Taxi Tale Interpretation

25 Oct 2002

Not long ago I got pissed off about a little episode involving a Chinese man and a taxi and I made a little entry about it.

I got one response on it from one John B. He’s a guy who taught in China for a short time, and I happened to get in contact with him through some really odd coincidences.

John B. suggested in his e-mail that “the ‘me first’ attitude comes from simple competition for resources. With 1.2 billion other folks to compete with to get everything, I guess you learn to take any opportunity you can get.”

That explanation makes sense, and I might accept it, were it not for my experiences in Japan. China may have the world’s largest population, but the population density of Japan is, for the most part, higher. I can’t quote any statistics on this, but I’ve lived extensively in both places now, and I can assure you that’s the case. So in Japan there should be higher competition for resources.

You might answer that China is poorer, whereas Japan is now a land of plenty (despite the current economic slump), which curbs the “me first” competitive drive in Japan. Recall, though, that after WWII Japan was a third world nation. China may be newer to modernity, but the pre-WWII generation is still around in Japan as well. Both societies have undergone monumental changes in the past 50 years, but China has come out of it seeming much less civil. Why?

My adult Chinese students at the English Department recently offered a compelling explanation. Since they are still young themselves, the students drew mainly upon anecdotes from their parents and grandparents to offer this explanation.

Before Communist China, China was at war. War with Japan, civil war, war with Western imperialism. It was chaos. Out of this chaos came Communist China. Early Communist China was actually Communist. It was communal. People cooperated. People shared. As the U.S. quaked in fear and rage at the global spread of Communism, Chinese people felt a national spirit of goodwill and just plain human goodness that surpassed anything that the nation had experienced in a long, long time. You might dismiss such warm fuzzy good feeling descriptions of early Communist China as propaganda, but I’ve heard a lot of stories. Regardless of certain realities (e.g. the failure of efforts such as the Great Leap Forward*), a lot of Chinese people felt really good. It was a golden time.

That era was followed by the Cultural Revolution*, of course. Cooperation, goodwill, and social progress were replaced by backstabbing, malice, and social disintegration as co-workers, friends, and even family members betrayed each other in the madness of the times. All sense of brotherhood was obliterated by the absolute necessity to look out for number one. One’s reputation, livelihood, or possibly even life depended on it.

The effects of the Cultural Revolution were profound. They linger. Furthermore, Capitalism has long since had its foot in the door, and the Party is looking the other way as the entire leg sexily slides its way in. I’m thinking Capitalist consumerism probably doesn’t help the situation either, right?

And so jerks steal my taxi in China.

They’re still not excused.

* This site on Chinese history, maintained by the Chaos Group at the University of Maryland, is cool because it contains the Chinese (traditional characters) for a lot of the important names and events mentioned.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

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