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Asian Morality

January 31, 2012

Over at Unsafe Harbour, Skarphedin brings up the great topic of charity—or rather the lack thereof—in Eastern societies. He concludes that

while Hinduism and Buddhism both have extensive ‘charity’ extended towards holy men and the monastic community . . . it seems that in the East there was never such a focus on the lowliest of the low as in Christianity.

He looks at the very big (historical and philosophical) picture, but this jibes well with my own experience of China and the Chinese in particular. Of course the Chinese are moral in their own way—for instance, they have a very strong sense of their familial obligations. But they tend to lack a sense of obligation to strangers. The Christian (and now generally Western) notion that all human beings are equally deserving of moral regard is foreign.

As such, there is a ton of corruption in China, and people are relatively more willing to cheat each other in daily life. Even in the West, Asian students are notorious cheaters, and are doing real damage to the university system. I have also known otherwise very decent Chinese people to whom the notion of doing volunteer work is literally unintelligible—it has no positive value, and only detracts from the contributions you can make to the family.

This is also changing to some extent. These days many Chinese complain about what they perceive as the immorality of their own society. Christianity is growing fast in China, and many Chinese Christians attempt to live out the gospel message with characteristically Chinese conscientiousness. In the West, too, many young Asians are Christians, and the consequent changes in moral outlook are a major element of intergenerational divide in Asian communities.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2012 5:22 am

    I thought China, especially, came out looking pretty good in terms of its history of charity – relative to India, Japan, South-East Asia – but even globally.
    That doesn’t change my general statements about Hinduism and Buddhism in comparison to Christianity. But my sense is that the Mahayana Buddhism that formed there, and the influence it had on secular Chinese thought, lead to a fairly charitable society.

    Besides the stuff I put up on my blog, take as an example a statement from the “T’ai-Shang Kan-Ying P’ien” which, along with various other tracts, were hugely popular in China over the last millennium (as in Bible-levels of distribution):

    “With a compassionate heart turn toward all creatures.
    Be faithful, filial, friendly, and brotherly.
    First rectify thyself and then convert others.
    Take pity on orphans, assist widows; respect the old, be kind to children.
    Even the multifarious insects, herbs, and trees should not be injured.
    Be grieved at the misfortune of others and rejoice at their good luck.
    Assist those in need, and rescue those in danger.
    Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and regard your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

    Etc. (“The Tract of the Quiet Way” is another popular one). The point is that this kind of thing was popular morality.

    There’s no doubt Chinese ethics have always been more family-focused. But at the same time there has always been a simultaneous emphasis on benevolence towards those unrelated – through Buddhism certainly, but in Confucianism as well. It seems like as far back as Mencius, Confucians were trying to take on board the universal concern of the Mohists without sacrificing a family-centred ethic.

    One of the papers I mentioned is a direct comparative history of Chinese and Christian charities, definitely worth reading. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a sense of the exact extent of charitable institutions and practices.

    In any case, after the events of the last century or so, I wonder how reflective current Chinese values are of traditional ones. For example, and I already quoted this on my post:

    “When the direst famine of the Qing dynasty stuck North China from 1876 to 1879, Chinese at many levels of society valiantly sought to aid the starving. The emperor contributed funds; the governor of Shandong had grain imported for sale at reduced prices; local residents erected soup kitchens and orphanages; benevolent associations aided the needy and buried the dead; and gentry of other provinces, moved by the plight of victims in Shangdon, reached across administrative boundaries to help…”

    It may be that communism has not had an entirely beneficial impact on society.

    • February 1, 2012 6:47 pm

      You’re quite right—China did look pretty good, and I should have noted that. It’s very possible that there have been big and fairly recent changes. A couple of decades of encouraging neighbours to report on each other doesn’t help social trust.

      In a couple of ways I overstated things by suggesting that universal moral regard is a foreign concept in China. Obviously historically that’s not really true, as your evidence shows. And not only because of the influence of Buddhism, either. Even today, people who wouldn’t really go out of their way to help people will still quote you the negative (or “Confucian”) form of the golden rule. And it was always a goal of Confucianism that the unity of the family could be a model for the unity of all people. I also think that Christianity is growing as fast as it is in part because it’s seen as a way of reestablishing a moral center that people feel has been lost (bringing us back to the influence of communism).


  1. Cheating in China « Johann Happolati
  2. Universality in Chinese Ethics « Johann Happolati

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