A Buddhist priest once told me that there was two parts to any doctrine: belief and attitude. You could truly believe, and yet your false attitudes could undo all your grand beliefs. You could disbelieve, and yet your attitudes could reflect all the faithfulness and simplicity of a true believer, and in this way compensate for wrong belief, at least with the friends and family that surround you. I see this same truth in culture, as the beliefs of the Chinese have reached a crisis point, their attitudes are even more important, and yet the cultivation of positive attitudes has some how become less important and practical to what the Chinese call the “reality of consuming.” Many things that would otherwise be impossible have been accomplished through the shear force of will that a properly honed attitude releases in the world, and this becomes increasingly evident as attitudes of work mold society in ways exciting and strange. An interesting phenomenon that we see played out in the West just as it is constant in the East is that contemporary attitudes are based on the beliefs of the past, whether or not those beliefs are still a functional part of the culture.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the differences between the West and China regarding attitudes towards work. The Western business world still functions on a Protestant Work Ethic, to which Max Webber attributed American success, even when the vast majority of the businessmen are not Protestant. The business of China still operates according to the prescriptions of Taoism, even though most of the people in China claim that they do not believe in this religion and formal Taoism is dying or almost extinct. It is still vitally important to understand these worldviews in pursuit of the origins of a culture’s attitudes regarding life.
Understanding work attitudes are particularly important for a study of China, for while the West has had a gentle ease into the modern world, starting with the Renaissance and the Copernican revolution, which shifted from his centrality at an early date, the Chinese culture has condensed the angst and confusion of several worldview shifts into less than a century. The five generations of my family in Shanghai has lived through Imperial centrality, colonial servility, nationalist, communist, and now capitalist systems, all that have drastically changed or ended aspects of village life and perceptions of the value of work in general. It is impossible to tell what people in China believe about themselves and their world, but it is possible to tell the pattern of reaction and cohesion that defines their current interaction with the world through their work ethic.
“There is nothing better than to idle your days away in the company of a few good friends” – Chinese Proverb
Obscured by the thousands of years that have since past, the founder of Taoism, Lao Zi, seems to me to have founded his religion based primarily on his delight in being a tumbleweed, laughing at the troubles of the world and turning his water buffalo towards a mountain road. His ethic was one of the lazy day, the stinky old man who was unperturbed because he was used to his own smell, the sage who was only so because he was slightly “off”, and yet his ethic has become the cornerstone for the Chinese attitude toward work. “The sage accomplishes everything by not doing anything”, was his credo, and while the office worker or the housemaid may not know it, they chant this belief with the “Old Boy” in their attitude every minute they are moving to the tyrannical rhythm of money.
“The Chinese receive their sense of intimacy from friendship, not romance” – From the Forward of “Translation from the Chinese”, by Alfred A. Knopf
A Chinese gets his or her sense of self from the community. Therefore, it is not important to produce in order to feel secure or good about one’s self. This affirmation is the job of those around them, those in the “friend category”. This reflects itself in a lifestyle that is not work oriented, tends to be slipshod, and is characterized by the Chinese saying of “playing while you work and working while you play”. The primary complaint that Chinese have, when asked how they are doing, said with a face that invites sympathy and clearly associates it with a sickness is “I’m too busy!”
The quality of one’s life, and the ability to have friends, however, is directly predicated by the amount of resources that one has, due to the widespread practice of social banking, and so the Chinese ideal brings about a paradox (which only government workers can balance as a justifiable equation), which has the vast majority of Chinese fighting for the “right” to standard pay without doing much of anything. This attitude is reflected not only in the difficulty to motivate the average Chinese worker with anything short of threats, but also in the way the Chinese Communist party panders to the masses in its labor laws, which make it nearly impossible to “force” a person to work. A Chinese person has “made it” if they can reach the place where they both have a reliable salary and don’t have to do much. Self worth is not equated to productivity.
If it weren’t for writers who confirmed this national characteristic before the communist took over, many would tend to believe that this state of self-assured lethargy was a result of socialist laziness. Contrary to this belief, it was the Russian’s resolution that worked the Soviet system to death and lead to exhaustion on the part of the European Socialists, and therefore, the Chinese resistance to real work preserved the Marxist ideology from its inevitable destruction in China.
The Chinese love gold, as it may be happened upon by a farmer digging a well or miraculously accrued through proper Feng Shui, but they do not like Western concept of money, as may break up relationships and implies hard work. This makes them the ultimate treasure hunters, much to the chagrin of the government’s department of archeology. And while the guilt for China’s pilfered treasures has been placed squarely on the shoulders of foreigners (“who loving Chinese culture, but not being Chinese, were therefore reduced to steal our heritage” as a Chinese plaque explains at a pilfered tourist site in Beijing), the reality is that most of it was happily sold off by the Chinese themselves during the troubled years between the end of the Qing and the beginning of the New China. There has never been a preserved, un-looted tomb uncovered in Chinese history, but thankfully the bronze, the jade, and the ceramic were mostly left intact, unless they had gold in them. Buddha would be astonished that he, the one who commanded his disciples not to adorn themselves with gold, had been beaten into gold effigy, and had an incarnation invented whose job is the “distribution of gold”, the indubitable Milo Buddha. Such is the love of gold in the Chinese culture that it trounced the Indian religions prohibitions within the first few generations of its dissemination in East Asia.
Cai Shen, the god of gold in the Taoist religion, holds an unrivaled position of religious dedication for most superstitious Chinese. A Tang Dynasty accountant, loyal to the emperor in the midst of an unfounded accusation and knee-jerk execution, his birthday became a holiday upon the emperor’s discovery of his innocence. Over the years, this celebration became the date of his return to earth after visiting the heavenly counsel every year, the eighth day of Chinese New Year, and now is marked with the loudest barrage of fireworks of any day of the year. Those who welcome him with an especially loud display are hoping that his attention may be procured and the blessing of an accidental success might result.
Those who become wealthy, “Fa Cai”, or “Emanate Wealth”, and it is just as much a spiritual category as those who “Fa Guang”, or “Emanate the Light of Virtue” (which both Buddhist and Taoist believe is the characteristic of a saintly person). These economic saints, through their own effort, or through an experience of accidental enlightenment, become wealthy overnight, and then exercise huge control over the popular imagination and the realities of Chinese culture. And popular myth would have that the blessing of accidental wealth should be shared with all who have family or social connection with the lucky individual, much like the Bodhisattvas of old were obligated to share their enlightenment with the world by conveniently rescuing those who needed to be saved. They are imbued with this same mystical, god-like quality in the minds of the masses, and is seen in why the books of sayings by CEOs and Mega-millionaires are sought with religious intensity.
Chinese like the notion of accidental money, and call those that they deem blessed with this workless accident “Bao Fa Hu” (Exploding Abundance Families), and set themselves to acquire part of the wealth through association with these people in social situations, and the taking of loans from these people, of which most are never intended to be repaid. Thus, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that those with money have instant recognition and pull within society, as the Chinese caste system is fate oriented, and not dictated by the status of one’s birth parents. But, it is also true that is impossible to maintain great wealth with the village ethic requiring that you share it to maintain your face. Therefore, the Chinese village ethic is the great equalizer, and much like the Taoist ideal that everything must fold to the undeniable force of entropy, the Chinese see wealth as unsustainable in a world where numberless relatives and countless friends barrow the “extra” they see laying around.
The Chinese genius is seeing that wealth is not found in accumulation, but in understanding what people want and need. If you understand your relations, your friends, and the greater market surrounding you, you may never amass huge fortunes in the obligatory culture of Chinese expectations, but you will always have business enough to survive. The West has just begun to understand the importance of relationships in building and maintaining wealth (since the fall of the East India Company and the use/abuse model of colonialism that amassed so much wealth in such a short period of time), and we package it in high-tech design and call it “social media marketing.” But, in reality, it is just good old-fashioned “Guanxi” on the large scale.
© 2013 Guanxi Master