The New, Emerging Holistic China: A Personal Report
Recently I returned from a month in China. It was one of the most fascinating journeys I have taken in many years and opened up new worlds to me. I was meeting the holistic pioneers of China, thanks to my colleague, Yan Chen, founder of Stage Ai, an initiative to build a holistic bridge between China and the West.
What were my predominant impressions? China is on the move, efficient and focused with its high speed trains, massive infrastructure, beautiful airports, quick car services, taxi drivers all on GPS, fashionably dressed women in western clothes, phrases in English on multiple t-shirts, and of course its unmistakable and appalling smog and pollution in the big cities.
But I was there to try to grasp what is happening now in China in terms of a shift toward something beyond the materialism of communism, and the consumerism of the last quarter century of relentless economic growth.
Decades ago, when I was last in China, I saw a world of bicycles, run down ugly buildings, people dressed in dull, asexual green and blue Mao-style clothing, and no cars. It was dingy, down at the heel, and largely impoverished. Today one barely even sees a single old car. I was driven around in brand new SUVs, people laugh frequently, fancy restaurants serve multi course meals, and the country constantly produces the new super rich with fresh billionaires every month. The cities are clean, the harbors, airports and train stations are marvels of new, attractive infrastructure, people seem willing to help each other, and you don’t feel anger or frustration on the streets. People appear to be hard working and focused.
At the same time, China is reconnecting with its ancient spiritual and cultural past. My first morning in Beijing I wandered into a Taoist temple with a full scale ceremony complete with priests in brightly colored robes, a live Chinese orchestra, gongs, drums, bells, sacred texts, and a seemingly devoted congregation. It could have been 16th Century China and there appears to be no effort by the government to suppress this revival of spirituality. In fact, it seems there is a measure of official support for the Confucian, Taoist and sometimes Buddhist renewal. There appear to be no penalties for religious worship, unless in some way the power structure feels threatened.
Holistic Pioneers and Some Glimpses of China’s Psyche
In the case of less religiously inclined people, many are awakening to the need for personal growth and inner development. “One Psychology”, the biggest psychology website in China, has a stunning 30 million visitors. I was fortunate to have dinner with the founder, who explained that psychology is relatively new in China. Major psychological issues need to be addressed especially in the realm of relationships as women become more empowered and independent after enduring millennia of Confucian-influenced subservience to men that is deeply ingrained in the culture. An enormous amount of inter-generational trauma resides in the psyches of millions after the suffering of the Cultural Revolution when families were ripped apart. And people everywhere are searching for meaning, for a higher purpose, for more emotional freedom, for solutions to their psychological problems.
Yan Chen (R) and Yang Guang, Stage Ai, Beijing
Here are some of the individuals who impressed me: First, Yan Chen, the dynamic founder of Stage Ai, and my host. Her intimate knowledge of both East and West, her bold and innovative vision of a bridge of holistic consciousness from China to America, and her intuition that an immersion in contemporary China would greatly benefit my own understanding of the changes afoot there, were all vital for the success of my intensely memorable experience. Then her colleague Yang, the first Chinese philosophy graduate from the California Institute of Integral Studies, who had returned to Beijing to work with Stage Ai, and was my companion for much of the journey. He has deep cosmological interests, the temperament of a budding sage, and a calm, steady, scholarly and helpful demeanor. Another Stage Ai staff member, Gloria, moved me with the story of the depth, intensity and commitment of her spiritual search. She left a good job and lived for four years on less than a dollar a day to be able to read Krishnamurti initially and then many other spiritual texts. I think also of the translator and traveler, Nan, with her purple streaked hair, independent and adventurous spirit who had hitchhiked alone to Tibet from Yunnan in her early twenties and studied with a Taoist master in the mountains above Dali; and Xao-mei, the owner of an eco-resort near Pu’er in Yunnan province, who wishes to make it into one of China’s first holistic centers, offering yoga, mindfulness, hakomi and other practices. Her enthusiasm, openness, and hospitality were deeply encouraging. Her Little Panda center may, in fact, become the site of the first Open Center/Stage Ai conference in China next year.
In Shandong province, the heart of traditional China, I experienced the world of contemporary Chinese religion in its Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist forms. I also journeyed south near to the borderlands with Laos and Vietnam and vividly recall the jovial Buddhist priest in the city of Xishuangbanna in Southern Yunnan close to Myanmar/Burma. Further North in Yunnan, I was strongly reminded of my visit to the Nechung monastery in Dharamsala many years ago as I listened to a wizened, ancient Tibetan lama performing a pre-Buddhist ritual outside a Bon temple near the shores of beautiful Lugu Lake at 8,000 feet. Then there was the Taoist master at the temple complex at the summit of the holy mountain, Tai Shan, with his black hat, robes, dignity and dedication to the spiritual work. I will write about this more in a following article.
Returning to the more secular world in Shanghai I met two remarkably intelligent men in an upscale section of the city built to resemble London who are deeply engaged with creating therapy centers for families, children and the elderly. It was a pleasure on my first morning in the city to meet such welcoming and dedicated individuals committed to the common good. Leaving matters of personal growth aside for a minute, I can’t recall Shanghai without a reference to the sophisticated and elegant seventh floor bar in the French section of The Bund with its pricey cocktails and views of the city’s spectacular waterfront, a vision of Shanghai during its elegant and corrupt phase in the early 20th Century when opium and prostitution permeated the economy and the city was a global watchword for all things decadent. Personally, I can write with some fervor of my relief at finding a wine bar after weeks of nothing but beer.
Overall, Shanghai impresses a visitor with its elegant clothing stores and chic bars that sit right next to poor, run down sections of the city. I couldn’t miss the fascination of Chinese men with Victoria’s Secret’s models and their provocative cat walk show. I left Shanghai with a sense of its waterways and canals, and of course the phenomenal view from the Bund of the illuminated skyscrapers, giant high rises serving as movie screens, with numerous boats and ships churning through the broad river. This is China at its most commercial and energetic, claiming its status as a leading world trading power.
Southern Yunnan Province
Further South in Yunnan, I experienced the celebrated plantations of Pu’er tea with their green terraced slopes and industrious leaf cultivators and pickers. My companions and I enjoyed a wonderful night with the indigenous peoples of the region, the sexy dancing and group singing, the beautiful women, the multiple toasts, the black hat of the headman with its long feather that I wound up wearing, a girl pouring the local wine down my throat while sitting on my knee. I vaguely recall my inebriated speech near the end of the night in favor of indigenous values and culture and global harmony. It was an outrageous evening, fully consistent with my constant experience in China of being treated as an honored guest.
Buddhist temple, Xishuangbanna, Southern Yunnan
Nearby in the city of Pu’er I saw the massive constructions of a new neighborhood in the city. Who does infrastructure more impressively than the Chinese? Their capacity to envision, and then build whole new cities and neighborhoods is some kind of extraordinary phenomenon. And these are not ugly, cramped inner city boroughs. They are elegant with parks and fountains. Of course, everything in China is business, business, business with multiple shameless appeals to status and conspicuous consumption. But after decades of poverty and chaos, it’s not hard to understand the appeal.
China contains a massive variety of experiences and climates. In Xishuangbanna, it felt more like South East Asia with its Buddhist temples and architecture that appeared more Burmese or Thai than Chinese. The Mekong River rolled lazily by, the tropical heat pervaded everything, and the traditional streets of the old city charmed with their natural grace and urban forest. I had the chance to experience an indigenous village of the Dai people, where a very old man, one of the few who could still write the Dai language, composed a message of blessing and good health for me on a strand of bamboo in the traditional style.
Of course, there are many reminders that China is still an authoritarian state. The paramilitary police manning the check point on the border of the Golden Triangle, their sub-machine guns prominent, are a vivid illustration of the power of the security state. They apparently thought I looked like a Colombian drug dealer and held us up for quite a while. Everywhere at airports and even the subway one encounters the efficiency of China’s security services with their no- nonsense pat downs and undeviating focus.
Lijiang and Lugu Lake
Further North in Yunnan we visited the city of Lijiang at the foot of the Tibetan snow range, perhaps the most beautiful of Chinese cities with its exquisite wooden houses and shops, its rivulets and streams coursing through the old town, its willow trees and shade, its traditional crafts and relaxed charm. You can feel the influence of the Naxi culture where people smile easily amidst the tranquility of the mornings. We stayed in a delightful hotel with its private courtyard and carved gate, and its sweet young staff who were learning English and dreaming of a larger life abroad.
Old City, Lijiang
Our Taxi driver, who calmly navigated the narrow, hair-raising road to Lugu Lake with its vast gorges and precipitous drops, was possessed of such a sweet disposition. He drove us through remote mountain villages where we could see the extremely dangerous process of road building on steep, vast mountain slopes. Everywhere, even in the most difficult terrain imaginable, cell phone towers had somehow been placed near mountain tops, a testament to the government’s commitment to phone service in even the most obscure places. You certainly wouldn’t see anything like that in the West.
And finally the incomparable Lugu Lake itself, at the junction of Szechuan, Yunnan and the autonomous Tibetan province of Muli, the home of the ‘Mysterious Land of Women of the East,’ one of the world’s last surviving matriarchies. I had been there almost thirty years earlier when it had been untouched by tourist development. On arrival I experienced the shock and disappointment of the almost ubiquitous tourist development along the Szechuan side of the lake, the crassness of it, the deterioration of silence and the sacred and the pursuit of money. To a foreigner, this is the sad side of China’s development, with its commercial focus and its lack of awareness of sacred landscape. Let’s hope that changes in the years ahead.
But when I awoke the next day, the peace and beauty of the lake, the supreme sense of being above the cares and stupidities of the world, the gentle sunlight, the mists on the water, the tiny island near the center of the lake with its Tibetan temple where Joseph Rock, the pioneering Austrian/American explorer and botanist whose travels in the Twenties inspired the myth of Shangri-la, had lived for eight years. Then there was the wonderful museum of the Mosuo people and culture that beautifully conveys the richness of this ancient women-centered culture, complete with its Joseph Rock room, dedicated to the man who did more than any other Westerner to bring Naxi culture to the world.
It’s wonderful to feel oneself on the edge of Tibet with its spiritual rituals, its lamas drumming to an ancient shamanic beat, blowing the conch and the human bone trumpet, as they prayed for blessings for the village. We met the simple, warm woman who paid for the ceremony. And who can not find delight in spinning the prayer wheels at the temple – Om Mani Padme Hum – as they send out blessings to the world. And if anyone has any doubts about the vitality of the matriarchal culture around the lake, they should find themselves in a small row boat making its way through choppy waters to a sacred island in the heart of the lake with an attractive and physically strong Mosuo woman wielding her oar in her shiny blouse and sweater, with the same vigor and endurance as her brother with his broad face, and rough, cheerful demeanor.
Looking back on that month in China, a phrase stays strongly with me. I first heard it uttered by a very intelligent psychology professor at Fudan University, one of the top universities in Shanghai, who said that ‘Spring is coming’ in China. He was referring to the awakening now occurring in the country. He was very knowledgeable about the holistic impulse in the West and its significant figures. From his words, and others, it seems that the first buds of spring are starting to burst open in China and a new season is about to take place. The same metaphor was used by the founder of One Psychology. Within the next five years, they both felt deeply that there will be a massive outpouring of interest in matters of psychology, consciousness, meaning and finding a deeper purpose to life than economic growth and materialism. It seems that enough people have now ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, enough citizens now have shelter, food, clothing, work etc. that they are ready to engage with the prospect of self-actualization and finding deeper purpose in their lives.
Ralph at Lugu Lake
Many parts of China remain dingy and poor, and millions still struggle for for the basics of a decent existence, especially in the countryside. And of course the country remains dominated by a powerful government which does not tolerate any perceived threats to its power. It is never helpful to have too Pollyannaish a take on a place where political freedom remains a distant prospect, and the people of Tibet continue to suffer profoundly.
But the impression I took from a packed and diverse month across the country, is that it no longer works to see China through the prism of the crisis of 28 years ago. The human reality of the Chinese people – most of them friendly, welcoming, and gracious with little if any propaganda induced hostility to the West – lies in the simple thumbs up signs from elderly men who greeted me shyly in the Olympic park in Beijing, or the eager handshakes from simple working people I encountered along the way.
Despite the decades of communism,, the people of China remain curious about the West and ripe for a dialogue. A powerful impulse seems to be awakening in the country that harks back to the beauty and wisdom of ancient China with its emphasis on harmony and attunement to nature. Spirituality is deeply ingrained in a civilization where there is a recognition that the I Ching is the foundational document of Chinese culture. The Communist Party has officially embraced the creation of ‘An Ecological Civilization” as one of its core objectives, hard though that may be to believe. The Book of Changes tells us that all things are in flux, that water inevitably finds its level, and that even a difficult and dark journey lasting decades can gradually transform into a path toward wisdom. China is a long way from reaching that goal, but I returned to New York with a sense of optimism and possibility. Much can be done to create a cultural dialogue, to build that holistic bridge between China and the West that is at the core of Stage Ai’s mission, and I returned feeling energized and happy to be part of this innovative and important work.
Ralph White is co-founder of the New York Open Center and the author of the memoir, The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest for a Life of Meaning. He directs the Esoteric Quest series of conferences. www.ralphwhite.net, www.esotericquest.org.
Stage Ai can be reached at www.stageai.com.
This is the first of three articles about contemporary China.