The stories we tell about ourselves and others reflect the paradigmatic narratives we inhabit in our everyday lives. In contrast to the Chinese, most Western people, either consciously or unconsciously, think about their lives in terms of biblical narratives. Western children also learn and create ideas about reality from narratives in the form of fairy tales and fables. Such stories offer people of all ages significance, as well as a framework to live by. The allegories represented by Everyman, Pilgrim's Progress, Bible tales, the Lives of the Saints, as well as fables such as Cinderella, The Fox and the Grape, The Tortoise and the Hare, live inside Western minds as paradigmatic narratives from the past.
Chinese people, unless educated extensively abroad, do not sit under the umbrella of Western narratives. Because of this difference, it is important for anyone working and living long term in China to educate themselves regarding the narratives and the consequent belief systems found in China, and often throughout Asia as well. For the Chinese, Buddhist and Confucian narratives are ordinary and even mundane parts of their lives.
In addition to any religious or spiritual narratives, there are alternative forms of narrative that we hear and absorb, consciously and unconsciously. Some examples are stories, such as national epics, poetry, and treasured literature. For Western people, these stories range from Virgil to Voltaire. For the Chinese, however, their narratives of this type appear to be grounded in history as well as literature and myth—from Huang Di to recounting the struggles during the Three Kingdom period, from Mao Zedong Thought to Ba Jin's Family. By reading Chinese literature and exploring Chinese history, foreigners can gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be Chinese, and perhaps grasp the way Chinese identity has changed over time.
Moreover, today's generation of young Chinese people are rapidly becoming bilingual, most often in English. This means that they now have access to the stories and narratives of the Western world. They absorb their own internal cultural narratives, and then they begin to embellish it with those they acquire from books, the Internet, films, and interactions with Western people. This last portal—Westerners, can highly influence the way young Chinese interpret the stories and ideas coming from outside their own world view. Just as I view every Chinese friend as a representative of this vast country, so the Chinese view their foreign friends as heralds of their own countries.
Some Western people from the past have also made a great impact upon Chinese youth. For example, radically different from the Biblical or Buddhist tales of creation, salvation and resurrection/enlightenment, are Darwin's experiments on adaptions, selections, and inheritances of traits and characteristics. With the advent of Darwin's ideas, new and different kinds of narratives about the origin of humans have arisen. These ideas have influenced the East and West both positively and negatively.
For example, Social Darwinism has brought Darwin's ideas into disrepute, by incorrectly implying that race and intelligence can be correlated. Today's world has again generated a new wave of Darwinism, moving the idea of change among humans into an ethical and political realm. Today's generation has experienced profound changes in the way we as humans sense and define time, and the way we analyze human relations.
Personally, I feel that history is neither the working out of some divine plan, or an evolutionary course of events, or an account of dominant political processes. Instead, Chinese people and Western people are both engaged in the process of adaptation. Some may be slow and gradual as Darwin originally suggested, or some is fast and furious, given the way technology and mobility has increased the speed of adaptation.
The past doesn't change: The past is petrified, solid and massive. What changes is the way we view the past. Perception is everything. This viewing, reordering and reclassifying can create rifts between the past and the present, the younger generation and the older generation. Yet for today's Chinese youth, determinism is not an issue: the past does not determine what happens next. They occupy a space that has more chances for transformation, both gradual and sudden. Chinese youth have evolved new identities, separate from their ancestors. Their sense of self is more dynamic, more fluid, than that of their parents and elders, because, I feel, they are creating identities not only in a new modernized country, but also they live during a time where technology, mobility, and communication have expanded more than ever in human history. In one sense, then, in order to survive and thrive, modern young Chinese have had to carve out complex and flexible identities. They are unique, certainly, but also they are representative of many other young people living on our planet—members of a global, cosmopolitan, and multilingual generation.
The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region