Rit­u­als pro­vide safety in un­cer­tain world

Global Times - - View Point - RONG XIAOQING The au­thor is a New York-based jour­nal­ist. rong_x­i­ao­qing@hot­mail.com

Not long ago, I threw a birth­day party for my­self. I made sure there were flow­ers, cakes, can­dles, friends and ev­ery­thing else that is sup­posed to ap­pear at a nor­mal birth­day party. I even put my palms to­gether to make a wish be­fore I blew out the can­dles. This was the first birth­day party I at­tended for my­self. Be­lieve me, I’ve lived long enough to have many pre­vi­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties to do so. But not only had I largely been liv­ing a birth­day-party-free life be­fore this year, I never showed up at my grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies and had no wed­ding cer­e­mony when I got mar­ried. No, I’m not a so­cially awk­ward recluse or an anti-so­ci­ety freak. I just hated rit­u­als, see­ing them as of­ten less than full-hearted and gen­uine. But this has com­pletely changed this year, thanks to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

In China, the im­por­tance of rit­u­als has been ironed into peo­ple’s DNA by tra­di­tional cul­ture over thou­sands of years. It’s said that in an­cient times, there were 300 rit­ual cat­e­gories and 3,000 sub­cat­e­gories that peo­ple were sup­posed to fol­low.

Many are no longer valid now. But when I was a kid, we were still told to put our hands be­hind our backs and sit straight in the class­room and bow in front of our teach­ers. We gath­ered to­gether ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing to salute to a ris­ing na­tional flag, and kneeled down in front of our grand­par­ents on Chi­nese New Year’s Day to get the pre­dictable red en­ve­lope with a few bucks in it.

Even today, when tra­di­tional rit­u­als have been largely di­luted by the fast pace of mod­ern life, wed­dings where the brides have to lay on a bed cov­ered by peanuts and dates (for the pho­netic bless­ing of fer­til­ity this com­bi­na­tion may bring), fire­crack­ers be­fore break­ing the ground on a con­struc­tion site for a new build­ing, and a roasted baby pig wrapped in golden alu­minum foil and red rib­bon in front of the an­ces­tor’s por­traits dur­ing the Qing­ming Fes­ti­val are still com­mon.

So from early on, I was turned into a rebel by the teach­ers, par­ents and el­derly neigh­bors who dou­bled as rit­ual cops. To me, rit­u­als were lit­tle more than some stri­dent but com­pletely mean­ing­less pro­ce­dure that we were forced to fol­low, and, many times, with­out even know­ing why. And their only func­tion was to erect a tar­get for rebels like me to throw our darts at.

When I moved to the US, I lost my tar­get ini­tially. It’s not that Amer­i­cans don’t have rit­u­als. Pray­ing be­fore din­ner, ex­chang­ing rings at wed­dings, baby show­ers, you name it. But as a freshoff-the-boat mi­grant who had nei­ther fam­ily nor friends in this coun­try, I was largely ex­empted from most of these rit­u­als. Nev­er­the­less, once a rebel al­ways a rebel, I soon found my sub­sti­tute tar­get – po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

Why didn’t the air­port se­cu­rity check fo­cus more on peo­ple wear­ing tur­bans or with long beards, why couldn’t a job ad­ver­tise­ment say “women only” or “no women,” why we couldn’t tell a black teenager that wear­ing a hoodie was dan­ger­ous, ask a Chi­nese Amer­i­can where he or she came from, and sim­ply call a fat guy fatty? These ques­tions were be­yond the com­pre­hen­sion of a per­son who, for most of her life by then, be­lieved can­dor and hon­esty were virtues above all other virtues.

Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness seemed to me a form of Amer­i­can rit­ual that af­fected the lives of ev­ery­body, in­clud­ing new im­mi­grants like me. And just like the Chi­nese rit­u­als I once re­sisted, it was hyp­o­crit­i­cal, un­nec­es­sary and suf­fo­cat­ing.

So I com­pletely un­der­stood why Trump was elected pres­i­dent in Novem­ber, just like I un­der­stand now why the US fell into chaos so soon af­ter he took the reins.

The Analects of Con­fu­cius of 2,000 years ago recorded an ob­ser­va­tion of Zai Yu, a stu­dent of the great philoso­pher. “If the su­pe­rior man ab­stains from the ob­ser­vances of rit­ual pro­pri­ety for three years, rit­ual pro­pri­eties will be lost,” the line goes. This is the ex­act rea­son for the ris­ing racial ten­sion and con­flicts we see in today’s Amer­ica – it started with bru­tal as­saults against the rit­ual of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, and then the loss of pro­pri­ety came quickly.

In the book The Path: What Chi­nese Philoso­phers Can Teach Us About the Good Life that he wrote to­gether with Chris­tine Gross-Loh, Har­vard Univer­sity pro­fes­sor in Chi­nese his­tory Michael Puett ex­plained how rit­u­als guarded ar­dently by an­cient Chi­nese philoso­phers are re­lated to mod­ern Western ev­ery­day life.

To Puett, the rit­u­als Con­fu­cius fol­lowed strictly, such as “he would not sit un­til he had straight­ened his mat,” and “he would not teach while eat­ing,” as doc­u­mented in the Analects, are sim­i­lar to today’s peo­ple say­ing please, thank you, and I love you, or mak­ing their chil­dren be­lieve in Santa Claus.

These may sound in­sin­cere or even lies, but “the rea­son these daily mo­ments are im­por­tant is be­cause, as we will see, they are the means through which we can be­come dif­fer­ent and bet­ter hu­man be­ings,” Puett ex­plains. And this is what pushes the world to be good.

“In or­der to help our­selves change, we must be­come aware that break­ing from our nor­mal ways of be­ing is what makes it pos­si­ble to de­velop dif­fer­ent sides of our­selves,” the book goes. “Rit­u­als – in the Con­fu­cian sense – are trans­for­ma­tive be­cause they al­low us to be­come a dif­fer­ent per­son for a mo­ment. They cre­ate a short-lived al­ter­nate re­al­ity that re­turns us to our reg­u­lar life slightly al­tered.”

The book was writ­ten when Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was still con­sid­ered en­ter­tain­ment news. But all it said about rit­u­als ap­plies per­fectly to the po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness that Trump has been tar­get­ing with his am­mu­ni­tion.

When you try to avoid say­ing things that could hurt some­body, any­body, you re­mind your­self, if un­con­sciously, that peo­ple have dif­fer­ent vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and you need to re­spect those. This is the front­line against hos­til­ity.

Or we can put it this way: po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is a road sign, which you may not be will­ing or be able to fol­low, but at least, you know it points in the right di­rec­tion. With­out the sign, wrong be­comes right. In other words, when you get per­mis­sion from the au­thor­i­ties to call a fat man names, how do you then stop peo­ple from beat­ing him up for be­ing fat?

In a peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness can go too far with­out reins. When that hap­pens, I am sure my re­bel­lious self will reawaken, and I’ll forgo my birth­day party for sure. But now, it is not only nec­es­sary but also crit­i­cal to fol­low the rit­u­als.

The rea­son is sim­ple: I would rather be men­tally suf­fo­cated by po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness than be phys­i­cally suf­fo­cated by peo­ple full of ha­tred.

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

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