“In recent years, cheating has got so out of control that, three years ago, in a small Chinese town in Hubei province, a group of gaokao (University entrance exam) invigilators found themselves under siege as enraged parents and students trapped them in their office and threw rocks at the windows, shouting, “We want fairness! Let us cheat!…”1 What at one time would have been shock and disbelief in which I would have judged this society to be depraved and lacking in understanding of ethics, I now see it as simply an overlaying of my own western morality on a culture that was more complex than I first believed. “Understanding that morality differs around the world…is the first step toward understanding your [own]righteous mind. The next step is to understand where these many moralities came from.”2 Knowing what it means to be righteous in the society we live in, helps us to not only get along with other people but also to understand what motivates and drives people from certain cultures.
As a westerner, I naturally love things that makes sense and are orderly. What is seen as moral is associated with fairness, right and wrong, good and evil as it relates toward an individuals rights. There are clear cut lines that are drawn. When I’m encountering a world view that deviates from that accepted practice, then I want to stand up and cry foul. Many westerners have trouble with many asian concepts. I have repeatedly heard people from the States say, “Can’t they just stand in line?” or “Why are they pushing?” Chinese for example have long memories and their culture is reflective of that. There was a time in there recent history that food and jobs were scarce. If a land owner came to a village seeking workers, only those that got on the wagon worked that day (as well as ate). When rations were passed out during famine, only the first few hundred received supplies. This has created a mentality (and morality) that only those that I care about are worth helping. If I can get in front of another, we can eat, work or even succeed as a family.
So what is right and wrong is seen in different light in different cultures. Let’s return to the education system. Gaokao, literally means “high test” and is the academic qualification test for almost all high school graduates that hope to attend a University. Students must do well to get into the better universities, where graduation offers a bright future with status, wealth and even power. For most Chinese, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, a high score on the gaokao is their only means to significantly alter their future. In one particular high school that was known for having a significant percentage of the students do well, “students have been given IV drips as they study, believing that it will help them with concentration and focus. Girls are given contraceptive pills to delay their periods until after the exam.” 3 “Because of the importance of the gaokao, some families are willing to go to unseemly lengths to ensure their children ace it. Some parents hire companies to surreptitiously transmit answers to their children on exam day. Others bribe local officials to get a peek at the test before it is administered.”4
Most Chinese parents tell their kids from a very early age that their goal in life is to get into a good school. That’s it, not learn the right skills or to find inspiration in school to seek meaningful work. Just “get into a good school”. Children quickly learn what is required of them, the behaviors that will illicit the right responses from parents, teachers and authorities. “Kids figure [morality] out for themselves…given the right kinds of experiences.…we can’t say that it is innate, and we can’t say that kids learn it directly from adults. It is, rather, self-constructed as kids play with other kids. ”5 Not only do kids observe their surroundings but certain thoughts and practices are then reinforced to be culturally acceptable. Haidt says, “The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours.”6 They are seeking what will bring the approval of their own way or the approval of the communal ethic. “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”7
Many societies choose to place the needs of groups and institutions first, while others place the individuals at the center and thus makes the society a servant of the individual. For Chinese, communal righteousness supersedes the individual. “The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. …duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism.”8 These types of societies have diametrically different ways of thinking from the west and misunderstanding between cultures abound.
Stepping outside your church, neighborhood or country, you’ll discover that your way of thinking is not typical. “Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online..[and]…he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation….Many may not like all of the contours of the portrait he paints, but that might just be the point.”9 Being challenged to think and interact in ways that are counter to ones culture can be extremely difficult.
Knowing what is considered acceptable within a culture helps us understand the filter in which an individual hears and responds to the Gospel message; as well as how they respond to leadership development. Even this last week, I had a discussion with a young man that was giving up what he wanted in order to follow the path he had promised his parents he would follow. Whether I feel his responses are rational or not, how I respond to him reflects how I value what is important in this culture. Developing leaders in China is challenging and potentially damaging to the kingdom of God if I impose my own values, moralities or expectations imparted upon me as an American. Morality for many Christians is straight forward and seemingly has nothing to do with culture. Morality, ethics and culture affect our choices, judgements and our witness; especially as we attempt to interpret morality through our own cultural lenses and impart it on those we are wanting to share Christ with. The difficulty for me is being patient when sharing Christ and allowing him to deal with the areas of their life that He thinks need to be altered.
2Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) 4
4https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/08/world/asia/china-exam-gaokao-university-cheating.html accessed April 2, 2018
9Keefer, Matthew Wilks. “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.” Journal of Moral Education 42, no. 1 (2013): 134-36.