Various snapshots of the Buddhist and Taoist temples in and around Taipei. One of the really refreshing things about Taiwan was its celebration of traditional Chinese culture. And I don’t mean that kulturrrr was being practiced in some kind of in-your-face flashy way; it’s not as though there are continuous dragon parades 舞龙’ing it down the street. Rather, despite an extended military dictatorship that continued well into the 1980s, the Taiwanese people held onto their traditions—religious, artistic, and cultural—such that Mainlanders now openly acknowledge that if one wants to see Ancient China, Taiwan is well worth visiting. A case in point: my field assistant here was raised in a wealthy Beijing family and could thus take private 国画/Chinese painting lessons in her childhood. When I asked her why she never learned calligraphy, which often goes hand-in-hand with 国画 (at least it did for me), she replied that in the Mainland, calligraphy has essentially gone out of fashion but that it is still widely taught in Taiwan. She finished by asserting, in a very matter-of-fact tone, that Mainland China is forward-looking, forever chasing progress, while Taiwan is more traditional and bound to the past. Phrased that way, it sounded as though the mainland had won yet another contest that Taiwan was too hapless to even realize was happening. I favored her with a dry look and continued eating my rice and tofu.
In a slightly related vein, one popular statement is that the Taiwanese have more 熟知 (sùzhì: personal quality, translating roughly to being a person of good character) and that Taiwanese society is more 文明 (wénmíng, or civilized). And during my own trip to Taiwan, I was surprised to see people lining up in an orderly, organized fashion for the metro (to those who joke that the core of Englishness is the compulsion to queue where there are no queues—rejoice, we have found you a country with a kindred spirit. It’s called Taiwan), surprised to see fashionable young women giving up their metro seats for the elderly (my mother, who visited a month afterwards, was pleased but chagrined to receive one such seat, complaining to me Do I look that old? I knew better than to brave that potential minefield), and surprised and moved by the kindness and politeness with which we were treated. When I approached people in the street to ask for directions, I was never coldly rebuffed—which can happen quite often in the Mainland, potentially as a kind of defense mechanism against getting fleeced or otherwise conned (this is especially likely to happen if your Chinese is passably decent (mine verges on the cusp) and will almost certainly occur if you are also East Asian, as I am).
The fact that I was surprised by these niceties is perhaps one of the most telling things—not of Taiwan—but about my time in the Mainland. After all, these are common courtesies that we take for granted, except perhaps for parts of the 10 (a truly atrocious highway with some of the most unnecessarily bitchy and distracted drivers in all of California). However, in Shanghai, these things rarely if ever happened and I had even began to internalize these behaviors—being unwilling to give up my metro or bus seat, feeling wary when a stranger asked for help. And what I’m trying to get at here is one intangible but incredibly important aspect of modern Mainland Chinese culture: this pervasive attitude of I Got Mine, Beezy, Now Back Off that is like a great tidal undertow—overwhelming, irresistible, with a dangerously magnetic quality that shifts the orientation of your moral compass to selfishness and paranoia without your ever noticing it.
This isn’t to say that most Mainlanders are somehow morally reprehensible and compromised. In fact, I have received some of the most heartfelt hospitality in my entire life during my stay in Shanghai and Chongming Island. But the key difference between Taiwan and the Mainland is how one treats perfect and complete strangers; in the Mainland, the confluence of the rich-poor gap, anxiety over China’s economic future, and widespread corruption and scamming (one amusing but sad CCTV program focused on scams conning young, unmarried singletons through online dating websites) has made it if not suicidal then brave to the point of foolishness to trust strangers.
I’m certain that there are many other factors at play and that my simple reading of a complex situation is not fully justified, but I hypothesize that Taiwan’s relative friendliness must stem, in part, not only from its more advanced economic development (on the real, it’s hard to be kind when your belly echoes hollowly with hunger), but also from the fact that the Nationalist government—in spite of whatever other evils it committed—did not prevent its people from retaining their faith. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao abolished and even tried to obliterate all of the Chinese people’s ties to their past—religion chief among them.
It is thus the case that now, when I ask anyone in my parents’ generation—who are now grandparents, and by and large compose the oldest portion of China’s contemporary society—about proper Buddhist or Taoist practices, all I get as an answer is a blank stare, a puzzled twist to the head. And this past year, when I’ve visited temples, most of the supplicants make their wishes quickly, rapidly, and unobtrusively slink away. But in Taipei, I saw people who looked like my mother, my father, my uncles and aunts with their heads bowed deep in prayer and their hands wrapped around bundles of incense. One of my Fulbright friends remarked on how this was the most serious and prolonged prayer that he had seen at a Buddhist or Taoist temple since coming to China.
And part of me can’t help but think that it is this—this cultural anchor, this place of repose, relief, rescue—the practice of religious belief, the ability to articulate one’s worries aloud (without fear, without self-silencing), that in part constitutes the great, formless divide between the Mainland and Taiwan. That it isn’t an issue of cultural superiority, the degree of 素质/文明, or religion as an institution, but rather something that is at once both as simple and complex as this: the knowledge that you can have faith in this teeming mass of humanity and have it returned, intact and sound.