Political inoculation and personal empathy in China

According to one of my one-on-one students who loves to monologue about Chinese politics, members of a certain ethnic and religious minority in China keep setting themselves on fire (see here here here here here here here here here here here and here) because they are greedy, ungrateful, and just trying to squeeze more money and privilege out of the benevolent government, which is already giving them a better deal than they deserve, and oh for the life of ethnic and religious minorities in China, they have it so good. (I generally avoid politics with my Chinese students and don’t bring it up, except for one time.)

Of course I’ve heard and read that opinion before; it’s part of the prescribed script in Mainland China. But when I heard it passionately delivered again this week by a 17-year-old ESL student from Shenzhen, some previously unconnected China anecdotes came to mind, reminding me that in China, people do empathy differently.


A policeman stops an ambulance with patient en-route to the hospital so a government official can come down the road unimpeded by traffic. [Link]

I’m wondering if — and if I were still in school this might make an interesting research project — collectivist cultures paradoxically tend to result in a lesser degree of personal empathy or ability to empathize, or in an alternate distribution of empathetic emotional energies (relatively more to in-group and less to strangers), or something. I’m not the first to wonder that, of course. Visitors to China who stay long enough often get conflicting impressions: locals can seem both incredibly attentive (to friends, family and connections) and shockingly callous (to strangers), depending on the situation. A quick google search turned up this article, which:

focuses on the propensity of Chinese young adults (age 30 and younger) to help strangers, investigating how the shift from collectivist values to individualism and universal morality may make young Chinese more likely than older Chinese to help strangers.

Obviously in China, as in any country, there would be multiple contributing factors to this kind of thing.

Anyway, let’s get on with the irresponsible use of cultural anecdotes. :)

If I wasn’t already familiar with China, I’m sure my jaw would have hit the floor when my student went off about the greedy T!bet@n self-immolators. Petty, selfish monks and greedy farmers, lighting themselves on fire like that! After asking him a few questions, it became clear that my student had never thought (and didn’t think it relevant at all) to find out from the people themselves why they were doing it — that was apparently unnecessary to understanding the situation. I don’t expect him to agree with the monks’ complaints or approve of their actions, but I was appalled at his apparent total lack of empathy. And that reminded me of many other startling lack-of-empathy anecdotes — not all of which are so serious:

  • The Factory Girls author describes staying in one of her subject’s crowded village homes. The parents wake up extra early one morning for some reason and precede to talk at full-volume as if it doesn’t occur to them to be considerate of a house full of sleeping people.
  • Brutal advice-giving and ‘help’ in tragic circumstances, for example, after a miscarriage, when the family members blame the mother directly for transgressing traditional Chinese pregnancy customs (of which there are legion);
  • The apparent lack of a Good Samaritan ethos in traditional Chinese culture (which contains a whole string of specific anecdotes);
  • Some forms of personal talk, where people draw attention to and comment publicly on aspects of each other that the other person probably doesn’t want commented on: you’re getting pretty fat, you’ve got some bad acne, etc.

None of these actually prove anything, of course. You can cherry pick and present anecdotes of any society to make it appear any way you want, but that doesn’t mean your anecdotes are truly representative. Anecdotes don’t prove anything. They can helpfully illustrate things if they are used appropriately, but I’m not even claiming that here. These are merely what came to mind when I heard my student’s take on the self-immolations.

But thinking it over also reminds me of situations where locals displayed attentiveness above and beyond what I would expect to see in North America; where people seemed way more “tuned-in” to others than I usually am. Two specific instances that immediately spring to mind involve two different couples (Chinese guy, American girl) where the husbands/fiances were way more tuned in to their wives/fiancees than I expected — they put the average American boyfriend to shame, and probably made their fiancees’ foreign girl friends jealous. All that to say, my student’s comments got me thinking about how empathy works in China, and how in at least some ways, they do it differently than we do in North America.

Referenced stuff:

5 thoughts on “Political inoculation and personal empathy in China”

  1. In the case of self-immolation it would be hard to expect any native Chinese to feel empathy simply because someone decided, themselves, to set themselves on fire.

    It is a ridiculous form of protest, one that becomes less and less effective the more people actually do it. I believe the only time this ever form of protest ever had any actual ‘real world’ effect was the incident of one in the Vietnam war, and that was only because a photographer that was there happened to take a really good photo.

    Get a placard… send out some flyers… but don’t set yourself on fire. It get’s old, and is a waste of life. It only leads to other idiots copying them.

    I do have some sympathy for the issue, only not that much these days as to be honest, a Buddhist is supposed to be letting go of worldly concerns, and not getting involved in politics. And I mean that from the bottom to the top (you know, I mean ‘him’…I won’t write the name as I still want you to be able to access your own blog :) )

    True ‘T*beta*’ Buddhist practice simply involves chanting and meditation. The rest is window dressing for idiots.

    Seriously, the whole foundation of it is based on meditation, nothing else. It’s not possible for any government to stop you meditating or chanting at home. It’s not even as if the government in question is stopping people going to the local temples.

    If any of these monks had reached the point where they are supposed to reach in their meditation practice, I can assure you they wouldn’t be setting themselves on fire.

    A piece of land is a piece of land. It’s not more important than a human life. Ever.

    Perhaps I have lived in China too long :(

  2. @Sam Reeves,

    Thanks for your judicious non-use of sensitive terms. I also would like to access my blog without a VPN!

    I’m not in any way condoning setting yourself on fire; I just don’t think you need to agree with someone’s response in order to empathize with them and their situation. In this particular context where the religion and culture and ethnicity are fused together, and each of those key components of their identity have been systematically eroded, I assume they are upset about a lot more than just having some peripheral aspects of their religious practice curtailed or losing a bit of land. And while I totally agree that a life is worth more than a piece of land, I’m assuming their land represents more to them than it would to us — like the only livelihood they’ve ever known or can imagine among their available options. I don’t know if all this is the real case, but I do assume that if you’re desperate enough to set yourself on fire and you’re not part of a doomsday cult, then there’s more going on than what my student (and others I’ve talked to) imagine.

    Are these people self-immolating because they’re Buddhist or because they’re Chinese? I realize that distinction is often not very clear-cut, but I wonder which traditions and ideas, or what kind of combination, they are drawing on when they consider and decide to do it. Suicide in China traditionally, as I understand it, was a form of pr0test against injustice, sort of ultimate proof that the deceased was the innocent/wronged party and a public shaming of the offenders (which also brings to mind the harsh penalties from the CCP against the families of suicides — they knew what it was supposed to mean). I don’t know if this plays into the situation of China’s T!bet@n minority or not.

    At least one of our regular commentors is a bonafide practicing Buddhist, and I’m curious to read his Buddhist perspective on the self-immolations. I don’t know if that’s a potentially legit response according to the branch of Buddhism practiced in T!bet or not. But if it is I’d be interested to understand how it fits into their belief system.

  3. Hi Joel,

    I like this sentence of yours a lot:

    ‘I just don’t think you need to agree with someone’s response in order to empathize with them and their situation.’

    It gives me hope for humanity :)

    I agree that we are not party to the real situation and everyday goings on in that region. In view of that, any support we give for a certain region (you know the one I mean ;) ) to be so called ‘free’ (and really, what people’s in the world are truly free?) is a form of assumption that what we as westerners have been brought up with, is the whole truth.

    My issue is with the fact that we assume what we have been taught from our media is true. Yet, in fact, we blindly accept it in the same way the Chinese do from their media. Ironically there’s no difference between us.

    The assumption that if people are self-immolating means there must be something wrong is just our assumption, and honestly in Asia, people do a lot of strange things just because someone else is doing it. The Confucian drive for ‘the collective’ lends itself to that mode of thinking.

    The guy at the top (‘him’ with the glasses and robes, who to be honest I quite like, most of us westerners do) was asked what he thought about the people doing this and he said he thought they were, and I quote, ‘very brave’. Now I ask you, if your spiritual and political leader says that, is he not essentially saying ‘go for it!’? Responsible? I can’t agree.

    I can have some sympathy for him to a degree, as what else is he supposed to say? But, maybe there were other things he could have said. Language is a flexible thing.

    I should also point out Joel I am kind of Buddhist (a flexible one, meaning I’m often failing :) ), I say kind of as I don’t think the label is necessary for the practice. But I do understand the precepts of Buddhism, and nowhere does it say you should be a martyr, the desire to be a martyr is of the ego, and Buddhism seeks to break down the ego, not bolster it with acts of heroism or martyrhood. In fact, any desire is considered the same.

    Whereas Buddhism does negate the physical, that is not equal to willfully damaging the physical. As to suicide, I believe your thinking of Japan and seppuku. In various dynasties suicide was against the law in China, as you were believed to be owned by your parents, and so as ‘property’ you had no right to kill yourself.

    I’m sure there have been some that commit suicide as a protest, I’ve just never heard of this as a particularly Chinese thing within the culture… still, the history is long and complex so I could be wrong.

    In any case Joel, I do agree with your basic point that empathy should be more developed and appears to be lacking, apart from, as you say, in regards to family and friends.

  4. I wasn’t thinking about Japanese suicide. When I wrote that bit about suicide in traditional Chinese culture the specific things in my mind were a character in a Lin Yutang book (I think it was Lin Yutang’s Moment in Peking… but I may be confusing it with some other author), and stuff I’d read about the Mao years where suicides were considered a political crime because of their implicit message of condemnation of the Party. I think that’s different from what they’ve got going on in Japan with honour and all that, though I’m less familiar with Japan.

    I wasn’t actually thinking of the popular campaign in the West you mentioned either, headed by He Who Must Not Be Named. Just that if people are upset enough to commit suicide and they aren’t in a doomsday cult, *some*thing deserving of some sympathy must be going on, even though of course it’s more complicated. Suicide can be selfish.

    I studied the bare basics of Buddhism in undergrad and grad school, but have forgotten most of the details by now. My hesitance to say anything about how suicide can be viewed within Buddhism is mostly because I’m aware there is more than one stream of Buddhism, and each has its popular and more high-brow versions. In China it seems most of the ‘Buddhists’ I meet follow something directly contrary to the Buddhism I was taught, which sounds more like what you’re describing. I’m curious both about how suicide is viewed in T!bet@n Buddhism at the formal, more ‘orthodox’ theological/philosophical level, and at the popular level. Are there specific teachings on it, and if not, how does it fit within Buddhist worldviews?

    And where’s Dr. Ross when I need him??

  5. Hi Joel, just came across your blog and it makes for a good read – thanks.

    My wife is Chinese and I can safely say she empathises differently to me. Also, her empathy has changed considerably since moving to the west, to such an extent that she finds it hard to visit China for more than a couple of weeks. On a recent trip to Shanghai she struggled with dealing with Chinese and their lack of understanding. Things we see as basic like letting an elevator/lift empty before sprinting in, or allowing an old lady to dismount a train before scrambling over her luggage to get through the narrow door (helping her is beyond comprehension).
    There is a chinese blogger she follows who is famous for being ugly. The blogger receives torrents of abuse about how she is ugly and should pretty much kill herself than pass on such horrid genes. My wife is aghast at how Chinese people can be so rude, ignorant and abusive. “Why?” she asks me. I reply, “ask yourself why you whisper to me in a bar ‘that Chinese girl over there has pretty much the ugliest face you can have in Chinese culture’ and perhaps you will understand a snippet of why they do it.”

    Back to the subject of self-immolation… I suspect it has become too regular an occurrence in China for most people to see beyond the politics and an alternative means of protest should be found.

    Sam: “I believe the only time this ever form of protest ever had any actual ‘real world’ effect was the incident of one in the Vietnam war”

    I assume you are unaware of the Tun!s!an street vendor Mohamed Bou@z!zi who’s funeral was attended by over 5000 and is widely recognised as a hero and catalyst for the Ar@b Spr!ng.

    Please excuse my potentially excessive use of letter masking, I am unfamiliar with the technique but recognise certain words and names may potentially be considered provocative by the listening walls.

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