Morality, ‘Face’ and China’s religious market

From Caixin, a translated interview about the moral state of Chinese society, the religious market in China, and the commercialization, vulgarization and voodooization of religion written by Yang Fenggang, professor of sociology and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

I don’t actually agree with a lot of what he says – both in fundamentals and particulars – but it’s interesting to read an outsider’s take on Americans and American society, and I found the bit quoted below particularly interesting for the way he distinguishes external (Chinese ‘face’ concerns) and internal (“religious faith”) motivators for acting ethically and morally in a modern, urban context.

The Problem with Chinese Religions: Vulgarization and Voodooization
I don’t think all religions have positive impacts on social morality. But … Why does modern society seems more than ever need religious faith? Because modern society has turned society to be strangers society. … So, this is the real problem: in a “strangers society,” losing face is no longer a big concern in most people’s life most of the time. People can only be moral out of their own consciences. But where does this sense of conscience come from? Religious faith. When you don’t have a faith, you may say to yourself that ‘I want to be a good person, do good things,’ but very often people tend to give up halfway, especially when you encounter sticky problems and when the conflict of interest is very severe. It is usually human nature to think for self-benefit, thus, only with firm faith can we be moral and ethical. As China is developing rapidly, China needs a basis of faith to greatly improve its ethics and morality.

A recent commenter noted that in China people assume a legitimate moral double-standard between insiders and outsiders (the degree of perceived moral obligation to each is drastically different). Another culture reading I’m in the middle of right now talks about Chinese culture’s honour/shame orientation, how those are moral categories in China, and how “individuals do not exist apart from a web of relationships”. So several things I’ve come across at the same time are talking about how Chinese communalism and the relatively bright insider/outsider distinction plays out morally. And all that ties into the larger on-going discussion surrounding “Good Samaritans” in China — a topic recently big in the news but one on which I’ve been writing for a while.

Morality — the lack of it, actually — is a hot topic in China right now. So here’s some more about Mainland China’s moral collision with its post-Reform and Opening modern society:

4 thoughts on “Morality, ‘Face’ and China’s religious market”

  1. With regard to the point “individuals do not exist apart from a web or relationships,” I’m not sure if the original author intended it as a comment on Chinese social organization in particular, but it is worth noting that the observation applies to all societies. The distinction to be made is around the degree to which members of a society recognize and consciously base their activities in this principle. In societies in which liberal individualism is the reigning ideology, people tend to describe their efforts as springing from their own needs and preferences. This belief often rests uneasily alongside a sense that the market as the preference-shaping we all swim in.

  2. Sure, we even have an idiom that sort of expresses that: “No man is an island.” On a philosophical level I can see the similarities you bring up. But that particular author was referring to how the Chinese conceptualize self and the individual on the psychological or worldview level, where there are stark differences between China and the West, I suppose in the same general vein as the author quoted here: Defining “You” and Objects and Their Contexts. In other words, he’s talking about how people understand things and behave, not which understanding best expresses ultimate reality.

    I personally think that the typical ways in which Westerners and East Asians conceptualize self and the individual (ha, speaking SO broadly here) each tend to go too far in their respective directions. Westerners suffer from a lack of appreciation for our interconnectedness, whereas Chinese often appear to me to be unhealthily enmeshed emotionally and psychologically with their close friends and family (though I could say the same thing about Westerners, too).

    1. Wish I could, but it’s an as yet unpublished research paper (not mine) and they don’t want it shared. Ha, too bad; it’s terribly interesting! It’s mainly about how to understand, evaluate and deal with typical Chinese leadership from a cultural angle. It spends time on general relational dynamics in Chinese culture to set the context for typical understandings and behaviours regarding leadership in an organization or community. Made me realize how much of what I read these days doesn’t analyze from a cultural angle (but rather from economic or political angles). So it’s refreshing in a way.

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