Post 29. ‘No Man Is An Island’ – John Donne didn’t live in China.

This is a very famous poem:


No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.


John Donne, 1572-1631.

Last month, OPEN magazine, an English magazine in Suzhou, China, ran a very interesting article about the attitudes of pedestrians in China, why they rarely obey the road rules, and what sort of mind-set Chinese people have to generally obeying, or not obeying, the road rules, and by extension  any rules,  of the land.

As a total outsider, and taken from a purely western point of view, I have some interesting bits to add to this.

This quote comes from the article in OPEN magazine.” People make decisions based on two theories. One theory is consequentialism, which holds that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. The other is “principlism,” which holds that one acts in line with his or her ethic principles or social code of conduct regardless of the outcome of the activity.”

Chinese people seem to me to live in isolation. They have their immediate families, and perhaps a few friends, but their circle of intimate friends seems to be very small. Take for example the family I am currently staying with in Fujian province.

I asked one member of the family, Qin, I if he knew his neighbours. They live in a very busy market area of their city, and there are lots of little cottage industries all around, with the normal apartment dwellings on top. The street below this apartment is always busy, people coming and going. One shop sells tea, one makes spring roll wraps, another sells fish, another is a dry cleaner, another is a woman’s clothing shop, hairdresser etc. He said he did not know their names. When asked, Qin   said they may know his name, because he does a bit of daily business there, but he wasn’t sure.

When asked if he ever talks to them, he said no. It is not ‘the done thing’ to talk to people unless you have something meaningful to say. So you would not ‘pass the time of day’ with your neighbours.

When learning English, Chinese students have a terrible time with the phrase ‘how are you?’  Qin said that when he first had to learn this in his English class he thought it was the most unusual thing to say. He learnt the reply was, ‘fine thank you, how are you?’ but thought the whole thing fatuous and useless. Why would you ask such a silly thing? A sort of a nonsense thing? In a Chinese household it would never happen. It seems that this idle chit-chat doesn’t exist in a Chinese home.

I commented on the total lack of general conversation in this home where I am staying. I don’t know if this is normal for Chinese or not, but to me it is most unusual. There is no ‘good morning’ when you get up in the morning or ‘goodnight when you go to bed. There is no greeting when you come in or go out. There is absolutely no physical contact, no touching. The parents never have any physical contact with the adult children. There is no praise, and probably little or no criticism.

There is never a ‘thank you for dinner’ or a ‘please’ included in the daily conversation. When I asked about this I was told that if you were a man and talked unnecessarily you were thought of as an ‘old woman’. Unless you have something to say, you don’t say anything. He thought women might chat a little more in the home, but men would not.

For westerners, we chat inconsequentially all the time. We might make comments about anything that we think of, the weather, what’s on television, if we have a toothache, if we have a headache, if we think we might do something, or not do something. When Peter and I get ready for bed at night, we usually say, ‘what’s the plan for tomorrow?’ and chat about what we might do. This just does not seem to happen here.

So, I come back to John Donnes saying, ‘No man is an Island’. From my western point of view, all Chinese people act as ‘islands’, living what seems to me to be a very solitary existence, within their own little circle of friends, and within their little circle of work colleagues, but with no wider connection to the world. Maybe many Chinese do not see it this way, but when discussing this further with Qin he completely agreed, and said he felt he lived a solitary life. It is, I think, the way they have been brought up and it is the accepted way, so to them perfectly normal. I’m not saying it is necessarily wrong, but it is so different.

I wonder then if this is something to do with the mindset of ‘me first and me only’. When crossing the road, if I want to do it, I will and the rest of the population doesn’t come into my consideration. If I want to do anything for myself, I will do it.

I also wonder if the ‘one child’ policy has something to do with this. An only child is a different kettle of fish to a child with siblings. It is universally recognised that an ‘only child’ thinks and acts differently from a child from a larger family. They never have to share, everything is theirs to organise and plan as they wish. There is no dissent from siblings, no interference, no one touches their things or reorganises their things, or uses it, or misplaces it. And certainly there is no ‘meeting of the minds’ with other children. I asked Qin what sort of things he had to share in his life. After some thought he said, nothing. Everything was his, and no one interfered with his things.

I know close relatives play a part in the lives of Chinese children, cousins especially are important, and regarded like brothers or sisters. But even so, the tie is not like a sibling.

Anyone who has been in a queue in China knows the ‘me-ism’ exhibited. The first few times I was queuing for train tickets and a new window opened I was stunned at the reaction. Once people realised a new window was going to be open for sales, everyone ran like the wind, elbowing their way into the new queue to be first in line. Queuing in China is improving I think. Some years ago, trying to get onto a train while others were trying to disembark was a physical feat akin to the Olympics. Now, there is generally some time allowed for disembarking before the new passengers try and force their way on-board.

When talking to an American teacher recently, she thought there was little general community accountability or feeling, and I tend to agree with this, however Chinese people are not without feelings. Recently a kindergarten bus ran into a river, killing about 15 young children. There was much tut-tutting and talk about how sad it was when the news was on. They are very aware of tragedy happening, but it would never occur to them to do anything, to send a note of sympathy, to make some sort of connection with the kindergarten and offer condolences etc. When we think of the outpouring of messages, flowers etc, when Jill Meagher  died in Melbourne, I can’t imagine anything like that happening here.

Perhaps there is a great deal of truth in the saying, ‘East is east and west is west and ne’er the twain shall meet.’ Culturally the two worlds are so different, and there is probably no ‘right or wrong’ way to do these things, but staying in a Chinese home for some time certainly highlights the huge differences. John Donne says ‘no man is an island’, but I reckon if he lived in China for a while he might moderate his words.


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