China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Oct

Money, status or inner peace?

Several weeks ago, a first grade teacher in Guangzhou (廣州) asked her students on the first day of class, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” One little boy immediately smiled and replied, “I want to be a corrupt official, because they have so many things.”

Karl Marx (1818-1883) said, “The dominant ideas in any society are always the ideas of the ruling class.” Throughout the world, adults talk about people with money, status and power. Children often understand enough to embarrass their parents in public later.

Superior and inferior families?

Despite the global recession, car sales are booming in China. Rich parents now give their son or daughter a new car as a gift for passing the university entrance exam. Yet most parents struggle to pay their child’s tuition and living expenses. Some students barely have enough to eat, while a few of their classmates have a wheels – hardly a recipe for a harmonious campus.

The gap does not disappear after graduation. A disturbing new question has appeared on some job application forms. Job seekers report seeing the question: “What is your parent’s combined total income?” Poorer applicants are tempted to leave the space blank and hope the interviewer will not notice.

Is the company hiring young adults, or their parents? The boss would naturally prefer to have his workers refer rich friends, not poor ones, to his business. Or maybe he wants to boast that all of his staff come from wealthy backgrounds. This question discriminates against those coming from poor families (窮二代) in favour of the children of the rich (富二代). However, there is not yet any regulation that bans asking about economic background.

The Chinese terms above refer to second generation poor and rich. The economy is growing, fine. The long-term goal is nationwide common prosperity. That would be wonderful, as long as the resulting pollution can be cleaned up. Today, the growing gap between rich and poor is causing resentment and fuels the urge to become ostentatiously rich by any method.

Superior and inferior consumers?

China is overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest market for luxury goods. Since China’s population is 10 times larger, that is not surprising. Yet, China still has a much lower per capita income. There are wide and growing gaps between blue and white-collar workers, and between urban and rural residents.

The desire for upscale items has ruined many people. One official lost his job when someone posted a photo online showing him with an eye-catching wristwatch. How could he afford such a watch on his salary?

In recent years, the price of moon cakes has soared. This ancient treat has been upgraded by being packed in ever more elaborate boxes, tied with ribbons. Food regulators have complained about the waste of cardboard in excess packaging, yet from one Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) to the next, the trend continues. No one wants to look poor by handing friends, in-laws or co-workers a utilitarian box.

In Hong Kong, several teenage girls recently got into trouble with the police because they wanted money to buy name brand handbags. Is any fashion accessory worth paying such a high price?

A superior woman?      

Women pay a higher price than men. During a job interview, a Chinese woman is sometimes told bluntly, “You are not pretty enough for this job.” There is no law against hiring only the most attractive woman.

Thus women spend money, not only on cosmetics and elevated shoes, but also on plastic surgery. Once a critical number of women go this route, the rest panic and feel they have to get cosmetic surgery or be left behind. A great deal of money flows into beauty clinics, which counts as economic growth, but women in general do not gain. The standard for attractiveness rises, while the number of women being hired remains the same.

A superior man?

In Jiangsu (江蘇), the director of the Provincial Construction Bureau compiled a record-setting list of 146 girlfriends. Although having one girl friend after another was expensive, he found ways to finance his hobby. That name list was cited as evidence during his trial for corruption. He was sentenced to death, suspended for two years. Now he is wondering if he will be shot in two years.

What was he trying to prove by being such a he-man? Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917-) is familiar with the ways of important men in Hollywood. She says, “Macho does not prove mucho.”

An atheist once dismissed religion as “what people do with their privacy,” meaning faith is nothing but a private matter; it should have no public influence or even visibility. However, if that provincial director had spent his private hours reading the scriptures of any religion, meditating and praying, then he never may have worn a prisoner’s uniform.

Confucius (孔子) said, “The superior person keeps watch over himself even when alone.”

The fear of being ignored

The examples above can easily be multiplied. Is there a common factor underlying destructive displays of family status and individual worthiness? Yes, the fear of being nobody.

Years ago in the United States of America, there was a cartoon of a man wearing a sandwich board around his neck. The cardboard sheets in front and back of him read in big letters: “My name is Fred. Notice me! Pay attention to me!” Poor Fred! It is so difficult to get attention in a big city, let alone in a huge country.

Someone mentioned being “an atom in the social mass.” Just as one tiny molecule of air gets blown around in the wind, without anyone being able to keep track of it, individual people often think they are too small to matter. They feel themselves being pushed here and there by economic, political or military events beyond their control.

Advertising agencies speak of “status hungry consumers.” Without status, people can feel lost in the crowd, unknown and not worth knowing. A cheap bowl of noodles can fill a hungry stomach, but how much does it cost to fill a hungry soul? In every country, it certainly costs more than the average income. In a consumer society, the cost keeps rising every year.

When people are satisfied with what they own and who they are, then they are in no hurry to buy something new. Advertising works by “creating needs which people do not realise they have,” that is, by making them feel inadequate, incomplete or inferior to those around them. More and more people feel ashamed of being who they are. When did it become sinful to be average?

The Catechism and the Dao De Jing

In commenting on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “The dignity of human persons is rooted in their creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC, 1700). This dignity does not require money, status or publicity.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). The Dao De Jing (道德經) says, “The highest goodness is like water, for water is excellent in benefiting all things and it does not strive. It occupies the lowest place” (Ch. 8). It is hard to imagine using either quote as the basis of a television commercial. It is equally difficult to imagine anything that can be purchased with money providing inner peace for a lifetime.

Christian blessedness “teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement – however beneficial it may be – …but in God alone” (CCC 1723).

The Dao De Jing notes: “When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogance, this brings its evil on itself” (Ch. 9).

Catholicism and Daoism certainly do not share the same vision of ultimate reality. We cannot equate One God in Three Persons with an eternal cosmic force or principle. But when it comes to diagnosing what ruins human happiness and fails to protect human dignity, followers of both religions agree: to pursue money, fame and worldly success is to “chase after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17). Those who pray to God to fill their house with gold and jade have been known to live to regret it. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) said, “More tears are shed over prayers that are answered than over prayers that are not answered.”

The fear of dying

At a deeper level, people are afraid to die. Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death in 1973. He listed examples from around the world of how people tiptoe around the topic of death and pretend it will not happen. Some psychologists later proposed terror management theory, in which societies use rituals, distractions, ideologies and even religions to keep fearful thoughts under control. A sense of panic hurts both individuals and communities.

In China, speaking of death is an even bigger taboo than in some other parts of the world. In Old China, Buddhists monks and sisters spoke freely of the shortness of life. They warned against the foolishness of trying to cling to anything which will pass away. Nothing is permanent. Catholics in China, as elsewhere in the world, get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, as a public reminder that we “are dust, and will return to dust.”

In an extremely secular society, there is no room for religion inside the educational system. Without any instruction on how to cope with death, are students missing something they need to be better equipped to cope with life?

Children see and hear so much

Even in first grade, children need to learn there is more to life than money and status. Amid all the advertising of today’s consumer society, that seems to be a hard lesson to convey. Parents would do well to talk to each other about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 5:25-34). Little ears might be listening.