China was founded to ensure survival, not as an Earthly manifestation of God's moral covenant with Man, the latter blessed with a divine right to pursue happiness. Indigenous schools of Chinese philosophy -- Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism -- are mechanistic, concerned with values as a means to an end -- that is, social and cosmological stability. To the extent morals exist, they serve a greater purpose of aligning heaven and earth. Inherently relativistic, China's moral topography shifts to address external circumstances. (It is not always wrong to murder.) And pragmatism is, again, a key driver. Religious practices -- meat and potatoes Buddhism, originally imported from India but adapted to accommodate secularity -- focus on gods of wealth and kitchens, not spiritual enlightenment. The Chinese do not obsess on higher meaning. They are concerned with today, not eternity.
Secular spiritualism. Although Chinese and Western religious orientations do not intersect, it is incontestable that Chinese spiritualism -- if defined as pursuits beyond material gratification -- is in the midst of transition, particularly among the overworked, overstressed middle classes.
For millennia, Chinese contentment has been rooted in external endorsement. During dynastic times, mastery of Confucian canon was the ticket to transcendence. Knowledge, acquired through classical Chinese texts, theoretically yielded a government post amongst the ruling scholar-noble elite. (Even during the Song dynasty, when Zhu Xi and other scholars incorporated Buddhism into a neo-Confucianism ruling framework, officialdom resisted. Neo-Confucians did not believe in an external world unconnected with the world of matter.) After 1949, command of "Mao Zedong thought" defined the new man, a leader of masses. Political correctness, elevated into crypto-religious truth in millions of Little Red Books, enabled people to scale Party hierarchy. When Deng Xiaoping toured Guangdong in 1992, he made a new imperial proclamation: "To get rich is glorious!" In one swoop, he defined the production of capital as the ultimate contribution to the nation. Given the poverty of the times, the man-on-the-street's interpretation of Deng's mandate was simple: Money is success.
Deng dogma. Of course, the Chinese have always used material display as a surrogate indicator of worth. But since the 1990s, things have spun out of control. The quest for prosperity, unattainable chimera for the vast majority of penny-pinched mainlanders, has turned into a rat race. Apartments, now a prerequisite for marriage, are so stratospherically expensive they require multi-generational pooling of resources. Addiction to luxury brands results in sales growth of 50 percent per annum, despite 53 percent import tariffs. "Matchmaker" talk shows produce legions of gold-digging femme fatales, one of whom set chat rooms ablaze because she "would rather cry in the front seat of a BMW than be in love on the back of a bicycle." An automobile, on average 100 percent more expensive than in the United States and costing more than 120 percent of buyers' annual income, is a must for anyone aspiring to be labeled middle class -- hence China's emergence as the world's largest car market. Flat-panel TV fixation makes American couch potatoes seem Spartan by comparison.
The discovery of tradition. To the Chinese, materialism is not superficial. It is meaningful, tantamount to advancement within society and faith in the future. Run amok, however, it corrupts ambition and threatens the country's social fabric. Extreme competitive materialism, exacerbated by acute economic insecurity, has led even upwardly mobile arrivistes to doubt the Deng Xiaoping dogma. China appears to be finally rediscovering the utility of Confucian ideals. According to a study conducted by advertising agency TBWA, the appeal of traditional values such as loyalty, moderation, and respect for elders made modest comebacks between 2002 and 2009 while personal success and rights have slipped as aspirations. Is China abandoning an achievement ethos? No. But record viewership of Professor Yu Dan's lecture "Confucius from the Heart," broadcast nationally on China Central Television (CCTV), hint at a budding realization that there is more to life than an Audi and a nice apartment. The popularity of Golden Marriage, a television series extolling commitment, not romantic passion, as the secret sauce of love, also suggests a reemergence of Confucian ideals.
It is worth mentioning the spread of Christianity in both rural and urban areas does not represent a rejection of traditional values. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism was embraced as complement to, not repudiation of, material secularism. On the mainland and in Taiwan, a traditional Chinese society that was not disoriented by Mao's Utopian experimentation during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Protestantism and Catholicism provide similar balm today.)
Chinese society is not in the throes of a spiritual crisis. Instead, it is on the threshold of reclaiming values that have always set it apart. The Cultural Revolution did not purge traditional morality: The sanctity of clan and nation has never been challenged; societal harmony is still noble; anti-individualism is still pervasive; fulfillment of mandate still defines success. Contemporary Chinese, however, are unable to articulate the country's cultural DNA. Dazed and confused, they have yet to leverage their unique worldview as a defense mechanism against disorientation. As the new generation passes through collective adolescence, however, it is finding a new balance. It is, slowly but surely, achieving "harmony" with a new order.
This post has been excerpted from my upcoming book, "What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China's Modern Consumer," to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2012.