By Xinhua writer Wang Aihua
BEIJING, Oct. 12 (Xinhua) -- Although traditionally taking pride in itself as a "nation of etiquette," present-day China is often embarrassed by public acts of indecent and antisocial behavior.
A series of recent scandals, notably a bloody fight between a 67-year-old man and a 28-year-old teacher over a subway seat and a tourist at Huashan Mountain getting stabbed by security guards after complaining about the suspension of cable car operations and demanding a ticket refund, have sounded an alarm on the unfortunate state of manners in the country and, further, the moral baseline of some Chinese.
Blessed with over three decades of continuous explosive economic growth, newly well-off Chinese have become more confident in their interactions with both their compatriots and foreigners, but they have also, at times, seemed as if they were unaware of what constitutes socially acceptable behavior.
It's not unusual to see drivers travelling in the wrong lanes, pedestrians jay-walking and queues being jumped. On public transportation, passengers snatch seats, refuse to apologize for physically offending others and swarm into subway trains before others get off.
Of course, not everyone is guilty of such behavior, but the ignorance of some has helped to paint a picture of China as a land bereft of manners.
Early last month, two Chinese men, aged 57 and 27, respectively, got into a fist fight on a Swiss Airlines flight from Zurich to Beijing, prompting the pilot to turn around and ground the plane in Zurich. The cause of the spat, it later turned out, was the position of the seat of one of the passengers.
In theory, a culture like China's that traditionally cherishes respect, modesty and endurance should not tolerate such disgraceful behavior.
The lack of etiquette, some argue, is the result of both insufficient education and many people's eager pursuit of success, often in terms of fame and gain.
Confucianism, which focuses on the cultivation of virtue and the maintenance of ethics, had long embodied the ideals of the Chinese people. However, it came under violent attack as an ideological tool used by feudal rulers to maintain power.
Efforts to completely uproot Confucianism, as in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), left a lasting effect on later generations. Without a new systematic guide to replace the philosophy, people were bewildered about what to follow.
Chinese leaders have realized the severity of the problem. In October 2011, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) convened a key meeting, in which it highlighted the importance of establishing a "system of socialist core values." One of the major measures for realizing the goal, the meetings proposed, was to build up a nationwide notion of honor and humility.
It was the first time in years that China's ruling party, which, at 80 million members, constitutes the world's largest, held a plenary session of its most senior officials to call for a shift in focus from the booming economy to the voids created by decades of success.
Meanwhile, economic and social changes have also presented challenges.
In a culture as family-oriented as China's, the responsibility of teaching manners falls on a family's elders. But younger generations often rebel against tradition, despite the absence of a dominant, systematic social value system.
To some extent, the family-centered culture is, in fact, responsible for the lack of respect toward those outside of one's family. In a society where social activities had been confined to families for several thousand years, frequent interaction with the "outside" world is all too fresh a concept to handle.
Furthermore, the rapid transition from a collectivist era emphasizing ideological struggles to one of economic take-off since the late 1970s has sunk many Chinese in a bitter struggle with aspirationalism.
Distracted by the acquisition of wealth, many no longer take the time and effort to improve their manners or hone other virtuous qualities. Dishonesty is reported in a wide array of businesses -- food safety has become one notorious example of the disastrous ways desire can corrupt the human soul.
However, the good news is that more people are receiving more advanced educations and living relatively comfortable lives, allowing a sizable "middle-class" to take shape and re-awakening the public's sense of practicing better etiquette and living up to higher moral standards.
Education experts have called for more schools to open courses on etiquette, private training centers on etiquette are mushrooming in big cities and the topic is also frequently discussed on social networking sites such as Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like platform, with many criticizing indecent behaviors and calling for improvement.
The CPC Central Committee's plenary session last October stressed its firm will to integrate the "system of socialist core values" into education and various areas of the country's modernization drive.
It is reasonable to expect that future generations will prove to be better educated on, and adhere to higher standards of etiquette and morality.