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March 30, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Pimp My Ride

On 18 October 2008, in an article titled “Unnecessary Salutation”, the China Daily reported on a strange-but-true story that would probably never happen here in New Zealand.

It transpired that the local government of Huangping County (in Guizhou province) had passed a regulation requiring “primary and secondary school students to salute whenever they see a passing car.” Unbelievably, the official reasons given were to “teach students to be civilised and courteous, because saluting cars is deemed respectful to drivers and their passengers”, and also to “prevent accidents”.

Needless to say, the news drew widespread ridicule and outrage in the Chinese media, and especially among Chinese bloggers, with the move widely condemned as promoting an outdated, ‘feudal’-type slave mentality among China’s younger generations. It is also likely to entrench the ‘gold-worshipping’ materialism that has increasingly negative repercussions for Chinese society and culture. In fact, the China Daily article itself criticised such orders as being ‘feudal’ and ‘outmoded’—and quite rightly so.

Perhaps more importantly, it also highlights a deeper problem plaguing modern-day China—the almost unbridled power that some local governments are able to wield in practice. While the above story may appear relatively minor, at other times, such power may be abused to benefit not only corrupt officials, but also business interests and organised crime (a growing problem since the ‘opening up’ of China in the late 1970s) that are in cahoots with them. This is a situation not always appreciated by foreign critics of China, who often place a disproportionate amount of blame on the central government leaders in Beijing. In my opinion, people like Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao would probably wish they had more—not less—influence over what actually happens at local level, across nearly 3000 counties spread over 30-plus provinces and regions.

Anyway, the article then went on to note that “In the old days, ordinary people had to give way to officials being carried in sedans, as we still see on TV dramas featuring old dynasties.” Indeed—and this reminds me of a story from A New Account of Tales of the World (Shishuo Xinyu), a famous compilation of short prose anecdotes featuring personages and ‘celebrities’ of the Six Dynasties (222-589ce, encompassing the Three Kingdoms period):

“Guan Ning and Hua Xin were planting vegetables in the fields, when they saw a piece of gold on the ground. Guan wielded the hoe as if the gold were gravel; Hua picked it up and then cast it away.” On another occasion, the two were studying while seated on the same straw mat, when someone donning elaborate headgear passed by in a carriage (denoting a high-ranking official). Ning studied as before; Xin left his books to have a look outside. Ning then cut the mat into two, saying, “You are not my friend.”

The episode also appears in the even more famous classical novel, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi). And true to the novel’s pervasive pro-Shu (Liu Bei) and anti-Wei (Cao Cao) stance, there it was recounted that the greedy and servile Hua Xin eventually went to serve Cao Cao (the Palpatine of ancient China)—something the noble-minded Guan Ning would never do, of course. On the contrary, Guan went away and lived out his life as a hermit.

By the way, Hua Xin appeared as a character (albeit a mediocre one) in earlier versions of the computer game, ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’. I’m not sure if he appears in current versions such as ‘Dynasty Warriors’ though.

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