China is a land of speed and vigor, of ancient wisdom and modern consumerism, of fabulous wealth and desperate poverty, of top-notch intellectuals, scientists and financial wizards as well as of the laborers in the urban shadow economy, the stooped rice farmers of the hilled terraces, and the millions of minority tribes, some of which still practice the ancient ways of their elders.
I have just returned from my seventh trip to China in the past four years, where I am active as a lecturer and workshop leader, specializing in Eurythmy as a Personal Practice and Anthroposophical topics. In this last trip, my husband Harald was able to join me, teaching Plant Observation and also consulting with various growers about how to grow biodynamic crops.
Through my semi-regular trips to the East, I am able to keep my finger on the rapidly evolving societal and cultural developments I have experienced, even though I know that through my insights I can only scratch the surface of this ancient and complex land.
In this last trip, my husband Harald was able to join me, teaching Plant Observation and also consulting with various growers about how to grow biodynamic crops.
First: China is vast. That which is modern is far more modern that what I know of from the US. In Shanghai, which I consider the world’s greatest mega-city, the subways are super-fast and clean. Mile after (seemingly) endless mile of skyscrapers fill the skyline, from the south of PuDong to the north of PuXi, and the super-high skyscrapers are lit each night from top to bottom with magical LED lights. Traffic is riotous, and no westerner in their right mind would dare to drive some of the roads here. Conversations are bright and intelligent, and life fast-paced and stressful. Yet even in the midst of the fabulously wealthy and well-heeled newly-rich, job-seeking immigrants from distant cities live in abject poverty.
China is, however, a large country (roughly the same size as the US), and there are great differences between the regions. Those who live in the first-world consciousness of the mega-cities lead completely different lives that do those who dwell in country villages still largely untouched by the rush and stress of the modern world.
Through my workshops and lectures on Anthroposophy and Eurythmy, I have visited many of the major cities. I have taught in Beijing in the north, Xi’an in the middle, Chengdu in the west, Guangzhou in the south, and QingDao, Shanghai and Nanjing in the East. Recently I have also begun teaching in Taiwan, (which presents a strong counter-point to mainland China, and deserves an entire blog on its own). I have vacationed in Yuunan, and, most recently, in Guilin, the land of the fables karst mountains, where thousands of single limsestone peaks rise up from the plains as fingers of God pointing heavenwards.
There are ever fewer places in rural China that are untouched by modern life. Roads have reached most of the distant villages, even those more easily accessed by foot. Horses, as beasts of burdens, carry the supplies of the modern world, but so also do diesel-spewing trucks. Tourist industries have helped fan the hunger of the villagers for an easier, more “comfortable” life. I have seen this myself, and talked to guides and hosts in distant places who have their finger on the pulse of the regions they serve. And as much as I may rue the disappearance of the old, romantic lifestyle of such figures as the rice famer with water buffaloes, I must acknowledge that the winds of change are also bringing positive benefits to these communities.
Wherever I went in China, nearly everyone I saw was technologically “plugged in.” Even in the most remote valleys that I have visited, I have been able to access 4G on my cell phone, and in the big cities 9 out of 10 people on the street are negotiating phones as they walk. In my experience, the consumer and the tech industries in China are “on steroids.” People have dozens (perhaps 6 or 7 dozen) different cell phone models to choose from, each one classier than the last. Everyone wants a bigger and better television/ stereo system/ home security system/ smart car than the one they bought last year. In these things, they are leaving the rest of the world “in the dust.”
Pollution is pervasive, and I fear that the environmental consciousness has not yet awakened. Only a few of my friends here know that GMO crops are being planted everywhere in China (and are present in the daily food of most citizens), the fisheries in the oceans are dying, trash that is being (illegally) dumped all around the cities is poisoning the soil, and schools are being built on top of toxic dumps. The skies are mostly gray, and the stars can seldom be seen. I hope we will see big changes in ecological consciousness soon!
TEACHING IN CHINA
As the rising Chinese middle class evolves out of survival mode into a bit of a leisure-society, hundreds of thousands –perhaps millions—of people have begun to examine their lives and values on deeper levels. Self-help groups, meditation groups, NVC workshops, family-constellation and yoga and tai chi lessons abound in the new China: the possibilities seem endless.
And in the midst of all this, there is a vigorous movement examining the educational systems of China. There exist quite a few alternative education models, with Waldorf education one of the most sought-after, with hundreds of school initiatives across the country. Their challenges are many: how can there be enough trained teachers? How can their teachers be helped to connect deeply with the roots of Waldorf principles? And very importantly: can they collaborate and cooperate so that the term “Waldorf” always refers to a vibrant and rigorous education and not an improvised system? How can they contextualize Waldorf education so that the richness of their own cultural heritage finds its rightful and valuable place in the curriculum? And, equally importantly, what do we, as Westerners, have to learn from the heritage of the Chinese people? What have they been given to carry into our time, what wisdom have they been guardians of? I find it fascinating to observe that, as the movement grows, there is an increasing number of schools that are including finding ways to integrate Chinese arts, history, philosophy and values into the Waldorf sol.
Much of the pioneer teacher training work in Waldorf education was begun through dedicated teachers from the English-speaking world, but I am finding an increasing number of German teachers who are carrying the teacher training work in the larger centers.
However, nearly every school that I know of aspires to run their own teacher-training program. While I am excited at the idea of seeing vibrant teacher mentoring programs as well as parent-education initiatives, I am concerned when resources for teacher training are scattered and educators are not deeply enough trained to be able to have a deep understanding of the underlying principles of anthroposophy, the philosophy that underlies the work.
My own work, meanwhile, is focusing on students who have been inspired by my workshops with Eurythmy and Anthroposophy. In addition to short courses, in various cities, I have also started a EurythmyAlive, a certificate course for serious students. In seven 5-day long consecutive eurythmy modules, we focus on deepening themes: Nature of the Human Being, Biography classes, Nature Observation, Karma and Reincarnation, Planets and Constellations, and the like. These 5-day modules are spread out over the course of 2-3 years, and committed students get together in the intervals between modules to practice together. These courses are running in Taiwan and in Chengdu, and are scheduled to begin in Shanghai in the fall.
WEST MEETS EAST MEETS WEST
I find that my greatest personal challenge when teaching in China is understanding the deep levels of the collective unconscious that lives in the foundations of Chinese culture. Eastern wisdom is ancient, resting on primal dualistic philosophies of the Yin and the Yang. These understandings still color all of daily life, reaching into habits of food and medicine and clothing and architecture. In the bedrock of the culture are also the expectations of respect and duty. For China, the most important value was always the thriving of the community, even at the expense of the individual.
Most of the ancient wisdom was, however, ruthlessly destroyed during the 20th century. Much of the ancient insights have now faded into what I experience to be tradition or even superstition. And it is upon this phenomenon that the intense modern drive for individuation arises.
My Chinese friends and colleagues are beautiful, loving people, and I hold them in high esteem. It is an honor to be invited to work with them. Anthroposophy and Eurythmy have sprung from a universal philosophy, yet were rooted in the Western world. Those of us who teach these subjects in China carry a great responsibility to discover how this modern mystery wisdom can find its right relationship to the cultural tasks of the people of the East.