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Home  /  Inside China  /  Superficial Modernization, Deep Assimilation - Does Confucianism exist in modern consumption habits?
Superficial Modernization, Deep Assimilation - Does Confucianism exist in modern consumption habits? print version

'Self-help' books, now very popular in China, might seem to contradict the roots of Chinese tradition. However, traditional Chinese principles such as Li 礼, the effect of ritual on the inner spirit and the lack of distinction between 'superficial' and 'deep' cultural elements are also present in the manner they are adopted in today's China. 

Whoever visited China lately has surely witnessed some Westernization marks that seem completely ludicrous. Some sights strike as very absurd; the sparkle in the eyes of youngsters when they receive their Big Mac, while their mother is cooking for them a rich nutrition delicious meal at home or the popular demand for self-help cheap psychology books while ancient Chinese philosophy has long ago reached a deeper understanding of the human mind. Perhaps the main conclusion is that that the new generation is so eager to become Westernize to the extent that tradition is neglected and erased mercilessly. Still, there are additional ways to approach such phenomena.

Ironically, some principles in doctrines such as Daoism and Zen Buddhism which favors openness, acceptance and judgment suppression (which remain in effect on Chinese thinking today) contribute to the fact the certain modern expressions, that for educated Westerners seem 100% superficial, are warmly welcomed by most Chinese. Unlike Indian spiritual practices, which promote a deep look inside the self, Daoism and Zen have always promoted opening one's senses to the outer surrounding, being in harmony with every happening and not insisting to judge and classify some activities as deep and others as superficial. This is only one of many roots to the fact modernity symbols are seldom treated as superficial.

Another ancient (but always relevant) principle which can be used for the purpose of this discussion is the concept of Li 礼 (rite, ritual), which is mainly linked to Confucianism. The role of rituals in one's mind or heart-cultivating processes is crucial according to ancient Chinese doctrines. The link between most on-the-surface practice and inner-personal development is much more acknowledged in China than in the West, where one's deepest intentions and principles are considered to affect his or her actions and not the other way around. Market forces perhaps use this Chinese approach, which some could consider as naïve (while others would say that educated and sophisticated Westerners who are manipulated subtly by the same forces are even more innocent). In these conditions, hamburgers and not-so-intelligent self help slogans are 'sold' to consumers with the promise that they could make them more successful and ‘modern' (xiandaihua 现代化).

Does a Chinese youngster think about Li, Confucius (Kong zi 孔子) or Lao zi (老子) when he embraces a ‘superficial' western item and experiences harmony and ‘lack of judgment'? Probably not. Moreover, it is impossible to measure how much ‘tradition' is in fact rooted in ones mind. However, even a mainland Chinese who considers him/herself Westernized and detached from tradition has absorbed many local ideas the extend throughout dozens of generations, if not in a spiritual manner than at least as cultural elements existing all over mainland China.

Time will tell how Western capitalist influences and Chinese tradition will coexist in years to come. Even if it will become less acknowledged, some motifs of long lasting Chinese thinking will surely find their way to penetrate even further towards the far future.

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