The Art of Chinese Living

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The heritage of wisdom

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche 宗薩蔣揚欽哲仁波切

July 2020

I am from Bhutan – a tiny Himalayan kingdom that can’t boast of any great invention, historical event or cultural achievement. We have no Mahler, no Balzac, no Rembrandt, no great independence struggle, and not even a Nokia like the Finns do. And as for food, there’s hardly any variety. So, a decade ago, I thought of Bhutanese culture as limited and primitive. But now I have a different opinion and a new respect for my homeland’s heritage. That new respect is not so much for the actual culture, but rather for the people who treasure it and passionately preserve it.

This has nothing much to do with the quality of what is being preserved. The Bhutanese have a simple chilli-and-cheese dish called ema datshi, which they love. Wherever you go in the world, if there are Bhutanese there, you’ll find it. This simple dish somehow makes Bhutanese happy, gives them a healthy touch of superiority complex, keeps an unhealthy inferiority complex at bay, and infuses some kind of confidence. And isn’t that exactly what culture is supposed to do?

Of course, Bhutan and its culture are changing rapidly. In fact, genuine culture is always dynamic, creative and evolving, and it’s a big mistake to try to freeze culture in some distant romantic past. And yet, even in the midst of massive globalisation, the high-tech and digital revolution, the mushrooming consumer ethos, and powerful media images from abroad, Bhutanese have somehow remained happy being who they are. This is what has generated my new respect.

Looking south and north of my little country – to India and China, for example – I’m not impressed by what I see in terms of cultural dynamism and resilience. I must emphasise that this is from my limited Bhutanese perspective, so, what follows may be totally wrong. In fact, I’d prefer to be wrong! But I worry, for example, about how embarrassed Indians have become about their own amazing culture, and about the extent and depth to which they have absorbed the material objects, fashions, behaviours and even states of mind of their old oppressor, the West. There is no blame here – a lot of this is the inevitable consequence of globalisation combined with India’s colonial heritage – but I wonder how much this pervasive Western influence will undermine the confidence of India’s youth in the long run. I’m glad most Bhutanese haven’t learned and swallowed Western habits to the same extent. That may simply reflect their inability to catch up. But, for whatever reason, they still have a stronger sense of their own culture, and are possibly happier as a result.

So, turning my head north now to China, I find myself even more puzzled. On my visits here, I see very little left of what we can consider genuine Chinese culture. Aside from a strong and very well-established language, wonderful food, and scattered remnants of Chinese medicine, astrology and martial arts, I don’t see most Chinese, especially youth, living their lives with what I imagine to be authentic Chinese culture and spirit. Many Chinese now take Western names, and I never see Chinese professionals wear their flowing, elegant hanfu and qipao to the office. As a Bhutanese, I am proud to see my own king, prime minister and national bank director at high-level meetings in their traditional garb with bare knees. It would likewise please me to see the managing director of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank come to work in beautiful traditional Chinese dress rather than labouring so hard to look like a Westerner in a suit. Clothing may seem a trivial matter, but I think it reveals an inner proclivity and state of mind; elegant traditional dress conveys an innate dignity, poise and cultural confidence that contrasts sharply with embarrassed imitation of Western habits.

The same is true in storytelling, movies, television and music. In fact, the epitome of that degeneration is in Chinese pop songs that sound entirely Western and imitate the cheesy style of the 1980s. The only thing that’s ‘Chinese’ about them is the words. I meet Chinese who listen to Italian opera and are proud of their child playing Beethoven. But I’ve yet to meet one parent who wants their child to be a traditional Chinese opera singer. Whenever I land in China, I hear syrupy Western saxophone and piano music, and nothing distinctively Chinese.

What I’m describing here is also reflected in ordinary conversation. When people praise how ‘advanced’ China is, I get a sense that what they really mean, aside from economic strength, is that the Chinese have become Westernised. It’s been said that culture is ‘a treasure that is a part of our collective memory, of our perception of ourselves’. But when I reflect on how young Chinese are educated, what they read, and the images they’re exposed to in cartoons and storybooks, I don’t know what kind of collective memory they will have. Popular Western stories like Alice in Wonderland do not reflect the Confucian values of social harmony, social order and responsibility, or the Taoist view of non-duality. I wonder how carefully the Chinese are examining such subtle influences, and what they’re doing to strengthen Chinese values in the face of such pervasive Western influence.

When the small child of a friend wanted a toy dragon, I sent him a picture of a Chinese dragon. He objected, claiming it wasn’t a dragon – he’d wanted the Disney version with wings. It’s also been said that culture is the ‘acquired glasses through which we see life’. If this child is typical, and if Western images continue to penetrate the minds of Chinese children, what kind of glasses will they be looking through ten years from now? Yes, family values and other principles are certainly still ingrained in Chinese minds. But I wonder how long that will last when so many successful Chinese send their children to study in the West, where the culture promotes individualism rather than family and social bonds. Those parents may still promote those values, as we see Xiang Yao doing so superbly in these volumes, but will the children?

In mourning the loss of rich ancient Chinese traditions resulting from Western influence, I am probably painting a picture that is overly gloomy. So I must hasten to celebrate the marvellous residues of that culture that are still vibrantly alive.

Despite its mainstream proclivity for shopping malls, Western brands, Christmas celebrations and more, I still feel strong elements of authentic, living Chinese culture every time I visit Taiwan and sip tea in one of its many exquisite teahouses. Even being politely invited to share some binlang (betel nut) by a friendly taxi driver playing local music, with his fragrant white jade orchid dangling from his rear-view mirror, is enough to transport me to a different world. I feel a sense of safety, warmth and social harmony that is truly rare in the world today and that makes Tapei one of my favourite places to visit.

And on a more intimate level, it is a privilege and a delight to be graciously hosted by Xiang and her husband, Kris, on many of my visits to Taipei. I h’ve come to realize through visceral experience that the art of hosting is itself a cultural jewel passed on through generations, and one that flourishes in their household. I also witness in this family – in the way that Xiang and Kris relate to each other and to their children – a magical combination (so rare in modern society) of great warmth and love joined with the deep respect and piety that comes from traditional Chinese values.

And that respect manifests in Kris and Xiang’s love of art and culture, in their exquisite attention to food and how it’s served, and in their flawless attention to every detail in serving a cup of tea. Xiang’s love and care for the cup, the teapot, the precise temperature of the water, the indispensable burning of incense before the tea is poured – all this makes me feel so at home in the embrace of an ancient culture that is fully alive today. When I experience this, I’m reminded of a remark I heard once: ‘Culture is us. We make it. We shape it as we love it to be.’

Yet at the same time, realising that such elegance and refinement are dying – if not already dead – in mainstream Chinese society, I cannot help but feel how precarious such splendid customs are. Will Xiang’s children and her children’s children still practise them with such joy and care? As I’ve said, some of my observations about mainstream modern Chinese society may seem rather superficial. But underneath it all, I’m left with some troublesome and puzzling questions:

Have the Chinese lost some kind of confidence in their own ancient culture and wisdom traditions, despite the fact that they’re as rich, beautiful and profound as any produced by humanity over the last 5,000 years? Are they embarrassed by the seeming irrelevance of those traditions to today’s immediate needs? Is the pragmatic Chinese mind instead attracted to the dominant, user-friendly Western culture that seems to most conveniently sever the materialist world?

Growing up in Bhutan, I always looked up to my two gigantic neighbours as the progenitors of two of the greatest ancient civilisations to have existed on this earth. By contrast, other great civilisations, like the Mayan and Egyptian, are now reduced to the relics you see on display at the British Museum or the Met. What I write here might be misinterpreted as a romantic nostalgia for bygone days, and resistance to inevitable progress and modernity. But, in fact, the opposite is true: a society deeply rooted in its own culture can far more readily and effectively adapt to new challenges and opportunities than a rootless society enslaved to alien values. In an age when Western notions of progress are literally destroying the earth, the ancient wisdom of India and China could offer so much that is highly relevant to the real needs of today’s world.

In this regard, I see Xiang’s marvellous set of books as a real rescue vessel, if we can only use them as such and truly absorb the profound lessons they contain. Indeed, the precious time I’ve spent with Xiang’s family gives me complete confidence that her motivation and inspiration in creating this masterpiece sprang from the depths of her own understanding.

It is noteworthy that the Chinese title of Xiang’s collection was Chuan Jia, which literally means ‘passing down the family’. Over the years, I’ve come to notice that, like in many Asian countries, family is uniquely important in Chinese culture. I now see that one of the family’s indispensable tasks is to pass everything worthy down to future generations, and that is precisely what Xiang has done. Indeed, my favourite features in each book are the many very personal and touching articles that address all aspects of her own family heritage.

It was when she sent her daughter abroad to study, for example, that Xiang determined that these volumes should give future generations all they need to know about their own precious heritage. And to ensure that this wouldn’t turn into another dry and boring culture textbook, she went to great lengths to embellish this encyclopaedic collection with beautiful graphics and images that cannot help but entice the prospective reader.

And so, while China’s ancient culture may be dying at the larger societal level, a thin thread of that priceless inheritance may yet be preserved by certain families. In fact, as the bankruptcy of Western individualism becomes ever more manifest, that family lineage may bubble to the mainstream surface once more. If Xiang’s masterpiece can inspire even a few families to dedicate themselves to that noble endeavour, it will have found its place in history.