Square Within and Round Without
The Chinese have historically obsessed over being the center of the universe. This “totem of centrality” started in the Zhou dynasty, and is still important to the Chinese, much like the American concept of “freedom”. It eventually became the axis for all social and philosophical justification (The Chinese believed that man’s basic nature was a search for balance, rather than a search for liberation; a search for a central axis). The character for “Center” represented the importance of centrality and timeliness in an agrarian society, and the first sage king, Zhou Wen, was believed to have established the moral as well as calendrical mean in the setting up of a giant sundial pole in the center of his kingdom. The metaphor for centrality in a natural lifecycle eventually became the philosophical concept of “Zhong Yong” (中庸) or “The Way of Moderation”. This is misunderstood by the West as a way of non-religious morality, or situational ethics, in which all things are equal and empowered with the ability to create imbalances (which are thought of by humans as evil because of their negative repercussions). But this Chinese concept is different to the Platonic situation of a virtue between to vices of extreme; instead this standard is always thought to be flowing, moving, escaping definition through any means other than intuition. In reality, this is a commitment to the due course of nature, and not doing what is unnatural in order to insure survival and the blessing of life.
The ethics and cosmology were once represented in the coin of the ancient dynasties, the square-holed bronze coin that changed little over three thousand years. The universe was pictured as an orb, in which a flat, square plane, the earth stood motionless. The Tao of the Universe, manifested in motion as the principles of the universe, manifested in Qi, flowed through this matrix and was realized in man as virtue. The square, then, also represented the principle of changelessness and virtue amidst change chaos. The Chinese also equated this analogy to society, indicating that a man could never be “square” with those around them, but fluid and changing, while maintaining an inner virtue that is a manifestation of principle. Just as the coin, the Chinese developed a negative view of personal virtue when Zen mixed with Confucianism in the Song dynasty, and the virtue of an ultimate gentleman was manifested in reductionism and an elimination of desires. This was the hole in the coin, the emptiness within around which the physical world rotates.
中 The Middle Kingdom
The name for China – “Middle Kingdom” – forever enshrines in the hearts of the Chinese people the memory of the great poet, musician, freer of slaves, the Moses-like figure of King Wen of Zhou, the first emperor of the Zhou dynasty. As a champion of human values, it was he who established the center of the earth as the base for his kingdom, and he who imbued the idea of “The Middle” with its totemic ideological powers of fairness, righteousness, and stability. “The Middle” came to represent the ultimate standard, the principle of moderation, and the values that we recognize as typical of the Chinese way of seeing the world. It also came to represent the pride of the Chinese people during their dynastic days of peace and prosperity, for China was the center of attention and ground zero for early technology and innovation. It was quite rational for the Chinese to think that they were, quite justifiably, the center of the world. Gunpowder, printing, the compass, and paper all made China the “Middle of the World”.
Nowhere else on earth is the accumulated experience of the generations of an agrarian, colonialized, and third-world people so treasured and respected as they continually are in China. Tradition is kept as wisdom beyond reproach or question because of the “centrality” of the Chinese perspective, and the argument often ends with “We do so because our ancestors knew that this was the way it should be done!” When asking why someone is a Buddhist, ten thousand to one, the answer will be because their ancestors were Buddhist. When wondering why the Chinese continue to burden their children with a cumbersome pictographic language, which takes much more time and effort to learn than an alphabet, the Chinese is tempted to take up offense for his slighted forefathers. To the Westerner, such blind faith in history is unbelievable, especially after more than a hundred years of teaching biological and social evolution, which assures us of our gradual superiority to those in the past. The Chinese, after sixty years of Marxist evolution, still revere their forbearers as the ultimate authority in the arts of civilization and literature, humanities and medicine.
The reason for this cultural assumption of superiority is clear from a historical perspective, it is due to the idea that China is the lone inheritor of culture in the midst of barbarians, and that its manifest destiny is central to world history. The first of the two characters for China’s name has been parsed by every commentator hundreds of times, explaining the cultural pride and inflexibility in Chinese history through its infatuation with its own centrality in the character 中. While this is true, there is another character in the name for China. And while the claim to centrality was lost when the Chinese discovered the world was not flat, this character did not loose its invested meaning in the identities of the people.
華 Flower Power
On the one-dollar coin of the People’s Republic of China, one symbol has replaced the Hall of the People and the Hammer and Sickle – A single chrysanthemum flower. This flower first came into the Chinese pantheon when the Poet Tao Yuanming, the writer of the Peach Blossom Spring, used it to represent an ethos of beauty and appreciation that has come to encapsulate his vision of the Chinese worldview. The royal house of Japan, in tribute to this ideology, also uses the Chrysanthemum flower as their crest; and this humble fall flower adorns Japanese coins in testament to the Pan Asian utopia’s ever-present pull. And while politics and philosophy stands between the reunification of Taiwan with China, Taiwan still puts this flower on her coins, and testifies to the power of the flower to communicate her heritage in the Chinese dream. As Washington’s head adorns the largest denominated coin in the United States, the choice for China’s monetary symbol is telling. It is a simple irony that the symbol on the money Chinese spend is linked with the reason that it is spent – a token of the ethos that the coin is meant to buy, a little peace of the peach blossom spring. It represents the use of money to return to the world of Tao Yuanming’s romanticism.
The Flower Kingdom
While other people may call their country by metaphors of roses or daisies, no other country on earth calls their country “The Middle Flower”: no other people calls their race “The Flower Race” 華人. Why would the Chinese do so? It has much to do with the imagery that accompanies the sinified perspective of what culture is and how it manifests itself in humanity. Like all things, the ancient philosophers believed that culture was a reflection of a greater order in the universe, a manifestation or flowering of the true and eternal Tao. Civilization is literally and figuratively, a flower!
From the Middle to the Flower and Back
China fell from its exulted position of centrality in its one hundred years of dealing with Western colonialism, and during this time the disheartened Chinese moved their eyes from the emblem of supremacy that 中 represented, and focused more on the history of the race as it was represented in the romance of the 華. Across the world, Chinese immigrants adopted the name “Flower People” to signify the idyllic dream of their race ensconced in the rivers and mountains of Chinese painting. They were no longer the “Middle People”, and endeavored to create lives for themselves in other places, trying to keep the memory of the Chinese aesthetic alive. The popular philosophers in the Chinese tradition in the 1920’s anecdotally noted that the world had moved beyond China, and that the family-friendly, folksy, mystical worldview of the ancients had been permanently replaced by the likes of Marx, Engels, Darwin, and Freud. Most of them advocated a complete scrapping of the Chinese culture. It was not only radical young westernized thinkers that recommended as much, but the eventually successful Mao Zedong also agreed whole-heartedly with this summary while unconsciously playing up to the most basic assumptions of the Chinese Dream. The tragedy of destruction that was the Cultural Revolution had its roots grounded soundly in the idea of China’s irrelevance and dilapidation. Pinning a flower to the Chinese race was an acknowledgement of the crisis of faith that they were experiencing.
In the last few years, however, with China on the rise, the old fixation with centrality has been pulled out and dusted off with pride. China is now interested in becoming a center for trade, a center for education, and a center for the arts. The enthusiasm for and amount of “centers” established by Chinese academia in the last twenty years is truly astonishing: it is as if the national ethos is the “King Wen syndrome”, an unconscious motivation in the Chinese psyche. But as the extravagant architecture of Shanghai or the imposing silhouette of Beijing will imply, it is not enough to be “a center”: China has an almost genetic disposition to set their sights on becoming “The Center”. Nothing else will do, for the goal is highly associated with the ultimate good and the ideals around which China is built. The manifest destiny of the Chinese is to become the “Middle Kingdom” yet again.
As China overcomes its colonial trauma in its economic ascension, the government now has a group called “Unity and Return of the Flower People Department” which handles the physical aspects of this flower-power ideology. China’s commitment to facilitating the return of overseas Chinese, on reintegrating them into society, and upon using them for education, makes the world look at the activities with the suspicions of disloyalty and racism. That a second generation Chinese in the West would still feel connected to the Mainland is hard for most Westerners to understand, mainly because it is predicated with cultural concepts of which the West is completely ignorant. The years that overseas Chinese have spent in Diaspora often make these ideas even more real to them than they are to the younger generation of Mainland Chinese themselves. The attraction to Chinese centrality by those who have been raised in a decentralized Western atmosphere will continue to mystify those who only appreciate Western culture and values.
© 2013 Guanxi Master