Does Chinese culture reflect a lack of monotheism?

Does Chinese culture reflect a lack of monotheism? October 23, 2011

By now, most people will have heard the tragic case of Yueyue, the two-year old Chinese girl who was knocked down by two different drivers, lying for 7 minutes before any of the passers-by stopped to help. The case has caused a lot of soul-searching, in China and elsewhere. The best commentary I’ve read on it is this one by Lijia Zhang (who is, apparently, a rocket-factory worker turned freelance journalist!).

Zhang points out, as many other commentators have, that recent legal cases have resulted in punishments for good Samaritans. Unlike other commentators, Zhang doesn’t just blame this on the communist past or on the recent transition to a market economy. In fact, it seems to have deep-seated historical precedents. Here, for example, is an account by John Barrow, a member of the first British embassy to Beijing in 1792:

In the course of our journey down the grand canal we had occasion to witness a scene, which was considered as a remarkable example of a want of fellow-feeling. Of the number of persons who had crowded down to the banks of the canal several had posted themselves upon the high projecting stern of an old vessel which, unfortunately, breaking down with the weight, the whole groupe tumbled with the wreck into the canal, just at the moment when the yachts of the embassy were passing. Although numbers of boats were sailing about the place, none were perceived to go to the assistance of those that were struggling in the water. They even seemed not to know that such an accident had happened, nor could the shrieks of the boys, floating on pieces of the wreck, attract their attention. One fellow was observed very busily employed in picking up, with his boat-hook, the hat of a drowning man (p283 of Travels in China).

Barrow gives a few other examples, and explains that this behaviour is entrenched in legal customs: under Chinese law of the time, good Samaritans were held legally responsible for anyone who died in their care:

…if a wounded man be taken into the protection and charge of any person with a view to effect his recovery, and he should happen to die under his hands, the person into whose care he was last taken is liable to be punished with death, unless he can produce undeniable evidence to prove how the wound was made, or that he survived it forty days.

So it’s clearly not simply a modern malaise. Zhang blames a state of mind that is common in China, shaoguanxianshi, which is loosely translated as “don’t get involved if it’s not your business”.  As she explains:

In our culture, there’s a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

Now this is something relevant to this blog, because what she’s talking about here is our old friend altruism – specifically the peculiar form of altruism where people will help complete strangers even in anonymous situations. It’s tough (but not impossible) to explain that in evolutionary terms, which has lead some people to propose that religion holds the key.

Basically, the idea is that the invention of monotheism allowed civilisation to step up a grade, by improving co-operation among unrelated individuals (see Did world religions help bring about complex societies?). Having a moralising, universal god encourages you to be nice to strangers, even when your evolutionarily-inspired instincts push you towards selfishness.

I’ve always been sceptical of the idea. Pure altruism can in fact be explained as a biological, rather than cultural, trait. But more importantly to me the suggestion seemed to smack of Western narrow-mindedness. Most psychology is done in the West, and so people who study the psychology of religion typically take our peculiar brand of religion to be ‘normal’.

China, however, is a strong counterpoint to the claim that moralising, universal gods are needed for the establishment of co-operative mega-societies. Religion in China simply doe snot play the same role as it doe sin the West. Most religion is composed of a blend of philosophical life stances with localised folk myths.

And yet China is by anyone’s standards an enormously successful mega-society, really without parallel in the World. As an example of large-scale co-operation among unrelated individuals, it really is a paragon of orderliness and stability.

And yet, the case of Yueye has got me thinking. I’m certainly no expert on Chinese psychology and culture. But if, as Zhang implies, there really is this profound cultural difference between China and other cultures, then maybe the type of religion really does have a meaningful effect on altruism.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever done a comparative study of pure altruism in China and the West.


Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
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