Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wu-Wei and Chinese Social Work

In the past few months I've been thinking off and on about the Taoist concept of "Wu-Wei" and (as always) I've been thinking also about social work. In conversations about what differences might exist between social work as it is (or should be) practiced in China and the United States I've been thinking about the nondirective technique. I've just re-read A Way of Being by Carl Rogers, and I'm going to put some things together here.

First, some observations about China and social work in China. Most social workers in China work for the government, and often they are working for the Civil Affairs Bureau. In Chinese culture, and political theory, and Confucianism, a responsibility of the government is to establish and maintain harmony and order. Currently the so-called "Communist" government in China is especially interested in maintaining a peaceful and harmonious society. In fact, when the Chinese government fails to maintain harmony, some truly horrific things can happen (The Great Cultural Revolution comes to mind). The Civil Affairs Bureau, and the social workers who work for it, try to solve social problems with an ultimate goal of maintaining harmony, unity, order, and peace.

In Chinese tradition, the government has authority, and people should do what the government tells them to do. Social workers who work for the government are agents of the government, and they carry with them the traditions and responsibilities that tell them they should direct people (clients) how to behave and how to reform. Thus, if we are seeking differences between Chinese social workers in China and Western social workers in the United States we can expect that Chinese social workers will be more directive, and will have less respect for client autonomy, and will more often just dictate to clients what the clients must do. The Western social workers will do more to protect client autonomy, and will be more willing to use nondirective techniques. That is what we expect to find, at any rate.

But, who are some of the great founders of this Western social work idea that clients must have autonomy and we as therapists or social workers need to listen to clients and trust that clients can find ways to change themselves if we ask the right questions and listen carefully enough? Well, Carl Rogers is probably one of the persons who significantly contributed to this idea that we should let clients have power in the process of helping them. And, where was Carl Roger's inspired to come up with this idea of nondirective therapy? Well, partly he found it through his own life experience, and party he was inspired by existentialist theologians such as Martin Buber and Soren Kierkegaard, and partly he probably took it from the American culture that emphasizes individual autonomy and dignity and is in general suspicious of authority and experts. But ironically and very significantly, Rogers was very strongly inspired in his theories and techniques by his study of Chinese philosophy and the religions of the Far East. He mentions Taoism and Zen Buddhism as being especially important to him.

In fact, in his paper, "My Philosophy of Interpersonal Relationships" Carl Rogers quotes four passages from or about Taoist teachings. These the only things he quotes in this whole paper about how he developed his theory of interpersonal relationships. I'll share those quotations here.

Carl Rogers says these words from Lao-Tse "resonate very deeply":

It is as though he listened
and such listening as his enfolds us in a silence
in which at last we begin to hear
what we are meant to be.

Then Rogers quotes from Buber's 1957 book, Pointing the Way:

To interfere with the life of things means to harm both them and oneself.... He who imposes himself has the small, manifest might; he who does not impose himself has the great, secret might....

The perfected person ... does not interfere in the life of beings, he does not impose himself on them, but he "helps all beings to their freedom (Lao-tse)." Through his unity, he leads them too, to unity, he liberate their nature and their destiny, he releases Tao in them.

Then Rogers says the definition of an effective group facilitator can be found in the writings of Lao-tse, and he quotes from W. Bynner's 1962 translation, The way of life according to Laotsu:

A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise him....
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will all say, "We did this ourselves."

And then Rogers closes with what he says is perhaps his favorite saying that "sums up many of my deeper beliefs" from Lao-tse (from M. Friedman's 1972 Touchstones of reality.)

If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves,
If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves,
If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves,
If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves.

Well, I can think of hardly any way this could be in greater contrast to the way a political dictatorship works, or the way social workers approach their tasks when they simply tell clients what the clients must do. If Chinese social work really is currently almost completely contrary to these teachings that come from Chinese philosophy, then I think we must admit that the differences between so-called "Western" non-directive autonomy-preserving social work and and "Chinese" directive, commanding "social work" are rooted in historical circumstances, politics, and not rooted in culture. That is, Chinese culture (Taoism) is one of the influential sources of the so-called "Western" approach in nondirective therapy. Nondirective therapies may be less acceptable to social work agencies in China, but this is likely because of the political philosophies and government structures now dominant in China, and not because of some cultural variable that makes nondirective therapies more suitable in the USA, Europe, and other "Western" societies, and less suitable in "Confucian" Sinic societies.

One might say that Chinese culture has both Taoism and Confucianism as opposing traditions. Sure, Taoist teachings may suggest that nondirective therapies are best, but Taoism is the "opposition" and "counter-culture" tradition in China, while Confucianism is the mainstream tradition of the powerful, the families, and the government. That is a point worth considering, but I notice that in terms of actual manifestations of enthusiasm and practice in daily life, Taoism and Buddhism are far, far more popular and mainstream in Taiwan than Confucianism, and Taiwan is a place where Chinese traditional culture has been kept in tact, while in the Mainland the "traditional Chinese culture" was attacked and driven out of the mainstream by official policy and practice for a generation, from about 1950 to 1980.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Listening to the Radio

I like listening to the radio. Here in Springfield I listen to two local university stations that are NPR affiliates. These are WUIS (my university's station) and WILL FM (from Urbana). Both stations have excellent classical music and some of the better public radio news and general interest programs. I also listen to the non-commercial community music station, WQNA, which has some interesting programs.

With iTunes and the Internet I'm also able to listen to some of my favorite stations from other places I've lived. I listen to KDHX (the community radio station in St. Louis), for some of their programs of folk music, world music, and eclective independent and alternative music. I also listen to KPFK (the Pacifica Radio station from Los Angeles). If you have iTunes, you too can listen to KPFK. It's there in the radio section under public radio streams. This past weekend there was a great program about the universal healthcare bill for a single-payer health insurance system in California (the Sheila Kuehl plan). I had never even heard of this bill, which was actually passed by the California legislature, and I hope it comes back and gets passed over Schwarzenegger's veto. My own governor here in Illinois hasn't suggested any thing with as much common sense as the California Senate Bill 840, which is a great pity. Anyway, I'm glad to have access to KPFK again. I also sometimes tune in over the Internet to WILL AM in Urbana, which has one of the great interview programs with its Focus 580 program hosted by David Inge. When Robert Jay Lifton came to the Urbana campus to give a talk and was interviewed by David I remember him remarking afterwards that David was as good as any of the national news talk hosts or interviewers, and I agree.

When I was 18 I worked at KYMC in St. Louis. That was a great station, owned by the YMCA of West St. Louis County. Kids (like me and my friends) could get experience working there as DJs. It recently went off the air because the YMCA couldn't afford to keep it running. That's a shame.

- Eric

Musings on my interest in Chinese Social Welfare

When I was a child in middle school in the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States had just established relations with the government in Beijing. I remember going to see a performance of a Beijing Opera company in Oakland with my grandparents, either in 1977 or 1979, but whenever it was, the exposure to Chinese culture made a big impression on me.

I became interested in China as my awakening interest in politics and economics was growing. While in sixth grade I had an interesting art teacher who was also my social studies teacher. This man had been in the Army infantry during the Second World War, and he had fought on the front lines for many months, and survived some of the worst battles in Italy, France, and Germany. He was a teacher who was dedicated to peace, and he often encouraged his young students to think of people in “the enemy” countries of the Communist Sphere as potential friends. He was of course very enthusiastic about freedoms and advantages of our political system, but he always urged us to think about social justice and peace as well. I also had a Korean War veteran as a social studies teacher in seventh grade, who again taught us to consider American history and politics from a point of view that emphasized the concerns of workers and oppressed groups. These two teachers were echoing things I picked up in my family, about the importance of looking out for the interests of the “little guy” and seeing everyone with unprejudiced eyes as equal.

Well, in the early 1980s we had a horrible president named Ronald Reagan. He was awful, but not as bad as our current president [George W. Bush]. In fact, Reagan was a nice person, with some good values and idealistic ideas, but he wasn’t very smart and he was surrounded by bad people. And really, his ideology was stupid as well. At the time the USA and USSR were poised for war, and the possibility that any day we could all die in a nuclear conflict was weighing on our minds. I knew the horrors of the Soviet Union’s purges and police-state, and I was aware of the problems China had with the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Great Cultural Revolution,” so I had no illusions that Communism as it was practiced in the USSR or China was a good thing, but I read Marx and Engels (when I was 13-14), and I read other radical social theorists (like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Trotsky), and I was impressed. I wasn’t a “true believer,” but I was impressed. I figured that there were some good ideas at the root of Socialism, but these ideas had been wrongly and brutally applied in the Communist nations, something like the way Christianity was twisted and distorted during the crusades or the religious wars and persecutions of European history in the 12th to 17th centuries.

I learned about the successes of Marxist parties in the Indian states of Kerela (and, to a lesser degree, in West Bengal) after my father married a woman from Kerela. My step-mother was no radical, in fact she was a sort of Ayn Rand conservative, but her experience coming from Kerela gave her a fresh look at the American political system, and her deep criticism of America seemed sometimes right to me.

So, with my disgust with the Communist countries and my dissatisfaction with the economics and politics of America, where could I turn for an example? Well, in the 1980s China seemed like a promising place. It seemed for a time as if China would show the world a third way, keeping the best aspects of socialism or communism while embracing some of the advantages of capitalism, and there was hope in the 1980s that China might move toward more democratic and liberal politics as well.

When I was in college I became friends with a classmate from China whose father was a professor of American studies. Dan Pan told me his perspective on China and America, and so I learned more about China. Another friend of mine, John Wells, spent a summer in Hong Kong, and he also had some interesting views about China and its future. I talked a lot about China with these friends, and I read some Chinese history. At the University of Redlands I took a course on Chinese history from Robert Eng (the economic historian who is an expert on the history of silk) and a course on political development in East Asia from Michael Ng-Quin.  I learned that the Chinese government had guys I didn’t like, such as Mao Tsedeng and Li Peng, people I thought were better, such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Hsiao-Ping, and people I actually admired, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang. Modern Chinese history had heroes like Liang Shu-ming and Sun Yatsen, and villains like Yuan Shih-kai and Jiang Qing.

Anyway, in the 1980s the people I liked most, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were in the ascendancy, and China’s future looked bright. I thought China might find a “third way” and surpass the Communist and Capitalist nations in terms of human development and human-centered economics. As I got into high school and became active in the peace movement in protests against nuclear weapons and American support for terrorists and evil governments in Latin America (and our stupid undeclared war against Nicaragua) I became less interested in traditional socialism and more interested in the Green Movement and the Green Party, which was then forming and establishing itself in Europe. The American Green Movement wasn’t yet a political party, but I liked the basic core values of the Green Movement and thought of myself as a “Green Democratic Socialist” in my political thought. I knew enough about Chinese philosophy from Taoism and Buddhism to Confucianism and Chinese Humanism to think that China might evolve into a nation that embraced many of the best values of Democratic Socialism and the Green Movement. In the late 1980s, this seemed a possibility.

In the summer of 1985 I visited the Soviet Union, and met lovely people from Russia and East Germany. When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union and began his reforms it was clear that things were changing. I admired Gorbachev, and even put a picture of him up in my dormitory room at college in a place of honor. Then, in the summer of 1988 I went to East Germany as a guest worker in a youth brigade to work on construction sites around the Berlin suburb of Mahlsdorf. The people I met in East Germany were extraordinary. But as we cried and waved goodbye at the checkpoint where we crossed back past the Berlin Wall I knew that things were changing, and soon, I thought, the East German Communist Party would have to liberalize and get rid of the wall. About 14 months later this is exactly what happened.

But about six months before that happened, Hu Yaobang died (in April of 1989). He had been forced to resign as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party two years earlier because he had been too “liberal” and sympathetic to demonstrators. The memorial and funeral events were amazing, as so many young Chinese people came out to honor him. And they didn’t stop coming. All through the end of April and May more and more were coming into the streets. My friend Dan Pan was using my phone to call his friends in China and learn what was happening. It was very exciting. John and Dan and I would get up each morning and get together to read the newspaper and talk about what was happening in China.

But things changed in June, and I lost faith in the idea that China would be any sort of an example to the rest of the world.

I didn’t lose my interest in China. The events of 1989 and my friendship with Dan Pan made me admire the Chinese people. Then, in the summer of 1989, I met a Chinese graduate student at Northwestern University, where I was spending the summer, and we fell in love. In 1989-1990 I was a senior in college in southern California while my girlfriend was a graduate student at Northwestern, and she was a couple years older than I was. Her love cooled, and so did mine, and our long-distance relationship didn’t really work out. We were on very friendly terms, and kept in touch for several years, but that experience of being in love with someone from China made me even more interested in China and Chinese culture.

As an undergraduate I was studying world development. I took courses in sociology, history, economics, and political science, but most of the courses I took were related to development in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia. I even spent the fall 1988 semester in East Africa with the School for International Training. My experiences studying economics and politics in East Africa made me feel very discouraged about poverty alleviation and justice in Africa. But the changes I was seeing in Eastern Europe and East Asia looked promising to me. When I graduated, I decided I wanted to go to East Germany (I studied German in college) or else East Asia (Korea, Hong Kong, or Taiwan). I had been a volunteer at the local high school in Redlands, California (where my university was), and I had experience teaching English to children from Mexico, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Romania, and Ethiopia. So, instead of looking for a career in development, I decided to get a job as an English teacher for a couple years while I figured out what I wanted to study in graduate school. I was interested in medicine (I thought I might do research on tropical diseases or work on cures for malaria or water-born parasites), economics, urban studies, and social work. After a couple years teaching English in Taiwan I decided I would study social work, and after I earned a doctorate, I hoped I could return to Asia.

Well, I earned a doctorate, but my wife, who is from Taiwan, does not want to live in Taiwan. She doesn’t mind going back for a month or two on extended visits, but she thinks we should stay here in the United States.

I’ve maintained my interest in poverty in China. I remember how in 1994 my wife and I visited her brother in Dong-guan (near Guangzhou), and we met a group of young children selling flowers and other cheap little items. Some seemed as young as six or seven years old, and the oldest seemed perhaps 11 or 12. I had been studying Chinese in Xi’an that summer, and so I was a little more fluent than I am now, so I looked at those children and started to talk with them. I asked them about their lives, and their families, and their work. It seemed no one had ever stopped and talked with those children, and certainly no non-Chinese person had spoken to them in Mandarin. They were excited to tell me about their lives. The children told me they had been taken from their parents, and couldn’t go back to their parents. They couldn’t go to school or visit their parents because their bosses wouldn’t let them. I didn’t have enough cash or gifts to give the children much, and we were going to dinner. When we came out of the restaurant, one of the children gave me one of the roses he was trying to sell. He wouldn’t accept money, and told me it was a gift.

I’d like to do something in my career that would be helpful to poor children in China. It’s a personal feeling I have. And so, I remain interested in social work in China.