Thursday, March 29, 2012

In China, Being Good at School Can Make You a God

Chinese temple in Singapore
I wrote before about how important education is in Singapore. By comparison, the US is a nation of yahoos who don't value learning. This is mostly because Singapore is a Chinese-dominated society, and there is probably no nation on earth that values education more than the Chinese. This is the real secret of Asian success in the United States (which is rather a misnomer; other Asian groups like the Hmong or Samoans do rather poorly, because they have different cultural values).
Details of the temple: I like the dog with a bow collar
 The intense respect and even veneration for education in China is not new. Thanks to a (partially) merit-based examination system, used to select members of the Chinese elite for at least 1000 years, study has been the path to everything desirable in China for a very long time. Being a scholar meant wealth and social status, not just for the scholar, but for his entire family (and even entire village/town). For instance, scholars and their families were exempted from taxes, military service, and other government requirements. They also ran the government (as they do today in Singapore and Taiwan, largely).
Shrine to a good scholar and administrator
Visiting one of Singapore's temples the other day, I came across a shrine to a god from China's Fujian province. Chinese traditional religion is kind of like Greek mythology; exceptional people can become deified, and after death are worshiped just as any god would be. This particular god was an official (meaning a successful test-taker, because that's how you became an official in China). His excellence was in improving the local economy. For this, he is worshiped 1300 years later, in a city over 1800 miles from his home.
His life story
I cannot imagine an equivalent person (say, Alan Greenspan) becoming a god in the United States of 3300 AD. This is one of the times that the alienness of Chinese culture strikes me.

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