One of the benefits of living in China is a certain sense of perspective.
China exists outside of the Anglophone culture wars. It would not be accurate to say the Chinese don’t have an opinion or even a stake in American cultural crusades. They do. But our fights are not their fights, and even when they squabble over parallel issues it is on very different terms, terms quite divorced from those that led Anglophone politics to its current trajectory.
My time here has thus given me a rare vantage point to judge many of the claims made over the course of these campaigns. In few places is this sort of outside perspective more useful than when judging the claims of an American jeremiad. Jeremiading is a fine art. Its practitioners hail from lands both left and right, but my sympathies lie with the cultural traditionalists. You know the type. In America they find little but a shallow husk. For some it is the husk of a nation once great; for others it is the decaying remains of Western civilization itself. Few of these gloom-filled minds deny that wonders have marked their days on this earth. It is not that advances do not happen. It is just that each celebrated advance masks hundreds of more quiet destructions. These laments for worlds gone by are poignant; the best are truly beautiful. The best of the best, however, do not just lament. Every one of their portraits of the past is a depiction of a future—or more properly, a way of living worth devoting a future to.
I have read a few of these books in 2017. The best of these (both for its lyricism and for the demands it places on the intellect) is Anthony Esolen’s newest book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. This blog is not the place for a full review. I plan to write a proper review for it and a few of the other recently published books of this type for a less personal publication than the Scholar’s Stage. Here I will just share one of my strongest reactions to the book—a thought that occurred again and again as I drifted through its pages. Esolen presents a swarm of maladies sickening American society, ranging from a generation of children suffocated by helicopter parenting to a massive state bureaucracy openly hostile to virtuous living. My reaction to each of his carefully drawn portraits was the same: this problem is even worse in China.
Are you worried about political correctness gone awry, weaponized by mediocrities to defame the worthy, suffocating truth, holding honest inquiry hostage through fear and terror? That problem is worse in China.
Do you lament the loss of beauty in public life? Its loss as a cherished ideal of not just art and oratory but in the building of homes, chapels, bridges, and buildings? Its disappearance in the comings-and-goings of everyday life? That problem is worse in China.
Do you detest a rich, secluded, and self-satisfied cultural elite that despises, distrusts, and derides the uneducated and unwashed masses not lucky enough to live in one of their chosen urban hubs? That problem is worse in China.
Are you sickened by crass materialism? Wealth chased, gained, and wasted for nothing more than vain display? Are you oppressed by the sight of children denied the joys of childhood, guided from one carefully structured resume-builder to the next by parents eternally hovering over their shoulders? Do you dread a hulking, bureaucratized leviathan, unaccountable to the people it serves, and so captured by special interests that even political leaders cannot control it? Are you worried by a despotic national government that plays king-maker in the economic sphere and crushes all opposition to its social programs into the dust? Do you fear a culture actively hostile to the free exercise of religion? Hostility that not only permeates through every layer of society, but is backed by the awesome power of the state?
These too are all worse in China.
Only on one item from Esolen’s catalogue of decline can American society plausibly be described as more self-destructive than China’s. China has not hopped headlong down the rabbit’s hole of gender-bending. The Chinese have thus far proved impervious to this nonsense. But that does not mean we should conclude that Chinese society’s treatment of sex is healthier than the West’s. In far too many ways the opposite is true. Urban Chinese society is just as sex-obsessed as America’s, and in many realms (say, advertising) far less shameless about it. Prostitution is ubiquitous. For men over 30, visiting prostitutes is socially acceptable. In many situations these visits are not just acceptable, but expected. Many a boss believes he can’t trust his underlings until they have spent some time sinning together. No one blinks an eye at professional mistresses; a wealthy Chinese man is expected to keep up one of these “Little 3rds” and carouse about with karaoke bar hostesses and banquet call-girls. The worst of that culture has (thankfully) been cut down by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, but there is no evidence that government campaigns have had any effect on pornography use. As the standard joke goes whenever some Chinese millennial wants to mock government weakness: “They’ve been at the anti-porn campaign for ten years now, but none of you have had any problem getting your hands dirty!”
All of this should lighten the tone of gloom and doom that pervades the traditionalist critique of modern America. The reference point of these writers is the American (or less usually, the European) past. Look instead at the present! It could be so much worse for those of our ilk. In some countries, it is. Thus I chuckled at a Jr. Ganymede thread from a few months back which solemnly declared that (spiritually speaking) modern Westerners have been “born into the most difficult, challenging environment that humans have ever experienced.” Those who say such things view spiritual life through a narrow lens. I cannot conceive making this claim after having lived in China.
There is much that I love about China. However, I must be frank: I live in China because I am foreign, single, and young. As a foreigner I am somewhat immune to many of the pressures of the Chinese scramble for success. That will not change. But were I the father of a young child I could not stay in this country in good conscience. Degraded and disgraceful as American culture may be, it is still possible to live a life of integrity within it. It is possible to secede from the main stream of its currents and follow a different course. In China this is a hard thing to ask. Integrity always requires sacrifice. Yet what must be sacrificed to live with integrity in America is nothing compared to what honest Chinese must sacrifice to live with integrity in their own land. Nothing. My admiration for the Chinese who do manage to keep their integrity intact despite all of this is boundless. They have succeeded in a test of character few Americans will ever face. It is not a test I would choose for my children.
If the traditionalist jeremiads are correct, such tests will become more and more common inside America, and in the future my children may face them anyway. If so, then there may be much to learn from the great men and women of modern China. Jackson Wu explicitly made this point in his review of The Benedict Option, and I am inclined to agree with him. The Chinese Christians have much to teach American Christians on how to survive in a hostile, hopelessly relativistic, non-Christian milieu. However, I would go one step further: It is not just the Chinese Christians who can prepare us for the days to come, but the Chinese who came in the ages before them.
Learning from those who passed before is nothing new in traditionalist circles, of course, but their view is sometimes so less expansive than it could be. This was particularly painful in Esolen’s case. Ranging from Orwell to Homer, he peppers his book with allusions and examples from the great literature of the Western tradition. I have never seen anyone so skillfully merge literary allusion with practical analysis. He has an unmatched skill for finding just the right allusion for the moment; each clarifies his meaning instead of obscuring it. He does all of this without showing off or belittling his reader. The sad part is that he left some of the most beautiful and meaningful meditations on the themes of his book untouched. I can only guess that this was because he is not familiar with their contents.
The 21st century is not the first era Chinese have been offered a stark choice between success and virtue. If there is one theme that threads its way through the great sweep of the Chinese tradition, it is a tragic recognition that the world we live in is not designed to reward the life most worth living. It is found in the opening pages of Sima Qian’s historical masterwork. It is coded into the biography of Confucius, and debated by all of his intellectual heirs. Attempts to reconcile the pressures of the world with the honest life were made by the Mohist philosophers; the attempt was proclaimed impossible by both Daoists and Legalists (though for opposite reasons). The first named poet in Chinese history is survived by one poem, a lament on this theme. Be it the rural escapes of Tao Qian, the drunken withdrawals of Li Bai, or the stubborn realism of Du Fu, this dilemma inspired the greatest of China’s poets in the millennia that followed. The great Chinese novels are obsessed with the topic: Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh ask if one can live righteously in ages of corruption and violence; The Scholars (and less obviously, Journey to the West) viciously satire those who try to do the same in ages of corruption and peace. The beautiful, sorrow-filled Dream of the Red Chamber embraces this tragedy as Chinese women lived it. And so on right into the modern era. At the turn of the 20th century, Lu Xun kicked off modern Chinese literature with a short story that paints Chinese social life as a choice between becoming a monster or being considered insane. These are just the most famous names of a 3,000 year tradition. To neglect it is to neglect a well of experience seemingly prepared for our day.
“To be in the world but not of the world” is a Christian injunction. However, the sacrifices this ideal demands have been contemplated most seriously by the great thinkers of the of a different tradition. They were not Christian, nor were they the heirs to the treasures of Western thought. But not only the West created treasures. For thousands of years the treasures of China’s tragic tradition history gave their Chinese readers the hope and the courage to live through immense trials and persecutions. They may provide the same strength to us today, if we allow them to.
 Bruce Charlton, “The Haves and Have-nots,” Jr.Ganymede (22 April 2017).