Note: The above traditional Chinese art was created by my daughter, Leah. She was nine years-old at the time.
An article recently appeared in China Daily, by Li Yang, entitled, “The real self as opposed to false pride.” It immediately caught my eye both because the topic is philosophical, which is my cup of tea, and because I can’t imagine a US newspaper running anything remotely comparable. After all, it doesn’t have to do with weight loss, fashion, celebrities, or the cutest cat pictures ever taken.
The last paragraph reads: “In such a scenario, self-consciousness can help a person to differentiate between his/her ego and alter ego, which unlike the field of psychology is created by businesses in the social sphere today. And turning to real art can help awaken one’s ego (in the sense of self as opposed to pride), and find his/her own true Secret Garden.”
As you might guess from this quotation, the vehicle for Li’s insightful expression of opinion is the success of the Secret Garden, an adult coloring book, although that is admittedly an oversimplification, created by a very talented Scottish-born artist and illustrator, Johanna Basford.
It is, in end, an article about traditional versus modern culture and the author’s concern that China’s development is pulling it away from its traditional artistic roots, which were both a paragon to the world and a psychological anchor to Chinese culture for both artist and observer alike.
It’s a story that applies to every culture on earth but is particularly relevant here in China both because of China’s rich cultural history in the arts and the speed at which the youth of China have embraced modern technology and the negative unintended consequences that accompany the enabling advances of technology.
Secret Garden is a hugely popular book and it’s easy to see why. Ms. Basford clearly is a very imaginative and talented artist and with a little effort nearly anyone can create a visual masterpiece that you will want to share with friends or even hang on your wall.
There is plenty of room for creativity, of course, in that the user is free to use colors of his or her choice and the quality of the finished product, despite the exact sameness of the starting framework, will vary widely by individual and experience.
Such a medium, however, Ms. Li worries, leads to a sense of false pride and is contributing to a lack of interest in learning traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, both of which require a lifetime of dedication to truly master.
The “real self”, by implication, is a cornerstone of Chinese culture. And with this I agree. A culture built on relationships and obligation is a culture built on behaviors, not talk and ideals. I often note that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a behavior is worth ten thousand pictures. Behavior is the most sincere expression of values and beliefs. Few among us can convincingly behave in ways which are insincere, and even those few cannot keep it up forever. In behavior, the real self ultimately emerges.
I share Ms. Li’s concern. As much as I have found much benefit in modern technology I believe it comes with a lot of baggage that may undermine our cultural and social development in the end. Social media, in particular, is, in fact, destroying social development and enabling the worst narcissistic potential within all of us. Because, in the end there is nothing social whatsoever about Tweets and nothing about sharing what you had for lunch on Facebook that develops social intimacy or leads to meaningful dialogue.
Defenders will argue, I’m sure, that it is far better to create art, even if it is not entirely your own, than it is to simply sit on the couch and watch television. And I would agree with that.
But I doubt that is what is really happening. My guess is that people are ‘coloring’ while they watch tv and communicate with friends on their laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
And that, in the end, is my biggest concern about both culture and development. I don’t believe in multi-tasking. It is, I believe, a source of false pride and sense of accomplishment. In my experience, multi-taskers complete tasks but do not truly advance much of anything. It’s the difference between activity and accomplishment.
Tu Youyou, the Chinese pharmacologist who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in developing an herbal cure for fighting malaria, I suspect, was not a multi-tasker. She spent decades focused on a single task but ultimately advanced medicine and saved millions of lives.
As a blogger I constantly receive solicitations from people selling content to other bloggers on the basis that the more you update your content the more preference you will receive from search engines, which are the primary method by which bloggers find new readers.
Not wanting to dilute my objective of a personal blog, I have never made use of these services, although I admit that it’s a lot like work to force yourself to keep your content fresh if you do it all on your own. But that’s the point. As my father used to say, “That’s why they call it work.” It’s not meant to be easy. It’s meant to accomplish something.
I applaud Ms. Basford for her success and her talent. She is, without a doubt, a creative genius who thinks in fresh and innovative ways.
I ultimately come down on the side of Ms. Li, however. We’re all good at something. Perhaps if we focused on sharpening those skills and using them in new and innovative ways, we, too, can follow Ms. Basford in creating new mediums for personal expression that advance culture and society in positive ways.
The thing that impresses me the most, however, and gives me some hope that technology will not destroy what little we have of real community and culture is that a newspaper – a state organ in a socialist country run by a single Communist Party – would even run Ms. Li’s article.
In the US, I fear, real discussion is largely disappearing in favor of one-way pronouncements and filling in between the lines of what others have done. This, ultimately, is the greatest danger of introducing technology to a culture that is based solely on absolute values and truths.
Digital technology, I would argue, aligns perfectly with digital culture. And that is both a blessing and curse. While deductively digital Western cultures have demonstrated great ability in developing and adopting new technology, they have also demonstrated a weakness for its more narcissistic and false truths.
It is true that the Chinese have embraced social media to the same extent the West has. They use it for different reasons, however, and in different ways. For most Chinese, social media is their primary source of news. Traditional media, of course, is all owned by the state and closely controlled. (News is controlled in the West as well, but by different people.) Social media is also monitored, but once a post has started down the path of re-distribution it is beyond the reach of control.
More importantly, the inductive relationship nature of Chinese culture does not align with digital media at a personal level. While the Chinese embrace technology at a functional level, personal relationships that lead to obligation, the foundation of Chinese culture, are typically nurtured in the three-dimensional structure of family and physical social interface.
In this regard, China may have an edge over the West. Which is why, as I have recently noted, I no longer believe that the Chinese want to become Westerners. Truly personal relationships, on which Chinese culture is based, is the only true anecdote for the de-humanization of technology that leads to the narcissistic false pride of digital relationships and communities.
Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.
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