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In China, what is truth?

By Brian Hennessy - posted Thursday, 9 April 2015

It’s always difficult to comment on China.

Paradoxically, this rigid Confucian society appears to change from one day to the next. Whether this is cultural reality or personal confusion, I am not sure. Nevertheless those of us who have lived in the Middle Kingdom for a long time have learned that things are often never as they appear.

China is a materialistic society. It is rare to meet folk who have a deeply held personal belief system which generalises across day to day situations. Personal ethics may vary according to the situation.


For example; although one might behave ethically and morally within close personal relationships, one's behaviour outside such intimate circles – if I can put it delicately – may be more adaptive. That's why the first rule for survival in China – for natives as well as expats – is to protect oneself first.

So, let's be clear about one thing: although Confucianism is the bedrock of Chinese society, it is important to recognise that generally speaking, it is more a collection of culturally appropriate rules and behaviours rather than a personal guide for individual morality. 

A qualification: not all Chinese people behave this way. Some of my acquaintances are the most moral people I know. A contradiction that might be better understood via Taoist rather than Confucian wisdom (a topic for another day, perhaps).

Nevertheless, one might assume that after having lived for so long in the Middle Kingdom, I should be less troubled by these cultural inconsistencies than I am. Further, one might also assume that by now I would have an informed opinion on where China is today and where it is going tomorrow.

This is dangerous territory – there's a fine line between informed opinion and loose speculation where China is concerned. As some Western observers demonstrate, it can be easy to surmise and predict if one looks at China from a distance. The ruffles of cultural and political complexity appear smoother from afar.

It is not so easy to form an opinion however, if one is immersed in the realities of life in mainland China. The Middle Kingdom is a much more complex society from this perspective.


In fact, the years spent in China have forced me to confront an inconvenient truth: no matter how well we Western expatriates might think we understand China, the reality is that we will always be foreigners in this mysterious land. We will never know as much as we hope to know about this ancient society and its modern rulers.

There is always much more going on than meets the eye, and it can be difficult (for Westerners) to read between the lines and discern fact from fiction. Political pronouncements should always be taken with a grain of salt. 

For example, past president Deng Xiaoping’s cautionary advice to his countrymen to be humble and cross the river by feeling the stones beneath one’s feet was a wise aphorism three decades ago. 

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for thirteen years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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