Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Frying Pans for China, or a Paean to Zhongyi Appleseed

“John Chapman. He lived for others. 1774-1845.” (inscription on John’s gravestone).

Stephen Chase dreamed of bringing light and progress to China in a riotous decade marked by revolutionary nationalism. Yours truly dreams similar dreams, in an era again overshadowed by political showdowns and dramatic displays of (what is now) conventional Chinese nationalism. Perhaps the major difference between the protagonist of Alice Hobart’s Oil for the Lamps of China (an unforgettable and very timely read) and yours truly is the way in which we seek to realize our shared dreams. For Chase the answer was to supply every Chinese living room with an oil lamp. For me, the scheme is to provide every Chinese guesthouse with a kosher frying-pan.

Before you laugh off what is something of a cutesy attention grabber, hear me out because there is something to be said for the frying pan rather than the oil lamp. The strategy that Chase pursued as a Standard Oil frontman in 1920s China has been the mantra of American business leaders and Chinese political elites since Deng Xiaoping threw the country open to foreign investment in the 1980s. American corporation see endless possibility in the country’s cheap labor and untapped consumer markets. And every domestic leader since Deng has embraced the power of the market, broadcasting the diminutive leader’s pragmatic message that in today’s China “to get rich is glorious… no matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”

There is certainly something to be said for improving individual and social wellbeing through bringing the mythical oil lamp into every Chinese home. But wellbeing is not simply about how much oil you have to measure your annual income. Or for that matter, how much oil you have to use in frying your chaofan (fried rice). It is also about what sort of frying pan you are using to make your favorite Chinese stir-fry. What is being sacrificed in the natural world, in terms of the environment, through the ceaseless pursuit of material advancement? And what is being sacrificed in the spiritual world, in terms of morality, culture, and intellectual honesty, to keep the lamps burning?

I do not decry the traditional development approach, and can only applaud idealists like Chase who seek realize truly monumental goals within an often soulless corporate culture. But in looking for ways to assist Chinese development, I am more attuned to the Jonny Appleseeds than the Paul Bunyans. Or in Zionist terms, the Ahad Ha’ams rather than the Ze’ev Jabotinskys. Or in Chariots of Fire terminology, the Eric Liddell approach rather than that of Harold Abrahams. Or in my own terms, without any value system or cultural appreciation—without a frying pan that can become about something larger than satisfying one’s own appetite-- all the oil in the world will be unable to shine a light on our shared humanity. Poll after poll shows a dearth of any compelling moral barometer in Chinese society and rampant corruption and materialism are two of the more obvious results. The tragedy is that traditional Chinese culture is blessed with some incredibly sophisticated and vivifying schools of thought, from the humanist ethic of the Confucians to the contemplative ethos of philosophical Daoists.

In spreading kosher frying pans around China—more a goal than a reality, as I can only point to Lijiang, Chengdu and Beijing as evident success stories— I realize I am far from really implementing a cultural based approach to development. Or for that matter, in making but the slightest contribution to increasing intercultural communication between two ancient civilizations. It is a message worth believing in, however, a message not to ignore as China’s oil needs progress far beyond anything Stephen Chase could have imagined three quarters of a century ago.

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