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The Emotional Republic Of China

Words and feeling and the party line. Leaning on Western studies of social psychology, the writer deconstructs how the powers that be have taught Chinese people how to feel.

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Zhou Lian

BEIJING — I still remember that summer day. I was seven years old, visiting the factory where my parents worked, when the large speakers broadcasting the Red Songs were suddenly interrupted. It was a public condolence read with a low voice full of grief.

I was playing with other children in front of the gate. My mother came to pull me into the house and told me solemnly that I was not allowed to laugh in public because — our kind Soong Ching-Ling grandma has passed away.

Though I didn’t fully understand what it was all about at my young age, I immediately accepted my mother’s explanation and tried hard not to express anything particularly happy for the rest of that day.

It was not until many years later that I understood that, strictly speaking, rather than being based on moral reason my mom’s explanation of the death of an iconic leader of the revolution was based on an intuitional training and emotional discipline — our “kind grandma” had died, and playfulness was therefore the wrong behavior. It’s an instinctive judgment that needs no inference, just like we feel the joy of seeing flowers and sense heart palpitations hearing the word “cancer.”

Robert Zajonc, the late Polish-born American social psychologist, is convinced that humans have an “emotion priority.” We are not at all so rational, neutral and objective as some assume when dealing with information. Contrary to what people imagine, humans tend to make emotional judgments first and foremost. Not only is it a preference, but is also more powerful than our rationality because it directly stimulates and influences a human’s behavior.

As Zajonc put it, people will begin to have a good impression of any words or images to which they are sufficiently exposed. This tendency of associating the familiar with what we feel good about is called the “Mere-exposure effect.”

‘Great’ Mao

From childhood until adulthood, various matters are accepted with likes and dislikes through this particular effect, and this forges corresponding emotional responses. This universal theory also plays out with its particularities in modern China.

For example, Soong Ching-ling is “kind,” Mao Zedong is “great,” Zhou Enlai is “beloved,” the old society is “evil.” The KMT (Taiwan’s Nationalist party) is “corrupt.” Taiwan is associated with “needs reclaiming,” democracy automatically with “chaos,” while the United States is associated not only with “American imperialism,” but also “wickedness” as well as “having not given up the wild ambition to subjugate us.”

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Mao looking *great* as he watches over his cadres, in a 1969 poster (wikipedia)

This kind of unhesitating reaction is called “pattern matching,” in psychological terms. It’s economical and practical, rapid and spontaneous, as well as inert.

Naturally, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people cannot question and modify their initial intuition with moral reasoning after-the-fact. The research of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — notably The Elephant and Rider Metaphor — draws analogies between elephants and rider to express intuition and conscious reasoning. Though the elephant (intuition) isn’t an absolute dictator, its authority, or say inertia, is much larger than that of the rider (rationality).

In my personal experience, my most notable elephantine inertia is reflected in my judgment of the “beloved Premier Zhou Enlai.” Though much historical data prove that Zhou Enlai committed many errors during China’s Cultural Revolution, and he had some personal shortcomings, it doesn’t do much to change the warm feeling and respect for him deep in my heart.

When I realized that on this very problem the rider of the elephant indeed was unable to influence the elephant, I suddenly understood why I will never be able to convince some of my leftist friends.

In another one of his books, “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt listed six intuitions as moral foundations: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/lies, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. He believes, within America’s political spectrum, the political left tends to rest more on the first three foundations that reflect their emphasis on compassion for the poor and a struggle for political equality. Meanwhile, the conservatives are more willing to sacrifice love in order to achieve other moral goals.

If this analysis is applied to what inspires the Chinese, one of the fundamental reasons why liberalism faces all sorts of difficulties in China is the lack of childhood love, freedom and a fair emotional education. When facing moral differences and political conflicts we should aim to abstain from the dogmatic position of “I am the truth, you are fallacious.” We should concentrate rather on communicating with the elephant instead of only with the rider of the elephant. After all, it is emotional education that has the power to fundamentally change a person.

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