Warning: This post generalizes like nobody's business.
In light of the High Holidays, and my last post, I've been thinking a lot about spirituality in China. Spirituality here is defined as the lack of spiritual outlets, "magic" of any sort, or even signs of socially agreed-upon sacred things. I have found that it is hard to transmit to people who haven’t had to navigate daily life in a specific place (such as China) for a long-ish period of time, as it's such a subtle aspect of any culture.
There are very few spiritual outlets in Shanghai especially, and it's easy to become totally mundane (= of this world). The few things that remain within the realm of spirituality have been stripped of their sacredness, and their significance within the culture has greatly diminished. Hence temples are transformed into shopping centers; when people get time off for a holiday (always traditional, not religious or spiritual in nature) they have to work the following weekend to make up for lost time. Even the incense is without smell and meant only to add the effect of smoke. Though admittedly this may be for altogether different cultural reasons, it is interesting that even sensually anything religious here seems muted.
To put it in a more personal context, ten months into living in China I went to New York and felt that New York was a spiritual place – there were so many churches and synagogues and people with visible signs of religiosity (and I did not go during a holiday). I felt how much spirituality was a part of life, a very individualized part (per American and Western culture), but a part nonetheless. I think back to how I felt in New York after a year in India, and I appreciate how wonderful the relativity of the world, and of one's perspective, can be. After Mumbai, New York felt calm, subdued, even a little boring and empty, spiritually and in all other ways. But that's what I love about NYC: it is whatever you need it to be at any given moment.
Recently, walking on a concrete bridge crossing an elevated highway in the heart of Shanghai, a friend and I were discovering that the spiritual void that exists in this country is affecting us both in similar ways. He was saying that "westerners are materialists living in a spiritual world. Chinese are materialists living in a material world." And by extension, Indians are spiritualists living in a spiritual world.
I can't even explain how revolutionary this concept is, and to what degree it colors almost every aspect of living in China. Spirituality is so conspicuous in its absence here; just as in India its presence was so wonderfully overwhelming. I've been thinking about the political history of spirituality in China as a way of explaining what happened and is happening here. If political events can be seen as the present consequence of a nation or group's history (defined here as momentum or flow, and cultural make-up) then the stripping away of religion and the important moral and social values that went with it is a consequence of China's collective history and culture, including the religion and tradition that were present here in the past. In other words, everything that happens in a place is a consequence of everything that came before, and it is either a reaction to something or it is a sign of the culture progressing (or acting).
Chinese culture has a certain pragmatic nature that has a lot of depth but is related to this idea of living in a material world. Even the Chinese approach to the body, to food and healthcare is practical, rooted in reality (prevention, to me, is such an advanced, logical, and supremely physical concept, for example). Confucius is so revered because he gave advice for living healthily and successfully. Let us not confuse, from our Western perspective, that which is alternative and that which is spiritual. Chinese medicine - in its current reincarnation – is the former, and has very little left of the latter.
I can understand, based on this, what superficial similarities exist between Jewish and Chinese culture (I haven’t let that go because it is so hard for me to understand why people say this, so I am constantly trying to rationalize it). Judaism is a religion of life. Both groups care about family, success (both personal and professional), and things like food, rituals and traditions are an important part of both cultures.
But now it's the eve of Succoth and I'm in China, older and wiser than before, trying to understand what this opportunity for spiritual growth and assessment is all about. And I think this is where the big, fat line between Chinese culture and Judaism is: Judaism is a religion. It has an element of faith, of connecting to the divine, of seeing yourself as part of the divine, of something beyond the body, beyond the material, including it but not only it. Judaism inculcates a different set of priorities, of values that do not start with money and end with family, but rather concepts that emphasize an individual's relationship with the divine, with other people, with oneself. We value community and life cycles because life IS important and related to the wholeness of the human experience, but we understand – even if we have a personal issue with it– that faith, G-d, and the sacred are a part of our tradition, inseparable from the other parts.
I have tried talking with Chinese people about faith a few times. Sometimes it feels like there is an insurmountable wall, other times, complete emptiness. In India, people's basic assumption is that everyone believes in G-d(s). (Sometimes the world seems so contradictory to me that it's hard to come to terms with the fact that all these things exist in one common, shared reality). And in the (liberal) Western world, of course, we have this concept of a private, individual relationship with the divine. Whatever that relationship may be, our culture places the individual in the center and there is an expectation that at some point in your life, you will think these issues through and decide for yourself.
I am trying to draw a distinction between these different planes of reality in a very tangible, quotidian way. The more I think about it, the more it seems that all aspects of society are colored by this distinction between 1. The type of people, or mindset (material or spiritual), and 2. The type of world and society they created, the type of public sphere in the society (material or spiritual).
It is immensely sad that Chinese people have been stripped of the privilege to occupy themselves with issues outside of the material plane. I work with Chinese people who spend a lot of time thinking about Judaism and comparing it with who they are themselves; not once has it occurred to them that the reason why they keep missing the point over and over (because at least they are somewhat aware that they are missing the point) is because they are trying to fit something round in a square box. Without understanding Judaism first and foremost as a religion (quickly followed by being a culture, an ethnic group, a long tradition, etc), the essence of it, of our history, our survival, our good and bad moments, is completely missed.