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Fiat Justitia Ruat Cælum; Forgiveness & Vengeance in Modern China

I have wondered on many occasions if all Chinese people are born with a special type of DNA that contains a passive-aggressive brand of retaliation. To simply put it, we are a nation innately talented at holding grudges.

Compared to Westerners, in whose culture a large emphasis is placed on forgiveness, are we just beings with more of a mean streak, or is it deeply ingrained in the roots of Chinese culture?

Our nation’s culture certainly has its fair share of idiosyncrasies, and perhaps the hardest concept for foreigners to fully wrap their minds around is “face”. A phrase you often hear in China is “saving face”, or “losing face.” The notion of face can be contrasted with Western notions of self-esteem. Whereas the individual is in control of their self-esteem, face is more similar to the idea of public-esteem, in the sense that it is granted by others.

In Western culture, a person with a high self-esteem is able to think positively about themselves, and can maintain this positivity even when receiving negative information about their character. Therefore, self-esteem is readily enhanced but hard to defeat. It is the opposite when it comes to face. Face is easy to lose, but hard to gain.

Tim MacDonald, the Founder and Managing Director of Chrysalis Consulting and columnist for The Nanjinger, at a recent TEDx talk in Nanjing, voiced his belief in forgiveness through recounting a tragic but revelatory car accident in his life.

The Chinese driver of the car that crashed into him was heavily drunk. Since driving after drinking is illegal in China, the insurance company had zero obligation to pay for any of the damage and the only choice left open to Mr. MacDonald was to sue both the driver and insurance company to repair the loss.

The insurance company ended up paying their debt, and the poverty-stricken family of the driver paid all they had, which was still not enough to fulfill the compensation. However, in court, Mr. MacDonald made the shocking decision to close the case and set the driver, who was now a prisoner, free.

Mr. MacDonald then proceeded to show a picture of his family to the driver, suggesting he may want to meet them, and said: “I totally forgive you.” Not just for the money, but for almost taking his life.

Regardless of whether it was due to the cultural background in which Mr. MacDonald grew up that helped shape his beliefs, or due to the influence of other factors, he was kind enough to forgive. He understood that people make mistakes, but that everyone is redeemable, as long as we never give up hope.

This led me to think, if the roles were reversed, would we have done the same thing, or would we react in the way that comes naturally to us; to seek revenge?

Revenge, sadly, is very much part of the equation of bearing a grudge. One would think that we would be exhausted by now. But perhaps it has become such an inherent part of our everyday behaviour that it flows in the air we breathe.

The truth is, if you make someone lose face in China, you have probably created an enemy for life.

If you are an expat living in China who still think that avenging face-losing situations is just something you see in Chinese soap operas, you are either a newcomer to Chinese culture or blissfully ignorant; something that is not always a bad thing in China.

In Western culture, objectivity and facts are taught to be respected from a young age, and a person’s integrity is valued more than anything else. If you admit your wrongdoings, take responsibility for your actions and learn from the past, Westerners are generally forgiving.

During his Presidential run, George W. Bush spoke openly about his addiction to alcohol. If a Chinese official did the same thing, the chances are he would be currently hiding under a rock, unable to recover from what he considers a devastating loss of face and a momentary indiscretion that jeopardized his political career forever.

Of course, it all comes down to face. There is not a direct translation for the meaning in Chinese; the closest would probably be along the lines of “pride”, “dignity” or “prestige.”

As a Chinese myself, I can give you the inside scoop on why we, frankly, hate to forgive.

When asking for forgiveness, Chinese people tend to think that it highlights our inferior moral position, and therefore we lose face. By offering forgiveness, we are also losing face as there is a feeling that we are relinquishing the right we have over someone.

We would rather blatantly lie to someone than risk having our egos bruised. Why, you ask? I don’t completely know. But then again, human nature is the same everywhere, for better or for worse.

Is there ever a downside to the modern, saccharine Western routine of forgiveness? Everyone who has had some interaction with Western culture has heard the admonition “forgive and forget” at one point or another in their lives.

Believing in the prevailing good in someone is a value instilled in Western children from a young age, but does saying “I forgive you” truly liberate your brain, your soul, your karma and your heart?

Most of the time, we say it to make the people around us feel better and to deceive ourselves into believing that if we forgive, the universe will somehow work its magic and reward us with favorable karma.

Yet, smiling tight-lipped to mask your inner seething ball of anger is not called forgiveness. This is corrosion of the soul. We should also accept that not being able to forgive is just as valid an option.

This does not imply you have to paint the walls of your room black and dwell on your decision while listening to heavy metal music everyday.

Neither does it mean you are less strong or a less honourable person. It simply shows you acknowledge the balance of shrewd judgement and benevolent character, but you are still able to let go of the “bad stuff” and move on, this time with a real smile on your face.

Before we forgive, we should figure out which people are worth forgiving. Perhaps the wisest choice, then, is to take from both worlds; the reluctance to forgive and forget from Chinese culture, and the willingness to embrace the “water under the bridge” mentality of Western culture.

One thing the Chinese should learn from Westerners is that within each of us lies the limitless capacity to forgive.

It comes with practice and time, but ultimately, forgiveness is an acceptance that the painful scars we bear which speak of an unbearable time are a part of us. A small, silent, but indelible part.

It does not have to mean a lack of action, a dismissal of pain or a discounting of the difficulty of a situation. Forgiveness means we recognise that our deepest wounds and greatest agony can be transformed into something beautiful and full of hope.

It does not matter which side of the mirror you are on. No one should ever forget that.




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