Tra­di­tion­al­ist gives a huge cul­ture shock

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - VIEWS -

Avideo clip of a man wear­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese dress and cloth shoes lead­ing a buf­falo car­ry­ing his son home from school has gone vi­ral on­line, and made the man an in­stant in­ter­net “celebrity”. The res­i­dent of Chengdu, Sichuan prov­ince, has said he prac­tices “tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture” and wants his son to fol­low in his foot­steps. And that’s why he usu­ally uses a don­key or a buf­falo as a ve­hi­cle.

A per­son is free to ride a buf­falo or don­key as long as he doesn’t dis­rupt the flow of road traf­fic. But that per­son should re­al­ize this is not the 18th or 19th cen­tury, and the din cre­ated by traf­fic on city roads to­day can eas­ily frighten buf­fa­los, don­keys and other beats of bur­den. And if he still in­sists on rid­ing buf­fa­los in or­der to pre­serve “tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture”, he is sim­ply wrong.

From the lat­ter part of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) to the mid20th cen­tury, when for­eign cul­tures and mod­ern sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy en­tered China in a big way, dozens of schol­ars of “tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture” re­al­ized the im­por­tance and value of Western prod­ucts such as cof­fee, bread, bi­cy­cles and au­to­mo­biles, in­stead of re­ject­ing them.

In the lat­ter half of the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907), the other pe­riod when the in­flow of for­eign cul­tures wor­ried cul­tural con­ser­va­tives, some mil­i­tary com­man­ders im­i­tated the com­bat tac­tics adopted by gen­er­als dur­ing the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770-476 BC) and used bul­lock-carts to fight with the rebels. The re­sult: the Tang army suf- fered a dis­as­trous de­feat.

Three years ago, a 33-year-old man in Guang­nan, Yun­nan prov­ince, tried to cure his 6-year-old daugh­ter of tha­lassemia by mak­ing her sit on a wooden shelf while he burned some herbs he had col­lected from the moun­tains at the base of the shelf. What he ac­tu­ally ended up do­ing is caus­ing more pain to his daugh­ter, who had to close her eyes and cover her mouth and nose to es­cape the smoke. The man claimed to have learned the treat­ment from the Com­pen­dium of Ma­te­ria Med­ica, a herbal medicine book com­piled about 500 years ago.

The “buf­falo rider” in Chengdu may not cause his son phys­i­cal pain. But he and other par­ents (and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions) in­fat­u­ated with tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture must care­fully de­sign teach­ing meth­ods to in­cul­cate tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­tural val­ues in the young. Nor­mally, such par­ents and in­sti­tu­tions em­pha­size rote learn­ing — forc­ing the chil­dren to keep on recit­ing some an­cient Chi­nese texts un­til they mem­o­rize them. It doesn’t mat­ter to them that the texts are writ­ten in clas­si­cal Chi­nese, which is rarely used nowa­days.

Some in­sti­tu­tions even ask their stu­dents to wear tra­di­tional Chi­nese clothes and prac­tice an­cient rit­u­als, some of which sti­fle chil­dren’s cre­ative fac­ul­ties, to show off their love for Chi­nese cul­ture.

His­tory shows that this so-called clas­si­cal method of teach­ing, which be­came in­creas­ingly rigid af­ter the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), is not at all con­ducive to cul­ti­vat­ing in­no­va­tive and crit­i­cal think­ing among stu­dents, which was an im­por­tant rea­son why China lagged be­hind the West in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

Tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture is in­deed a her­itage, be­cause it com­prises val­ues and out­looks that will re­main rel­e­vant for­ever. But that does not mean peo­ple can cul­ti­vate those val­ues and ac­quire those out­looks by just read­ing an­cient books and prac­tic­ing rit­u­als.

More im­por­tant, Chi­nese cul- ture is one of the most in­clu­sive in the world, be­cause it has never stopped ab­sorb­ing the good qual­i­ties of for­eign cul­tures. This in­clu­sive­ness has made Chi­nese cul­ture sus­tain­able. And by re­sist­ing new ideas and ob­jects, we can only cause the slow demise of this valu­able cul­ture.

Rid­ing a buf­falo might be an in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the boy in Chengdu. Hope­fully, he will also de­velop an in­ter­est to know on his own what tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture is re­ally about, in­stead of blindly be­liev­ing in what his fa­ther says.

The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. liyang@chi­


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