It sounds strange to suggest it, but anyone pining for the China of the Tang Dynasty would be best advised to visit Japan. The island nation continues the dynasty’s architecture, and its emperor continues ceremonies that are clearly modeled on the period’s court.
Readers who favor the Ming Dynasty would best be advised to head for Korea – at least the southern half of it. Korea continues the system of rites established in the Ming, and its court music is an extension of the period’s trends.
Those nostalgic for China’s Republican Era can still find vestiges of it in Taiwan, which continues the period’s refreshing blend of cosmopolitan culture and traditional virtue.
But most of the things traditionally appreciated as “Chinese culture” remain suspiciously absent from the Chinese mainland.
The difference begins in school – and it’s not just limited to a continued use of traditional character forms.
Taiwanese schools emphasize classical literature and traditional thought. Almost every school in Taiwan bears large banners lauding the traditional virtues of loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, love, faith, morality and peace. The government also used those terms to name the main thoroughfares in Taipei as a constant reminder.
Elementary school students in Taipei are required to attend Life and Ethics, a course focused on developing children’s independence and cultivating traditional virtues. In university, almost every school includes mandatory courses in Confucian thought.
Teachers also require their students to assist with janitorial duties to instill humility. On the mainland, that task falls to low-paid maintenance workers.
In place of the moral lessons taught in Taiwan, university students on the Chinese mainland study Marxist philosophy. Their semesters of English instruction also far exceed the time they spend in Chinese class, with four semesters of English and only one semester of Chinese.
When it comes time to jot down a few words, many Chinese cannot remember exactly how to write anything without a smartphone or computer to assist them.
Serving the People
Culture takes time to penetrate every corner life before it becomes the foundation a society. It is something felt by the people.
For Chinese tourists heading to Taiwan, the most impressive thing about the island isn’t its famous foods or tropical scenery, but its people. Most are enthusiastic, polite and friendly. The servers provide outstanding, patient and dedicated service, even bus drivers thank their passengers.
That level of service is the result of decades of quality education and a culture that fosters good manners. Although the versions of Chinese spoke in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland are roughly the same, the society they have developed is very different.
On the Chinese mainland, fraud and deception are the norm. Children and the elderly make popular targets. It’s rare to see someone smile at you on the street, and shopkeepers generally ignore you until you finally decide to make a purchase.
What the Chinese mainland lacks is warmth.
Coming Up Short
Since 1952, Taiwan takes a day off for Confucius’ birthday on September 28: it’s Teachers’ Day, and the temples open in celebration.
During Spring Festival, celebrities visit the Confucian temples to hold poetry readings, and many common people head to the Confucian temples to pray.
Admission to those temples is free, unlike on the Chinese mainland.
On the mainland, temples are pricey tourism destinations used for sightseeing rather than spiritual devotion. Most require tickets, which can be priced between 1 and 240 yuan according to the reputation of the temple.
While it’s true that cultural relics were badly damaged in the Cultural Revolution, many still remain. However, the government units assigned with their management see them as moneymaking tools rather than vehicles for sharing cultural heritage.
Officials would attribute the difference to the mainland learning from Western civilization. But what the country learned was only the material surface: not the spiritual aspect that allows that surface to function.
Culture is a product of a society and its people, and in 2016 China’s 5,000-year-old culture appears to still be lying dormant.