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China West vs. China East

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From flickr.com/photos/29001414@N00/14300590040/: There's more to the symbol of Yin-Yang, than meets the eye.
There's more to the symbol of Yin-Yang, than meets the eye.
(image by zeevveez)
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There's more to the symbol of Yin-Yang , than meets the eye. Read on.

Travelers to China cheat themselves out of huge rewards and a more satisfying local experience, by not doing just a little bit of reading up before coming here. As a Westerner, I can safely say that most of us have a self-absorbed point of view about humanity's history and the world around us. Western reference books are filled with pages on Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, but they usually give China, and India for that matter, short shrift, even though their civilizations and stories are just as old and meaningful. It's simply human nature to think this way and given that the Euroamerican Empire has called the shots around our planet for the last 500 years, our provincialism can be somewhat forgiven. We wrote the history books and it's all we know.

But the 21st century is ushering in a fresh perspective to Earth's timeline. In just 35 short years, China has redefined current events and this millennium's history books. Other than being the world's largest economy, and that is projected to happen as soon as the end 2014, no later than 2016, the Middle Kingdom has garnered the majority of the Planet's "#1s" among the many (socio-) economic indicators - those which take the pulse of our species' progress. The only category that Baba Beijing (my affectionate name for China's leadership) is happy to accord to the United States, is military spending. Unlike Euroamerica, the Middle Kingdom has had many opportunities in history to be a regional and world hegemon, but has chosen not to, due to Baba Beijing's Heavenly Mandate.

Thus, for starters, the Heavenly Mandate must be understood in order to appreciate traveling in China. Basically, the Heavenly Mandate can be summarized from the citizens' standpoint as follows:

OK Baba, you can govern as long as you keep the country together, you know, keep us proud, protect us, make sure we can feed and shelter ourselves - and just don't muck it up too badly while you're at it!

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Since at least 221BC, when China was unified for the first time, this is basically how the country has been governed. Minding the business of statecraft at home has taken and will always take precedence over any imperial designs outside the Middle Kingdom. Keep this in mind as you read and watch Western current events, which usually reflect Baba Beijing through Euroamerica's prism of world domination.

Once you have digested the concept of the Heavenly Mandate, three other guiding principles define China, its peoples and their outlook on the world at large. First is Confucism. Confucius lived and changed the world as we know it (at least in Asia), 600 years before Christ. This was around the time of Buddha's entrance onto the world stage, but neither ever heard of the other. In fact, Confucius was not particularly religious (he revered his ancestors), but he had a keen sense of what was needed to maintain a harmonious, peaceful society. His philosophy was elegantly simple: good government takes good care of the people (early foundations of the Heavenly Mandate), the family is loyal to the country's leadership and the individual members of the family are loyal to their domestic unit. This mutual triangular support of stability at all levels of society was guided by Confucius' Golden Rule:

Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

Thus, for Westerners, with their strong sense of individualism, from Aristotle to Jefferson to Thoreau, they can have a devilish time wrapping their heads around the Chinese's amazing tolerance for self-sacrifice, in the name of social stability. Remember this while navigating through jam-packed train stations, sidewalks and parks. This 3,000 year old concept was temporarily aborted during the tumultuous years of non-stop revolution, from 1949-1976. But today, Baba Beijing and its citizens are re-establishing roots of Confucism into the 21st century. You can feel it everywhere you travel.

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The third Chinese concept that is totally alien to Westerners is Taoism, or The Path, which is very entwined with China's history and adoption of Buddhism, starting in the first century AD. Like any metaphysical idea, it can be a little squishy to pin down. But in essence, the Chinese path to happiness and long life can be found through simplicity and naturalness, as well as the Three Treasures: moderation, humility and compassion. Given the Chinese's over-compensating, post-revolutionary yen for materialism, one can cry foul on their search for The Path. But in Baba Beijing's new national campaign to promote the popular Chinese Dream, it is pointedly non-American, as it very much espouses the noble tenets of Taoism.

The fourth Chinese philosophy that needs to be appreciated while traveling here is Harmony, also known as Yin-Yang. Harmony is the circular, cyclical nature of our existence; balance, equilibrium and the duality in all of life: male-female, light-dark, Sun-Moon, fire-water, sweet-sour, good-evil, love-hate. It is reflected in all aspects of Chinese life: food, society, art, poetry, politics, architecture and on and on.

The West is not circular, nor cyclical, but uni-directional. Westerners' vision is ceaseless progress, with clear winners and losers. Starting in the Renaissance and building up to the Age of Enlightenment, Euroamericans were and still are sure of their destiny to rule the world, its peoples and resources, forevermore. This self-assuredness is totally alien to Baba Beijing and its Chinese citizens, with their concepts of the Heavenly Mandate, Confucism, Taoism/Buddhism and Harmony. Instead, they would invoke a popular Yin-Yang inflected proverb,

What goes up must come down.

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Jeff is the author of 44 Days Backpacking in China: The Middle Kingdom in the 21st Century, with the United States, Europe and the Fate of the World in Its Looking Glass (2013), Reflections in Sinoland -- Musings and Anecdotes from the Belly of (more...)
 

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