Deep China investigates the emotional and moral lives of the Chinese people as they adjust to the challenges of modernity. Sharing a medical anthropology and cultural psychiatry perspective, Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee, Everett Zhang, Pan Tianshu, Wu Fei, and Guo Jinhua delve into intimate and sometimes hidden areas of personal life and social practice to observe and narrate the drama of Chinese individualization. The essays explore the remaking of the moral person during China’s profound social and economic transformation, unraveling the shifting practices and struggles of contemporary life.
Deep China The Moral Life of the Person, What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us about China Today
- by Arthur Kleinman (Author), Yunxiang Yan (Author), Jing Jun (Author), Sing Lee (Author), Everett Zhang (Author), Pan Tianshu (Author), Wu Fei (Author), Jinhua Guo (Author) & 3 more
- September 2011
- First Edition
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The Changing Moral Landscape
This chapter depicts the changing moral landscape in contemporary China. In nature, growing plants, blossoming flowers, flowing creeks, and floating clouds animate the earth and the sky. In a similar vein, the new ideas, ideals, and actions of individuals and the constant negotiations about their appropriateness bring life to the norms, values, and behavioral patterns in a society: this is the moral landscape. The regeneration of life bestows the unbounded beauty of nature; the remaking of the person-the moral person-makes the moral landscape into a limitless space of public reflection and intellectual exploration. Consider the following snapshots of everyday life.
In the summer of 2008, I conducted interviews with nine young people in Shanghai, all of whom went to Sichuan as volunteers after the May earthquake. I learned a great deal from them about the moral visions of Chinese youth, including some very interesting new developments that challenge the conventional understanding of Chinese ethics as collectively oriented. For example, when a twenty-five-year-old woman mentioned that she submits her salary to her mother, without thinking I praised her for being a filial daughter. She replied with a cunning smile: "You think I am filial because I give my income to Mom, right? But you probably don't understand the deal here."
It turned out that each month she gave her mother three thousand yuan out of her monthly salary of 3,500 yuan. But she lived with her parents, meaning free room and board, and received pocket money from her mother frequently, as she explained:
Whenever I want something, I just go to my mother. I did a rough calculation a few months ago and found out that I need at least five thousand yuan per month for basic expenditures. But I also need to change my cell phone every year and my parents pay for it; I often travel with friends to other parts of the country and my parents pay for it. And I need to drink Starbucks coffee every day and my parents pay for that too. I guess by now you would think I am not that filial anymore, right?
I finally admitted to her that, in my mind, an adult child should financially help parents, instead of relying on parental support. By this standard, she is probably not as filial as I thought in the first place. Quite intriguingly, she replied: "You are wrong again. I am quite filial. Why? Do you know what my parents' biggest hope is? My happiness! If I live a happy life, they will be happy. This is exactly what I am doing, and they are indeed very happy." At that moment, I felt like an idiot, but at the same time I was also excited by her new interpretation of filial piety, because it seemed to indicate an important ethical change. Two weeks later, I brought the issue up to a small group of young men in Xiajia Village, about 1,300 miles away from Shanghai, where I lived as an ordinary farmer from 1971 to 1978 and have returned to do fieldwork eleven times since 1989. Although these villagers were not as articulate as the young woman in Shanghai, they gave me similar answers: their happiness in life makes their parents happy and thus their pursuit of pleasure and comfort in life should be viewed as their way of fulfilling the duty of filial piety. Such an interpretation of filial piety in terms of one's own happiness is obviously quite different from the traditional definition in which one is expected to sacrifice one's time, labor, wealth, and even life to make parents happy.
In contemporary China, individual narratives about the pursuit of happiness typically include the elements of aspiration, determination, and hard work as well as the importance of personal connections (guanxi). For most people the key point of departure is the revelation that their individualism is central to their moral obligations and practices. In her vivid and insightful portrait of factory girls who migrated from the countryside to work in the cities, Leslie T. Chang (2008) takes a closer look at the various efforts that these young women make to reinvent themselves, to become someone they long to be. Some underage girls used the identity cards of a cousin or a classmate and as time went by they became so closely identified with the fake name that they would not answer to their real names. Many others took commercial classes during their very limited spare time so that they could upgrade their work skills and move up to a higher level. As a seventeen-year-old girl states in an inspirational speech to fellow factory workers: "In a factory with one thousand or ten thousand people, to have the boss discover you is very hard. You must discover yourself. You must develop yourself. To jump out of the factory, you must study. You are here because you don't want to be an ordinary worker with a dull life. If you are waiting for your company to lift you up, you will grow old waiting" (Chang 2008: 174). By sitting in on a white-collar secretarial skills special training class, Chang observed and experienced what the young women were learning and how the knowledge was taught. The class ignored writing and never gave any exams; instead, it focused on instilling the confidence to speak up and providing knowledge of the white-collar work environment and proper etiquette and manners, ranging from the choice of color of one's clothing to the appropriate ways to sit and to walk. Individualism is one of the central messages, but it is promoted with a traditional appeal: by lifting yourself up, you will also lift up your whole family. Another key message is equally individualistic, but with a postmodern twist: if you look and act like someone of a higher class, you will become that person. This class, as well as many other classes, actually offers rural girls, most of whom are excluded from the formal education system for various reasons, a second chance to become the person they want to be. Many of them highly appreciate this opportunity. Work ethics, however, never came up as a subject in the class. As Chang observed, students learn how the office world functioned so that they can use the knowledge to lie their way into jobs for which they are not qualified (white-collar jobs normally require a college diploma). Both teachers and students know the game and play it well, because they all accept the simple fact that people who are too honest are those who will lose out (see Chang 2008: 171-189).
In contrast, ethics and the cultivation of virtues are the precise focal point for a group of affluent professionals and private entrepreneurs who live in a gated community of upscale high-rise apartments and low-rise villas in Beijing. During the summer of 2008 I participated in several study sessions in which I found the remaking of the moral person quite revealing. Once a week, a group of ten to fifteen gathered in the spacious living room in the home of the group leader, a freelance writer and community organizer. They studied ethical books used in kindergarten and primary schools in the United States and European countries, reading the texts aloud, doing the exercises related to each topic, and then holding soul-searching discussions that related the topic of the day-a particular virtue-to their life experiences at work and in the community.
On the day of my third visit, the virtue being studied was gentleness (wenrou). Some male participants questioned the relevance of gentleness as a virtue since it is associated with femininity. Their perspective was criticized by some women who argued that the core of gentleness is to be sensitive to other people's feelings and not to hurt others, including nonhumans. Finally, the group reached an agreement that what makes gentleness a virtue is the underlying idea of equality-if one believes that people are all equal in moral worth, one will treat others with respect and sensitivity and thus will be gentle. Many of the participants then began to discuss the lack of gentleness in everyday life in Beijing, and some reflected on the rude ways of dealing with subordinates at work, a common phenomenon in their own life experiences. I must add that these people did not merely talk and reflect; they also actively participated in community and volunteer activities. One of their primary concerns was how to become a nicer person; yet, they all agreed that this is not easy in today's world as they all have had the experience of knowingly doing the wrong things. The study group thus also functions as a type of do-it-yourself psychological therapy for the participants.
It certainly would be wrong to assume that individual moral reflection and critique are positively correlated with one's social status or accumulated wealth. There is much evidence, in both officially published sources and public opinion, that shows how the rich and powerful violate basic moral principles and reap huge profits at the expense of the interest of others, such as the numerous cases of official corruption, money-power exchange scandals in real-estate development, and slave labor. Equally important are cases of rank-and-file individuals standing up to seek social justice, protect the weak, and cultivate the moral self. The most courageous are those individuals who fight valiantly for dignity, integrity, and decency from the margins of society. In a recent case, for example, a migrant worker-turned-small businessman turned himself in and confessed his counterfeiting and fraud. For more than two years, he had made money by purchasing inferior ice cream bars and frozen dumplings, repackaging them as high-quality brand-name products, and then selling them at a profit to lower-end retail stores. As his business took off, he began to suffer increasing guilt for cheating and damaging the health of consumers by selling low-quality frozen dumplings. It took him several months of intense self-questioning, interrogation with his conscience, and consideration of the cost of confession that could lead to several years in prison. The 2008 scandal of tainted milk powder and the prospect of becoming a father led to a breakthrough as he came to realize the responsibility of the individual to make a better society. Thereafter, he turned himself in and confessed (W. Zhang 2009).
What do these stories tell us about contemporary China? Most obviously, individuals making their own moral judgments and decisions is a common thread that runs through all these episodes; more often than not, by making moral judgments these individuals also redefine what it means to be a proper person in today's China and how to live up to it. "You must discover yourself. You must develop yourself," as the seventeen-year-old migrant worker whom I cited earlier proclaimed. The moral implications and consequences of the individual in self-discovery and self-development thus constitute the central theme of this chapter.
In the following pages, I will first examine the changing moral landscape at the level of ethical discourse on what is moral and how to be a moral person. Despite the continued insistence on socialist civilization and collective ethics in the official discourse, the most important change in popular discourse and moral practice has been a shift away from an authoritarian, collective ethics of responsibilities and self-sacrifice toward a new, optional, and individualistic ethics of rights and self-development. In the next section, I unpack the prevailing public perception of moral decline or moral crisis since the 1980s, and I identify three major ways through which such a perception is formed. In the third section, I take a closer look at the opposing trends at the level of moral practices: on the one side, the various sorts of immorality or morally disturbing behaviors that form the factual basis for the perception of moral crisis; on the other, the emerging new moral practices that are individual-centered yet tending toward more universal values. Together, these three sections lead to the conclusion that the moral landscape in post-Mao China has undergone a profound shake-up, and in many ways has been radically changed by the rise of the new ethics of individual rights and self-development. Yet, the collective ethics of duties and self-sacrifice remain deeply embedded in the everyday life of Chinese individuals. This contradiction causes not only the entanglement and confusion of different values and behavioral norms, but also tensions and conflicts in moral practice, making the moral landscape highly dynamic, complex, and uncertain.
The Ethical Shift from Responsibilities to Rights
In the early spring of 1980, a young female worker named Huang Xiaoju sent a long letter to China Youth (Zhongguo qingnian), the official mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League. In the letter, she described her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, her disappointment with the existing collective ideals and beliefs, and her rethinking of the relationship between self and society. Her letter attracted the attention of the journal's editors because at the time party leaders had already noted worrisome changes in people's thoughts and sentiments, especially suspicion of socialist ideals and values and frustration in adapting to the rapid changes in society during economic reform. The editors (under instructions from party leaders, of course) helped Huang revise her letter and also included some ideas from another letter written by a college student, Pan Yi. The journal then published the letter under the pseudonym Pan Xiao, taking one character from each of the authors' names, under the title "Why Is Life's Road Becoming Narrower and Narrower?" in the May 1980 issue.
The published letter touched the heart and soul of millions of people, old and young alike. By the end of the year, China Youth had received some sixty thousand letters from readers, 111 of which were published in subsequent issues. On June 12, China Youth Daily (Zhongguo qingnian bao), another mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League, began a special column to discuss the meaning of life and by the end of the year it had received more than seventy thousand contributions, two hundred of which the newspaper then published. At the same time, a large number of provincial and municipal newspapers and magazines, especially those targeting youth, also launched discussions along the same lines (for a detailed study, see Xu 2002: 51-71).
Two points in the Pan Xiao letter became the focus of debate. First, it describes the disillusionment with Communist ideals because of the gap between the ideals and reality; second, it demonstrates how through a journey of soul-searching many Chinese finally realized that selfishness is actually a part of human nature, and, in reality, everyone struggles to achieve her or his own goals, despite all the empty talk of selflessness and sacrifice for the collective interest.
At that time, both the disillusionment with collective moral values and the realization of selfishness as part of human nature were in direct conflict with the Party ideology and the Communist ethical discourse. The wide and enthusiastic responses from all over the country confirmed the Party leaders' worries that many people shared the opinions expressed in the Pan Xiao letter. This is why the debate on the meaning of life continued for so long and reached the entire nation, profoundly affecting millions of people. For example, the founder of the Lebaishi Group, one of the largest soft-drink companies in China, recalled the debate as a wake-up call. At the time, he was a branch leader of the Communist Youth League in rural Guangdong and was involved in serious discussions with a female colleague about the questions raised in the Pan Xiao letter. They concluded that self-development was the moral and best way to make a contribution to society. They later married and became nationally famous private entrepreneurs (see Wu 2007: 55). Many people whom I interviewed recalled that the debate was similar to a political campaign. Individuals were organized by the local youth league or other organizations to discuss both the letter and the meaning of life, debating whether or not people are selfish by nature and coming to a consensus point that the correct way to pursue self-interest is "subjectively for oneself, but objectively for all others" (zhuguan wei ziji, keguan wei dajia).
The fact that after so many years people still remember their participation in the debate reveals its deep imprint on their moral experience. The most important impact that people remember is the beginning of a departure from a morality of collective responsibilities to the justification for self-interest, which, as the earlier quote shows, was packaged diplomatically so as to avoid offending Communist ethics.
The significance of the 1980 debate on the meaning of life is that it marked the first open departure from the dominance of a collective ethics that can be traced back to Confucian ethics in Chinese history. From Confucian ethics and traditional culture to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People's Republic, the emphasis on the absolute primacy and supremacy of the collective over the individual continued; what had changed was merely the replacement of the family, kinship groups, and the emperor with socialist collectives, the Communist Party, and Chairman Mao. The Communist ethical discourse went even further to deny the meaning and value of the self by promoting new values of complete impartiality and selflessness, "seeking no advantage for oneself, pursuing benefits only for others," and "being a rustless screw of the revolutionary machine." An awareness of the self was unhealthy because one was supposed to dedicate one's entire life to the Communist cause and to always follow the instructions of the CCP and Chairman Mao. Needless to say, it was immoral to pursue self-interest (see Madsen 1984).
There was, however, a gap between the Communist ethical discourse and the people's actual moral practices during both the Mao and post-Mao eras. Even during the radical years of the Cultural Revolution, many villagers still tended the crops in their private lots with greater care than those in the collective farms, and workers found various ways to advance their personal interests. Yet, because of the dominant influence of Communist ethics, the pursuit of self-interest not only lacked legitimacy in public but also could have negative effects on the individual. The psychological suffering and painful experience of battling against one's intuitive self-awareness, for example, are vividly described in the Pan Xiao letter:
Having seen through life, I acquired a dual personality. On the one hand, I denounced this vulgar reality. On the other hand, I rode with the waves. Hegel once said: 'Whatever is realistic is rational, whatever is rational is realistic.' This has almost become a motto with which I comfort myself and soothe my wounds. I am human. I am not a noble person, but I am a rational one, just like all other rational beings. I fight about wages; I calculate bonuses. I learn to flatter, to lie.... Doing such things, I feel terrible inside. Then I remember Hegel's words and I become calm.
It would be quite difficult for any Chinese individual in the twenty-first century to understand why the authors of Pan Xiao felt guilty about their modest desires for bonuses and high wages, and many would not see anything wrong in their "riding with the waves." Yet, in the 1980s, considerations of personal interest were indeed regarded as immoral under Communist ethics, and the illegitimacy of self-interest made a morally sensitive person "feel terrible inside," as Pan Xiao put it.
Moreover, political campaigns, study groups, educational propaganda, and various mechanisms of awards and punishments created a rather oppressive environment for those who dared to put the self above the collective (Madsen 1984). For instance, moonlighting during spare time was considered immoral until the mid-1980s; as an employee of the state, one should not take up a second job elsewhere because, implicitly, one's spare time also belongs to the party-state. This was by no means mere rhetoric; serious punishment was a definite possibility. In 1985 an engineer named Zheng at a Shanghai textile factory was imprisoned for working at a private company during his spare time. Another engineer named Huang who had made six hundred yuan by moonlighting at a rural enterprise was sentenced to three hundred days imprisonment (Wu 2007: 86).
Despite the powerful constraints of Communist ethics and the associated regulations against individual interests, the trend of self-awareness and the emerging individual-centered morality of rights and self-realization seemed to be unstoppable. Throughout the 1980s, the official media and party propaganda outlets were filled with warnings about a moral crisis on the rise, known as the crisis of the three absences: the absence of moral values, beliefs, and confidence in Communist ideology. Interestingly, many people, especially the youth, seemed to care little about the officially defined moral crisis; instead, they embraced the accusations of lacking Communist/collective values and beliefs as a breakthrough in their search for the new self. This new moral experience was best expressed by Cui Jian, China's first rock star, in his famous song "I have nothing." As a Chinese scholar points out, the claim "I have nothing" actually represents an upbeat spirit of self-searching: "We live by seeking, searching for self, not because we have really lost ourselves, but because we have never really possessed our true selves. It is true, then, we have nothing" (Q. Liu 1988).
The collective morality of responsibility and self-sacrifice seemed to lose ground by the early 1990s, especially after Deng Xiaoping restored the market reforms in his south China tour. Thousands of scientists, artists, scholars, and government officials, including high-ranking party cadres, quit their jobs in the public sector, which formerly had been considered a symbol of their social achievement, and either joined or established their own private companies to make money by engaging in commercial activities. The large number of government officials involved in commercial activities quickly led to an upsurge of corruption among power holders, the moral implications of which will be explored later in this chapter. It is important here to note that the rush by the political and cultural elite to make money signaled the legitimacy of self-interest, profit-making, and a materialistic fetish. Consequently, the mentality and behavior among ordinary people began to change as well. As I note elsewhere (1994), being poor, which was regarded in the Communist ideology as an important marker of being part of the revolutionary force, came to be regarded as disgraceful. By the late 1990s the urge to make money had turned into a new fetish for monetary success. Moreover, individuals began to have a strong sense of competition; more and more people worked a second job in order to make extra money. Furthermore, the gradually emerging notion of a "Chinese dream" came to be shared by those who wished to become rich and successful, including many villagers who left their homes to seek better opportunities in the cities (Yan 1994).
The declining influence of collective values and Communist morality in everyday life does not mean that collective action disappeared. On the contrary, during the same period of shifting moral practices and ethical discourse, Chinese society began to witness the rise of new forms of public protests and social turbulence by which villagers, workers, and property owners took to the streets to protect their individual rights, such as the right to work, the right to have farm land, or the right to property (Lee 2007; O'Brien and Li 2006). Since the early 1990s, an increasing number of individuals have stood up to protect their interests against various predatory forces, such as developers, big companies, and local government agencies, and the number of public protests and the amount of social unrest have increased annually. The seemingly shocking number of more than one hundred cases of public protests in 1993 pales with that of more than seventy thousand in 2003, the year that was unofficially referred to as "the year of rights assertion" by the Chinese media, and eighty-seven thousand in 2005.
Focusing on villagers' actions, O'Brien and Li (2006) call these protests "rightful resistance" and highlight the following three features: operation near the boundary of an authorized channel, employment of the rhetoric and commitment of the powerful, and strategies to exploit divisions among the powerful. After carefully examining cases of public protests among workers in both the old industrial areas and the newly developed coastal cities, Lee (2007) wonders to what extent the protests might challenge the authority and legitimacy of the party-state, and whether in their protests against local authorities, these rights movements are actually seeking the intervention of the central government. What has been advanced by labor movements is social change instead of political change. Similar questions are raised by scholars studying the rights movements among urban homeowners, especially those initiated by displaced urban residents who were caught up in the rapid and often brutal process of urban development (Read 2008; Zhang 2010: 137-162). The most developed, however, is the assertion of consumer rights, which clearly and closely evolved around the rise of self-awareness and individual-centered ethics (Hooper 2005).
A similar ethical shift occurred in the sphere of private life. Based on longitudinal field research over a period of twelve years in a north China village, I charted the transformation of the private life sphere from the 1950s to the 1990s and discovered that the most salient feature of the individualization of rural families lies in the rise of the individual rather than in the changing family size or structure, and, consequently, the rise of a new ethics discourse that favors the individual. In everyday life, this is mostly reflected in the legitimization of individual desires for intimacy, privacy, freedom, and material comforts as well as in the actual pursuit of these desires. Unlike the traditional family, in which a person was nothing more than the personification of the family line, the contemporary individual is more interested in his or her personal happiness and the well-being of a narrowly defined private family (see Yan 2003). This is aptly illustrated, for example, by the changing nature of marriage transactions.
The practice of bridewealth was legally banned in China by the 1950 Marriage Law, although in reality it continued in various forms. The intriguing point is that by the 1980s urban and rural youth had gained power and independence in mate choice, marriage negotiations, and postmarital residence, yet the practice of marriage transactions remained intact and the standard value of bridewealth and dowry has continued to increase annually. For instance, in the village I studied, the standard cost of marital gifts increased from four to five thousand yuan in 1989 to sixty to seventy thousand yuan in 2008. In affluent metropolitan cities like Shanghai, the current standard is to receive at least a two-bedroom flat as bridewealth and a car as dowry, a quite firm demand that has contributed to the housing bubble in the new century.
Why has bridewealth survived radical socialist transformations and continued to get stronger? The key lies in a switch of the bridewealth recipients. Starting in the 1980s, the groom's family began to give bridewealth in both monetary and material forms directly to the bride who kept it for herself instead of giving it to her parents. Typically, after her wedding the bride uses bridewealth to fund her conjugal family, meaning that her husband benefits from the marital gifts as well. Consequently, young people are highly motivated to receive as much bridewealth and dowry as possible and they strategize in various ways to raise the standard payments, squeezing increasingly more money out of their parents.
To justify their demands for a lavish bridewealth and dowry, Chinese youth resort to the notion of individual property rights and to the rhetoric of individualism, claiming that they should receive their share of the family property, while overlooking the fact that many parents must work extra hard and often have to borrow the funds to meet their children's marriage needs. Ironically, many youth have claimed that demanding financial support is a matter of personal freedom (geren ziyou) or of having individuality (you gexing). When I discussed the same issue with college students in Shanghai in 2007 and 2008, I received answers essentially similar to those from the village youth, even though the college students could articulate their points in a much more sophisticated way (Yan 2009: 155-182).
Under the old collective system of ethics, the demand for excessive bridewealth and dowry for one's own interest would be regarded as selfish and absolutely immoral, because one was socialized to put family interest above self-interest and to respect the wishes of one's parents regarding these matters. The youth today-rural and urban alike-have gained freedom and independence from parental control when dealing with sex, mate choice, and marriage; yet they also make every effort to squeeze money out of their parents' pockets and they do not see anything morally unjustifiable in their behavior. When faced with criticism that they are being selfish, they simply shrug it off, arguing that selfishness is part of human nature. The point I want to emphasize here is that one's open claim of self-interest against that of the family may be accepted as legitimate by all those involved, which clearly indicates the shift of moral emphasis from family responsibilities and self-sacrifice to individual rights and self-realization. Similarly, the new interpretation of filial piety in terms of one's own happiness, as reflected in the opening story of this chapter, indicates such an ethical shift. In addition, the fact that the sanctioning power of accusing someone of being selfish has now become insignificant also shows how much the moral landscape in China has changed in comparison with the central issue in the debate over the Pan Xiao letter in 1980.
A notable study in this regard is Lisa Rofel's book Desiring China (2007), in which she examines a sea change that began to sweep through China in the 1990s. The Maoist culture of politics and associated socialist experiments were replaced by a state-initiated discovery of a universal human nature of individual desires and the various new forms of public culture that legitimize and promote both individual and national desires. Through a detailed and vivid description of television dramas, museum displays, legal cases, and other forms of public narrations of desires of various sorts in urban China, she argues that it is by constituting a subject who desires-a neoliberal practice of governance-that the party-state was able to regain its legitimacy of political monopoly in the post-1989 setting. By the same process, the Chinese individual was also able to create the link between the new self and the new cosmopolitan ethics of global neoliberalism and consumerism (Rofel 2007). Rofel does not explore, however, the ethical underpinnings and moral implications of this sea change, because her theoretical focus is set on the global trend of neoliberal governmentality and associated scholarly debates. Her ethnography, quite interestingly, also tells the story of the ethical shift from a collective system of responsibility and self-sacrifice to an individualistic system of rights and self-development, a point that was less emphasized. This ethical shift, in my opinion, may help us to better understand not only how but also why the rise of individual desires in post-1989 China is so important.
Moreover, I would argue that one cannot fully understand these rapid and radical changes in Chinese social life unless one takes into full consideration the shifting ethical discourse and moral practice. These cases reflect only the tip of the iceberg. The silent yet deep sexual revolution, the importance of romantic love, mutual understanding, and emotional attachment in personal relations, and the increase in depression, isolation, divorce, and suicide are all related to the shifting focus from responsibilities to rights, from self-sacrifice to self-realization, and ultimately from collectivity to individuality (see the chapters by Sing Lee, Wu Fei, and Everett Zhang in this volume for full discussions of these topics).
Unpacking the Public Perception of Moral Crisis
Understandably, such a shift in ethics and moral practice is not easy, because it both challenges the existing order of the moral universe and also creates winners and losers, and sometimes even victims. The judgment on each specific change brought about by this moral shift to a great extent depends on the perspectives of different individuals: where some see moral decline and crisis, others may find the rise of a new ethics. Yet, more often than not, people tend to generalize about the changing moral landscape too quickly and vaguely, leaving out the specifics of the temporal, spatial, and social contexts as well as the concrete communications, negotiations, and engagements in moral practice.
For instance, in 2007 (after the abolition of the agricultural taxes and other levies in 2005) a Chinese scholar asserted that the earlier crisis of governance in rural China had been replaced by a new crisis of ethics that had developed to the dangerous level of undermining social stability (Shen 2007). His view was echoed strongly by many at the time, and his article was not only reprinted in several scholarly journals but also appeared in a number of popular magazines and newspapers. To demonstrate this crisis, he cited a moral decline in two areas: the increase in the divorce rate and the fetish for money in villages. According to his observations, the high divorce rate was caused mainly by young women's loose attitude toward sex and marriage and their yearning for a comfortable material life. As for the money fetish, the scholar found it puzzling that villagers did not look down upon those young women who made money as sex workers in cities. On the contrary, after returning home, these young women used their earnings to help their parents build new houses, to participate in normal gift exchanges, and to fulfill their moral duties like everyone else. In the absence of any stigma, these former sex workers were not only tolerated but even respected by the villagers (Shen 2007).
Is this a crisis of moral decline or a radical change in both ethical discourse and moral practices in rural China? By whose standard should these young women's attitudes toward sex and marriage be judged as loose? Why is the yearning for a comfortable life unethical? It turns out that the criticism of the young women's behavior came mainly from the older male villagers who still upheld the conventional ethics of collective responsibility. Thus, they disapproved of the women's pursuit of personal happiness and material comfort. Ironically, it is also by the same standard of collective responsibility that these elderly male villagers regarded financial contributions from the young women as evidence of their being filial, and therefore they did not discriminate against these former sex workers, whom they viewed as returning to the village to fulfill their family duties after making money in the cities. Here, the tension and conflict derive from the entanglement of individualistic and collectivistic ethics in real life across generational and gender lines. To what extent there is a moral crisis in this particular rural community, therefore, remains questionable. Yet, it is more important to ask why general statements of moral crisis like Shen's resonate so well with the public and why, since the late 1980s, a public perception of moral decay has circulated so widely in China.
Three Ways of Perceiving a Moral Crisis
To better understand the complexity of these issues, we need to make a distinction between the perception of a moral crisis and the reality of moral changes-good and bad alike. In an insightful analysis of the perception of a crisis in American values, Wayne Baker (2005) identifies three ways by which people perceive such a crisis. The first is to focus on the loss of traditional values by comparing the present with the past, the second is the unfavorable comparison of American society with other societies in terms of prevailing values, and the third derives from the division of American society into opposing groups with irreconcilable moral differences, that is, a culture war. With some modifications, Baker's approach can be applied to the Chinese case, as all three ways of thinking play a role in the making of a public perception of moral decline or crisis.
First, as far as values and moral practices are concerned, people from all walks of life tend to idealize the past and to use it to critique unsatisfying aspects of the present. Loss of traditional values is but one common complaint; another focuses on the moral decay of the younger generations who not only forget the traditional but also break the status quo by thinking and behaving differently from the older generations. The faster a society changes, the more complaints there are about the alleged lost paradise. This line of argument started in China more than 2,500 years ago with Confucius, who lamented the lost values and proprieties of the golden era of Duke Zhou. Similarly, the current complaints idealize social life under Mao as an era of high moral standards because all the major moral problems in the reform era, such as cadre corruption, commercial cheating, distrust of the public, and various forms of negative competition did not exist (at least to the same extent) in those egalitarian times. Moreover, the shift from collective ethics to individualistic ethics is not only rapid but also fundamental and thus only makes more acute the felt pain, confusion, and loss of direction among many Chinese individuals, especially those who prefer to have the protection of collectivism.
It is true that under Mao officials were much less corrupt in financial matters, yet the abuse of political power was more severe; commercial scams almost never existed under the planned economy, yet many more people suffered from the endless political battles. It is also true that public trust in the CCP, the government, and social institutions was high and trust in Mao was at the level of an irrational cult, yet nearly all people feared being reported on by others, including their closest family members and best friends. Under the Communist virtues of impartiality and selflessness, many individuals abused themselves mentally and others underwent brainwashing sessions and sometimes acted (such as during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) to expel the selfishness from their souls. Yet, recognition and rewards from the CCP and the government remained personal. Hence, the activists during the Mao era acted out of selfish motivations. The most fundamental difference is the dominance of the collective morality of responsibilities that was exalted during the Maoist era but quickly collapsed thereafter. The total denial of individual rights and of an individual identity by Maoist socialism, which was at least as unethical as any other vice, has been either forgotten or purposely neglected by t