The Republic of China has undergone many dramatic changes within a relatively short period of time. After centuries operating in the relative stability of Confucian ideals and tradition, Chinese society has been bombarded by the inflow of western ideals and commercialism. In his book Streetlife China, Michael Dutton makes observations concerning contemporary Chinese society and discusses the problems and advantages rapid economic development has brought upon China. Dutton’s view on contemporary China is that of a society whose historical ideology contradicts the product of a capitalistic society. Dutton believes that Chinese society is conflicted between traditional ideals and modern desires. The mind-set and life goals of Chinese individuals are changing with modernization, and Chinese society as a whole has been overwhelmed and unable to handle the rapid transition it is undergoing. Dutton uses many vivid observations of everyday life in modern day China, to support his views.
Dutton begins his writing by discussing the idea of human rights. He states, “It is true that, traditionally, the concept of human rights did not exist in China.” (Dutton, 23). He explains that this was not to say that human rights were ignored. This is not the result of years of repression that has made it impossible to practice human rights, but quite the contrary, the spirit of traditional Chinese society makes the idea of guaranteed human rights unnecessary. “I think that the humanitarian and harmonious spirit that human rights embodies was not only present in traditional Chinese society, but that it was quite bountiful. If anything was lacking, it was the spirit of a rule of law,” (Dutton 24). Chinese culture traditionally stressed kindness and selflessness. It was considered moral and commendable to have other’s best interest at heart. In order to gain respect within the community and the family, one in traditional Chinese society would strive to maintain harmony in interpersonal relationships. .
Traditional Chinese society stressed great importance to relations within the family and community. Every body had a role within the community and family. It was considered the duty of every individual to fulfill their role in order to benefit others. “Every person’s character was defined by their social relations, moreover the individual belonged to and served the collective,” (Dutton, 29). An example of such relations is given in the case of the Chinese work units. The work unit serves as a family in the workplace. In many ways it is as restrictive as a family in that you have little choice in which work unit you join and you cannot switch work units or move up within one. However people find solace in them because it is like a family and one feels a sense of belonging which is necessary in a society that functions through people’s desires to help others. For Chinese, the work unit is their very own big round table. People care for and love their fellow worker; they are no longer friendless and wretched since they are always surrounded by those they know. Dutton claims in such a society could not function if the individuals were preoccupied by ideas of human rights.
With the beginning of foreign trade in the Qing dynasty, the Chinese were wary of foreign ideologies and felt it was important to maintain China’s identity. The leaders of China felt it was necessary to trade with and accept the technology of the foreigners in order to strengthen China. At the same time they did not want the inflow of Western ideals and wanted to maintain their culture. As a result contact with foreign countries were restricted and China has historically been a rather reclusive nation. However the gradual (and more recently, rapid) inflow of western ideas have changed the landscape of China. “Gone are the traditional traders old… These days, the flow of traffic in Qianmen is heading the other way. Consumers in their tens of thousands gravitate to Qianmen and its surrounds, and it is they who constitute the traffic in the busy and over-crowded streets,” (Dutton, 1). The inflow of western ideas have made it in many cases impossible for China to maintain its traditional identity and not only changed its landscape but also the mind-set of its society.
The rapid commercialization of contemporary China has proven incompatible with traditional Chinese culture. The desire to consume, to gain more capital, to improve one’s position in life has replaced the traditional desire to maintain filial piety and fulfill one’s role in society. “Because the traditional conception of self is so dim, it is only within a life built around human inter-relationships that Chinese people feel comfortable. From the traditional Chinese perspective individuality is invariably a pejorative term,” (Dutton, 46). With the coming commercialization and Western ideas, the foundation of Chinese society, the desire to contribute to the society, the desire to be selfless, and find comfort in others is becoming obsolete. Ironically, with the coming of western culture, the idea of human rights in practice is being encroached upon, as the traditional Chinese society is not compatible to the individual demand for human rights. .
The commercialization of Chinese society has brought about a new class of citizens. Traditionally Chinese citizens have been tied to their land. Benefits from the government were received according to where you resided. People living in a city received greater benefits than those living in the country. Also citizens in rural areas were considered of less stature due to the benefits received and general level of education. The standards of living were significantly better in the cities. With commercialization in the cities more and more people from the rural areas of China began migrating to the cities in hopes to make money and better their status in life.. Once in the cities, many of these migrants turn to a life of crime. In general they are considered “vagrants” and “ hooligans”, (Dutton, 63). Dutton comments, “The deteriorating security situation in contemporary China has important lessons and offers some previously unknown challenges to the law in the People’s Republic. The economic reform process has inadvertently led to a crime wave,” (Dutton, 68). These migrants come to the city oftentimes live in horrible conditions in hopes to achieve wealth and status. When they do not find it, many migrants feel they have nothing to lose, so they turn to a life of crime in their desire to consume. “When peasants first enter the city, all they can do is feel envious, inferior and impatient. This even reaches the point where they develop a hate complex. This complex not only prevents them from gradually entering into city life, but can even lead them into crime,” (Dutton, 87). This mentality is a far cry from the traditional Confucian notion of filial piety.
The Chinese government has tried many methods to control the migration to the city and the resulting crime. Severe penalties were levied to offenders of serious crimes. Identity cards were issued to all citizens of China in order to establish place of residency of each individual citizen. Many non-legal residents of cities were expelled from the city. Higher taxes were levied to residents of urban areas. (Dutton, 80-140). However the peasants still came in droves to try to improve their station in life and become a part of the consumer world.
The westernization of China has brought about significant change in Chinese society. Michael Dutton paints a poignant picture of contemporary Chinese society, a society still very much rooted in old traditions struggling to incorporate commercialism into their culture. Contemporary Chinese society still faces many problems due to the innate contradiction of their traditional values and the ideology of a consumer driven society.
Michael Dutton, Streetlife China