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SoJust.net Document History of Civil Rights and Social Justice
JUSTICE: the People's News
Objectives: Comparing Cultures
by Karin Blair

Note: This is the first chapter to a manuscript trying to interpret the Chinese art of qigong to the west. It is based on my experience videotaping the qigong treatments given a Japanese man with a severed spinal column in Beijing. It is less directly related to two video casettes (one is French and the other with a "musical" sort of background) and two books (one is French for qigong for the eyes and the other in English presenting qigong for the whole person) which have been published and are available through me.

In trying to compare cultures one has first to establish some working definition of culture. There is a Chinese proverb which says that "The fish did not discover water." Similarly no one discovers culture by staying at home. It so intimately shapes our lives that we only become aware of it under special circum- stances, when we encounter difference. Experiencing culture hap- pens in the plural; we experience cultures. We are not aware of the first until we have experienced the second. Culture begins to lose its invisibility when we become aware that there are many other ways of fulfilling the basic needs of human lives and of interpreting human.

Not only are there different cultures but some are more dif- ferent than others. The profounder the differences encountered in another culture, the deeper the perspective one can gain on one's own. My experience in China revealed ways in which my own resembled the European ones I had previously found so different. For example, in my own experience I encountered an interesting case of cultural differences when I was working on a women's studies project. In the United States feminists were complaining that the marriage ceremony discriminated against women because the new couple was pronounced man and wife. The women was thereby "denatured" in some way by being shifted into a social role whereas the man retained his essential and primary identity. In France feminists were having similar complaints even though the French marriage ceremony pronounces the couple "mari et femme," husband and woman. Complaints were still abundant, however, this time that the man was being given a fuller, more differentiated social identity whereas the women was stuck in her original natu- ral identity. The obvious point to be made from this comparison was that the idea of "nature" is itself not only subject to definition but to value judgments.

Looking back at this after a year in China, I am impressed not only with the differences in outlook between the French and American women but also with what they share when compared to Chinese women. American and French women reveal different cul- tural orientations within Western civilization. Both, however, have had to fight for their rights whereas in China social legis- lation of the fifties immediately established equality between the sexes. When jobs were distributed by the government there was never a question of discrimination in employment. In an attempt to overcompensate for past discrimination, the government pro- vided maternity benefits for new mothers which are very generous with leaves ranging from six months to six years. With such a background Chinese women were shocked at certain consequences of recent economic reforms of the late Deng period. When obliged to make a profit, work units resisted becoming responsible for the cost of having women among their employees. Whereas such dis- crimination is the point of departure from which occidental women must struggle for better conditions, women in China assumed equality to be the given status quo. What we saw in the responses of both the French and American women to the marriage ceremonies was a critical habit of mind born of constant struggle for one's rights.

Both language and culture claim special reality for what they carve out as significant, as "natural" even. What can be more "natural" than marriage and reproduction of the species, which is nonetheless filtered through very culture-bound ceremony. Living within our native culture typically takes place unselfconsciously rather like the way we use our native language as described by A. Robert Ramsey:

...speaking a language does not make the user consciously aware of its sounds. Language is like the air we breathe. We go about our daily lives articulating thousands of words without once thinking about what we are doing or how we do it. ... How many Americans, for example, know that they usually pronounce where and wear exactly the same way?1

We become aware of our language when we step out of habitual uses for a time, for example, when we study the way others use their language. Similarly to become aware of our own culture most readily we need to encounter that of someone else. To become aware of what related Western cultures have in common it is use- ful to move into radically different ones arising in the East.

Language, however, especially written language, is easily abstracted from culture. While language can readily be made visible, culture remains invisibly embedded in human minds. The English used in England is quite similar to that used in the United States yet the two cultures remain distinct; in fact each has within it many subcultures, all of which are English- speaking.

Again China provides an interesting point of contrast. There a vast nation of 1.1 billion people, who speak many dialects, share a common written language, which, because it is not phonetic, can be pronounced according to local patterns.

The relation between language and culture as well as an entry into cultural diversity can be seen in proverbs. In teach- ing English I have frequently used proverbs in a variety of activities because they are densely laden with cultural assump- tions. Within its culture of origin the meaning of a proverb may be considered too obvious to need explanation. In other contexts the lack of any commonly accepted authority may make traditional sayings seem highly ambiguous.

Within their culture of origin proverbs are often used to "end" conversation insofar as they are shared expressions of value which are beyond questioning. In addition in some cultures they make little attempt to refer to an external world beyond that of shared stories. For example, "old 'Cai' lost his horse, good or bad" is loose translation of a Chinese proverb which refers in shorthand form to a lengthy story of the many con- sequences, both positive and negative, of the simple fact that old 'Cai', here used as a name but meaning in Chinese someone living in a rural area, lost his horse. For example, the loss of the horse was an immediate regret, but without a horse he could not serve in the army and risk death. The words "Old Cai lost his horse, good or bad" are simple and understandable to anyone with the slightest notion of English, yet their meaning is opaque because of the invisible cultural material that remains unspoken between the lines.

Traditional Chinese proverb have four characters; in this case, the more or less literal meaning would be "rural person lost horse." However these characters may be pronounced in dif- ferent regions, the proverb remains a vehicle for Chinese cul- ture. The Chinese students from all over China who told me this proverb at first were not aware that I could not understand it without explanation. As a result of the encounter they gained an awareness not only of their own culture but of culture in gen- eral. They lost a certain unthinking automaticity which charac- terized the way in which they told me the proverb in the first place as something everyone would, of course, know.

Such experiences make clear the disjunction between culture and language. The words were all clear and familiar but the mean- ing they had depended on a cultural context only partially acces- sible through words. When I recounted this experience to students in Switzerland, they assumed that my Chinese students were inten- tionally recounting such a proverb in revenge for Americanisms I had imposed on them. Such an interpretation reflects their own cultural inclinations which pit student against teacher in a way different from an American's need to strike out individually and from the close and enduring bonds I encountered in China between student and teacher.

A tragic example of the working of cultural stereotypes, which can easily change the meanings of familiar vocabulary, can be found in the student demonstrations at Tiananmen in Beijing in June 1989. Students were aware that they government would like to discredit their movement by attributing it to foreign influence. They built a large statue of a woman in traditional Chinese dress holding a torch with both hands and called it the Goddess of Democracy, a goddess even the Greeks did not think of. Yet media men, through easy association called it the Statue of Liberty, thereby playing into the hands of the government while they thought they were supporting the students.

But even here we have a problem, for the Chinese students who sought "democracy" were thinking of democracy in a one-party system. Voting or multi-party politics were not on their minds. In one instance the western interpretation of a specific event on the Square reveals the absurdity of thinking in terms of voting. Wuer Kaixi had said in his televised meeting with government officials that no one would be left alone on the Square - such was their respect for solidarity and their confidence in people. In Ted Koppel's June 1989 special Tragedy at Tiananmen however the decision of many to stay on the Square when a majority wanted to evacuate it and return to campuses was interpreted to be the result of startling new policy. The students were said to have decided to abide by the will of the minority in a vote, which is absurd since the legitimation voting can provide depends on achieving a majority. Birth has already bestowed on us all the status of minority of one. The Chinese students had not thought of creating an opposition party let alone of establishing inverted voting procedures. Instead they were asking for the people's government to pay more attention to the grievances of the people which is what would have constituted "democracy" for them.

The truths which can and will eventually be abstracted from the Tiananmen events coexist with others which will remain part of the experience of those present. As one of the latter, I found the cultural surround unforgettable. "Solidarity" as a word or concept cannot in any way measure up to the quality of care Chinese were lavishing on everyone during the demonstrations. Helping the hunger strikers, for example, was not done abstractly by credit card with a future tax deduction in mind; people went to talk to them to give them courage as well as food. People empathized with their pain. As happened so often in China, I felt an uncanny connection between people. Solidarity based on faith in the people, a people's government and a people's army charac- terized the entire movement, which left everyone there totally unprepared for such a crackdown as came on June 4.

It was an extraordinary encounter with another culture to be at a Beijing University during April and May of 1989. Most of the time our impression of other ways of life depend on two major industries which play on the disjunction between language and culture: visual mass media and tourism. The evolution of such technology in the twentieth century has made mediated views of other cultures more widely available to the point where the events at Tiananmen had an impact on Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989. Mass media, transportation and the opening of international as well as interior boundaries has made interac- tions of all kinds possible on an unprecedented scale. Even though they maintain distinctions between insiders and outsiders, they did transmit to the rest of the world he amazing phenomenon of millions of people moving beyond the threshold of fear.

"Others," it seems, have always elicited charged responses and have been singled out for special treatment. Just as one tends to feel either pleasure or displeasure at the unexpected, so one rarely has a neutral response to the Other. The Stranger was traditionally surrounded by hospitality rituals which dic- tated how to act and therefore diminished potential anxiety. Out- side of such domesticating rites the Other threaten transcendence or subversion. Difference can quickly elicit value judgments for better or worse.

Cultures maintain their sense of continuity, sometimes in opposition to their political leaders, by making clear distinc- tions between insiders and outsiders and containing the "Others" in value-laden stereotypes, for example, that of the "Other's" culture of origin. In this way anyone from a given country can be immediately framed in certain predefined parameters. It is part of the process of validating the home culture's habitual ways of doing things.

In the contemporary mediated approach to the Other on film and television, a collaborative group of technicians and idea people lie behind the seamless production the public sees. In this sense the traditional situation of one or few strangers experiencing another culture has become one in which a group of select individuals, due to their technical expertise or financial influence, decide what the rest of us will be exposed to as representing the Other as well as our own culture. Even though authorship is usually collaborative and anonymous, the media inevitably incorporate cultural biases. "Tourist trips" to other countries, whether televised or motorized, purport to put the visitor in touch with the way things "really are." Obviously, however, that idea of reality has already had to accommodate some prior image of how things ought to be in order for the tour itinerary to be chosen and publicized.

Such a basic framing of experience in terms of an "Other" that is opposed to the self is radically different from the traditional Chinese respect for the Other as an honored guest. One frequently felt an inner tension in people selling tourist items: on the one hand, they wanted to sell their products at a profit and, on the other, they wanted to maintain a positive human relationship with these foreigners. In terms of the media the ambiguity of their role became obvious at Tiananmen. On the one hand, all Westerners with cameras were welcomed among the demonstrators and we have their pictures to thank for the inter- national impact of student movement. On the other, the media helped greatly to create leaders where the students felt no need for them and televised interviews became documents which later served the government in its crackdown. Western media portrayed events in terms of Western concepts of struggle between two parties, only one of whom could win. Such a perspective is loses sight of the sense of solidarity I discerned.

Even here, however, we are still on cultural ground. The value given to the act of comparison is itself subject to cul- tural variation. Several Chinese proverbs have no equivalent in English, among them zhi zu zhe chang le. It means that one will feel happy if one does not compare oneself to others, a non- Western restraint of mind I repeatedly encountered while in China.

In other areas of Chinese life as well comparison is not a basic assumption. The uniqueness of each interaction is not only assumed but highly valued. Other Chinese proverbs seem to be similar to English "equivalents" but have very different mean- ings: for example, "One leaf shows it is autumn" reflects a per- spective very different from the Anglo-Saxon one, "One swallow does not make a spring." What is valued in the former Chinese one is what I will call "microcosmic thinking" in which quantity or comparison are unimportant factors. Instead Chinese thinking instinctively moves from the individual instance to the macrocosm it embodies on a small scale.

In China differences between individuals are not only acceptable but they go relatively unnoticed because they are assumed. Patients do not often think of comparing treatments; neither do students tend to compare corrections. In addition the qigong doctor, whose treatments will figure in the fourth chapter on personal observations, described his work as taking place on a micro level. Although he did not elaborate, an analogy might be found in reflexology which deals with the body's acupuncture points through the microcosm of the foot. All of the doctors statements must be taken in a context where theory was at a mini- mum and where requests for explanations ended finally in demonstrations.

Although many cultures, especially those with a history of rivalry with their neighbors stress reasons for their supe- riority, the act of comparison is only something which can arise from an encounter with difference. Just as the value placed on comparison is itself culturally loaded so the desire to impose ones values on others does not arise "naturally" from the act of comparison but also varies with cultural values as well as political leadership. The Chinese value on microscopic thinking invites cultivating one's own self-awareness, self-confidence and self-control, which were exemplary during April and May not only in Beijing but outside the city in the qigong treatment center. In both instances the individual experience was the locus of value and importance, not the theory, be it of politics or dis- ease.

This very Chinese sense of self-cultivation can be espe- cially relevant to the process of appreciating other cultures. Moving into the area of cultural comparison does not necessarily involve value judgments; rather it necessitates the willingness to assume responsibility for ones own cultural assumptions and suspend them as much as possible, at least long enough to try to look through the eyes of others. Doing so can be a very internally rewarding experience.

To those who stay home, "culture" typically implies "high culture" and represents a ideal to be cultivated. Similarly the possibilities one sees in oneself are limited by what is per- ceived as possible in one's place of origin. In any given place, however, there are many subcultures co-existing and in any given person there are many facets to his or her personality. Changing cultures fosters the pluralistic vision implicit in seeing the individual in more than one cultural context. If I can imagine myself in another's situation, I may come to see previously invisible possibilities of my own as well as to appreciate the constraints under which others act.

The need for those willing and able to do this in today's world is increasing. As technology puts us in touch with more and more diverse populations it becomes clear that we are all part of a interdependent network and that survival needs are mutual. If it is only through encounter with Otherness that culture emerges as a shaping force, it would be quite ironic if in that same moment comparison necessitated feelings of superiority.

The different and the unexpected are, in fact, crucial not only to prevent boredom but to provide a basic structure to our experience. According to Humberto Maturana, confrontation with the new is a special moment responsible for the human sense of uni-directional time, moving from past to present to future.2 With every new experience there is a concomitant state of uncertainty tied to newness itself, the lack of which transforms second and subsequent encounters into experiences of the "already known." The question, as always when encountering the new, is what to relate the new material to.

At this point evoking the concept of nature as a neutral point of departure is counter productive. In fact any time one hears "nature" or "god-given" evoked one must suspect that cul- ture is functioning since unquestioned cultural assumptions are frequently presented under the guise of nature or god-given.

We can ask at this point whether "culture" does not seem to take over the whole world? What is left to the domain of what the Western world considers to be its opposite "nature"?3 Thus, in the cases of natural sounds, at least, the value grid through which the original experience was filtered continues to color its future significance. Therefore some significant dimension of meaning will remain tied to the original framing of reality, which can perhaps include what is considered natural versus cul- tural and the value attributed to it. Even Tsunoda had to include in his attempts to outline a unique Japanese biology the unique way in which the Japanese valued nature.! If not only one's own personal experience but one's ideas of nature and the structure of the universe are colored by culture, how can one establish any grounds for comparing cultures? A necessary condition for making cross-cultural comparisons is the establishment of comparable terms. Looking at the United States through the eyes of someone from the People's Republic of China and vice versa must involve the issue of functional equivalents. The question then arises of what kinds of material and information are comparable in dif- ferent cultures. The nature not only of stereotypes but of all images and even "facts" may be fundamentally different in various cultures, especially those as widely divergent as China and the United States. In other words, although we all use such material how it is defined and assumed to relate to the "real world" may be quite different in different cultures.

China, perhaps, has a great deal to show the rest of the world. First of all, it offers microcosmic thinking as an option to Western style quantitative comparison. Whereas the Western approach is to create large-scale dichotomous categories to facilitate comparison and analysis, the Chinese way is to create microcosms of disparate elements in small quantities. Second, it offers a way of understanding the world and ourselves that encourages harmony and continuity. Whereas Western analysis encourages disjunction between disparate parts, the Chinese way is to create a thread of continuous balance which, in fact, depends on difference.

The traditional Chinese mind-body disciplines like taiji and qigong often function on such a micro level by bringing together in small compass a wide range of images and emotions. Since everything is experienced on a small scale, nothing can have overwhelming force, therefore balance and equilibrium can be maintained. Individual practice and experience are crucial rather than large-scale theories meant to be evaluated on their inter- nal consistency and then followed by many.

Just as I see taiji/qi gong as a paradigmatic example of Chinese culture, I hope to create a series of representative steps which will look at and parallel the "traces" glimpsed in taiji/qigong. This process links the individual with a universe in balance, that is a universe in which there is both nature and culture. Whether we base ourselves in nature and create a deriva- tive concept of culture or base ourselves in culture and envision nature as a microcosm to be maintained through continuous, balanced movement, the interdependence of the two is clear. Per- haps this process can yield an alternative way of experiencing difference.

1 A. Robert Ramsey, The Languages of China, Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 11

2 Autopoesis and Cognition, (Dordrecht, Holland, Reidel Publishing Company, 1980), p. 24

3 Recent research from Japan suggests that there is a domain reserved for nature, though perhaps it is more limited than one might have expected. This research indicates that it is cultural factors that influence where stimuli are stored in the brain. For example, natural sounds are reported to be encoded in different cerebral hemispheres by Japanese and Westerners. The same sound, given different cultural surrounding, may be stored in a different part of the brain. Therefore a Westerner learning the Japanese words for natural sounds could not encode them in the same way as someone born and raised in a Japanese environment. "Tadanobu Tsunoda has found that natural sounds such as wind, waves, animal cries, bird songs, and insect songs have primarity in the dominant cerebral hemisphere in Japanese individuals, but go into the non-dominant hemisphere in Europeans. Japanese who were brought up in South and North America showed the same patterns as Europeans, and some (not all) Europeans who were brought up in Japan showed the same patterns as the Japanese....Epistemological differences...may become physiologically measurable and identifiable in future research, adding to the evidence that epistemological differences exist." Magoroh Maruyama, "Information and Communication in Poly-Epistemological Systems,"in The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, ed. Kathleen Woodward (Madison, Wisc: Coda Press, 1980), p. 40.

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