InstaChina & InstaQingdao — Our China Instagram feed

So we’ve moved to Qingdao. And we’ve started using Instagram. Our actual Instagram feeds are private because they have lots of family pictures, but you can see all our public China Instagram fun at And here’s the RSS feed.

Defining You (Pt. 2): Pick your poison

This might read better if you put on a tinfoil hat first. :)

The Self: Eastern and Western

The first Defining “You” post contrasted typical Western and East Asian understandings of the self as explained by psychologist Richard Nisbett in The Geography of Thought. To briefly recap, here are some excerpts:

…Westerners and Asians literally experience the world in very different ways. Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels; Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existence (87).

To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations. This self – this bounded, impermeable free agent – can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration (50).

But for the Easterner (and for many other people to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional. As philosopher Donald Munro put it, East Asians understand themselves “in terms of their relation to the whole, such as the family, society, Tao Principle, or Pure Consciousness.” The person participates in a set of relationships that make it possible to act and purely independent behaviour is usually not possible or really even desirable (50-51).

…For early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others… Taken collectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, such that if some of my roles change, the others will of necessity change also, literally making me a different person (5).

I wonder, for example, how individualistic Western assumptions about self-validation and self-actualization sound to people not raised in an individualistic culture?

Prescribing You

Anyway, I recently came across a documentary making the sobering case that the identities of individualistic Westerners are highly externally defined — deliberately, and not with our benefit in mind. It doesn’t contradict Nisbett’s psychological sketch of Westerners because it’s speaking in a relevant but different sense of the terms. In fact, I think you can see Nisbett’s explanation of the individualistic Western self embedded in this question posed by writer/director Pria Viswalingam in his documentary Decadence – The Decline of the Western World:

We’re led to believe that money gives us choice, status, and, increasingly, an identity. But there’s something hollow about all this. Who’s meaning or identity is it? Am I really defined by where I live, what I wear, eat or drive? Or am I just another willing victim of our sophisticated market?

Decadence argues that, in the absence of a new renaissance, Western civilization is doomed to collapse due to its own internal cultural rot a la the ancient Roman Empire.

One major instance of this fatal rot is how our lives and identities are shaped by the market to the point that our identities have been psychologically colonized by imperialistic market forces. If I understand it right, we’re basically peons, programmed puppets manipulated in our actions, feelings and ideas, desiring and working to consume things because we’ve been bred and brainwashed to anxiously need them.

It’s not merely the idea that good advertising makes me desire a newer car or makes me feel like I need products I actually don’t; it’s the psychological state in which my identity, sense of meaning and purpose, emotions and anxiety, all revolve around and are determined by the dictates of marketing forces that benefit from our relentless consumption. The market tunes our subconscious, tells us who we want to be and then provides means via consumerism to pursue our choice of the available options. We’ve been bred to seek fulfillment through consumption — subconsciously, automatically, unthinkingly; it’s the default posture we take to most aspects of our existence, including our relationships and beliefs.

We’re offered a choice of identities to assume, all of which depend on an unending stream of consumption, but the available options are empty at their core; it’s not possible to be satisfied in them, and it’s in the market’s interest to keep us unsatisfied and anxious. And we’re distracted away from this fact by our noisy entertainment culture and the over-worked lifestyle required by our treadmill consumption. The result is hollowed-out people, superficial husks of humanity who behave as cogs in the market machine, whose lives and activities are ultimately determined by and dedicated to the economic benefit of corporations.

As Westerners, we think of all this almost entirely in hyper-individualistic terms; we’re seeking identity in stuff rather than in people and relationships. There’s a critique of our extreme individualistic understanding of self, such as this quote from ANU social analyst Richard Eckersle, that ties directly back to Nisbett’s sketch of the Western self:

The result of construing the self as kind of independent and separate from others — and the evidence suggests that men tend to do this more than women — does mean that we are more likely to feel isolated and lonely, even in company, in the bosom of the family you get this effect.

I see no reason why this picture of parasitic market forces that colonize our identities for profit doesn’t also just as corrosively apply to East Asian conceptions of self, though I expect the dynamics are different. Whether Chinese or Western, collective or individualistic, are we all just willing peons of a psychologically imperialistic market?

Anyway, I’m not articulating any of this as well as Viswalingham does in the Money segment, but I found most of the episodes on YouTube:

  • Episode One — Money (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Two — Sex (couldn’t find a working copy online)
  • Episode Three — Democracy (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Four — Education (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Five — Family (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Six — God (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)

The documentary is about more than consumerism, of course, and it’s interesting to note that it manages to explain the possibly fatal condition of Western civilization without reference to China or any other outside competition.

If this is as good as it gets in the West, well then, we’re destined to drown in this abundance of nothing, and become the final chapter in this ‘Good Book’ of our modern life.

These big-picture takes on our own culture are usually interesting, but even more so when you’re living overseas in a culture so very different from your own. I wonder if we’ll be seeing an increase of comparisons to ancient Rome in the coming years — both Decadence and The Hunger Games independently make significant use of the “Bread and Circuses” idea.

Here’s an interview with director Pria Viswalingam about the documentary:

Other stuff about identity:

Wishing you a glorious, harmonized, stabilized, socially managed, brazenly co-opted, painfully sycophantic, obligatorily WORSHIPFUL, kowtowing Chinese Communist Party Day

July 1st is CanadaChinese Communist Party Day! And what could be more appropriate than a little translated propaganda? It just so happens that the most galling bit of propaganda I’ve ever seen in our few years in China coincides with the CCP’s 90th birthday. After reading it, you’ll lose control of your adjectives, too.

Below is my abridged version of this English translation of this Chinese article from the official CCC/TSPM website.

I wish I was making this up. As if helping the police bully detained worshipers wasn’t enough…


Beijing Municipal Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee and China Christian Council Hold a Praise Concert to Celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the Founding of the Chinese Communist Party

On June 11, the Beijing Municipal Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee and the China Christian Council held a praise concert at the Century Theatre called “One Heart, One Direction” in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the [Chinese Communist] Party.
Before the performance started, Cai Kui, chairman of the Beijing Municipal Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, made these remarks on behalf of the many pastors and lay leaders in the capital. He said: “In the past 90 years, the Chinese Communist Party, while closely uniting people of various nationalities and various walks of life in China, has never stopped caring about and helping Chinese Christianity. Especially since the beginning of the new period [i.e. period of Communist Party rule], with the generous help of the Party and the government, churches have been built everywhere across China and great efforts have been made in training clergymen who actively engage in social work and walk a path compatible with socialism. At the same time that the living and working conditions of the vast number of clergymen have greatly improved, their social status and political treatment have also risen without interruption. Facts have proven that the Chinese Communist Party is sincere in its treatment of and support for the development of Chinese Christianity. And Chinese Christianity has already formed a constant and changeless relationship of co-dependency and mutual aid with the Chinese Communist Party and the Central People’s Government and will always be of one heart and on the same path with the Party and the government. As long as we adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party as we always have, adhere to serving the overall interests of the Party and the government, adhere to the policy of independence and autonomy in religion, adhere to being of one heart with and on the same path as the Party and the government and firmly abide by the Three-Self policy in the road ahead, then we will certainly create a more brilliant tomorrow for China.”
“Picking a Camellia Flower to Give to the Party” movingly expressed the gratitude of Christians toward the Party and the government for the many years of care and help they have given to Christianity…

The entire performance included both Christian hymns and revolutionary songs praising the Party … all the believers responded with round after round of enthusiastic applause. When the famous singer Liu Bingyi sang, “I Produce Petroleum for the Motherland,” his passionate song not only brought the whole concert to its climax, it also greatly inspired the audience’s love for the Party and the country.
The theme that was unfurled in this praise concert was that when everything is well with the Communist Party and the state, then everything will be well with the church. [The concert] once again demonstrated the Christians’ true feelings of support for the Party, love for the country and love of their religion, and expressed the eternal theme that Chinese Christianity has always been of one heart with and on the same path as the Chinese Communist Party and the Central People’s Government. In particular, the inscription by Pastor Yu Xinli on the title page of the program all the more expressed the deep gratitude of the many Christians on this 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party: “The Chinese Communist Party and the people of China have been of one heart and on the same path for 90 years, and the Party has led us from victory to victory, has brought about the revival of the Chinese nation and our lives are becoming better and better. May God bless our motherland and its people!”
[The concert] is a profound embodiment of the support of Beijing Christians for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and their firm adherence to the path of loving their country and loving their religion. It is also a vivid portrayal of the support for and allegiance to the Party and the government on the part of the many Beijing Christians. … This will surely inspire all the Christian clergy of Beijing in their enthusiastic and indefatigable efforts in the construction of a “harmonious society!”


I’m not the kind of person who takes a hardline black-and-white stance regarding Three-Self churches. And it’s possible this whole event isn’t meant to be taken literally; it could just be a big kowtow, a scripted sop that church leaders put up to please and appease their overlords, a big exercise in obligatory face-giving hierarchy-affirmation, similar to the relationship between illegal migrant street vendors and chéngguǎn (城管), that they are especially obligated to perform right now given the on-going weekly public standoff in Beijing between the authorities and a big TSPM-rejecting church. But with the prime criticism of China’s Three Self churches being that they are politically compromised tools of the explicitly and aggressively atheistic government, this kind of stuff isn’t helping.

Of course, we need to understand this outpouring of religious allegiance to the CCP in the context of what else happening in Beijing right now, i.e. the aforementioned unprecedented weekly showdown between the authorities and a large unregistered church that refuses to join the Three Self and refuses to stop meeting in public. You can catch up on that on-going story here:

You can see all our propaganda-themed stuff here. (Note: the word “propaganda” does not carry negative overtones in Chinese.) And if the original article link breaks, you can download the text and photos here: Chinese Communist Party Worship Service.doc.