Thursday, August 28, 2008

相信科学, 反对迷信 Believe Science, Oppose Superstition.

Racing back across the countryside to Beijing from the China-Brazil soccer game in the Chinese version of the Bullet Train, I happened upon this bit of propaganda on a once-whitewashed, now-dilapidated wall: Believe Science, Oppose Superstition. It was the first time I'd encountered this particular brand of governmental encouragement. And upon initial reflection, it made sense that I hadn't seen it before. The majority of my time in China has been spent in cities -- among the quarter of the Chinese population that is not only relatively or actually wealthy, but also “has culture,” which, interestingly enough, means they have rejected much of theirs.

I didn't think much of it until a few weeks later, when a new tutor/friend of mine recited that maxim almost verbatim. She's a graduate student in Chinese History. She also happens to have grown up not far from said-wall. My conversations with her have been quite a case study in what Believe Science, Oppose Superstition both permits and does not permit.


When I found out that Zhang Mei Jing was getting her Master's in History, I couldn't believe my luck. One of the reasons I've come here is to study Mencius, arguably the greatest Confucian scholar after the school's namesake himself. Most Chinese know as much about him as Americans do John Dewey, but she knew quite a bit. It was an auspicious beginning.

The first hour of our conversation went as expected: we were liberal arts kindred spirits. She started by bemoaning the fact that history had been relegated to little more than an elective in Chinese education. First through sixth graders don't even take it. She demonstrated her point by calling a couple fourth-grade boys over from the Tony Little Ripoff Playground (definitely not trademarked) next to the pagoda we were sitting in.

“Have you studied history at all in school?”

“No.” She gave me a pursed-lipped, knowing glance.

“Can you name the dynasties in order from the Qin?”

“No.” Another nod in my direction.

“Can you name me an emperor from the Song Dynasty?”

“No.” She was crushed, and totally vindicated.

I had experience consoling teachers in faculty lounge conversations of this ilk before, so I tried to comfort her with the fact that my former American high school students were decidedly more ignorant: once, disbelieving a National Geographic survey claiming that 50% of American high school students couldn't find New York State on a unmarked map, I gave my high school juniors a multiple choice pop quiz, asking them which quadrant of the U.S. (North-East, South-East, North-West, South-West) New York was in. Twenty percent got it wrong.

This commiseration went on for an hour. All of a sudden, things took a turn, and I realized that we were talking about two very different definitions of History: one which encouraged competing views in the (perhaps vain) pursuit of objectivity and one which denied them right out.

It started, as these problems always seem to begin, when I brought up the Cultural Revolution. Hadn't that been the beginning of the end of modern China's love affair with history? After all, what about the saying, If the old doesn't go, the new'll never come? What about the destruction of family histories, the loss of traditions, the smashed heads on Buddhist statues visible all over China?

“Oh, that wasn't an attack on Chinese history as much as it was an attack on superstition.” She went on, excited, eyes darting about as if in some type of conscious rem; something I'd said had set her off. She asked me if I had been one of those foreign teachers who filled up his students' heads with “dissonant thoughts” that led them to disparage their country and lose their sense of nationalism.

This was dangerous territory, so I changed directions. I brought up the propaganda on the wall near her house, and I started wondering aloud what science and superstition meant. Could it be possible that history which doesn't allow for dialog makes superstition out of science?

Needing domestic backup, I called on my favorite Chinese short story, My Old Home, written by the early 20th Century author Lu Xun. An educated, landed gentry comes home after twenty years away to move his mother to the site of his governmental post. In the short time that he's home, he meets his old childhood friend, Runtu, who was the most mysterious, strange, and wondrous child -- full of life and stories. Things are no longer the same. Runtu is now a beaten, pitiable, shell of a man. He greets the narrator, his former friend, in the most obsequious manner, refusing to call him anything but “master.” After much soul searching, the narrator realizes that this state of affairs was unavoidable: It was life as it was. As he's experiencing this disillusionment, he watches with great melancholy as his nephew plays the entire day with Runtu's child, even as he had once played with Runtu – as equals. At the end of the story, as he's drifting down the canal away from home, nephew by his side, he thinks, or as he puts it, hopes.

“I hope that our sons will not be like us, that they will not allow a barrier to grow up between rich and poor, educated and not educated. I would not like them to have a treadmill existence like mine, nor to suffer like Runtu until they become stupefied, nor yet, like others, to devote all their energies to dissipation. They should have a new life, a life we have never experienced.

This hope for my children made me suddenly afraid. When Runtu asked for my family's incense-burner and candlesticks I laughed to myself, to think that he was still worshiping idols and would never put them out of his mind. Yet what I now called hope was no more than an idol I had created myself. The only difference was that what he desired was close at hand, while what I desired was less easily realized.

As I dozed, I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”

While I must have read this passage over one hundred times, it's hard for me to read it without emotion.

First, it's amazing that such utterly dehumanizing words like “stupefied” and “devote all their energies to dissipation” could be used, tenderly, to describe human life extant on the same earth my grandparents inhabited. And things would only get worse for Runtu and his children as the 20th Century bore down on them with a misery perhaps unknown in human history.

Second, I've found no better explanation for the indescribable earnestness that is the backbone of Modern China's industrial revolution than Lu Xun's passage here. It is an earnestness that approaches desperation, and is betrayed even in modern China's successes. In this passage, love for country and countryman confronts the great shame of poverty and the horror of estrangement and isolation: a shame and horror exacerbated by the consciousness of Western economic, military, and technological domination. These are memories that have been difficult to erase, even with China's recent, superhuman achievements. I believe this earnestness was present in the opening and closing ceremonies, which, between their astonishing sets, belied a desperation: we must amaze at all costs. From this point of view, the costly Olympic regalia with which the country draped itself for the past three weeks is in a way, grotesque; so too, is most Western commentators' failure to realize this.

Sound ridiculous? When Zhang and I were discussing what moral system would balance out the startlingly vicious capitalism run rampant in many parts of China (a common topic here), she replied, too seriously, that “[f]or the past eight years our morality has been the Olympics.”

But at bottom, it's the narrator's self-awareness that moves me and embarrasses Believe Science, Reject Superstition. I have no argument with science or with the slogan in general. Both China and the narrator were right to bet on technology over traditional superstitions as the road to economic profitability and stability. It's the lack of irony -- on that wall, in the Bird's Nest, in my conversations with Zhang -- that frustrates, especially when they have such a great example in Lu Xun. Irony is what allowed the far-from-stupefied narrator to see Runtu as his equal, if not superior, even as he led his people forward. Lack of irony is what keeps Zhang from seeing the ridiculousness of decrying superstition for the sake of science, but simultaneously denying her students the right to use the scientific method to test and retest competing histories.

But who knows? Perhaps hope's roads are better paved without self-awareness.

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