Socrates in Sichuan, by Peter J. Vernezze

Peter Vernezze with his philosopy discussion group at Sichuan Normal University

Back in 2002, a few months after I started working in China, I decided to give a training session to my staff on creativity and visualization, two qualities that are quite useful in public relations and brainstorming. Earlier I had given trainings on responding to a crisis, using blogs to generate media coverage, how to write a press release, etc. The trainings were well received and I got a lot of thanks from my colleagues.

The training on creativity, however, went over like a lead balloon. I tried to teach basic relaxation and visualization techniques that help put you in a quieter, more open state of mind, ideally making you a “blank slate” from which any new idea might sprout. I gave the same training a couple years earlier in the US and the staff loved it. In Beijing I could tell almost immediately that the group was skeptical, uninterested and not very willing to cooperate. Eyes glazed over, or darted around the room. Afterward, my boss at the time (a European) said to me in no uncertain terms, “I can promise you after being here a few years that the Chinese people have no interest in psychology or meditation or philosophy or spirituality. They look to the trainer as someone who can give them concrete lessons they can apply to either make more money or further their careers.”

I never gave that training again in Asia, though I’m not convinced she was totally correct.

This brings me to an utterly charming book I just finished, Peter J. Vernezze’s Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice, and the (Chinese) Way. (This book was sent to me by the publisher.) I related the anecdote above because it was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the title of the book, the memory of my boss telling me philosophy was of little interest to Chinese people. I was curious to see if this were really the case.

Vernezze is another Peace Corps volunteer who, in the Peter Hessler tradition, chronicles his experience teaching college students in Sichuan. (The other great book on China by a former Peace Corps volunteer is Michael Meyers’ superb The Last Days of Old Beijing.) Vernezze, who had taught philosophy in the US for 15 years, was an English teacher at Sichuan Normal University, and for two years he held a weekly discussion group on philosophy that grew increasingly popular.

Being neither a “china expert” nor a philosophy expert (one semester in college), I found this book offered both a valuable primer on the influence of Confucius and the Tao, which is going strong to this day, as well as an intriguing glimpse into the mindset on contemporary young Chinese people.

The author starts by describing the typical university classroom: rows of desks bolted to the floor, all facing the front-center of the room from which the professor will lecture them. The room is designed to discourage peer-to-peer discourse, and as Vernezze later explains, peer-to-peer discourse is something the Chinese student absolutely does not desire. They see themselves, he writes, as vessels into which the professor is expected to deliver his knowledge. They aren’t interested in what their fellow students have to say. Anything of value will come from the teacher.

So it makes perfect sense that he holds his philosophy discussion group in local coffee shops where students can sit facing one another. There, he challenges them with questions such as What is Truth? What is Sanity? Is life a matter of fate or free will? How Vernezze draws his students out, and the stumbling blocks that challenge him, makes for excellent reading.

The one trend that permeates nearly every chapter (and one that you’re probably all at least somewhat familiar with) is the almost reflexive need for his Chinese students to find a “middle way,” an answer to his questions that take into account all sides, so the answer they give won’t hurt anyone or cause them to lose face, including the teacher. This is the very opposite of the approach of US students, who form strong opinions and argue them with passion. The principle that “there are two sides to every coin” applies to nearly every answer the students offer throughout the book. Life is about finding a middle way, and Vernezze does a masterful job of linking contemporary Chinese attitudes with the teaching of Confucius and the Tao.

He is also very funny. He relates, for example, a discussion he had about elections with his academic superior at Sichuan Normal, who believes, in Vernezze’s words, that “the antithesis of harmony is not chaos but rather America.”

“I do not understand,” he said smiling. “why you Americans put yourselves through this every four years. It seems crazy to us Chinese. Why go through all this fighting and rancor? We had our period of chaos during the Cultural Revolution. No one here wants to go back to that.”

I wasn’t sure how many people died in the American electoral process in the past two hundred years, but I was pretty certain it was significantly fewer than the three million some historians estimate perished during the Cultural Revolution Which is not to say that he did not have a point. No one doubts the American political system is broken….

This wry humor finds its way onto nearly every page. And every exchange he relates takes us deeper into the minds of his students, whether they’re discussing the government’s suppression of the 2008 riots in Tibet, the attack on the World Trade Center, the Sichuan earthquake or even homosexuality (he is amazed at how tolerant his students are on this issue).

A simple phenomenon, like the Chinese people’s attitude toward credit cards, is a source of precious insight. Vernezze notes that in China, your credit card is backed up by cash you pay the bank in advance, so you are never actually borrowing money that isn’t yours:

The very notion of credit cards — that you would spend money one didn’t have — horrified most of the students. This attitude seemed to me not merely the result of a culture of saving but indicative of a philosophical worldview that is profoundly different than the Western one. I would argue that the very idea of the credit card has a particularly American flavor to it, embodying an attitude of optimism. Since Americans are certain that the future will be better than the present, we feel comfortable spending money we don’t have. By contrast, the Chinese idea, which finds its philosophical basis in Taoism, is that because reality is in a constant state of flux — the young becomes old, hot becomes cold, what is hard is broken down into what is soft — one should take no course of action that makes overly optimistic assumptions about the future. Say what you will about this attitude, but I can tell you this: no Chinese would have taken out a mortgage that he knew was going to balloon in a few years on the hope that he would be able to refinance at the time based on the value of the house.

The beauty of the book is the interactions with the students themselves (they’re too long for me to paraphrase in a way that does them justice). The final pages wrap it all up and help clear up an obvious question the book raises, which is whether the Chinese philosophy of self-interest and materialism leaves the door open for a society without fundamental ethics. He notes (surprisingly, for me) that this philosophy is not much different than the ancient Greeks’, and yet there exist in both societies “real ethical standards that can direct human behavior.”

…if the existence of laws in the physical and psychological realms does not require the presence of a spiritual reality, it should come as no surprise that for both the ancient Greeks and modern Chinese, the fact that there is only the natural world does not preclude the presence of a moral law. Indeed, in both traditions ethical laws for regulating human conduct have the same status as laws of of physical and psychological health; they are relevant and sought out by the intelligent person wishing to have a good life.

While I’m quoting a lot about the theory, the actual magic is in the characters who attend the discussion group, how they interact with the teacher and their peers, and how they grapple with logic, the very nature of which goes against how they were taught to learn (rote memorization vs. inquiry and discussion). Often the most fun part is when the students offer responses that are so not what the teacher expected to hear that his own belief systems are challenged, and he is forced to think in a whole new way.

Finally, it’s a great bird’s eye view into teaching in rural China, many years after Hessler wrote River Town, the gold standard on the subject. Much has changed, while a lot has remained the same.

Again, I’m no philosopher, so I may not be able to engage on all the issues I’ve raised. If you have questions or are curious about any of the points mentioned, get the book.

And in answer to the question I posed at the beginning: this books shows the Chinese can indeed engage in philosophy, though in a much different way than Westerners. They are willing to explore tough issues, and in the hands of a competent navigator like Vernezze they can even broaden their worldview while learning much about themselves that they hadn’t given thought to before. It’s a book I highly recommend.

Thanks for making it through a review that is somewhat all over the place. I need to find the middle way and not write such long posts.