Harmony in Conflict 

by     Richard W. Hartzell

Book summary

In the summer of 1990  we spent the time in Taiwan and enjoyed it very much.  During that time I read an interesting book about Chinese culture and its encounter with the West.   Below is part of my summary of the work.

There are people who describe China in a variety of ways. Some of the Chinese in Taiwan talk about one China but two political systems. The Chinese in PRC recognize only one China. All of this may be true politically, but it seems that one might talk about three Chinas. The PRC is one, Hong Kong is a second, and Taiwan is the third. Such a division recognizes the changes that have taken place in political and economic terms. PRC has had a revolution in which many things of the past have been discarded. Hong Kong has been greatly influenced by the West in general and the British in particular. Taiwan gives us more of
the flavor of old China with the intrusion of Western influences.

We have American  students who have been greatly influenced by Taoism. The Tao Te Ching says, " Do nothing, and all things will be done." I don't  recommend it.

The topic for today is the attempt to drawn on the past and see the implications for the past with regard to the present. Taiwan in terms of tradition probably represents the past better than either HK or PRC.

China can hardly be appreciated without some understanding of the influence of Confucius. Confucius was born probably about 551 BC and died approximately 479 BC.

Confucius' ideas have had an enormous influence on China culture. For our point of departure , I wish to begin with the Five Great Relationships as found in the Li Chi. They are also called the ten appropriate attitudes. They are:

Kindness in the father, filial piety in the son
Gentility in the elders t brother, humility and respect in the young
Righteous behavior in the husband, obedience in the wife.
Humane consideration in elders, deference in juniors.
Benevolence in rulers, loyalty in ministers and subjects.

Confucius looked back to what he called the golden age of the past and concluded that his generation could recapture that age if these relationships were fulfilIed. If people fulfilIed these ten attitudes, there would be no quarrels, no disturbances, no injustices. There would be a state of harmony among friends, family, and society. Confucius even called for the rectification of names. This means that everyone will live up to the ideal meaning of the words. That is, a prince would be princely, a father will be fatherly, and a son will be obedient.  While all of this appears to be good sense reasoning, the
practical outcome of this has created a number of unusual   applications.

First, Respect equals agreement and agreement equals obedience.  Without this recognition, we cannot probably grasp the full force of "respect your elders, respect your teachers." One would not be saying, "I respect my father, but I do not agree with him, or I respect the school principal, but I do not want to follow his advice." These two statement are incompatible with the past thinking of the Chinese. Instead, respect equals acceptance of the  superior's stipulated terms and conditions.

In the West the influence of Christianity does stipulate honoring one's parents, but the O.T. tradition cannot be read without knowing that parents can be wrong, and have done bad deeds, and the prophets called parents to repentance.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb which has had thousands of years of influence on Chinese culture and it is:" No parents in the world are wrong."

"According to the law of the Yuan, Ming, and Ching dynasties, covering a period of years from 1260 to 1912, the rights of parents over children were much broader than they had been in even the Tang and Sung dynasties, in the pre 1260 era. Typically in these later periods, if a disobedient child was beaten by the parents and died unexpectedly, the parents were not held guilty….. children accused of un-filial behavior were subject to punishment in ways which the parents saw fit, and indeed the law favored the father's authority. If a parent asked the death sentence for his offspring, the authorities generally acquiesced, and it was often unnecessary for them to
give any consideration to the grounds on which the suit was brought. While the actual decision to condemn to death, to banish, or to spare the child was transferred from the father to the governmental authorities, the father could instigate a suit and recommend the sentencing. The government in effect  merely acted as his agent in carrying out his will. In the Tang and Sung Dynasties, a parent's formal application that a child be given the death sentence since he/she had disobeyed parental instructions, disagreed with his parents on some matter, or had been impolite, was granted as a matter of course. In the Ching  Dynastic 1644-1911) the severity of the sentencing was more commonly limited to banishment. If the parents changed their mind
at some later date, the child could then be granted amnesty upon parental request with the government. (p.285) An examination of the Ching Dynasty records reveals that sons were often banished for trivial reasons, such as talking back to a parent, being lazy, and failing to heed advice. When parents asked to have an un-filial child prosecuted, the authorities did not need to demand any evidence, nor did they commonly raise objections to the
punishment asked. The law stated: "When a father or mother prosecutes a son, the authorities will acquiesce without question or trial."

Filial piety was the most important issue, since this was the  premiere virtue passed down from the time of Confucius. Right and wrong were a matter of position: I am wrong because I am my father's son. What my father says is right because he is my father. Within a family, seniors and juniors were not treated equally under the law. A child should not disagree or argue with parents, but should obey and never show resentment. If the authorities were to raise questions, this would mean that the parents might be wrong, and that the father's absolute authority was not recognized. Remember the proverb: No parents in the world are wrong."

The sense of respect and loyalty without question is expressed in some concrete examples.

A young Chinese lady, Shu-ling, married into a family named Ding. She and her husband, Ting-tong, worked in different companies, and over the years she rose to a position of authority in her firm, and earned more money than her husband. Caring only for their happy life together, she saved enough to make the down payment on a new house, and was able to arrange some good
financing terms. After it was decorated to her preference, she, her husband, and daughter moved in. Somewhat unexpectedly, the husband's two brothers and sister came from the countryside and moved in a month later, and began to seek work in the local community. The husband's aged parent came from the countryside to move in with everybody about two months after that. Old
Mrs. Ding decided to redecorate the apartment and called in workmen to do the job, against Shu-ling' swishes.  When it was finished she gave the bill to Shu-ling and told her to pay it. Ting-tong agreed that this appeared fair, reasonable, and proper under the circumstances.  (p.276)

There are many such stories that extol the virtues of self-sacrifice in behalf of the parents, or stories that condemn the person who would not do that.

There is the story of Ms. Su in 1967 who married Mr. Ho, in Kaohsiung County. In order to take care of the paternal parents, she and her husband moved into his parents' house as is the Chinese custom. In 1971 it was discovered that Mr. Ho's mother, (Old Mrs. Ho) had tuberculosis. In order to show respect to the
mother, in addition to doing all the regular cooking, Miss Su prepared especially nutritious dishes for her, as well as keeping the house clean and neat, and doing all the other chores. Since there were two young  grandchildren in the house at this time she mentioned to Old Mrs. HO that she thought it would be suitable to buy a separate set of chinaware and utensils for her separate and exclusive use. However, Old Mrs. Ho was not accustomed to this and objected to it, saying that she wanted to use the same Chinaware and utensils as everyone else. Miss Su conferred with the doctor at the hospital, and he recommended in the strongest terms that Old Mrs. Ho. be given separate chinaware and utensils. However, Old Mrs. Ho said that she would not allow it, and so Miss Su conferred with her husband. He said that
of course he and his wife must follow his mother's instructions with strict obedience, in keeping with filial piety. Miss Su refused to have her children eating out of the same chinaware as Old Mrs. Ho, and so bought separate chinaware and utensils for herself and the children. This made Old Mrs. Ho extremely angry, and she accused Miss Su of being un-filial, and this was seconded by her husband and Old Mr. Ho as well. Her husband had two
sisters and a brother who often came to their house to visit, and when they learned how Miss Su had gone directly against Old Mrs. Ho' instructions they also accused her of being un-filial and hence of acting immorally." (p.269)

Second, respect-agreement=obedience has broad implications for making decisions. Few people can make them and one would not presume to make decisions on one's own authority, unless you are the big boss. Such a path leads people to "develop humility, to avoid taking the initiative, and to stress a
superficial harmony in social dealings. After all they could never really be sure as to how most of the generalized doctrines affecting their lives would be rendered in specific applications. Hence the best recourse would be to keep quiet, maintain a low profile, do what you are told, but nothing more, and not cause trouble, regardless of any objective considerations of right and

This may be illustrated in the story of the Chief of Chinese Immigration who was called on board an international airliner which had just arrived at a major Chinese metropolitan airport to deal with an arriving French passenger who had no passport. Quickly surveying the nearly 300 passengers on board,
and wishing to take care of the matter speedily, he ordered her put under guard, to be held in detention until arrangements could be made to put her on a return flight to France. He asked his Deputy to take care of the details while he attended to some other matters.

The Deputy had studied some French in college, and while the passengers were waiting to come up  to the arrival gate, he sang a French song over the loudspeaker, following it up with a Chinese song. When everyone wasrelaxed, he asked them all to search in their seats, and sure enough the French's lady 's
passport was found in the crevice of another empty seat, where she had gone to relax several times during the flight. When the Chief of Immigration came back and found that the Deputy had resolved the situation, he took this as a loss of face, indicating his own incompetence. He became quite angry with the Deputy and sent him off the flight. At the next round of quarterly reviews the Chief made several pointed remarks about the Deputy's exceeding his authority, taking unauthorized measures, engaging in excessive conversation with incoming passengers, etc. , which served to cancel any chances the Deputy had for pay increase or promotion. Other immigration personnel heard of this incident and took note of its implication.

In a culture that stresses implications of the loss of face, innovative or impulsive respect for elders one will hardly be creative, innovative or impulsive.

There are many other implications in the rule of the father
over the family.

1.The father determines the vocation of the children.

2. The father may sell his daughters into prostitution
for his own financial benefit.    In 1990 there was a story in China Times in which a father sold his first daughter into prostitution for financial gain. Then he sold his second daughter.  This got him out of financial difficulties but he eventually  sold three other daughters in hopes of his retirement. 
3. The father will find a wife/husband based on that fact that it is a good marriage for the family., "She serves us well." The main object is to have a male child that will carry on the ancestor worship of the father and those before him. Birth control must be seen in light of this traditional goal, plus the
importance of social security.

4. One of the most insightful   comments that Hartzell makes is that with the strong place of following tradition, plus the fact that a parent is never wrong, there is no possibility of having a scientific revolution, no industrial revolution, no Reformation, and even, Christianity.

Consequently, people have criticized Christianity for wanting to change people's religion in China. That is only one small item. The whole Western culture is an affront to the Chinese past. Tradition embodied in parental respect, and parental respect embodied in tradition allow no room for any new thing to penetrate.

The impact of tradition may be illustrated in the story of five westerners in their 20s and 30s having an informal dinner with several of their Chinese friends one warm evening. As is common in many domestic Chinese meals, no beverages were served. One of the westerners asked if there was any ice water which he could drink with his food, since his throat was dry. The Chinese were surprised at this, and one of them said, "It is not a good idea to drink ice water." The dry-throated individual asked why this was so. The Chinese stated "It is bad for your stomach and it will cause your insides to shrink-up so you will not grow and develop properly. Another westerner in the group glanced around the table and noted that the body-builds of the westerners seated were substantially taller and more muscular than their Chinese friends, and indeed this was the situation he commonly encountered in Chinese society in general. He made the quick retort: "Yes, that makes sense, most of the westerners I see are shorter and weaker than the Chinese of the same age group!" The other foreigners all laughed at this comment, (one fell off of his chair), however, the Chinese, apparently taking it at surface value, merely looked at each other and nodded their heads. (this illustrates also the lack of sarcasm in culture)

Inquiries among Chinese parents, school teachers, and others do reveal that there is a common feeling that "cold beverages will stunt one's growth." When the Chinese person eating at the dinner table with these Westerners advanced this "common sense" proposition, his countrymen nodded in agreement.
It did not occur to them to examine the body builds of those present, or to reflect on the body builds of the people they frequently saw in the streets, and reformulate their "common sense" on that basis. Such an attitude certainly appears to be an acceptance of a great deal of authoritarianism, and shows a
willingness to acquiesce to tenets  advanced by parents , elders, teachers, etc. without additional contemplation.

As a further consideration, one suspects that if medical evidence could be shown to support the Chinese' claims about cold beverages, the westerner might be persuaded to modify their stance. However, if the medical evidence pointed to no correlation between drinking cold beverages and stunted growth, one doubts the Chinese would be so easily convinced, and they
would probably fall back on some maxim such as "Oh, this is what we Chinese believe." (p.567)

"Harmony in conflict" involves a clash between tradition as embodied in the father and change as represented in new knowledge. The traditional attitude has been that Harmony is desirable, and if progress contradicts with harmony, then I want harmony. (567)    But it is not possible to have it both ways.