What do the Chinese people want out of life? Many have tried to determine this, but no pattern has immediately appeared from the mass of contemporary literature or from the key phrases in the public forum that sufficiently defines the Chinese desire for a lifestyle direction in Chinese terms, apart from those without context, like “Modern” and “Contemporary”, which are derived more from China looking at other nations than looking at itself. The concept itself seems so abstract that many on the outside have been daunted by the possibility of finding it, but the tendency towards high abstraction is a characteristic of the Chinese people as a whole, and something to be admired rather than scorned. Like the figures in a painting, which suggest nature but retain their unnatural proportions, or like the meaning of a Chinese character, which is only a suggestion of a previous hieroglyph, so the abstractions of the Chinese dream cannot take form by compiling lists of contemporary manifestations. It is a compound idea that can only be grasped by those who can hold the qualities of Chinese philosophy on one hand, and balance the realities of an economically charged and internationalized China on the other. It is far subtler and more rewarding for those who find the silken strands of the Chinese cultural pact between man and nature pulled through two thousand years of literature, and tangled in the free-form bonsai trees of great philosophers’ thoughts, like strings that lead to the tales of shattered kites. When these strands are followed to the end, they lead to their source in an otherworldly paradise in an immortal’s peach garden.
What the Chinese want out of life is to return to where they came from, which has been painted in oily blossoms by all the philosophers of every dynasty. It is the Eastern version of Eden, and follows the same path, for man tampered with the Tao by “doing”, and left that idealistic state of ignorance and bliss that once made him a monkey, and not a man. The routes to return were as simple as recognizing man’s busybody tendency to do what was not his to do, and in ceasing to do such things, mankind naturally reverts to the Way of Things. There were others, who, for some reason or another, thought that the best way about returning was to set up a perfect governmental hierarchy, one ruled by the “Son of Heaven”, and thus usher in Heaven on Earth. The Emperor, a god among men, thought it only fitting that he should spend the tax money of his nation building gardens in which to live, and it was the burden of building perfect gardens in an imperfect world that the Empress Dowager financially broke China and ended the Qing dynasty. Now, China has started building gardens again.
Regardless, the direction that captivated all men’s minds was that of Utopia, and since the Chinese didn’t believe much in an afterlife, that State would have to be accomplished by a tangible human organization on the solid ground of earth, and not in some theologically defined, immaterial realm. The power of this vision was so tangible that it infected everything it touched, and the cultures around China were caught in its hypnotic gravity, to the point that Confucian governing philosophies and Taoist cosmologies became the official religions of these neighboring states. The dynamics of the Chinese “Gospel of the Return to Eden” may be hard to understand in this age, when religious furor has given way to the immediate satisfaction of personal desires, but its power, both politically and culturally, are ensconced in the traditional cultures of the countries that surround China, and is preserving, in many cases, a truer picture of the inspiration of China’s vision than China can offer in the Western vocabulary that she is now strapped with.
The four disciplines of Music, Strategy, Calligraphy, and Painting were cultivated as “Manifestations of the Tao”, or abstractions of the natural world that reflected and distilled the principles of nature to a higher degree in the human consciousness. It is only through a study of these arts that an understanding of what Chinese culture means to the Chinese can actually be gained. The four disciplines would gradually refine and perfect a scholar’s character, and the perfected man would become a sage who could create and maintain the perfect government, and all would be in peace and balance under heaven. This was the belief that inspired two thousand years of cultural achievements in the realm of academic prowess, and fueled the imperial examination system, which sought to find these perfected souls to rule the country and bring about peace. These disciplines were also the core of our understanding.
Art and music were aesthetic expressions of the Chinese vision, focusing on the harmony of Heaven, Man, and Earth, and pouring out imaginary landscapes showing the village cradled by the mountains and covered by the clouds, iconography to the ethos of the Utopian vision. The music of the Qin, the seven stringed zither, was sanctioned as the theme music of the citizens of this mental paradise, and its musical cultivation was said to actually bring about harmony with nature and the sparking of the natural imagination that realized the sage’s perfection. A plethora of “Qin pu” abound, musical notations written for the practice of self cultivation, with titles paying homage to the iconography of the peach garden: “The Fisherman’s Journey to the Hidden Corridor”, “Spring in the Peach Well”, and “Return to the Peach Spring” are just a few. Thus, the watercolor landscapes and the plaintive, ancient melodies have a deeper philosophical connotation than just pleasing composition. The subject matter caught the meaning and purpose of a vision of a perfected life.
The direction of this aesthetic place is a far stronger motivation to the Chinese than the rational and political systems that have come and gone in the last two hundred years with the frequency of a flu epidemic. There is nothing that convinces them as much as the appeal to “return”, to whom and to what is an ambiguous question, but the imagery that acts as a subconscious map is always there, floating just beyond the reach of their harried thoughts and providing the stage set for their dreams. From the “hutong” of Beijing to the “gayu” of Shanghai, the home as a garden is a powerful symbol that transcends time and space, and if examined closely, can be seen at the core of China’s burgeoning consumer economy. The retiree and the newlywed all aspire to live in the harmony of man and nature that the Chinese lifestyle describes both spiritually and architecturally as a “Garden”. It is a stereotype that is strengthened, rather than weakened, by it’s over use, and every apartment complex in China claims its garden-like nature in its name.
How do the Chinese people intend to get what they want? The Chinese see that the only “gods” to which they can appeal are the ones made of flesh and bone, who sit upon thrones of human authority. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the ways of placating their desires, pleading for their graces, and divining their courses through the application of heat to an occasional shoulder bone (but instead of, as it was done in ancient days, applying the heat to the shell of a tortoise or a bone of a ram, this heat is applied to their fellow man). The key to survival is knowing what gods are directly pertinent to your life, and then burning incense and offering food and wine at their tables. Just as the Tao describes life in terms of entropy, so government prescribes survival in terms of manipulation – only those know the art of turning the god’s anger and placating them with the right spells are granted authority and a magical face, which can achieve all things in the Chinese cultural world.
Loyalty is the invaluable element that the Chinese have puzzled over for centuries, for in a “social banking” system such as the Chinese, it is not unconditional or free, and yet it predicates situation that can bring about the realization of a beneficial vision. In a society where loyalty beyond family bonds was reserved only for the person of the emperor himself (and sometimes that was more of a love of the Divine rather than a real emotion), it was thought of as impossible to gain loyalty without “becoming kin” either through marriage, through “taking a disciple”, or through ritual. Casual friendships are not recognized. The problem that faced Chinese leaders of every generation was simply the balance of responsibility with means to accomplish the culture’s philosophical goals. Chinese expect their leaders to be sages, who bring about heaven on earth, but one cannot bring about paradise without everyone’s loyalty and cooperation, and yet no one is willing to give their loyalty without paradise put into their hands. Chinese hedging and scheming, therefore, arises directly from this problem of loyalty. The problem was so insurmountable that, historically, most officials and thinkers just spouted platitudes and contented themselves with eating well and writing good poetry in the old style about men living in harmony with nature. Little has changed.
The answer to the basic problems of kinship and loyalty, not surprisingly, was proposed in a peach garden. And it is here that the Chinese live out their culture today, Liu Bei’s “Peach Garden Vow”, immortalized in the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, created lifetime loyalty and brotherhood from nothing, with two acquaintances that he barely knew, through ritualized drunkenness. When all the prerequisite respectfulness and the façade of friendliness that face requires were stripped away by alcohol, the three new friends vowed their eternal loyalty, and became blood brothers. Time told, along with the timeless saga of the three kingdoms, that the bond between the three men was indeed real, and they not only accomplished their joint goal but also saved China in the process. This established the precedent that is still used today by leaders and all those who are trying to build loyalty in those around them, to first strip away the obligatory and self-preservation-inspired face, to promise action “with the real heart”, and accept this as the basis for genuine friendship that surpasses the Chinese concept of casual acquaintance and replaces it with the idea of “kinship.” The “Peach Garden Vow” literally makes wine into the cement of Chinese culture. It is through skillful application of this tool that Chinese accomplish their goal of building loyalty for a mutual goal, and utilize the talents and resources of their group to realize a dream.
This dream is a return to the innocence of a primordial existence, a means to an end that is the same as the means… a state of drunken oblivion.
© 2013 Guanxi Master