The Chinese Character Part One: Good Fortune

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So a number of people have asked me about what the Chinese people are like and later asked what’s the difference between people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.  So I’m going to write a few entries now to give my definitive answer after long hours of consideration.  It can, however, be condensed into one sentence: They’re all fucking crazy, but in an interesting way I kinda respect.  So first here’s a summary of the character of the average mainlander.  Of course this is a generalisation, but you’d be surprised how well generalisations actually work here.

When asked why they are doing anything at all, there are three standard answers you will receive 99% of the time.  These activities can range from eating chicken feet, lighting incense in a Buddhist temple, carrying a live pig on a motorcycle or drinking three litres of tea every day.  These answers are (in order of greatest usage):
1.    Good fortune
2.    Good health
3.    I don’t know
It never ceased to amaze me how much the first two answers govern the vast majority of daily behaviour.  They seem to form the common basis of all shared understanding between the Chinese people.  If you cannot track back everything you do for every moment of your life (including sleeping time) to one of those two things; then you are weird.  For example, every time I explained that I had quit my very well paying job to go travelling for an indeterminate length of time with no particular goal in mind apart from increasing my life experience; they would pull a very baffled expression.  The idea of leaving any work is simply unthinkable.  The idea of leaving such good work is beyond rational comprehension.  Okay, so people back in Australia also may not entirely understand the decision, but it’s not that unfamiliar.  The dream of leaving work and doing something else is such a common one, that incomprehension is more normally replaced with jealousy.

So now we’ve introduced good fortune, let’s go into that a bit more.  So, by good fortune I don’t mean jumping onto a train just before it leaves or meeting an old friend unexpectedly.  I mean money.  Pure and simple.  The Chinese pursuit of money is already famous enough, being in the heartland took it to a new level of insanity for me.  You can argue that it’s a hangover from days of starvation and abject poverty that were not so long ago and I’d agree.  Here are a people who will argue for half an hour over the equivalent of about twenty Australian cents.  It’s not that it’s worth that much, you would need three times as much to buy a softdrink.  It’s just so ingrained in their culture to preserve money above all else, that it would be unthinkable to let it go.  After I was there for over three months, I found myself having exactly the same argument with a drinks vendor for exactly that amount of money.  It wasn’t that I cared about the money, I just felt I was being ripped off and that is the clue to the Chinese state of mind.  When resources are in short supply, everyone is a penny pinching businessman.

When I spoke to a Taiwanese woman late in my trip, she made it even clearer.  She explained she didn’t like travelling in mainland China because she permanently felt like she was being ripped off.  She could never get the ‘best price’ because she wasn’t a local – they could tell she was from Taiwan by her accent.  I asked her what she thought it was like to have white skin and not speak Chinese in terms of getting a good price and she laughed and told me proudly that I would pay a lot more than her.  It’s all about getting the deal, a better deal than anyone else you meet.  People who are able to find these better deals are held in very high regard.  When I told her I’d managed to get a three star hotel room in Jinghong for just forty kuai (just under AUD$7) because I was travelling with a Chinese mother and daughter from Kunming, she was impressed with my using a local connection to get the best deal.  She immediately wanted to know how I knew them and  if she could get to know them too, since she had been thinking of visiting Yunnan province.

Now this leads me to talk about guanxi (goo-wan-shee) and its relation to good fortune.  Guanxi describes relationships between people, in particular where favours can be asked or demanded from someone.  Having these connections is a kind of social capital and a person with powerful connections is in high demand and ranks very highly in the social structure.  Many disagreements that in Australia are resolved in lower courts are resolved by a guanxi battle in China.  The discussion has nothing to do with the merit of solutions to the conflict, just that one person can establish a higher or stronger level of influence.  For instance, an argument my mate in Shanghai was having with a noisy neighbour ended up being resolved in one phonecall from his office manager with serious military connections.  The dispute had been festering for a while until guanxi made it clear who would win.  I was told in car accidents, the dispute is often resolved the same way.  So having ‘good guanxi’ is a  sure indicator of good fortune, since it means you don’t have to waste time arguing with people; you just establish your superiority.  Having friends in high places in China really is a free ride ticket to the easy life.

Now back to the pursuit of money, where it took on a particularly ugly form for me in Chinese Buddhist temples.  Sure you need some donations for the upkeep of the buildings and welfare of the monks.  However, the way they’ve turned what should be part of a religious experience into a strictly commercial transaction is disturbing and wrong.  The people arrive at the temple and spend about twenty minutes moving from altar to altar doing the standard kowtowing that always finishes with money going into the box.  I happened to be in a larger temple in Chengdu when they were emptying the boxes for the day.  The sack of money the two monks were carrying around grew so quickly that after the third altar they had to find a hand trolley to shift it to the next one.  I did some quick calculations and figured their take must have been in the order of 5-10,000 kuai – about AUD$1000-$2000.  That is a lot more than a monthly wage for a Chinese worker.  If they’re collecting that daily, I cannot understand what it’s being spent on.  I know it’s got little to do with building maintenance and construction, local businessmen pay for that separately in large scale public donations to increase their status.  Nobody questions this of course.  Giving money to the temple gives you good fortune.  You’re crazy not to do it.

So while we’re on the topic of the Chinese and religion I’d like to pass on my observation.  There are no religious Chinese people.  If there are, they are safely locked away in a monastery or living in a cave somewhere safely out of sight in case more people get the idea.  To be fair, I did meet two people who really seemed to care about their spiritual life in more than the surface ritualistic way.  They were in a tiny minority.  The Chinese are deeply superstitious, but in terms of religion they match Australians, Canadians, French and English for sheer atheistm camouflaged by the occasional appearance of religious intent.  Sure the Chinese people are much more likely to be found in a temple offering incense (bought at the temple for a price), but the religious practice starts and stops there.  The idea of personal enlightenment leading to some kind of inner peace that does not require material goods or wordly interests is insane to them.  They understand the idea as much as your average Australian and dismiss it as the preserve of freakish fringe dwellers like monks.  However, Chinese monks spend their time chasing money just as much as the next guy.  I saw them with begging bowls in the street, not asking for food – but strictly cash donations.

I also saw and spoke to more than one person who saw absolutely no problem with burning incense at a Buddhist temple, before striking the bell and drum at a Taoist temple, then a quick prayer in a Christian church before finishing it off with offering more incense to your ancestors.  Surely doing this in more places will bring you more good fortune?  Chinese superstition, however, is profound.  There are auspicious days to do anything – and you must consult before you take any action.  This means you pay money to someone to have a quick look for you.  Everyone knows about Feng Shui now, it’s still taken very seriously by the majority of the population.  You have to put coins in red bags, buy lucky charms in temples and a thousand other things to satisfy this superstitious drive.  The superstition is all neatly bundled under the standard answer, ‘for good fortune’.

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