London, UK - November 11 2016: The buttons of Skype, Instagram, Messages, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Pintrest, Facebook and Twitter social media apps on the screen of a mobile phone. Photo: iStock
The Indian govt wants WhatsApp to share information with law enforcement agencies, but it does not want to. Photo: iStock

How does the way China appears on Western social media affect Sino-American relations (and vice versa)? The media inform, guide action, sway opinions and entertain. Relevant for the authors of this piece, they provide an engine that may be used by leaders in all departments of aggregate human civilization to control, or at least guide, their followers and anyone else available to be captured by efficient rhetoric. The effect is to encourage media consumers to follow paths of action consistent with the goals of those leaders. Think US President Donald Trump and Twitter.

We advocate free trade in esthetics! Our purpose in this essay is to suggest a surprising but much-needed element or component in “media feed filtering” that will allow consumers of media to separate real from fake content. Our element is composed of pop culture: because it is a version of the artistic sense that is available to ordinary people everywhere. Our idea is a way to use the same to make the job of separating real from fake easier or at least more natural for the audience.

The idea that the heart is sometimes better than the head when it comes knowing the difference between real and “fake” news, rules, and wise counsel, the belief that when it comes to human affairs, real-world politics, social norms and religious teaching, heart, and head must be in balance is common to both Asian and western culture. Poetry, ritual, tradition and the esthetic sense, since they emanate or radiate unsullied from the deepest wells of our true human nature, have the power to discern and distinguish the real from the “fake” atoms of information, now mixed among the welter of “information traffic noise.” We say the esthetic sense helps the observer to see human truths, find good rules for behavior, or simply to truly see  “what is really going on.” We report below our evidence that this “poetic” or “artistic” technique exists and is trusted in both East and West. Alas, we don’t have today’s needed cultural filter’s design: We only say that those who seek it should be sure they look for an esthetic element in the “truth-finding” machine they finally design or discover.

If East and West are really to know about one another, fake news must be eliminated from the market, or at least clean news must be available

If East and West are really to know about one another, fake news must be eliminated from the market, or at least clean news must be available. Clean news, the clear news, is especially useful for young people on both sides of the Pacific. They are accustomed to getting material, even technical information mixed in with esthetic content: constantly “plugged in at lunch,” they consume data along with entertainment/pleasure in figurative Guo qiao mixian (crossing the bridge soup, Kunming, Yunnan province). That classic mixture of meat, eggs, noodles, and veggies, all under a thin layer of oil, has the key ingredient, fresh flowers, added only at the moment of consumption.  The esthetic component in East-West communication, the fresh flowers of clean news, must find its way into our Cross-Pacific trade menu if the next hundred years – a time during which China will have re-acquired its traditional leading role in the world – are to go well for us all. It won’t be easy.

Even Chinese-speaking young people, those born in the West of parents who crossed the ocean into the sunrise, are not sufficiently adept at using the ever-more sophisticated machinery of technical communication to feel completely at home when they are, electronically speaking, back in their ancestors’ world. They don’t really know the ever-changing, subtle cultural language used by their peers – by those young Chinese people who have not been transplanted into the West.

What is missing? Mere language, absent its natural roots in cultural rituals, rites, and conventions, is inadequate to communicate at the level of esthetic delicacy and precision needed if the world is to build a “bridge without nails” linking China with the West. (Sometimes called Leonardo’s self-supporting bridge, the beautifully arched no-nails walkway, made entirely from simple straight sticks, was likely copied by him from a Chinese original.) We want a natural connection made with the “straight sticks” of competing, alternate rites, rituals and cultural habits, back and forth, one stick at a time, one stick from the East and one from the  West, conjoined with imagination, wit, balanced tensions: such a thing is needed to bridge the wide Pacific.

The missing element for “overseas China” is a deep and natural understanding of China’s Home Ritual. Rites and rituals are subsidiary to the central Chinese concept of Li-Zhi (translated as patriarchal rules). This symbol/idea captures notions of proper actions, correct manners and socially correct standards of behavior in all the various aspects and multi-faceted forms of group interactions, ranging across the family, to business, to politics writ large. The language used in these various forms of social life is subsidiary or at least profoundly controlled by the rites and rituals of life, and for this reason, a mere understanding of the literal language, standing alone, is not adequate to understand the real relationships and purpose of any particular example of social ceremony or collaboration. In China, all-pervasive habitual social, even spiritual rites and rituals give to everyday actions a significant moral reality.  In the West, a parallel form of rituals comprises the morality-inducing Judeo-Christian notions of honor, chivalry, and propriety.

Esthetic rituals police behavior. No society can afford to have a cop on every corner. No community, not even one as simple as a nuclear family, can employ constant vigilance, resort to violence to enforce its rules, or write down all the regulations that must be observed in order to maintain good order.

On both sides of the Pacific, indeed in all human societies that survive and thrive, etiquette, good manners, honor, self-respect – call it by its many names – is the frame, the foundation, the bedrock and the roof-beam of the social house within which the citizens of a civil society find shelter. During much of human history, that sheltering collection of habit, tradition, ritual and protective shelter takes the form of art, esthetics, religion, and ritual. If East and West are to live together in the same “house” they must find common notions of “good manners” or “social good deportment”, perhaps in the shape of today’s art forms, some of the crude, and vulgar (in the sense that they form today’s worldwide shared esthetic environment of popular music, movies, and simple entertainment).

Traditionally, Chinese conventions and rites cover the whole range of human conduct. Ceremonials control modes of personal sacrifice, maturation from childhood to adulthood, marriage, war, one’s obligations to neighbors; there are rituals concerning dying and obligations to ancestors. The “Five Rites” are Ji-li, Jian-li, Bin-li, Jun-li, and Xiong-li. The pre-Qin book “Classic of Rites” comprises prescription and prescriptions for all Five Rites, and in addition includes material from the conversations of Confucius (Li-Zhi) covering questions of politics, law, religion, art, and history. There are rules for sitting, standing, talking, even sleeping – don’t sleep belly down, assume a slightly bent, bow position. Our interest will be in business, production and trading rituals. By following the protocols laid out in such conventions, ordinary people are able, without the necessity of exploring the philosophy of governance that is the logical foundation for the book (and others like it) to behave well, to avoid unnecessary conflict, to presume their actions are moral, and to experience personal dignity, prudence, piety, social standing, and sobriety appropriate to their station.

But ah, say you the reader, esthetic rules and the poetic understanding of the human condition held by artists, especially by purveyors of popular culture, have no practical place in Western thoughts concerning governance, social organization and general progress. We beg to differ.

We remind the reader that art and artists, particularly art devoted to the commonplace and ordinary business of life was, in the 19th century, argued by the great American poet/philosopher/social critic Walt Whitman, said to be the cure for the many ills Whitman said infected his USA at the perilous times before, during and after the American Civil War.

“Never was there … more hollowness at heart … here in the United States. Genuine belief [has] left us. … underlying principles … are not honestly believ’d in … [despite] melodramatic screamings, nor is humanity itself believ’d in.… The official services of America… are saturated in corruption … the one sole object is … pecuniary gain … money-making is … sole master….” Whitman’s cure for all this is the ritual of art and the genius of the artist.

“… The problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and treated by literature.… Never was anything more wanted than … the poet … the central point in any nation … whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems.“ What kind of poems? Whitman’s own, and he himself says the “swaying words” of his “barbaric yawp” shouted from rooftop to mountaintop: pop culture indeed.

If there could be a bridge without nails linking East with West, or a house without nails sheltering us all, Whitman thinks it could be built by art: “… There could hardly happen anything that would more serve the States, with all their variety of origins, their diverse climes, cities, standards, etc, than … to possess the aggregation of a cluster of mighty poets, artists, teachers … comprehending and effusing … what is universal, native, common to all….”

By the way, lest you should think that Whitman’s writers/poets/ritualists are “above” popular culture, remind yourself of his “Song of Myself”: “Creeds and schools in abeyance,/… I harbor for good or bad, /  The spotted hawk … complains of my garb and my loitering./ I too am not a bit tamed — I too am untranslatable;/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

So, the idea of the healing, unifying and organizing power of the esthetic, culture, the “religion” of the “courtesy State” (a phrase once applied to China) and the stature give to the life habits of ordinary men and women is as much American as it is Asian.

What is our solution?

Our solution to the question “how shall East and West meet in conviviality, mutual trust and stability” is to remind our readers of the power and pervasiveness of popular culture, even including media such as Asia Times!

As we said at the top, we don’t ourselves have a filtering machine oiled up, warmed up, and ready to chew up the swirling and forever mixed mash-up of claims, “facts,” data points that surround us in the cloudy atmosphere of the internet. (Forgive us for writing a sentence in the spirit of Whitman – reading him has that sort of effect.) Our advice for the world’s leaders, especially for the leaders of China: open social media, and especially allow “free media trade” in art, music, literature and all “messaging aimed at the heart.” Our advice for all and any citizen of the two-hemisphere Pacific Coast world, use your heart perhaps even more than your head, respect the esthetic element in your human nature, when you make real-life choices, as a person or as a politician.  Both classes of player will quickly discover how better to share the future.


See a boy build one here:

(quotes from Whitman’s Democratic vistas

Authors’ note: Our source book is Traditional Chinese Rites and Rituals by Ge Feng and Zhengming Du. [link doesn’t work -ds]

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.

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