Monday, September 14, 2009

Chinese ideas about what is good.

I've just finished preparing some overhead slides for a talk I gave on "ideas about what is good in Chinese culture and religion." There are 130 of these slides. On a few of them I might use a slide as a visual aid while I talk for a minute or longer, but for many of these slides I just quickly go through them, spending about 20 seconds on each visual image or idea. So, this represents a talk that might take 45 to 50 minutes. Toward the end I dispense with words and merely go with images to correspond to what I was saying.

Anyway, I'll share the work with this link to the presentation. I was unable to find much else in the way of discussions of "what is good" in Chinese culture. Probably the thing I should have used, but didn't, was the world values survey, which I tend to like because I'm interested in cultural differences related to how people attain happiness. However, I'm not sure what I would say about that, except that in China (the P.R.C.) people have more secular values and fewer traditional values (than, for example, the United States), and also that people tend to be a bit less happy than in the United States. But the P.R.C. has endured many years of Communist government, and this has eroded the influences of traditional Chinese culture and values. Taiwan or South Korea would be the more appropriate comparative culture, The comparative result is the same. Taiwanese and South Koreans are more secular than Americans (rate secular-rational values at levels comparable to the Swiss, the Finns, and the Ukrainians). And, South Koreans and Taiwanese are on the "Survival values" side of the spectrum (near the middle of the range, like Bangladesh and Jordan and Poland), while America is pretty far over on the "Self-Expression Values" side of things.

On the 4-point scale, Japan has been around 3.2 in recent years, South Korea at 3.0, while China has been down at 2.9 (there is still a great deal of extreme poverty in China, remember, and that kind of poverty can bring down national happiness averages). American happiness has been up around 3.4 (bouncing between 3.3 and 3.5 in recent surveys). I'm not sure about Taiwan's happiness, although I heard recently that an international epidemiological survey found the lowest rates of major depressive disorder in Taiwan (Weissman, Bland, Canino, Faravelli, et al. in 1996 reported a lifetime incidence of 1.5% for major depressive disorder in Taiwanese samples). So, if happiness is the absence of depression, the traditional Chinese culture found on Taiwan is at least correlated with happiness, if not a causal factor in making the Taiwanese happy.

I know a fair number of Taiwanese (my in-laws, my friends from living in Taiwan for two years, my colleagues and former classmates from Taiwan), and they don't strike me as being especially happy. I wonder if there is some difference in the way Chinese informants in Taiwan might respond to survey questions, so that if they are asked to verbalize whether they are happy they will rate themselves higher on a life satisfaction scale, or diminish the degree to which they will report feeling emotionally miserable. That is, I wonder if we strapped some sort of devise on people to measure levels of endorphins, amount of laughter or smiling, biophysical manifestations of contentment versus emotional pain, we might find that cross-cultural experiences of mood and happiness do not reflect how people answer surveys about happiness. For example, Taiwanese might report feeling tired or bored rather than reporting feeling sad and depressed, and they might be more willing to report states of balance and equilibrium that are serene and moderate as "happy" while an American would be thinking about more joyful situations of strong emotional pleasure as defining "happy" when they respond to questions about happiness.

That said, I'm basically a survey-research type of scientist, so until we know more, I'm going with the idea that the Taiwanese are especially happy, and the Chinese from the Mainland are less happy than, for example, the Japanese or Americans, in general.

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