Wan Lik Hang

China News – Monday 13th April 2020

This week, we reflect on two important aspects of East/West culture that not only materially affect the way East and West see each other.  They also affect the way in which each handles the pandemic.

When East Asia Meets a Virus: Can Confucian Culture Save Us

Until the Cold War era, humans lived in a society with high immunity.  Borders and obstacles lay in daily life.  Accidents became a natural weapon against viruses. However, after the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, mankind saw the end of all previous history. To some extent, mankind ended the world by reducing its immune mechanism.

Neo-liberalism emphasizes free markets and privatization. Any obstacles that impede the circulation of commodities and capital are eliminated as an incorrect noise to allow freedom for capital.  This gave birth to globalization and affected both politics and culture. Under the anti-collective and anti-intervention ideology, individualism has risen unprecedentedly. ‘Government’ and ‘country’ have also been expelled from peoples’ perspective.  The chaos and indulgence of capitalism are everywhere.

The state would not intervene in the market.  The result was to hand over power to private tyrants, huge capitalists and multinational companies.

After the epidemic began, the state was forced to take action to freeze modernity with strong space measures such as city closures and isolation. This move not only symbolized state power, but also reflected the meaning of conquering.  

Yet again, East Asia and Europe and the United States have exposed their significant cultural differences.

The three countries of East Asia, China, Japan and South Korea, have been imbued with Confucian culture for centuries.  Personal self-cultivation is extremely important.  Governing the country is more closely related to family relations.  A gentleman should first cultivate his family to rule the country: the family has become the key to the Chinese understanding of the political system.

In this “home-country-world” ideological system, the family is both the starting point and the end point. 

Therefore, in East Asian countries with Confucian culture, although they have been dominated by neoliberalism for decades, in the face of this epidemic war, the Confucian paradigm is naturally re-emerging.  The government has promulgated various anti-epidemic measures that penetrate life, and the people have carried out organized anti-epidemic wars with a relatively obedient attitude, cooperating with regulations and situations.

by Liam Burnett-Blue

In contrast, European and American countries not only have deep-rooted ideology of liberalism, but also experienced the horrors of Nazis and fascists in World War II. Take Italy as an example. At the beginning of the outbreak, the government issued a series of regulations restricting public communication.  These included closure of Northern Italy, museums and world heritage sites and self-isolation. 

However, this move was met with vigorous criticism by some thinkers and scholars, arguing that the government wanted to create panic by inventing the epidemic and creating an apocalyptic state, to seize the opportunity to restrict people’s freedom and implement militarized government.  Epidemic prevention in China, Japan, and South Korea, was seen as the ubiquitous “Big Brother” of George Orwell in ‘1984’.

In the eyes of European and American countries, the government is a giant beast that wants to devour the people at any time and must be carefully guarded against and tamed.

In East Asia from mainland China to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and other places, the role of the government is more like the father and brother at home. It has the responsibility of taking care of and leading the people, and the home and country are the same. This kind of thinking did not die because of the late Qing Dynasty reform, nor did it dissipate because of the introduction of the republic, and even in this epidemic situation, with a certain modern shell, it reflects the subtle and profound culture.

What is the defense of masks?

The opponents of wearing a mask have always had multiple arguments.  Here are a few. 

Anti: There is no evidence that wearing a mask can help prevent virus infection.

Pro:  Evidence of the effectiveness of masks may not be enough for the new virus. However, a comprehensive study in 2008 after SARS showed that wearing a mask has 68% protection against epidemics.  This compares with only 55% if you wash your hands more than 10 times a day.  At the same time, if we accept that neo-coronary pneumonia is mainly transmitted by droplets, logically anything that can block the droplets will in principle help prevent epidemics, without the need for experimental or research evidence to prove it.

Anti: Wearing a mask cannot prevent 100% of COVI-19 virus infection.

Pro: Complying with traffic rules and crossing the road cannot prevent pedestrians from being killed by a car.

Anti: Many people don’t know the correct way to wear a mask. Wearing a mask in the wrong way will not only lose the effect of blocking droplets or particles, but

also increase the chance of wearing the mask to touch the face, eyes, mouth, and nose, and increase the possibility of infection in disguise.

Pro:  This does not mean that you cannot learn, and the correct method of wearing a mask is not quantum mechanics, almost everyone can learn it.

Anti: Wearing a mask can make people feel “wrongly safe”, which makes them slack in other sanitary habits.

Pro:  Although experts from many countries have issued similar warnings, no one has provided relevant research evidence.  Even if wearing a mask may give people a wrong sense of security, seeing everyone wearing a mask on the street seems to make people more vigilant.  At the same time, if a person wearing a mask knows that wearing a mask will give him a false sense of security, then he will be less likely to do so.

From the above discussion, those who oppose wearing masks can hardly refute the basic argument that wearing a mask is better than not. Similarly, a seat belt is better than no seat belt.  Western countries quickly adopted various similar measures to close the city in the face of the epidemic challenge. 

Why is it harder to accept wearing a mask than to close the city?

In the western cultural tradition, whether it is a narrative of the history of Greece against Persia or a macro and abstract historical philosophy, the East in the eyes of the West is an autocratic society without individuals. 

For example, the German philosopher Hegel wrote the following sentence in his “Philosophy of History”:

The morality of the East is a matter of positive legislation … in the East, nothing from the individual subject (such as character, conscience, freedom of form) can be seen.

The image of masks exactly fits this western imagination of the East: people on the street wear masks of similar styles, like uniforms; in the “masked” crowd, only the crowd can be seen, and the individual cannot be seen.

This is in any case something that Westerners absolutely do not want to become. The reason is that the act of wearing a mask is itself “Asian”, that is, “not Western”.

C Drying

It is worth reflecting on this symbolism.   When Westerners are forced to wear masks by the current epidemic, when they see on television that people wearing masks have familiar Western eyes, how – if at all – will their self-perception and their imagination of the East change?

wanlikhang

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