China Blog May 2016
I have just returned from my second trip to China this spring, my fourth trip of the past 12 months. As I am fond of saying, “It is really fulfilling work, but a very LONG commute.”
When I was a young woman, fresh out of college, I boldly decided to travel to India. I began with four months in Europe, then traveled overland through the Middle East, and finally arrived in India, where I stayed for four months and—(unsuccessfully)—sought for a spiritual path I could resonate with. My trip continued to the East, taking me through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and culminated with a year in Japan. I ended up spending fully two years on the road, discovering how many ways there are to experience human life. The experiences in the far east changed my inner life in many ways, as I encountered levels of historical depths, cultural beauty and interpersonal sensitivity that I hadn’t met back home in Chicago.
My experiences there were so life-changing that, although my next years were more oriented towards Europe as I immersed myself in Anthroposophical studies, I always had a presentiment that I would return someday, to take up work in the east again.
I never expected, however, that I would begin in China.
In those days, China was still a closed country, and I had to circumvent it. However, for the last 25 years or so, China has opened its doors to the world, and it is currently in the midst of extraordinary change. Among other things, in the 2000’s the Waldorf school movement began to take root there, and by now there are some 400 Waldorf kindergartens and small schools there, with more being founded yearly.
Several hundred lecturers and workshop leaders from the western world—Canada, the US, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Holland (to name a few) who are helping to guide this movement. In addition to several Waldorf teacher training courses, there are also initiative for anthroposophical medical work, rhythmical massage training, business consulting services, eurythmy training initiatives, a Bothmer gymnastics training, and more, sprouting up all over the country.
And so I too have spent quite a bit of time recently in China. My first teaching trip was in 2013, and I have just returned from my 6th trip. In the past twelve months I visited four times, numbering a total of about sixty days. The work there is fascinating, intense, rich, frustrating, multi-faceted, and concerning. I have been asked time and again by my hosts there in various cities to make a permanent move to China, set up a eurythmy school, carry responsibility for a Waldorf school, create a BD farm initiative with my husband or commit to any number of other projects, but I don’t feel the call to move there. Life, however, continues to take me there and give me extremely meaningful opportunities to do some of the most creative work I am doing anywhere on the planet.
I find that the Chinese people are truly hungry for anthroposophical work—far more so than I have found in the western world since the 1980s. Yet every time I go, I am vividly aware of the urgent need for us foreign teachers to learn to contextualize the way we teach there. Anyone who teaches in China is well-advised to school themselves well in the Chinese history, lest what the westerners teach be a kind of cultural imperialism.
It would be a grave mistake to overlook the difference between the paradigms that Rudolf Steiner’s work is based on—thousands of years of Western philosophy—and the even longer history of philosophical traditions of the East, tracing back to Lao Tzu, the Yellow Emporer and others.
The path of the west is based on western philosophy, on rationalism, on phenomenological experience of the world, of developing the human ego and unfolding it in freedom.
Traditional Chinese culture, on the other hand, rests upon the tenets of Confucianism, Taosim, Buddhism. The basic world view is dualistic (yin/yang). The relationship to religion is frequently superstitious. The sense of the ego, or I-Am, as the central human consciousness, is awakening rapidly, but in an abstract way: society always asks the individual to retreat for the good of the society. Furthermore, there is no innate sense of freedom. There is no history of scholarly examination, no phenomenology. There is a tremendous drive towards consumerism. Whatever ancient sense of reverence for the elders there might have been, whatever tradition of ancient knowledge existed in the past, were systematically wiped out through the cultural revolution. What we have now is a generation of 50 and 60-year-olds who suffered more than we can imagine in the Cultural Revolution, a generation of 30- and 40-year olds who were parented by those broken people, the 20-somethings who are tremendously materialistic, but as tuned-in as their contemporaries in the west, and young people commonly referred to as “little emporers,” because their parents don’t discipline them.
The result is a modern culture largely bereft of their cultural heritage. The Chinese are an immensely proud and driven people, and their society racing at break-neck speed towards consumerism and modernity. And I only dare to make these assertions because my Chinese friends themselves have brought these concerns to me.
The Chinese people I meet are very fast and smart and need to be well respected. Yet they also have a deep hunger for substance that hasn’t been offered to them in their own world. Indeed, wherever I teach, I find people who are profoundly longing to find a spiritual orientation for their lives.
I would like to offer a snapshot of what I have experienced in China. In doing so, I confess I may have some facts wrong, because one of the difficulties of living and working there is that things change so fast that one never feels one has a complete picture.
China is approximately as large as the United States, and most of the population in located in the eastern half of the country.
The air pollution and environmental degradation are, in fact, as extreme as we have been told. Rarely can one see the moon or the stars in the east of the country, and often even the sun is only a pale ball in the sky.
Chinese traffic is amazing. Drivers weave through traffic, cutting each other off with impunity.
Pedestrian traffic runs in a similar manner. People cut into lines all the time, seemingly without offending anyone. My Chinese friends tell me that they are expected to learn and practice tolerance from a very young age.
Chinese architecture is nothing less than stunning, especially in the really large cities. Shanghai, for instance, with a population around 28 million, is the most international city I know on the planet, and its hundreds of skyscrapers are beautiful, creative, playful and breathtaking. At night most of them are lit from the top to the bottom with multi-colored LED lights, making a unique cityscape that never fails to impress me.
I have seen many of the truly great cities of the world, and Shanghai surely ranks as one of the most international places on the planet. Despite the inevitable pockets of poverty, it is fast, jazzy, blues-y, sophisticated, intelligent, and fun. The streets are crowded by day, as millions of pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders, cars and trucks jostle for position. Street-side cafes (yes, Starbucks, of course) and Chinese noodle shop line the streets. Dark alleys are still lined by Chinese traditional homes, often without indoor plumbing, but they are being replaced block-by-block by new, clean, and largely gorgeous neighborhoods. My sister and brother-in-law have lived there for 6 years, and I end each of my Chinese trips with a stay with them in their 42nd-floor apartment that looks out upon the city through the smog (a good day has an air-pollution rating of 100, and visibility on a good day is about 10 miles). Yet the city is fun, with great food, fabulous bath houses and massages, the spectacular Bund (waterfront park and promenade), and international cuisine.
I have also been to the more rustic small villages, such as are found in the southern province of Yunaan. There the traffic is still crazy, Chinese-style, but the people are somewhat more relaxed. In some of the small towns, it is impossible to walk the streets without being stared at by local people or photographed by image-hungry people.
I have also been to nature parks, to the terra-cotta warriors of Emporer Qi ( which was in concept and design uncannily similar to the Egyptian tombs), and to visit the panda bears near Chengdu. I have been so lucky to have seen more of China than many Chinese people have. I know it to be a country in rapid change, with enormous wealth in the cities and crushing rural poverty in the outlying areas. I have heard people assert
“We are so free in this country,” and others say “We only think we are free because we have no idea what freedom is. We don’t know how it could be different.”
My work there has largely been in conjunction with the Waldorf communities there. Because of that, I have had very deep and personal questions about life, meaning, and spirituality with people who are striving to wake up. I honor and respect these people, and hope to bring them a compass for their lives with the help of Anthroposophy.
In my next blog, I will describe my teaching experiences in depth.