24 March 2004

Lingering Guilt from the Mao Era

A common cliché about the difference between East and West is that Oriental cultures are driven by shame whereas the Judeo-Christian West is driven by guilt. In the West, God sees our sins even if no one else does, so we feel guilty. By contrast in the East, which has no God, it is only when the neighbors notice that one needs to worry, and then one feels shame. This has always seemed to me a rickety distinction. What troubles [exiled dissidents] Su [Xiaokang], Xie [Xuanjun], Wang Chaohua, who once tormented her father [during the Cultural Revolution], and many other refugees from China's dictatorship sounds more like guilt than shame--with or without the all-seeing eye of God. And the guilt goes deeper and back further in time than the events of 1989 [at Tiananmen]. Su said: "All of us who went through the Cultural Revolution feel guilty--of beating our teachers, denouncing our parents, that sort of thing. At least we intellectuals can talk about it. Ordinary Chinese have it all bottled up.

So why was it, I asked, that Su [unlike some of his cohorts] ended up rejecting Christianity after all? His response was a melancholy echo of a distress I would come across often among the survivors of the Maoist era. He said that since people of his generation lost their faith in Maoism, they felt like plants cut off at the roots. It had become impossible to believe in any religion or any ideology, he added: "I tried hard, but I can't believe in anything at all."
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), p. 58

No comments: