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China at a Crossroads

Transformation Begins in the Heart


Transformation Begins in the Heart


China's economy may be robust, but the suicide rate of its people is 2.3 times the global average. Facing a potentially rough psychological landing, how are the country's 1.3 billion people handle it?



Transformation Begins in the Heart

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 481 )

During a public appearance this past April, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was suddenly moved to lash out, characterizing the prevailing integrity and morality of modern China's populace as the worst in generations.

"If a nation does not raise the national character and moral authority of its people, there is absolutely no way it can ever become a truly powerful and respected nation," Wen concluded.

Wen is worried about a crisis potentially even more intractable than economic recession – a psychological rough landing.

In the five years since leaving National Taiwan University for a position at Peking University, professor Ho-mou Wu's personal experience has been that the most frightening aspect about China is the near total absence of [social] values. His students at Peking University's MBA and EMBA programs have been doing some soul-searching lately about human values and are striving to rebuild their value system.

Some say that if one were to calculate the internal and external costs of China's economic rise, the material gains of its people would be outstripped by the spiritual losses.

The dazzling wealth and influence of the upper class and their propensity to flaunt it has fueled animosity against government officials and the rich, and the deep antagonism between the rulers and the ruled has found full expression in generally sarcastic jingles.

As Academia Sinica research fellow Cho-yun Hsu notes, the biggest problem in China right now is that while everyone is hustling to make money, spiritual lives remain empty with no meaning in life and no awareness of where the standards and boundaries that should be commonly respected lie.

Where people begin to lose their spiritual bearings, mental illness is sure to spread. According to Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDCP) statistics published in early September, there are 16 million people suffering from serious mental illness in China, while the total number of those suffering from a mental condition of any kind exceeds 100 million.

Among treatments for all diseases, the burden of treating mental illnesses is the heaviest, leading all other so-called modern civilization diseases.

The disparity between the economic China and the psychological China is suddenly widening. This is also the major back story motivating the Chinese government's increased emphasis on the welfare and happiness of its people in its 12th five-year plan.

Suicide Rate 2.3 Times Global Average

China now has one of the world's highest national suicide rates. According to the latest CCDCP survey, China's suicide rate has risen 60 percent over the past 50 years.

Some 287,000 Chinese commit suicide annually, equal to a rate of 22.23 suicides per 100,000 people. That is 2.3 times the global average and higher than the rates seen in northern Europe.

Peking University Department of Philosophy associate professor Wu Fei has been assiduously delving into the issue of suicide in China. In his book Gleaning Meaning from Transient Life: A Cultural Interpretation of Suicide Phenomena in One Northern Chinese County, Wu postulates that many incidences of suicide in China are an act of rebellion against social inequities and are not the result of mental issues.

Many people do not know how to cope amid rapid social development and a yawning urban-rural chasm, Wu says, and he argues that this is actually the key to comprehending suicide in China.

The pace of China's urbanization is simply too fast, ripping up interpersonal connections and the roots of social relationships like a tornado.

Gusa Publishing managing editor Li Yanhe is a Shenyang native and former deputy director of Shanghai People's Publishing House. He took up residence in Taiwan five years ago and returned to China this year to visit friends and family. Once there, he found that many of his college classmates had taken up religion in their search for answers and solace in life.

Li believes China's several hundred million people who have left home in search of work end up with a powerful sense of loss due to their separation from family, their inability to return home and inability to find their place in cities. Society at large is also gradually becoming conscious of this huge void.

The call of the soul and the rebuilding of life value systems are the red-hot topics of the moment in China. They are also the fastest growing "market."

Ho-mou Wu predicts that in the economic sphere, Taiwan's influence on China will gradually wane. But, he says, "life values are where Taiwan can best influence China in the future."

Life & Growth Studies Hot

Writer Terry Hu Yinmeng's translation of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti's book The Book of Life: Daily Meditations with Krishnamurti is a huge bestseller in China. Her spiritual workshops in Beijing, carrying a 6,000 renminbi price tag, were completely sold out.

Lecturers all come from Taiwan's Life Academy, and Chinese entrepreneurs are flocking to fill seven-day courses that cost nearly 20,000 renminbi.

As Taihsin Bank Foundation for Arts and Culture chairman Simon Cheng observes, numerous continuing learning professionals have cropped China's business community, and wherever they hear of cultural and spiritual lectures taking place they move to mutually spread the word and cross promote one another. The craze for life and growth learning has only just begun, he says.

On a Sunday afternoon in late August, a light drizzle swirls across Shanghai's Yangpu District as crowds throng a dozen or so stalls selling organic produce amid the research and technology haven that is Entrepreneur's Square (Chuangye Guangchang). Clad in jeans and a checked shirt, Jiang Yifan is busily running about the Nonghao Farmers Market.

In May of this year, he set up the organic farmers' market together with the Shanghai Vegetable Cooperative, a group modeled on the Homemakers Union Consumers' Co-op of Taiwan, to promote environmentally friendly farming and healthy dietary habits.

Jiang was a top student who studied abroad in Norway. Early on, he clearly decided that he was not going to join the moneymaking rat race sweeping China's people. Upon graduation, as classmates headed off to careers in government or business, he headed out to the countryside to do social work in farming villages.

"Meeting the challenges of our age, improving society; these are my spiritual riches," Jiang says. There are more and more Chinese who, like Jiang, are pursuing spiritual wealth.

Netizens say China is now at the stage of the opening passage in Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

In these worst of times, the torch of religion is burning across China as the spiritual journey of the nation's 1.3 billion people gets quietly underway.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy