Laozi on Luxury and Leadership for China

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Promoting 'Shai' (Showing Off) at a High-End Mall in China

The Daoist Book of Virtue – known as The Dao De Jing in Mandarin is a seminal work in the philosophy, religion and culture of China. Written by the Daoist sage Laozi in the 6th century BC, the book contains wisdom and guidance on how mankind should exist, be spiritual, and find a ‘path/way’ to live in harmony with society and the universe.

In Chapter 3 of the Dao De Jing, Laozi comments on greed and eludes to the social dangers that arise from ‘treasuring goods’ or what we may describe as ‘consumerism’ in modern day speak.

Do not glorify the achievers
So the people will not squabble
Do not treasure goods that are hard to obtain
So the people will not become thieves
Do not show the desired things
So their hearts will not be confused

Thus the governance of the sage:
Empties their hearts
Fills their bellies
Weakens their ambitions
Strengthens their bones

Let the people have no cunning and no greed
So those who scheme will not dare to meddle

Act without contrivance
And nothing will be beyond control

 

Whatever ‘goods’ Laozi had in mind 2500 years ago, throughout the ages and across civilizations, people have always coveted the luxurious things that are rare, expensive, and beautiful. Its amusing that humanity is has been grappling with the same issues for millennia and despite modern science and our technological advancements we are no more enlightened today than in Laozi’s time.

In China, decades of communism and the tumultuous Cultural Revolution tried to vaporize all remnants of dynastic rule and the hierarchical based society that was the foundation of their civilization.  Yet, thousands of years of behavior isn’t so easily eliminated and gaining ‘status’ is still a fundamental goal of Chinese society and a driver of luxury consumption.

Everyone covets products that symbolise status and success whether they are watches, electronics or sports cars.  Luxury brands know this all too well and conduct their ‘lifestyle’ marketing accordingly. The Chinese lap it up.

Although principles of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism (which isn’t a religion) are deeply embedded in the culture, modern China is relatively devoid of religious spirituality. The ‘God’ of the moment is money and it’s the mission of all devotees to make as much of it as possible, and then, for many to get out of China.

As Laozi intuited centuries ago, such consumerism only leads to mass confusion. Recent conversations with Chinese friends, colleagues or taxi drivers etc., have unearthed a collective discontent about the lack of purpose to present-day life in China. The Country has followed the rest of the ‘developed’ world and life has just become a game of Keeping Up With the Wangs.

Many believe that as long as most Chinese find themselves (economically) better off year on year, then there shouldn’t be any cause for social unrest.  Yet, while the middle-class continues to be better off, a time will come when happiness wont simply be measured by bank deposits. A time will come when Chinese will embrace and value spirituality and clean air etc. above the status provided through the pursuit of wealth and material goods.

Meanwhile the public are already using social media to voice their dissatisfaction over the unequal spread of wealth, its affects on society and the inappropriate spending of public officials.

When the China was still vastly poor, having a purpose in life mattered far less than just simply surviving. Basic needs like food and shelter took precedence over lifestyle and self-enlightenment. Now after decades of economic boom, Chinese have worked their way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and are asking themselves: “what’s the purpose of life?” and  “why am I here?” For many people, the answers: “To make money, sit in traffic, inhale pollution and consume” just don’t seem to cut in anymore.

By no means is this scenario unique to China and all nations must deal with the quest for life’s deeper meanings during their development and according to their history, philosophy and culture. Only in utopian lands such as the mythical Shangri-La do societies exist without the need for money and status.

As in the tales of Scrooge McDuck’s journey to Tralla-La and the movie – The Gods Must Be Crazy suggest, if a utopian land was discovered today, it probably wouldn’t be long before it succumbed to the consumerist ways of the world.

Perhaps the closest thing to utopia we can hope for is the example being set by Bhutan who is more concerned with their levels of Gross National Happiness rather than GDP.

With its increasing clout and impact on global economics and politics, the gross national happiness of China’s population is a significant issue for the whole world and one that needs diligent attention.

In early November China will usher in a new National Government to be led by incoming President Xi Jinping. Along with Xi, many of the new leaders will represent the first generation of politicians that were born after the founding of The People’s Republic of China in 1949. They have not known civil war nor had to repel foreign invaders. For half of their lives, all they have known is rapid economic growth and the ascendance of China as a modern super power. Their China is a completely different nation compared to the one Chairman Mao founded and presided over until his death in 1976.

Now this new generation of leaders must manage the Country through its metamorphosis into a modern superpower. Yet how they will do this is a mystery. In China there are no Presidential debates and no campaign trails where candidates outline their policies and beliefs. Everyone will just have to wait and see.

Perhaps the new leaders will heed the advice Laozi and fill bellies, strengthen bones and shy people away form cunning and greed.

 

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