Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Our Harmonious Society

By now, just about all laowai should have heard of our “Harmonious Society”. The first time I saw those words was about three years ago, in Chinese “和谐社会”, written in huge font on a billboard along the road just after the Lupu Bridge in Pudong, Shanghai. At the time the sign was an anomaly, but within the last year it's become ubiquitous. It's on red banners. It's on billboards. It was a major theme in CCTV's 2007 Chinese New Year program, probably the best indicator of its priority as a government message. It’s the name of the new high-speed trains, the “Harmony Lines 和谐号”, which started running in April. It has even jumped the party line into corporate consciousness: witness KFC’s new ad campaign, “Harmonious Family 和谐家庭” (ugh). Facing somber issues like the rich-poor disparity, uprisings, and government corruption, the Harmonious Society is President Hu Jintao’s way of curiously both admitting and denying that China is currently unharmonious: great effort at all levels has been put into writing the word “Harmony” everywhere, yet no clear definition, examples, or instructions about how to actually go about creating the Harmonious Society were given to me. Not until Yu Dan.

A few weeks ago, XM’s mother asked if we could help her buy a copy of TV lecturer Yu Dan’s Insights on , since she had heard it was a popular new explanation of the Taoist classic. Not having heard of Yu Dan until then, and I generally being confused when people speak in Nanjing-hua, we bought her Yu Dan’s Insights on instead, since it was in piles at the bookstore (realizing our mistake, XM went back the next day and scouted out Zhuangzi too). I didn’t give much thought to Yu Dan or Confucius again until last week, when I learned via Danwei that a small group of scholars had publicly taken issue to Yu Dan’s outrageously popular TV appearances on the show CCTV Lecture Room, and her books.

In sum, the three apparent issues people have with Yu Dan are:
1) She has compromised her scholarship (she’s a PhD and Media Studies professor at Beijing Normal University) by bending/editing Confucian thought so it applies to creating the Harmonious Society;
2) She has taken this obtuse philosophy out of historic context and boiled it down into inane and sometimes misleading jianghu which is entertaining to the masses;
3) Some of her explanations are just plain wrong.

As for #3, I’m not going to argue for her mistakes, since Confucius is tough and everybody makes mistakes (even though one of hers was really stupid).

However, I think her critics have missed the big picture in their other two complaints.

As for catering to the masses, first, Yu Dan is a Media Studies professor who in her spare time consults TV shows. She’s a specialist in high ratings, not the Classics. Of course she knows how to “make learning fun!” (i.e., simplifying). Second, she has even openly clarified that her shows and the books are a product of her personal reflections on The Analects—not some groundbreaking scholarly exposition. They should not be treated as the latter. Lastly, her episodes on CCTV Lecture Room were broadcast during a holiday last year, which in China means that other than those stupid (I mean, intrepid) enough to travel, essentially all your average Zhou’s sitting at home watching TV while eating chicken feet were potential viewers. And they loved it. In fact, shouldn’t that be the beauty of Yu Dan’s CCTV Lecture Room talks—they were an extremely successful step up from the lame kung-fu historical dramas (I mean, American Idol impersonator competitions) on these days?

And isn’t that just why she was chosen by state-run CCTV for the show—she’s smart, entertaining, and talks about how to achieve Harmony with your family and neighbors? It’s common knowledge that the government actively uses media to spread its own messages, not just filter those it doesn’t like. (I myself have, unfortunately, been on one staged TV contest, and cheered on an Indonesian friend who, despite an awful performance all around, won another. One fellow observer’s guess was that featuring Foreign Friends in these shows is to expose average Chinese to foreigners in advance of the Beijing Olympics, when they will flood the country).

But back to the government and Confucius…what critics seem to be forgetting as they get all hot and bothered about scholarship is that the Chinese government has always, as long as there have been Classics to interpret, interpreted them to their advantage. Around 2,200 years ago, Han dynasty founder Liu Bang grudgingly accepted Confucianism to legitimize his authority, and then changed it so it better resembled his preferred philosophy, Legalism…In the 5th century Northern Wei Buddhist political patrons claimed Lao Zi and Confucius were disciples of Buddha, in order to wrangle power amongst their respective followers…In the ensuing Sui dynasty, Confucianism and Taoism were again fused with Buddhism to legitimize it…I’m going in order here, and we’ve got at least 14 more dynasties to go. In sum, Chinese philosophy has time after time been used or abused to suit the needs of the ruling power. No one should be surprised that Confucius now teaches us how to contribute to a Harmonious Society. And to their credit, no matter how you interpret The Analects, Confucius actually does talk about harmony: don’t filial piety, friendship, loyalty, morality, and following rituals all keep people in order?

When I asked XM’s mom how she found the books, she said, “My memory’s not as good as it used to be. I enjoy what I’m reading, but I forget what I read by the next day.” Hmm. Maybe Yu Dan’s message isn’t getting through as well as the government hopes. And just the other day on the news it was reported that the top desires of Chinese included more money, a luxury car, a villa, and to win the lottery. Nobody mentioned harmony, but probably because it wasn’t a choice. Maybe using corporate advertisements as a vehicle for Harmonious Society are the better way to go after all. They won’t make any more sense, but at least we'll know who’s behind them.

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