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.

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