The Riddle’s Answer is in Your Heart

One of the questions that comes up most often about missions in China is about cultural adaptation. Probably due to the exoticism of China in their eyes, many Westerners find it hard to imagine themselves ‘living like the Chinese.’ While there is certainly a good and right place for studying new cultures, such efforts have a tendency to complicate a simple thing: empathy. The vast majority of cultural clutzes are not so because they fail to grasp the subtleties of Chinese society – they’re just universally clumsy. They’re awkward no matter what country they’re operating in!

G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Heretics’ has this to say about the analyzing of cultures, especially ‘ceremonial’ aspects of culture:

An ignorance of the other world is boasted by many men of science; but in this matter their defect arises, not from ignorance of the other world, but from ignorance of this world. For the secrets about which anthropologists concern themselves can be learnt, not from books or voyages, but from the ordinary commerce of man with man. The secret of why some savage tribe worships monkeys or the moon is not to be found even by traveling among those savages and taking down their answers in a note-book, although the cleverest man may pursue this course. The answer to the riddle is in England; it is in London; nay, it is in his own heart. When a man has discovered why men in Bond Street wear black hats he will at the same moment have discovered why men in Timbuctoo wear red feathers. The mystery in the heart of some savage war-dance should not be studied in books of scientific travel; it should be studied at a subscription ball. If a man desires to find out the origins of religions, let him not go to the Sandwich Islands; let him go to church. If a man wishes to know the origin of human society, to know what society, philosophically speaking, really is, let him not go into the British Museum; let him go into society.

This total misunderstanding of the real nature of ceremonial gives rise to the most awkward and dehumanized versions of the conduct of men in rude lands or ages. The man of science, not realizing that ceremonial is essentially a thing which is done without a reason, has to find a reason for every sort of ceremonial, and, as might be supposed, the reason is generally a very absurd one – absurd because it originates not in the simple mind of the barbarian, but in the sophisticated mind of the professor. The teamed man will say, for instance, “The natives of Mumbojumbo Land believe that the dead man can eat and will require food upon his journey to the other world. This is attested by the fact that they place food in the grave, and that any family not complying with this rite is the object of the anger of the priests and the tribe.” To any one acquainted with humanity this way of talking is topsy-turvy. It is like saying, “The English in the twentieth century believed that a dead man could smell. This is attested by the fact that they always covered his grave with lilies, violets, or other flowers. Some priestly and tribal terrors were evidently attached to the neglect of this action, as we have records of several old ladies who were very much disturbed in mind because their wreaths had not arrived in time for the funeral.” It may be of course that savages put food with a dead man because they think that a dead man can eat, or weapons with a dead man because they think that a dead man can fight. But personally I do not believe that they think anything of the kind. I believe they put food or weapons on the dead for the same reason that we put flowers, because it is an exceeding natural and obvious thing to do. We do not understand, it is true, the emotion which makes us think it obvious and natural; but that is because, like all the important emotions of human existence it is essentially irrational. We do not understand the savage for the same reason that the savage does not understand himself. And the savage does not understand himself for the same reason that we do not understand ourselves either.

In another part of the same book, Chesterton emphasizes that what it is that makes us men is found far more in what we have in common than in what distinguishes one society from another. While a great deal of harm can be done by failing to recognize how a certain group of people is different from your own, an even greater amount of harm is done when you fail to recognize just how much like you they are!

So, for those of you who are wondering how you could ever learn to ‘live like a Chinese,’ I think Chesterton would suggest you first learn to live like a Englishman… or American or whatever. Be learned in empathy and you will rarely find yourself among strangers. When in China, a pretty good rule of thumb is to treat people like you would people in your homeland. Most of the serious cultural blunders I’ve seen would have been avoided just by sticking to that.

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