I have no idea who the gentleman in the picture is, except that two things in particular struck me about him as I sat opposite him on the MTR heading toward Shenzhen, and the magical world of Lo Wu Commercial city. The second was his attire as he was smartly dressed for a day out to collect provisions with a friend across the boarder in China. The first thing that caught my eye about him, however was his smile, which seemed to cover his whole face. What was particularly unusual is that smiling is something particularly uncharacteristic amongst adults in Chinese culture.
The American Philosopher, Alphonse Lingis, once wrote “We connect through laughter.” His argument is that it is not just through discourse or through social practices that social life is made, but also through the emotional exchanges we share with those around us that bring us into the world. Though laughter, we bring others into our orbit or reinforce their existence within it. The impulse and acceptance that to bring unknown others into connection with us is natural is a particularly western understanding of how to be in the world. We view smiling and greeting strangers (Americans particularly) as polite forms of exchange. But, the underlying notion that strangers are already available to us before the knowing of them can an lead to both positive outcomes and also negative. The smile at a stranger that sparks a moment of recognition and shared understanding is the concern of a cosmopolitan world view. On the other hand, as some have also argued, the view that the world is to be brought into our orbit, to some degree already ours for the taking, is what underpins colonialism.
Confucius, on the other hand emphaises family bonds and the nurture of existing webs of connection. This outlook is referred to as guanxi. The result is a world view that produces two groups of people, those who are in one’s circle and those who are not. The “in-group” is cared for and supported as is one’s responsiblity, while the out group, if acknowledged at all, is treated with suspicion and mistrust, and certainly not invited to share a smile or laugh. In Chinese culture it takes a prior exchange before one is treated to a smile, for the reason that a shared smile is an acknowledgement of connection between people. This seeming coldness toward strangers, of course makes sense at some level. In a world of limited resources and an abundance of people one cannot become responsible for everyone, it is more pragmatic to develop responsibility for those within our circle of connections, while developing a hard skin or an ability to not acknowledge those outside. This is not to say that charity stays at home in Chinese culture, but it is covered under a different set of Confucian principles having to do with hierarchy and achieving the next life.
Now clearly the man in the photo was not smiling or laughing at me. He was sharing a joke with his friend; part of his in-group. But to me, his smile was infectious and compelling. My western sensibility was to notice the connection and acknowledge the moment of joy that resides within a familiar bond as it played out in everyday life activities such as riding the public transport while taking a trip with a friend.
This post is part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. The theme this week is Joy. You can find other posts addressing the challenge here.
- Why Chinese Don’t Smile at Strangers: In groups and out groups (www.chinamike.com)
- When “Confucianism” isn’t really Confucianism (uselesstree.typepad.com)
- The New Science of Smiling (It’s More Powerful than… (blogs.psychcentral.com)
- The ancient Chinese cultural concept that could save your banking career (news.efinancialcareers.com)
- Daoism as the Core of Chinese Culture (uselesstree.typepad.com)
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