with any of the conclusions of my speculation, but I certainly am fascinated by this anomaly. Allegedly, entire cities in China are ghosts towns; it’s not just a peppering of empty buildings in a city. And yet I see so much land being developed at seemingly no real profit or demand from the people. This has confused me more than most things in China, this summer.

Essays from the Far East: “Othering”

June 5, 2015

Speaking in terms of “othering,” for a place like America, is a lot harder for me to single out than here in China. This is in part because I have little context of being an “other.” But, also, because in China, I obviously stand out simply based on my appearance alone. I don’t even need to speak a word before locals can look at me and label me with the term, “mei guo ren.” Back home, in America, we pride ourselves on being a “melting pot” of culture. Yes, there are racial tensions, class divides, gender discriminations, and other more nuanced ways of “othering,” but neither I nor my immediate peers draw these boundaries as easily and quickly as I’ve noticed in being an “other” here. For example, go to New York City and you’ll encounter people from all walks of life such that it’s hard to identify what the non-other really is in the first place. A place like Jacksonville Beach, where I live, has a much more tight-knit local community than even twenty minutes away to downtown Jacksonville. One can instantly identify a “townie” from a local at the beaches. Yet, I’m not sure how this is the case. There’s manners of speech, dress, behavior, etc. that directly signal to someone who has lived in that community for a long enough time that this person(s) is an “other.” These things are all relative, and I’m certainly not used to it. I’ve noticed how uncomfortable that can be when you are on the receiving end of “othering,” while staying here in China.

In China, I didn’t often find myself being an “other,” and when I did, it wasn’t immediately or instinctually uncomfortable. That is, I didn’t feel stared at, judged, or taken advantage of by the local people. I figured I might feel any of these three things, but the locals in Guilin didn’t spare a passing glance most of the time. This changed, however, as we ventured out more and more away from the CLI. My first encounter with really feeling like an “other” in China was in downtown Guilin when I was exploring a lake with some Guangxi Normal University friends. We were walking along a bridge, talking, and I suddenly noticed that we were walking right into a picture being taken by a group of Chinese people. Startled and embarrassed, I kind of jogged past the people in the picture so as to let them get their shot. But, to my surprise, I felt a hand grab my shoulder. Oh no, I thought, this guy is pissed and I don’t know how to apologize in Chinese yet. So I turned around to see an ear-to-ear grin on this guy’s face, as though he had just won the lottery, simply from my presence as an American. He, and his three other traveling companions, excitedly gestured to an iPad, signaling pretty clearly that they wanted me to be in a picture with them. This was odd. Nothing like this had ever happened to me as a passerby on the street in other countries I’d visited, and certainly not in America. So I took what seemed like twenty pictures of them rotating each other in and out of the frame, only to be met with another grin from the same man who grabbed my shoulder. He thanked me several times and shook my hand repeatedly. It was kind of jarring, but also a little cute and delightful. I glanced back a few paces later to notice him beaming down proudly, scrolling through his iPad. This was the only real instance that I felt pleasantness from being a photo-op for Chinese people. Several times throughout this trip, I have experienced similar instances of people imploring me to hop in their picture, sometimes at an inconvenience to my current task/errands. We’ve been in train stations, temples, parks, subways, etc. when people have tapped me or my group members on the shoulder for a photo. It feels as though I’ve experienced objectification for the first time. As a straight, white, cis-gendered, American, middle-class, male, I’ve really never experienced any forms of feeling out of “the norm.” In fact, I’m allegedly about as privileged as they get. But this felt like being a celebrity without having done anything notable or worthy of recognition. The more times I was pulled aside for photos, the more I felt a deep, gnawing sense that I was nothing but an object—a trophy photo for these people. Feeling that way made me even more insecure about these photos because I shouldn’t be that person to them. I have no connection or emotional bond with these people, no real reason that they should be taking a photo with/of me, other than factors beyond my reasonable control. I can’t help but think of the kind of photos we Americans take of poor villages in Africa, for example, and scrutinize the motivations behind the way we use their photos to motivate people one way or another. My situation is relatively innocuous as an “other” in China, but this experience has given me more perspective on the way in which we think about “others” in broader contexts than my own.

Feeling like an “other” goes beyond being treated a certain way, however. As I mentioned in my reflection of how this program has been transformational for me, I’ve felt immense discomfort and alienation at times in being here. The customs and ways of life in China trace back to factors that are at once explicit—through China’s rich and deep history—and at the same time implicit—through nonverbal cues and expectations (i.e. driving, walking, eating, etc.). Little things, such as avoiding stabbing your chopsticks into the rice bowl, seem ridiculous at first glance. The seeming disorganization of shops, of traffic, etc. drove me mad at first. But these little discomforts revealed themselves to be nothing more than simple differences. In other words, we do very similar things between Eastern and Western cultures, but we enact these things sometimes in very different ways. There are multiple pathways to the same goal, multiple peaks on the landscape. Being an “other” in China initially obfuscated that.

The language barrier is also a lot stronger here than in other potential destinations of travel. Unlike many of the places I’ve been, China doesn’t base its language on a latin-derivative language. There are, in other words, no cognates for me to latch onto with Chinese. While I didn’t want to learn the language at first, it was, in retrospect, beyond recommendable; it was essential. Six weeks in China seemed like an unnecessarily long time, but it was necessary to shock me enough to the point that I didn’t feel so much like an outsider anymore. I can now navigate myself towards the nearest lamien place, the convenience store, across a subway I’ve never been on, or basically wherever I need to go. I wouldn’t call myself “fluent” by any means, nor do I expect myself to reach that level. But I can get around just about anywhere somewhat effectively now. I feel confident enough to perhaps stay here, on my own, for a relatively small period of time. Assimilation is just practice, as far as I can tell.

China can seem really daunting, or at least it did for me, but, like most uncomfortable things in life, time and exposure to the uncomfortable thing really reduces that feeling.

Essays from the Far East: Attitudinal Shift

June 5, 2015

The China in Context study abroad trip has been transformational for me in the sense that I have found myself slower in the judgment of others and a well of patience in foreign contexts. I tendentiously avoid being one who (unfairly) casts condemnatory personal judgment in my everyday discourse, but upon my first arriving in China, I was perhaps more critical than I should have been. Initially, my homesickness colored my experiences; I hated everything. In some respects, I maintain these first impressions of being alien, of discomfort, etc. yet I have accustomed myself to them, as opposed to resisting them. Incessantly exposing myself to these discomforts has given me a deeper understanding of the mechanisms and assumptions underlying the modes of my seemingly irrational, uncomfortable, and at times unlivable ways of life. While I still feel as though I would not want to live again in China, I value the merits of such a society as well as some of the perks I might wish to bring back home with me.

The initial negatives are of primary interest to me, because a new–perhaps lesser–country than one is used to is a breeding ground for the mosqitos of despair. To better deal, my attitudes toward effortful endeavors–work, volunteering, etc.–have shifted. For instance, in China, the cities we’ve often visited have appeared on the outside to be very rundown, dirty, disorganized, and unpolished. Guilin, at first, seemed like a very uncomfortable place. The beautiful mountains were overshadowed on more days than not with frequent torrential downpours and overcast skies. The sidewalks were cracked, and you couldn’t step five feet without a stone giving out to a puddle, soaking your shoes. Chengdu was even worse at first—there was far less immediately visible community—as the city’s scale was so much bigger and yet the people seemed less active on street sides. It felt empty, polluted, and enormous. I remember thinking, How could anyone call this place home? Xi’an was a smog-magnet, which appeared to be dominated by a false sense of maintaining history. Yes, there was the wall, but apart from that, it just seemed like one ugly maze. Beijing was so much less surreal than the glorified images that Google showcased. And so on, and so forth—I don’t particularly enjoy dwelling on negativity.

In short, I allowed myself to find the flaws in the places we visited instead of taking advantage of their uniqueness. But looking back, Guilin was indeed beautiful, especially on its drier days: The Muslim noodles shop near our hotel became something of a regular spot for me. Whereas I was initially quite hesitant to invest myself in any of these places, I could easily see myself finding lamien back home. As our stay lengthened, I noticed that Chengdu had a lot more to do, a lot more to see, and quite a lot more life to the city than I initially thought. That experience taught me not to so quickly assess a city by its facade, to delve deeper, to ask questions about what to do and where to go, and follow the locals. Xi’an was indeed a bit of a letdown for a place with such a long historical stretch of culture, but again, I was looking at/for the wrong things and ignoring the positives. Our hostel was really cool, and very close to a stretch of localized bars that were quite active each night. There was a brilliant strip of Muslim food, shops, stalls, and overall fun. The Great Mosque and the City God Temple had some distinct features that I couldn’t hope to find back home—perhaps anywhere else in the world. Beijing, on the other hand, seemed like a monolith compared to the other three smaller cities we visited, and when it wasn’t the NYC-like image I had conjured, I found myself a little let down. But we had a great time, saw some incredible structures such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I realized we weren’t in Beijing to be dwarfed by skyscrapers, we were in Beijing in order to experience things that we couldn’t anywhere else in the world. I think my view of why I was on this trip took a while to shift, but once it did, it changed my perception of my surroundings almost immediately.

In terms of some other negative perceptions that have changed, I was initially really turned off by the people of China. In general, people’s public etiquette, such as mopeds honking their way through areas that are obviously intended for walking, people not moving out of the way for each other on the sidewalks, occasionally noticing a baby defecating in broad daylight, cigarettes blown in your face in the bathroom, etc. really got under my skin at first. To someone who has not dealt with these realities frequently throughout their life—and if they have, the offending party is simply “rude” or a “jerk”—this can be a very jarring experience. The mopeds tearing through sidewalks still bother me, but I now realize that this is simply the way people get around. It is, more or less, efficient. It is not my place to place boundaries on where people can drive and where they cannot. The honking that I once found so startling and even offensive, I now hear as an almost courteous “excuse me!” Even the chaotic traffic has become navigable. I find myself blending with the locals, catching the signals of when to cross a street or wait my turn. I prefer the traffic system back home, and yet, I haven’t seen a single accident during my extensive time on the roads in China. In contrast, I see a car wreck maybe once a week back home; obviously, there is merit to be found here. As far as people moving out of each other’s way on sidewalks, that hasn’t really gotten much better. But I’ve found ways to subtly signal my body language one way or another, so as to avoid these awkward and infuriating standoffs. Additionally, I have just taken it upon myself to scoot out of the way in general. As a result, for some reason, I’ve noticed people returning the favor, so to speak. It might be different than back home, but the regard for other people is certainly still there. And even six weeks in, babies letting loose on a street corner hasn’t gotten less shocking, but I certainly haven’t seen it other than twice in Guilin.

According to a thread I was perusing online, these complaints of mine are most prominent in the south. That would make sense as to why I haven’t seen it as much, but there is certainly some baby butt floating around out there from time to time. The cigarette-in-shared-spaces annoyance was the hardest for me to get over, but I realized that I was being a little more ethnocentric than I was willing to admit. That is, smoking isn’t unique to China. I have to take into account that, until quite recently in America, smoking was as/more commonplace in public spaces, restaurants, bars, etc. Gladly, this is no longer a very mainstream feature of going out in public; there are patios and other designated smoking areas in America that I take for granted. Even further, our smoking rates are probably not much lower than China’s. Again, there is no room for me to pass judgment on a culture that I have so little inside knowledge of.

The amalgamating factors of being thrown into a very different way of life made it a lot easier to feel self-righteously justified in flaring up at such personal inconveniences. Dealing with these personal boundaries hasn’t been easy, but I certainly have noticed a more patient state of mind emerge in being here. I hope to carry these attitudes back home with me to deal with other, inevitable, uncomfortable situations I encounter in America.

Essays from the Far East: Dao de Jing

June 5, 2015

Dao de Jing – Except from Chapter 2: “As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful, / There is already ugliness. / As soon as everyone knows the able, / There is ineptness. // Determinacy and indeterminacy give rise to each other, / Difficult and easy complement each other, / Long and short set each other off, / High and low complete each other, / Refined notes and raw sounds harmonize with each other, / And before and after lend sequence to each other— / This is really how it all works.”

This passage from the Dao de Jing exemplifies the function of making distinctions, that is, things immediately and inescapably implicate their opposites. For example, by calling something “beautiful,” there comes to light the things that aren’t beautiful—or, as this passage labels, things that are “ugly.” This, perhaps, is clarified further by the distinction between “light” and “darkness.” Light has no significance without knowing there is dark, and vice versa. That is, we couldn’t identify that we were living in darkness until the first light revealed itself in contrast. As the commentary on this passage notes, “dividing up the world descriptively and prescriptively generates correlative categories that invariably entail themselves and their antinomies.” In other words, categories create further categories. This passage from the Dao de Jing makes this kind of logic explicit, which I find myself really agreeing with philosophically, and noticing in the landscape of contemporary China.

China is a place that seems to really resist classification in a way that I can’t say applies to any other place I’ve travelled to. This country has such a rich history, which largely colors the way people here and outside of China conceive of this country, and yet, China is at the forefront of modernity, city life, and innovation. Essentially, it both breaks and embraces its own categories. China both reveres TCM—an ancient practice—and Western medicine—a much more recent development. The split in development between the Chinese people is somewhere between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, and pretty much nowhere in between. I read this passage from the Dao de Jing to very vividly illustrate this weird blurring-of-the-lines in Chinese culture today. China manages to both fulfill many of its stereotypes and, simultaneously, resists them.

Though our travels have revealed how not every Chinese person is a Daoist, there is certainly a confluence of religious/philosophical ideas percolating the modern Chinese way of life, which, in large part, comes from Daoism and similar sources. We see Yin and Yang permeating the landscape, not only symbolically, but visually and socially. For example, there is a balance between nature and city—especially the blend between forest and temple in Daoist religious sites—and there is a balance between the kinds of interactions people have with each other and the world. That is, very few people that I have encountered in China really exclude religious thought from their lives, yet, those who consider themselves “religious” seem to be few and far in between—especially in light of our ethnographic survey. The Chinese people aren’t afraid to take Daoist ideas, Confucian principles, and Buddhist metaphysics, for example, and blend them together. In other words, there is a balance in the way people in China look at the world; there is very little evidence of the “exclusive” Western way of commonly thinking about religion and philosophy, as most evident in monotheisms or analytic philosophy. Much of Eastern thought that I have encountered takes a gamut of sources into account in a really encompassing way that I haven’t seen often in the West. Surely, the Dao de Jing isn’t explicitly pointing this balance out, but I can certainly map this passage onto the modern cultural landscape of China.

This passage also mentions how “High and low complement each other,” which I take very metaphorically. The philosopher, Alan Watts, in his The Book, explains how trying to conceive of life without death is kind trying to keep the mountains and get rid of the valleys. In the Dao de Jing, I read this excerpt to apply broadly to life, that you can’t enjoy the “highs” without the “lows.” I’ve noticed in our travels across China that we’ve seen some really depressing sort of places and people, and I’ve been to places that our tour guide, Jack Dragon, would call “four star.” Each of them respectively don’t really retain their full potential without experiencing the other. In other words, if this trip was nothing but brilliantly furnished hotels and avoided poverty at all possible opportunities, I wouldn’t have a perspective on what China really is. Conversely, I wouldn’t take those “four star” places into such appreciation without trudging through the more saddening and frustrating parts. It sounds overly idealistic to pontificate about the way someone should experience China, but I genuinely think that the Dao de Jing is pointing out something that needs to be remembered, recited, and repeated in everyday life: That you can’t have one without the other.