A Chinese and American reflect on the selves they'd like to become
Songhe Wang and Jay McDaniel
One tree doesn’t make a forest. But no forest can replace the beauty of a single tree. How can these truths be combined? That is our question in this column.
Healthy Community as Harmonious Society
Please consider these characters: 木 (mù) means a tree; 林 (lín) means a forest; 森 (sēn) means a forest full of tall and dense trees. So in Chinese we have an idiom: 独木不成林 （dú mù bù chéng lín) meaning one tree doesn’t make a forest. This idiom alludes to the strength of a union or a community.
But what is a healthy community? Martin Luther King tells us that it is a beloved community: that is, a community that is creative, compassionate, participatory, respectful of diversity, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind. We add that it is a community that is ecologically wise. It embodies a spirit of harmony with nature as well as harmony among people. It is beloved community, ecologized. If we think in East Asian terms, we can say that a beloved community is a harmonious community, and that the people in the community enjoy two kinds of harmony: harmony with the earth and harmony among themselves.
It is often said that people in East Asian nations appreciate and embody a communitarian way of living; whereas people in western nations embody and value an individualistic way of living. According to this stereotype, if we live in China we enjoy feeling part of a larger whole and are hesitant to stand apart from others and feel different; whereas if we live in the United States or Canada, or in other Western nations, we enjoy exercising our rights as individuals with personal preferences and enjoy standing out from others.
We believe there is wisdom in the stereotypes but this wisdom is not the whole story. For one thing, people in East Asian nations have a sense of individuality even as they may less prone toward overt self-expression; and, for another, people in Western nations take great pleasure in friendships and family, in feeling “at one” with larger groups, even as they are individuals. This suggests, at the very least, that communitarianism and individualism lie on a continuum, with many gradations between the two. Like this:
Nevertheless, it may also be true that people who live in communitarian cultures lean toward one side and that people who live in individualistic cultures lean toward another. In certain circumstances this leads people in both kinds of culture to wish that their cultures appreciated more of the other. People in communitarian cultures can wish that they cultures encouraged more individuality, and people in individualistic cultures can wish that they had more community. The matter is complicated by many issues: gender relations, class divisions, political policies, cultural productions. “Communitarian” cultures and “individualistic” cultures do not exist in a vacuum. They are the products of countless factors.
“Modernity” adds to the complexity. By “modernity” we mean a way of thinking that emerged in the last three centuries in the West, beginning with the Enlightenment, and which has since influenced much of the world. Modernity emphasized reason, science, industry, and the individual, severed from community ties, as the locus of agency and repository of rights. With its emphasis on the individual, modernity suggested that a person must either be communitarian or individualistic, and that there is not a way to combine the two. The general idea is that a human self is “really” an individual, who then enters relationship with others through a social contract.
Modernity now leaves its tracks in many people around the world, who have entered what is best described as a postmodern period of history. Amid this postmodern ethos, there is a need among many in the East and the West for a better way of thinking about the self. Postmodern selfhood is a creative synthesis of healthy communitarianism and healthy individuality.
Collectivism and Narcissism
First, let’s consider communitarianism and individualism in their unhealthy versions. Excessive communitarianism can easily lapse into what collectivism. In China we saw this during the Mao period, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Personal preferences were considered evil. Everything had to be in service to the larger cause of the nation. There was no room for appreciating and honoring personal preferences. There was a lack of individuality, even of the healthy kind.
On the other hand, excessive individualism can lapse into narcissism. Narcissism is extreme egotism, where the whole world is approached as if it were in service to private pleasure and preferences. In the western nations we see some of this narcissism in consumer culture, where all things point back to the individual self as “consumer” of goods and services. Unfortunately this has become a temptation for many Chinese, too, since the advent of market economies.
The collectivist and the narcissist alike are trapped in a kind of bondage: the first is in bondage to the group and the second is in bondage to the private ego. Both options are un-free.
The postmodern option is more desirable. Perhaps the Yin-Yang philosophy of traditional China can help visualize the point. Consider the yin-yang diagram above, and let it represent an individual human self in formation: an individual person. Let one side represent a person's enjoyment of community or friendship and the other side the enjoyment of a sense of individuality. The individuality is nourished by the community and the community is nourished by the individuality. Most of us have this ying-yang experience in close friendships, in the intimacy of “知音”(zhī yīn), where we are enriched as individuals, not stifled, by the enjoyment of mutually enhancing relations.
This takes us back to the trees and the forest. In our time people all over the world are looking for a meaningful combination of community and individuality. They want to take the spirit of “知音”(zhī yīn) and widen the circle, so that the forest can have more than two trees.
How can this widening occur? How can a community of people in a village, in a workplace, in a schoolroom, in a nation, grow closer to beloved community with ecology added: that is, to a creatively harmonious society? And what name might we give to a society -- indeed to a nation -- in which the spirit of widening is unfolding, such that people feel respect for one another, for animals, and for the earth?
In China we speak of this kind of society as an ecological civilization. We Chinese know that we are very, very far from that kind of civilization. So often we do not have harmony among ourselves or harmony with nature. And we realize that other peoples suffer this problem, too. We watch as Americans battle each other in their political incivilities, in their political polarizations between “right” and “left.” Yet Chinese hope, as do Americans, that people in both nations can grow in their own ways toward ecological civilizations.
This growth begins, not simply with altered public policies and political arrangements, but with transformed selves. And the Confucian tradition rightly emphasizes that part of this transformation begins with family life and education. Hence the need for postmodern education: that is, education in service to the whole person, as she grows in her capacities for individuality and community, for self-confidence and compassion for others.
Everything depends on the attitudes we take toward one another as we seek community. By sharing feelings, we feel relaxed, warmed and safe. By sharing ideas, we become wiser and stronger. By sharing dreams, we gain hope and happiness. This is our nourishment. We become a postmodern selves, each in our way.
But here we must be honest. Postmodern selves cannot evolve in isolation from culture and religion. A postmodern self can be a Christian self, a Buddhist self, a Daoist self, a Confucian self. There is much in traditional thinking that lends itself to a view of persons as individuals-in-community. At their best these traditions know that one tree does not make a forest. And they know that that no forest can take away from the beauty of a single tree. In many ways Jesus and the Buddha were postmodern, too. They knew that a human being emerges out of, not apart from, meaningful relations with others. Buddhists call it a sangha; Christians call it a church. It might also be called beloved community, with ecology added.