Hierarchies of status, age and gender, inform any society and in our sixth day in China we wonder about the particular cartography that they assume here. This does not go without questions and doubts. How should we interpret their complexity, our position as foreigners, the always present risk of essentialing things, the danger of twisting and reducing reality to the language that we know better and that intrinsically informs what we see and how we constitute our experience, or worse, the possibility of creating new forms of hierarchies among cultures that reproduce well known forms of universalism and exceptionalism? Yet, our passion to learn more of China, and our everyday demands as travellers in front of Shanghai markets and supermarkets (with their mixture of Chinese and international food that sometimes seems to hide the amazing richness of Chinese cuisine), do not take away from the attempt to understand the country. Such an attempt to know the country involves the risk of framing politically predetermined questions about power and social relations. But in formulating these questions, we know that we are bound by our language as much as our language is bound by the bodies from which we make utterances.
Thus we wonder about the status of women in this city: the woman on the Shanghai street, the tourguide, the waitress, the laundress, the maid, the student, the mother. She is constantly servicing a need, fulfilling a wish - feeding, clothing, smiling, appeasing, seducing, cleaning, taking care. And, not too dissimilar from our European context, she is breathless in the banality of everyday labour exploitation. But the same applies to the status that is accorded to young people.
How to account for these hierarchies of gender and age? We wonder whether recent interpretations of Confucianism can provide some interpretative tool. In the past, Confucianism has been seen as a cause of China’s backwardness and feudalism. But the transition to appreciation seems to have happened very smoothly, serving many purposes. It can be employed to prove the existence of shared culture in East and South-East Asia. It also asserts the cultural centrality of China in the region. Internally it justifies the status quo as a preserver of harmonious society and the upholding of a social system which favours seniority and the collective good.
To better articulate our concerns, we should consider the reasons for this new approach to Confuciansim. The strength of it lies in its ability to incorporate many different and contradicting ideas and practices. It is true that Confucianism had been the core of the state ideology for many centuries and it is becoming so again. Many values promoted by it such as Zhōng (忠, Loyalty), Xiào (孝, Filial piety) and Jié (節, Continency) were useful for the state. But other values such as Rén (仁, Humaneness), Yì (義, Righteousness or Justice), Zhì (智, Knowledge), Xìn (信, Integrity) seem to have all potential to imagine new political possibilities and open space for an unexpected confluence of values.
- The Oecumene Team, 5 June 2013