Author: waveheatin

What makes Chinese Chinese? [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2003-11-14 10:28:42 |Display all floors

Thank you for your posts --enjoy reading them

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Post time 2003-11-15 07:48:35 |Display all floors

Without Laws, we litigated with our tongues or fists_part one

Chinese traditionally were ruled by the wills of emperors rather than by laws. The battle between the rule of laws and the rule of wills had been fought since Confucius’s time, but the legalist (法家) lost and the Confucius’s followers triumphed. I am in no position to comment on whether this outcome was positive or negative for the Chinese, but the consequence was clear that we became a people ruled without rules, and its effect on us can be felt in our most trivial daily life.

Without the rule of laws, we resorted to fists or tongues rather than litigation.

It was, may still be, quite common in a traditional Chinese neighbourhood to find citizens quarrelling or fighting to resolve their disputes. In my childhood years, the scene was quite familiar of someone’s mom or grandma crying, shouting, and lashing out at a neighbor on the street for the purpose of protesting against some unfair practice by that neighbor ( it s called 骂街). When a dispute occurred without a resolution, the one feeling improperly compensated typically went to the public, on the street, loudly protesting with loud cries, tears and often half-hearted empty threats, as other neighbors watched. Often the other side would wisely shut the doors to avoid a direct confrontation, but occasionally confrontation did break out in the form of shouting match or, worse, wrestling or scratching. As emotions calmed down, or simply becoming too exhausted, the protester felt being compensated by the humiliation on the other side, and justice was thus served.

Until fairly recently, Chinese did not think of laws as a means to resolve disputes. Traditionally the function of litigation was performed by family clan, neighbors, village elders, guild associations, or workplace in the modern days. My father was a little manager overseeing one hundred workers, who would come to chat with my father almost every evening when they were not rounded up to study revolutionary politics. All sorts of private matters or disputes between workers or neighbors were arbitrated by this supposedly neutral leader of the company.

While the quarrelling or even wrestling between women was usually harmless, the fights between men can be deadly. Once in 1974, two of my 4th grade classmates got into a fight, and the parents of both sides were called for, one being the vice-principal of our school, taller and stronger, and the other shorter and smaller. Encouraged by his physique the stronger one threw a punch and badly bruised and bled the smaller’s left eye. However, being well connected with his relatives in the villages in the country, the smaller one was able to mobilize an entire village and the villagers rushed into town with all sorts of farming tools as weapons. Fully aware of the danger, the vice-principal and his family fled, quickly letting out the word that they were willing to apologize and offer financial compensation. A war was thus avoided.

Isn’t there some kind of policing force in that small town? Yes, in fact they were well paid and enjoyed a high status since they were the only few who could carry a pistol. Somehow they were not terribly interested in disputes between citizens for they were fully occupied by other more significant crimes, the ones that were committed against the state. Stealing money from a state-owned company, for example, can get you a death penalty easily. The chill was vividly felt when our parents talked about how one of the workers in their company earned his death after he was found stealing RMB10,000 (the equivalent of 300 times of his monthly salary)   from the shop he was managing. His family was also charged for the cost of the 3 bullets.  The father of a girl in my class in elementary school earned the same fate for a similar crime.

Even if the police did take the time to mind the citizen’s business, there was little guidance or laws they could follow, and little incentive for them to enforce such guidance or laws, unless one of the concerned was well connected.

The most terrifying incident ever happened in that small town was the death of a young man, who was said to be a very nice and gentle person. Somehow, he got into a fight, got kicked at his private part , and died! The victim’s family carried his body, paraded through the streets, and finally placed it in the hall of the killer’s home.

[to be continued in part 2]


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Post time 2003-11-15 08:07:42 |Display all floors

Without Laws, we litigated with our tongues or fists_part two

[continue from part one]

The entire town was boiled and frightened, not knowing what was going to happen next. After many days’ turmoil, the dead was buried without much fanfare, and no charged was filed. Somehow it was privately settled with the victim’s family being financially compensated.

In retrospect, I cannot help wondering why such a serious matter was not litigated through some kind of legal means. On one hand, the citizens might not trust the legal system and on the other the police did not know what to do either. When things really got out of hand, the local party leader might be called to arbitrate.

At this point, I am immensely curious of how historically a county magistrate (县官) settled disputes in his territory. Did he have a set of legal codes that he could follow?  Apparently not. Stories are abundant that who and who was such a good magistrate and thus ruled wisely, apparently all by his consciousness rather than by the code of laws.

By now you may be rather tired of the backward, remote little town in GuiZhou province. So let's fly across time and space into 1987’s Beijing, away from those barbarians to greet our well educated college students and citizens.

Right at the front gate of the famous park of Xiang Shan (香山 Fragrant Mountain?), we, a group of postgraduate students from Tsinghua University, unknowingly got in the way of a group of factory workers who were taking photos. Before we realized the trouble, the much bigger factory workers pounced on us and an imminent ma_ssacre of college students by factory workers was about to happen. As we all chickened out and started fleeing for our life, one of us stood up, and within 2 seconds, he knocked down a factory worker, who dropped on the ground as if he had suddenly lost all his bones. Quickly we, the little ones, rallied to chase down the other factory workers.

Finally, a few plain-cloth policemen showed up and arrested us. When we started to complain that we were attacked first and were merely defending ourselves, they told us they had been watching the show from the very beginning. Nevertheless, our heroic deed was much talked about on Tsinghua campus for it was one of the few historical moments in Tsinghua when a bunch of factory workers were defeated by a group of physically inferior students. None of us felt any embracement or shame for breaking the laws, and got our hero in j_a_i_l (he was released after 10 days of detention and we each paid RMB 25 for the medical bill of the injured).

Breaking laws? What laws?

It was a generally accepted practice in the 80’s in Beijing that whenever got into a dispute, one was to first judge the size of the other party and decide to fight or flee with humiliation. There was never a third alternative, at least not in our minds.

When caught, a theft was not turned to the police; instead, he was typically let go or beaten up badly, sometimes inhumanely. When caught shoplifting, a theft was not punished by legal means; in stead, he was handed over to his work place, leaving the punishment to the will of the party leader of that work place.

Thus, without laws, or without trust in whatever laws did exist, women litigated with their tongues and men with thier fists.

Thanks for reading again. Please share with us your views or stories.


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Post time 2003-11-15 12:42:41 |Display all floors

Laws, Arbitration and Mediation

Just to digress a bit and from another angle.

Under a formal legal system the due process of law can also be sometimes very frustrating. You would have to argue your case out with  perhaps expensive and clever lawyers. The process can be also be long drawn and sometimes drains the stamina of the aggrieved.

In the real world, a quicker solution through arbitration is often favoured where the rules of the process is important but decisions can be subjective. Its a welcomed solution because it could be less laborious and solutions can be reached much more quickly. Logic rather than wriiten guidelines probably prevail.

Even then, the arbitration process is sometimes still considered too involved. In the US and in many developed states, assisted dispute resolution or mediation is being promoted as an alternative. It is not so different from people in arguement going up to village elders or headman to vent their complaints and where the elder or headman listens to their grouses and advise a resolution formula.

These alternatives probably are more applicale to commercial disputes and petty civil matters but definately unsuitable for serious crimes.

But it demonstrates that after going through the big circle there are still merits in old methods, but definately not determining justice by brute force.

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Post time 2003-11-20 11:09:54 |Display all floors

i enjoy reading these posts.

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Post time 2003-11-21 07:58:27 |Display all floors


evolution,geography,history, plants,trees,water,plagues,escape from predators,.......beautiful human beings..just like Arabs. Africans, Caucasians, and so on.    Another question would ask you to define your uniqueness and protect what you can because in only a few hundred years we will combine our DNA  so that much of our difference will be past.

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Post time 2003-11-26 15:24:51 |Display all floors
I spent a good hour thinking about the question, and ended up feeling feeling frustated and annoyed with Waveheatin for such an unanswerable question. Nevertheless, I can't let all the thinking go to waste, right? So, here's whatever has remained from that fruitless hour :)

A story I read from the newspaper about a 19-year old English girl led me to pose these cultural traits for readers here to reflect and debate. It was reported that the girl won a large sum of money (I think it's US $20,000) from the TV show "Who wants to be a Millionaire" in London. She promptly donated the entire sum to a home for destitute children in Thailand. She got to know that children's home when she spent her post A-level vacation (before starting her university studies in the  new semester) working in that home. It was an overcrowded and squalid place. The children were under-nourished and filthy and she was quoted to have said "she was deeply touched by the sight of such pitiful children lying on urine-soaked beds". So she considered her prize money to be from God and she has no need for it. The Thai children from that destitute home deserve every cent of it! The English girl's parents are doctors in London. I'll use this story to sum up what I've to say from here.

I believe our language, history, life-style over the centuries, etc and particularly our geography have shaped the Chinese.
We're a family-centred society (and that means the family clan as well). And in a broader context, it extends to the village clans (of the same surname) and the State (symbolised by the imperial emperor in ancient times) at the other end of the spectrum. This was reinforced by the prevalence of Confucianism which preaches family and nation before self. History tells us that foreigners were considered outsiders (and babarians) as late as the Ming Dynasty.

Our Chinese calligraphy is uniquely oriental and is distinctly different from the Arabic, Romanised, Indian and other forms. Hence, learning another language has been a monumental task for most Chinese, especially in the last two millenia. So, circumstances were such that we soon became a inward-looking nation until the 1911 revolution swept away our feudalistic mentality. And thanks to the revolutionary founders, many of whom had seen the outside world, eg. Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Lu Xun etc etc.

Nature has contributed to our history too. We were isolated from the world by the world's highest mountain ranges in the south, uninhabited desert to the west, the Siberian wilderness to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the east. History tells us that our agricultural heartlands were in the Yangtze (Changjiang), Huanghe and Pearl (Zhujiang) river basins, not the less fertile plains of the coastal regions. Hence, we never really developed a strong maritime culture until the Ming Dynasty. And even that was a short-lived one. Compare this with the small maritime nations of Europe which were not segregated by formidable mountain ranges like ours. The only time we had vibrant trade and cultural exchanges with the outside world was through the Silk Route when camels were the form of transport. It also coincided with the Han Dynasty, the height of imperial Chinese history. When the Silk Route was cut off by the Ottoman Turks and later relegated to history by the advent of the steamship, the Europeans turned to the East Indies for their trade, namely, India and South-east Asia. China was forgotten until the Europeans came knocking at our doors in the 19th century.
So, in ancient times we called ourself the Middle Kingdom where all others were peripheral states. We invented the printing block, the paper, gunpowder, silk, compass and goodness-knows-what-else, but didn't make good use of them. Others chance upon these inventions, expanded on their use (the monasteries of medieval Europe were centres of learning) and have taken scientific learning to greater heights.

It is good that many bright students are sent abroad to further their studies today. Unfortunately, many millions more can't afford the opportunity to do so. Taking the story of the English girl, let me pose this question - "How many parents would allow their teenage daughter to venture thousands of kilometres to a foreign land on her own?" Even if Chinese parents would, would she be told how to spend her vacation instead of making her own choice (of working in a destitute home)"? How did she plan and protect herself for the adventure, especially when Thailand is not an English-speaking nation.

In short, I'm suggesting broadening our mindset. Learning is not merely about studying to pass examinations. We can learn by being less inward-looking, by spending part of our lives in our neighbouring countries, by experiencing something different. We need not go faraway to Europe or the Americas if we don't have the means. Perhaps, readers should contribute more views to Waveheatin ^_^

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