|Featured Columnist – Meditations
China just passed Japan as the second largest economy in the world. Never mind that per capita income in China is still at Algeria’s level. It’s an important milestone, though it raises the question of qualitative vs. quantitative change in China, and the world.
Intellectuals in China are fond of saying, “Outside China, the West multiplies everything by 1.3 billion; inside China, we must divide everything by 1.3 billion.” Therein lie the horns of the dilemma.
Will China become a Confucian hegemon, as many American politicians fear? That’s a moot question. Without a radical change in consciousness, the Chinese, along with Americans, will push the Earth’s carrying capacity beyond the breaking point.
Last week in this little berg in northern California, I crossed paths with a lot of people with strong connections in China. First, perhaps fittingly, I encountered an American businessman at Starbucks who is doing a lot of deals in China. With his huge black Hummer parked in front, he kept prattling on about how the Chinese, “really got it going on.”
A few days later I met an Iranian-born, Kenyan-raised, American-marrying, and Beijing-residing composer and singer who’s visiting relatives in town for a few weeks. If I needed local evidence of how meaningless borders have become, she embodied it.
Then two days ago, while working out on the track, I ran into a sizable group of Chinese, led by three men, only one of which spoke fluent English. (Their Americanized children spoke colloquial English, with one whippersnapper even imitating a Chinese accent while saying hello out of earshot of the adults.) The English-speaking guy teaches at the local college, and the two others work for a new company making computer chips. It’s a different town, and world, than it was a mere ten years ago.
Psychological and political insight is lagging so far behind economic and cultural reality that one wonders: Does the scale we are confronted with as human beings have little to do with China per se, and everything to do with the world as a whole?
I asked the Iranian/Kenyan/American/Chinese lady whether, living in Beijing the last 12 years, she thought the Chinese had become the new Americans. She demurred, though agreed the Chinese are doing a pretty good imitation of American materialism. How much more the Earth can take of such values is a real and present question.
Two great philosophers lived in China at the same time—Confucius and Lao-Tze, around 400 BC. It’s even believed that they met. Confucius, though he died feeling he was a failure in what at that time was not a nation but a land of warring feudal lords, has had tremendous influence on the philosophical and cultural development of China.
Confucius believed in clear principles of conduct, in individual learning and betterment, and in duty. His philosophy lends itself very nicely to present-day China’s obsession with individual and national advancement.
Lao-Tze, on the other hand, was one of history’s at once renowned and ignored mystics. He is the central figure of Taoism, and the author of the Tao Te Ching.
In brief, and a bit simplistically, Confucius was primarily concerned with rules and tradition, with order in society, and with the outward dimension. Lao-Tze, by contrast, was concerned with insight and the individual, with the inward realm, and with mystery.
Two sayings attributed to each man illustrate the deep philosophical differences between them. Americans hear echoes of their own hyper-pragmatism in “He who will not economize will have to agonize.” And “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”
Lao-Tze, who is foreign to most Chinese and nearly all American ears, said: “Whosoever hankers after other things inevitably uses up the great things.” And “Can you love men and rule the state and remain without knowledge?”
Confucius and Lao-Tze aren’t Chinese philosophers; they belong to humanity. They represent two distinctly different ways of conceiving human life.
Confucius saw life and living in terms of material wellbeing and the social order, with learning a matter of self-advancement. Lao-Tze saw life and living as an arena of non-accumulative spiritual learning and growth.
The idea that material advancement has to come before spiritual development does not hold up to history. Arguably, one of the most materially marginal people—ancient Indians—produced the most spiritually advanced civilization the world has ever seen.
On the other hand, one of the most materially and technologically advanced people—modern Americans—are amongst the most spiritually empty and impoverished people in history.
America has come to the end of its version of Confucianism. And China cannot keep going the American materialistic/consumeristic/militaristic way without imperiling all life on Earth.
The question is: Can China rediscover the way of Lao-Tze, and can America follow suit, before it’s too late?