Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person

Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person

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by Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee

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Deep China investigates the emotional and moral lives of the Chinese people as they adjust to the challenges of modernity. Sharing a medical anthropology and cultural psychiatry perspective, Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee, Everett Zhang, Pan Tianshu, Wu Fei, and Guo Jinhua delve into intimate and sometimes hidden areas of personal life…  See more details below


Deep China investigates the emotional and moral lives of the Chinese people as they adjust to the challenges of modernity. Sharing a medical anthropology and cultural psychiatry perspective, Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee, Everett Zhang, Pan Tianshu, Wu Fei, and Guo Jinhua delve into intimate and sometimes hidden areas of personal life and social practice to observe and narrate the drama of Chinese individualization. The essays explore the remaking of the moral person during China’s profound social and economic transformation, unraveling the shifting practices and struggles of contemporary life.

Editorial Reviews

The China Journal - Susan D. Blum

“Essential. . . . This is one of the most important books on China to be published in recent years.”
Metapsychology Online Review - Diana Soeiro

“This book should be highly praised. . . . Good reading for anyone interested in Sinology, politics, economics, anthropology, sociology and mental health.”
British Journal Of Psychiatry - Rui Zheng

“Fascinating. . . . Deep China seeks to explore through the lenses of psychiatry and sociology the effects on the individual.”
From the Publisher
"Essential. . . . This is one of the most important books on China to be published in recent years."--The China Journal

"This book should be highly praised. . . . Good reading for anyone interested in Sinology, politics, economics, anthropology, sociology and mental health."--Metapsychology Online Review

"Fascinating. . . . Deep China seeks to explore through the lenses of psychiatry and sociology the effects on the individual."--British Journal of Psychiatry

"Fascinating. . . . Deep China seeks to explore through the lenses of psychiatry and sociology the effects on the individual."--British Journal of Psychiatry

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University of California Press
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First Edition, What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us about China Today
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Deep China

The Moral Life of the Person What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us About China Today

By Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee, Everett Zhang, Pan Tianshu, Wu Fei, Guo Jinhua


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95051-1


The Changing Moral Landscape

Yunxiang Yan

This chapter depicts the changing moral landscape in contemporary China. In nature, growing plants, blossoming flowers, flowing creeks, and floating clouds animate the earth and the sky. In a similar vein, the new ideas, ideals, and actions of individuals and the constant negotiations about their appropriateness bring life to the norms, values, and behavioral patterns in a society: this is the moral landscape. The regeneration of life bestows the unbounded beauty of nature; the remaking of the person—the moral person—makes the moral landscape into a limitless space of public reflection and intellectual exploration. Consider the following snapshots of everyday life.

In the summer of 2008, I conducted interviews with nine young people in Shanghai, all of whom went to Sichuan as volunteers after the May earthquake. I learned a great deal from them about the moral visions of Chinese youth, including some very interesting new developments that challenge the conventional understanding of Chinese ethics as collectively oriented. For example, when a twenty-five-year-old woman mentioned that she submits her salary to her mother, without thinking I praised her for being a filial daughter. She replied with a cunning smile: "You think I am filial because I give my income to Mom, right? But you probably don't understand the deal here."

It turned out that each month she gave her mother three thousand yuan out of her monthly salary of 3,500 yuan. But she lived with her parents, meaning free room and board, and received pocket money from her mother frequently, as she explained:

Whenever I want something, I just go to my mother. I did a rough calculation a few months ago and found out that I need at least five thousand yuan per month for basic expenditures. But I also need to change my cell phone every year and my parents pay for it; I often travel with friends to other parts of the country and my parents pay for it. And I need to drink Starbucks coffee every day and my parents pay for that too. I guess by now you would think I am not that filial anymore, right?

I finally admitted to her that, in my mind, an adult child should financially help parents, instead of relying on parental support. By this standard, she is probably not as filial as I thought in the first place. Quite intriguingly, she replied: "You are wrong again. I am quite filial. Why? Do you know what my parents' biggest hope is? My happiness! If I live a happy life, they will be happy. This is exactly what I am doing, and they are indeed very happy." At that moment, I felt like an idiot, but at the same time I was also excited by her new interpretation of filial piety, because it seemed to indicate an important ethical change. Two weeks later, I brought the issue up to a small group of young men in Xiajia Village, about 1,300 miles away from Shanghai, where I lived as an ordinary farmer from 1971 to 1978 and have returned to do fieldwork eleven times since 1989. Although these villagers were not as articulate as the young woman in Shanghai, they gave me similar answers: their happiness in life makes their parents happy and thus their pursuit of pleasure and comfort in life should be viewed as their way of fulfilling the duty of filial piety. Such an interpretation of filial piety in terms of one's own happiness is obviously quite different from the traditional definition in which one is expected to sacrifice one's time, labor, wealth, and even life to make parents happy.

In contemporary China, individual narratives about the pursuit of happiness typically include the elements of aspiration, determination, and hard work as well as the importance of personal connections (guanxi). For most people the key point of departure is the revelation that their individualism is central to their moral obligations and practices. In her vivid and insightful portrait of factory girls who migrated from the countryside to work in the cities, Leslie T. Chang (2008) takes a closer look at the various efforts that these young women make to reinvent themselves, to become someone they long to be. Some underage girls used the identity cards of a cousin or a classmate and as time went by they became so closely identified with the fake name that they would not answer to their real names. Many others took commercial classes during their very limited spare time so that they could upgrade their work skills and move up to a higher level. As a seventeen-year-old girl states in an inspirational speech to fellow factory workers: "In a factory with one thousand or ten thousand people, to have the boss discover you is very hard. You must discover yourself. You must develop yourself. To jump out of the factory, you must study. You are here because you don't want to be an ordinary worker with a dull life. If you are waiting for your company to lift you up, you will grow old waiting" (Chang 2008: 174). By sitting in on a white-collar secretarial skills special training class, Chang observed and experienced what the young women were learning and how the knowledge was taught. The class ignored writing and never gave any exams; instead, it focused on instilling the confidence to speak up and providing knowledge of the white-collar work environment and proper etiquette and manners, ranging from the choice of color of one's clothing to the appropriate ways to sit and to walk. Individualism is one of the central messages, but it is promoted with a traditional appeal: by lifting yourself up, you will also lift up your whole family. Another key message is equally individualistic, but with a postmodern twist: if you look and act like someone of a higher class, you will become that person. This class, as well as many other classes, actually offers rural girls, most of whom are excluded from the formal education system for various reasons, a second chance to become the person they want to be. Many of them highly appreciate this opportunity. Work ethics, however, never came up as a subject in the class. As Chang observed, students learn how the office world functions so that they can use the knowledge to lie their way into jobs for which they are not qualified (white-collar jobs normally require a college diploma). Both teachers and students know the game and play it well, because they all accept the simple fact that the people who are too honest are those who will lose out (see Chang 2008: 171–189).

In contrast, ethics and the cultivation of virtues are the precise focal point for a group of affluent professionals and private entrepreneurs who live in a gated community of upscale high-rise apartments and low-rise villas in Beijing. During the summer of 2008 I participated in several study sessions in which I found the remaking of the moral person quite revealing. Once a week, a group of ten to fifteen gathered in the spacious living room in the home of the group leader, a freelance writer and community organizer. They studied ethical books used in kindergarten and primary schools in the United States and European countries, reading the texts aloud, doing the exercises related to each topic, and then holding soul-searching discussions that related the topic of the day—a particular virtue—to their life experiences at work and in the community.

On the day of my third visit, the virtue being studied was gentleness (wenrou). Some male participants questioned the relevance of gentleness as a virtue since it is associated with femininity. Their perspective was criticized by some women who argued that the core of gentleness is to be sensitive to other people 's feelings and not to hurt others, including nonhumans. Finally, the group reached an agreement that what makes gentleness a virtue is the underlying idea of equality—if one believes that people are all equal in moral worth, one will treat others with respect and sensitivity and thus will be gentle. Many of the participants then began to discuss the lack of gentleness in everyday life in Beijing, and some reflected on the rude ways of dealing with subordinates at work, a common phenomenon in their own life experiences. I must add that these people did not merely talk and reflect; they also actively participated in community and volunteer activities. One of their primary concerns was how to become a nicer person; yet, they all agreed that this is not easy in today's world as they all have had the experience of knowingly doing the wrong things. The study group thus also functions as a type of do-it-yourself psychological therapy for the participants.

It certainly would be wrong to assume that individual moral reflection and critique are positively correlated with one 's social status or accumulated wealth. There is much evidence, in both officially published sources and public opinion, that shows how the rich and powerful violate basic moral principles and reap huge profits at the expense of the interest of others, such as the numerous cases of official corruption, money-power exchange scandals in real-estate development, and slave labor. Equally important are cases of rank-and-file individuals standing up to seek social justice, protect the weak, and cultivate the moral self. The most courageous are those individuals who fight valiantly for dignity, integrity, and decency from the margins of society. In a recent case, for example, a migrant worker-turned-small businessman turned himself in and confessed his counterfeiting and fraud. For more than two years, he had made money by purchasing inferior ice cream bars and frozen dumplings, repackaging them as high-quality brand-name products, and then selling them at a profit to lower-end retail stores. As his business took off, he began to suffer increasing guilt for cheating and damaging the health of consumers by selling low-quality frozen dumplings. It took him several months of intense self-questioning, interrogation with his conscience, and consideration of the cost of confession that could lead to several years in prison. The 2008 scandal of tainted milk powder and the prospect of becoming a father led to a breakthrough as he came to realize the responsibility of the individual to make a better society. Thereafter, he turned himself in and confessed (W. Zhang 2009).

What do these stories tell us about contemporary China? Most obviously, individuals making their own moral judgments and decisions is a common thread that runs through all these episodes; more often than not, by making moral judgments these individuals also redefine what it means to be a proper person in today's China and how to live up to it. "You must discover yourself. You must develop yourself," as the seventeen-year-old migrant worker whom I cited earlier proclaimed. The moral implications and consequences of the individual in self-discovery and self-development thus constitute the central theme of this chapter.

In the following pages, I will first examine the changing moral landscape at the level of ethical discourse on what is moral and how to be a moral person. Despite the continued insistence on socialist civilization and collective ethics in the official discourse, the most important change in popular discourse and moral practice has been a shift away from an authoritarian, collective ethics of responsibilities and self-sacrifice toward a new, optional, and individualistic ethics of rights and self-development. In the next section, I unpack the prevailing public perception of moral decline or moral crisis since the 1980s, and I identify three major ways through which such a perception is formed. In the third section, I take a closer look at the opposing trends at the level of moral practices: on the one side, the various sorts of immorality or morally disturbing behaviors that form the factual basis for the perception of moral crisis; on the other, the emerging new moral practices that are individual-centered yet tending toward more universal values. Together, these three sections lead to the conclusion that the moral landscape in post-Mao China has undergone a profound shake-up, and in many ways has been radically changed by the rise of the new ethics of individual rights and self-development. Yet, the collective ethics of duties and self-sacrifice remain deeply embedded in the everyday life of Chinese individuals. This contradiction causes not only the entanglement and confusion of different values and behavioral norms, but also tensions and conflicts in moral practice, making the moral landscape highly dynamic, complex, and uncertain.


In the early spring of 1980, a young female worker named Huang Xiaoju sent a long letter to China Youth (Zhongguo qingnian), the official mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League. In the letter, she described her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, her disappointment with the existing collective ideals and beliefs, and her rethinking of the relationship between self and society. Her letter attracted the attention of the journal's editors because at the time party leaders had already noted worrisome changes in people 's thoughts and sentiments, especially suspicion of socialist ideals and values and frustration in adapting to the rapid changes in society during economic reform. The editors (under instructions from party leaders, of course) helped Huang revise her letter and also included some ideas from another letter written by a college student, Pan Yi. The journal then published the letter under the pseudonym Pan Xiao, taking one character from each of the authors' names, under the title "Why Is Life 's Road Becoming Narrower and Narrower?" in the May 1980 issue.

The published letter touched the heart and soul of millions of people, old and young alike. By the end of the year, China Youth had received some sixty thousand letters from readers, 111 of which were published in subsequent issues. On June 12, China Youth Daily (Zhongguo qingnian bao), another mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League, began a special column to discuss the meaning of life and by the end of the year it had received more than seventy thousand contributions, two hundred of which the newspaper then published. At the same time, a large number of provincial and municipal newspapers and magazines, especially those targeting youth, also launched discussions along the same lines (for a detailed study, see Xu 2002: 51–71).

Two points in the Pan Xiao letter became the focus of debate. First, it describes the disillusionment with Communist ideals because of the gap between the ideals and reality; second, it demonstrates how through a journey of soul-searching many Chinese finally realized that selfishness is actually a part of human nature, and, in reality, everyone struggles to achieve her or his own goals, despite all the empty talk of selflessness and sacrifice for the collective interest.

At that time, both the disillusionment with collective moral values and the realization of selfishness as part of human nature were in direct conflict with the Party ideology and the Communist ethical discourse. The wide and enthusiastic responses from all over the country confirmed the Party leaders' worries that many people shared the opinions expressed in the Pan Xiao letter. This is why the debate on the meaning of life continued for so long and reached the entire nation, profoundly affecting millions of people. For example, the founder of the Lebaishi Group, one of the largest soft-drink companies in China, recalled the debate as a wake-up call. At the time, he was a branch leader of the Communist Youth League in rural Guangdong and was involved in serious discussions with a female colleague about the questions raised in the Pan Xiao letter. They concluded that self-development was the moral and best way to make a contribution to society. They later married and became nationally famous private entrepreneurs (see Wu 2007: 55). Many people whom I interviewed recalled that the debate was similar to a political campaign. Individuals were organized by the local youth league or other organizations to discuss both the letter and the meaning of life, debating whether or not people are selfish by nature and coming to a consensus point that the correct way to pursue self-interest is "subjectively for oneself, but objectively for all others" (zhuguan wei ziji, keguan wei dajia).


Excerpted from Deep China by Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee, Everett Zhang, Pan Tianshu, Wu Fei, Guo Jinhua. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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From the Publisher
"This book should be highly praised. . . . Good reading for anyone interested in Sinology, politics, economics, anthropology, sociology and mental health."—Metapsychology Online Review

"Fascinating. . . . Deep China seeks to explore through the lenses of psychiatry and sociology the effects on the individual."—British Journal of Psychiatry

Meet the Author

Arthur Kleinman is Professor of Medical Anthropology at Harvard University; Yunxiang Yan is a Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; Jing Jun is a Professor at Tsinghua University (Beijing); Sing Lee is a Professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong; Everett Zhang is a Professor at Princeton University; Pan Tianshu is a Professor at Fudan University (Shanghai); Wu Fei and Guo Jinhua are Professors at Peking University (Beijing).

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