Reconciling two cultures

It is a fascinating time to be half Chinese and half English.

By Duncan Jepson (Dialogue)

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Published: Wed 20 Apr 2011, 9:26 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:44 AM

For most of my 40 years, the Chinese have been the colonial subjects, the aspiring immigrants and the overzealous Communists while the British have been the colonialists, the winners of wars and a World Cup and a member of the G-8. The imbalance reflected the difficulties of reconciling the two cultures in oneself.

Suddenly China is the second largest economy, living in Shanghai is cool and, as Vogue China says, Beijing is hot. Suddenly there is more of a balance between the importance and relevance of the Chinese and Western cultures.

For some Eurasians born in the West, it was always easier to be simply Western and forget the cultural conflicts and daily struggles. But I always wanted to seek a place within me for both cultures, even though they often seemed so opposite.

Putting a finger on the difference, however, was elusive. It was in George Santayana’s celebrated quote on a plaque at Auschwitz that I found a clear articulation of the difference between the Western and the Chinese approaches: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

The words warn against the dangers of a key Western assumption: that progress lies in moving forward in a constant pursuit of freedom, equality, prosperity and other ideals. The Chinese start with a very different assumption: History is to be respected; if in doubt, follow the past rather than depart from it. A central tenet of Confucianism could be summarised thus: One should first look back before making a decision about the future.

It is not easy to escape the gravitational pull of Chinese history. So the Chinese need a different kind of reminder, the converse of Santayana’s words: Free yourself of the past and choose as an individual.

It is in these opposing approaches to life that Westerners and Chinese regularly fail to understand each other, and where the struggle for coherence arises in many Eurasians.

The educated Westerner chases ideals, founded on principles and discourse. For the Chinese, an ideal does not fill stomachs with food, bank balances with assets or brains with education. Confucius still stands as the paragon of Chinese philosophy because he is seen as advocating a practical, sensible and often successful way of living.

Looking back in history for lessons for a successful future is very seductive, though safe and conservative, if, like the Chinese, you have an extremely long history on which to draw.

To me one of the clearest examples of how difficult it is to reconcile the different approaches rests in the idea of fairness. For a long time now in the West, that word and the ideal behind it have been invested with such power that it has started revolutions. I believe that fairness is one of the most beautiful ideals of Western culture.

In Chinese philosophy, there is no popular word or attitude that really captures what fairness means in the West; it does not seem to be a part of Chinese culture. Decisions are not made in accordance with the rule of equity but by command, for thousands of years by him who was mandated by heaven and then, during the last 60 years, by the Party.

These approaches are almost irreconcilable. But I believe there are signs of a change and there is now an increasing awareness in China, outside of academic circles, of the rise of ideals like fairness. One example is the movement to raise salaries of factory workers. At the same time, in spite of positive developments, the current detainment of artists and writers leaves the heart heavy indeed.

At the same time, I also look at the horrible financial and social mess the West has found itself in as a result of the financial freefall in 2008. I have followed, for example, the difficult decisions being discussed in Britain on maintaining welfare with a limited purse. I can’t help wondering whether maybe some Chinese pragmatism might not help.

It is said each journey begins with a single step. But is it better that the step be the result of a two-steps-forward-and-one-back approach, like the Chinese, or that one strides purposefully, looking ahead, like in the West, often only looking back when it is too late? This is the question the Eurasian mind must wrestle with.

In the end I refuse to commit to one way or another, preferring to believe that there is good and bad in both approaches to life. My real task then is to decide what is the best of each and to take that. The one thing most Eurasians know is that the world is too small for things to be simply black or white.

Looking around downtown Hong Kong, I suspect that some of the many Eurasians being pushed around in strollers may some day play important roles in the needed fusion of the West and China, reconciling the differences and creating a new culture.

Duncan Jepson is a lawyer and filmmaker

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