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Wyatt Smith, Keegan Traveling Fellow

Wyatt Smith

2010-2011 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Vanderbilt University

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Dec '10

Obedience as Virtue: The Unique Nature of Chinese Citizenship

Posing with a Chinese family after a meal of hot pot, a traditional stew whose origins derive in Mongolia and now serves as a cold-weather meal across China. They didn't speak much English, but through my friend Tyler Godoff (to my left), we were able to learn about theirs views on the importance of food in understanding China.

When interviewing people in my travels, I try to always include a question that probes people’s definitions of their citizenship: “What makes x different from any other sort of nationality?”

It’s an open-ended question for a reason, as the subject’s answer usually reveals much about his or her construction of nationalistic identity. For example, an answer like, “To be from this country is to suffer,” as one Kenyan soberly assured me at a celebration of her country’s new constitution in Nairobi, indicates a sense of victimization. “To be from this country is to be proud, and to be willing to die for it,” as a Tanzanian solemnly vowed, may indicate just the opposite.

Or it may not. It’s dangerous to generalize one person’s answer to define citizenship in an entire country, of course, and I try never to develop my framework for understanding population with such limited exposure. But when similar responses are repeated many times over, I have found that this line of questioning to be revealing about national mindsets.

The most common answers to my questions, “What makes Chinese citizenship unique,” or “What is the most important thing for an outside to understand about the Chinese people’s ways of viewing their country,” generally focuses on the cultural norms relating to the proper relationship between citizens and government.

“To understand China, you must understand our customs,” instructs a student at Tshingua University, the premier college for higher learning in the country, based in Beijing. “We have expectations to honor our parents, our teachers, and our country.”

A student leader at Beijing Normal University, a preparatory college for aspiring teachers in China, agrees: “We love our country, our government, and our party. Our schools preach patriotism and respect for our leaders.”

But the most innocent response may come from an elderly glassmaker in Gin Zhou, a rural village in Liaoning province, who tells me through a translator: “It is easy for the Chinese people to be controlled by government. We are obedient…I feel like Chinese people are more reserved. Foreigners are furious by comparison.”

This Chinese family in the rural village of Gin Zhou invited me into their home for an elaborate lunch during my time in northeastern Liaoning Province. Ge Chua He, who helped frame my understanding of virtuous obedience, is second from the right.

These were not the only answers to questions on the nature of Chinese citizenship—those ran the gamut from musings on poverty and struggling masses to exhortations that I eat as much Chinese food as possible in order understand the country (I did my best on this front). But at the end, a theme of obedience and deference to authority seemed most common.

It’s important to view these definitions in a positive light. The term “obedience” carries no negative connotation in the Chinese lexicon. Rather, it’s seen as the antithesis of anarchy, the counterpoint of disrespect and chaos. Independent thought and creativity, while not necessarily discouraged, are not virtuous in the same manner as humility and respect.

Nor should this unique virtue structure be seen as a product of communism, or any type of socialist design aimed to promote fealty to Red China. Rather, the Chinese virtue of obedience to power predates the Communist Revolution entirely. As far back as 500 BC, Chinese strategist Sun Tzi wrote a prescriptive case for deference among the masses in his oft-quoted field guide for battle, The Art of War, which explains: “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.”

Even more influential are the teachings of Confucius, whose life philosophy remains the most generally accepted moral framework among Chinese people. For adherents of Confucianism, a series of dichotomous relationships govern the role of the individual: wives should defer to their husbands, children to their fathers, students to their teachers, soldiers to their generals, and subjects to their rulers. In return, husbands, fathers, teachers, generals, and rulers are expected to protect and care for those in their charge.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Chinese rulers have encouraged the propagation of Confucianism since the imperial days. So ingrained are these edicts in individual Chinese mindsets, Analects of Confucius has become required memorization for school children. Sallie Baxter, a classmate of mine at Vanderbilt currently teaching elementary school English in Beijing, tells me that any Chinese child under the age of ten can rattle off the series of Confucian expectations that govern their existence. “Study hard in school, or disappoint your parents,” “Earn high marks on tests, or disappoint your parents,” and “Honor the directives of wise rulers, or bring shame upon your parents” are all general requirements. Parental disappointment stands out as a general theme of consequence.

Posing with students at Chongping #1 school, a high school in the northern suburbs of Beijing. These students were models of respect and deference throughout my visit to their assembly welcoming a musical group from Indiana University.

Also important are the teachings of Laozi, a Chinese philosopher who developed the edicts of Daoism. Laozi instructed the most talented to “hide in the country and enjoy the brightness of their minds” rather than seek active roles in public life. When talking with one university student at Tsinghua University, China’s top institution of higher learning in Beijing, I learn that Laozi cautioned Chinese people against aspirations for leadership in the country, as such roles “pollute the mind and are not a good idea.” Talk about an original isolationist.

So what implication does China’s national value structure have for individual constructions of citizenship? I argue that its importance cannot be understated. In my every encounter with Chinese people, a sense of deference to their leaders emanates in responses to my questions about the meaning of citizenship in China.

“People of my generation are amazed by the government,” says Jiang Hong Fu, a 73 year old retired farmer, through the help of an interpreter during my time in Lushun village outside of Dalian, in northeastern China. “I am very grateful and thankful to live in such a society.”

His sentiments were echoed by Ge Chua He, a 60 year old retiree in Gin Zhou village of Liaoning Province, who also says through an interpreter: “The current leadership of our government is very strong. When problems do occur, it’s because of the people below them.”

Paul Chen, an engineering student at Tsinghua University with dreams of developing new technologies for China in the future, met with me on his campus in Beijing to discuss ways in which Chinese people view their citizenship.

And so the public lavishes praise on its national leaders in China, where the smartest and most capable are plucked from the country’s top universities and groomed for careers in public service at a young age. Government officials exist almost in a bubble, moving about China’s major cities in pricey black Audis with darkly tinted windows and even more expensive custom license plates. Questioning the government, or the Communist Party officials who populate its ranks—especially to a foreigner—is seen as an ultimate loss of face, perhaps the most important measure of reputation in Chinese society.

Yet instead of causing great angst, this system appears to work well for the Chinese, whose Confucian-influenced national mindset supports this unique value structure. By most economic measures, the country’s top leaders have lived up to their end of the bargain in the post-Tiananmen Square riot era, ushering in an era of prolonged growth and lifting millions from deep poverty. The agriculturalist nation is urbanizing at an astonishing rate and the government’s massive spending on infrastructure is setting the pace. Any qualms over the pervasive system of graft that plague China’s public sector are brushed aside by the country’s rapid 9.3 percent average quarterly growth rate and rising international profile in the past 20 years.

Far from protesting their government, more than a million young people sit for the civil service exam each year, each hopeful for the opportunity to land a secure career in public service to China. Only the most competent are afforded these lucrative jobs, where the benefits derive as much from perks and social standing as they do from paychecks. As Mr. Ge of Gin Zhou assures me, “It is a long career. Everything is guaranteed.”

In fact, when talking about issues of citizenship and views on government, the clearest theme that emerged was people’s discomfort with the issue. As a young, aspiring teacher in Beijing explains, “Chinese people can bear a lot. We have clothes. We have food. We have a house to live in. That’s okay. We don’t ask for more. That;s enough. Many people may be [privately] critical of the government, but they don’t want to be involved [in protesting]…why sacrifice my future and what’s ahead to be involved?”

Qiang Li, a young, college-educated man from Dalian, acted as my interpreter throughout my time in Liaoning Province. He offered many insights to my questions about the virtue of obedience in Chinese society.

For those who do protest, like 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, the status quo power structure allows few hopeful outcomes. My time in China coincided with the contentious awarding of the prize to Mr. Liu, a Chinese activist currently serving a jail sentence for his writings on democracy, which the government angrily denounces as treasonous statements that call for the overthrow of the People’s Republic.

But for all of the hullabaloo in the international community about Liu’s fate, his countrymen appear almost entirely unconcerned: Apart from a few angry editorials in the China Daily newspaper, condemning the West for meddling China’s internal politics, no one that I talk to in China seems even vaguely familiar with Liu as a political figure. “It’s funny that you ask about him,” says Qiang Li, a young, college-educated man who serves as my interpreter in Dalian. “The West gives him much attention, but he has no followers here. Most do not know who he is.”

And so, the drama of the empty chair in Oslo caused barely a ripple in modern-day China, where newspapers ran stories about Consumer Price Index figures for the country on the day one of its own received the world’s biggest prize. But the headlines are telling, as it’s in economic growth—not demands for political reform—that many young focus their citizenship goals in society. As an aspiring teacher confides: “My generation, we think about our own feelings and our dreams. Our society will provide room for some strange ideas and dreams. But for those who think about dreams of politics, this should come later.”

As another old Eastern saying instructs, “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut down by the scythe.” Taking heed, the Chinese people naturally blend in with the masses, channeling their ambitions for the country within the framework set by their Party.

And because they are virtuous, they obey.

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