Not Be Afraid of Grace and Beauty

When I wrap up my Young Leaders Forum 2007, and the extension trip in Suzhou, Tongli, and Shanghai, I could not help thinking about an important question about the future of China: Are we, as a nation, afraid of grace and beauty?

Here is why I asked this question.

The Beauty of Ancient China

Yong Leaders Forum is a small group of young leaders from all the fields in U.S, and China. It is on two year term that we meet in China (odd years), and America (even years) to discuss U.S. and China relationships and other important things. I am among the 6 representatives from China this year.

The extension trip was as interesting as the main sessions. Since this is in my own country, and I tried to bring my American friends to places I love – like the mid-night tour of Tongli. Many people, especially Ashish, were amazed by the beauty of the water town. It happened again in the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou.

I am also overwhelmed (again) by the scene of old China. I started to ask the question: Why beautiful things only happens in ancient China? Where are the beautiful places we built recently? Why many building in the recent 50 years are ugly or lack-of-repair?

Suzhou Museum and Guiling Garden

Two places changed my mind. The first is Suzhou Museum. I talked about this place in another blog entry. It is a break-through. I can tell, at least, it costs lot of time to design and construct it. It is beautiful, and expensive.

The other is Guilin Garden.

Thanks for Alex Liu, YLF Fellow 2007, we had dinner in Guilin Garden. That garden was originally the private garden of Huang Jin Rong, and was turned to a public garden. A private equity investor acquired this garden and renovated it and turned it into a very nice restaurant. I was impressed how beautiful an ancient garden can be turned to a great wonder. The new owner brings life back to the gardens. All rooms are lit up, decorated with curtains and paintings. I don’t have pictures, but it gave me the impression that 1930 is back, or 1600 is back to life. The waitresses were trained for 3 months, and they also showed the best of Chinese culture – beautiful, grace, polite, and many characters I only experienced in old novels. Of cause, this does not come without cost. The renovation project costs several million USD. If you look at the history of this garden, the private beautiful garden to bad maintained public park to a decent private garden in the last 100 years seem to be a big circle that it returned to its original starting point.

Whether we should pursuit the luxury like this or not

I may be too quick or too generalized to say that people in China are afraid of beautiful things. This is obviously wrong. Look at the beautiful furnitures, calligraphy, gardens, silk, and millions of great things we created in the past. China is so beautiful (although it takes time for us to re-discover it).

However, nowadays, people still didn’t recover from the lack of (material) resources in the 20th century. People hate luxury things (there are national wide propagandas against being luxurious). The famous saying for socks and cloths are: “New for three years; old for three years; patched and fixed, they last for another three years”. It seems to wear the same socks for 9 years is the virtue of Chinese people. So people face the moral conflict between being grace and beautiful, and saving money.

However, the reality is, much big portion of beauty comes at higher cost than those ugly one. When we have more and more resources, how should we choose? That is a question new generation of people in China has to answer.

JFK’s Answer

This reminds me of something J.F.Kennedy said. It was carved on the wall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I happened to took a picture of that wall:

Photograph by Jian Shuo Wang. © 2004. Taken at the south wall of J.F.Kennedy Center for Performing Art.

The first sentence reads:

I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty. — J.F.Kennedy

At the first sight, I felt puzzled. Is there anyone who is afraid of beauty? There are!

We are in a hurry, that we don’t dare to slow down to spend the time to really appreciate the beauty of our life.

We are afraid to put time and effort to make our living environment more beautiful, and healthy.

We are afraid that spending time with fine art is too luxurious.

We are afraid something is too beautiful that may be treated as outrageous.

When we talk about how many hours workers spent to create an ancient garden, we often said it in a negative way – “look at how luxurious the bad guys are!” However, we ignored the fact that really beautiful thing does take time. So the market is full of craps that a worker created in one hour, and very rare can we see some decent art work.

This brings us to the next sentence carved on the wall by J.F.Kennedy:

I am certain after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for the victories or defeats, in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit。 — J.F.Kennedy

It was a snowing winter in Washing D.C. Wendy and I just stepped out of the theater after watching the musical of The Thoroughly Modern Millie. At that time, we were touched by the words. He is absolutely right.

A Chinese, which is not afraid afraid of grace and beauty

I believe when people in China end the centuries of hunger, and war, we get back to the original track to pursue happiness, grace, beauty, and all kinds of great things, just as our ancestor did in the last few thousands years.

People in China were not afraid, and will not afraid of grace and beauty.

14 thoughts on “Not Be Afraid of Grace and Beauty

  1. Thanks for this post, WJS. I really enjoyed reading it, and felt rather sentimental reading the wall. Despite the fact that I was born well after his time, the things that JFK did and said during his lifetime continue to have a resounding impact in my life as well as many others I’m sure (in a good way). I wish the leaders of America today could take a cue from the great leaders of the past.

  2. Hi Jianshuo,I agree with you on most of the points. But I don’t think right now our country needs to build more beautiful things instead of fundamental infrastructure for people to live many years later. I mean right now we are not as strong and rich as we were in 400 years ago. It will not be very wise to build luxury stuff while there’s a huge need of building infrastructure especially in the west.

    Another thing is that now the power of building beautiful things are in the hand of the government while most of the parks you mentioned in your blog was built by some rich people for personal use. There’s a difference between building stuff for most of people which is not easy of being grace and beautiful to everyone and building stuff for someone who has a great taste of beauty.

  3. I read this post at 9 AM this morning, and come here again to see more comments, plenty of insightful comments as I expected.

    To my surprise, still only 2 comments I find. I wonder why this interesting topic doesn’t bring many feedback.

  4. @Yangqing Chen, I heard what you said. I agree with you that when there are more important things for many people to solve.

    To clarify my point, I believe in diversity. Not everyone should lead the same life. The question I asked is for those whose life is also better, and the answer is about what is the next.

    I am not a believer of charity. Giving money does not solve any social problem, and it causes more. (As I expressed in

    I just realized that if someone stops pursuing for beauty, it effectively reduce the money flowing back to the society. That is another topic.

  5. Jianshuo, You are right. Charity doesn’t help solving poverty. To me, improving infrastructure in those areas and on the same time improving education is the way to go. This will bring more jobs to local people. let them gaining some money first and when the education improves the new business will come thus the better life condition and needs for better life will come. After all these, building beautiful place and pursue luxury life is the next goal for them. As you said in your post it will take some time.

  6. Hello Jiang Shuo,

    An interesting an emlightening topic. On a slightly more practical note I am interested in the restaurant / garden you mentioned, Guilin(g) Garden. Where is this place as I would like to visit?

  7. Guilin Garden is at the corner of Guilin Road and Caobao Road – in the Xuhui District.

    I will post an entry about the garden when I get a chance to visit it again.

  8. Interesting comments about charity. I think there is “bad” charity and there is “good” charity. “Bad” charity creates dependence and does not prepare people to feed themselves. “Good” charity helps people to help themselves in the future. “Good” charity also alleviates present period suffering without creating future period dependence. For example, an orphanage seems like a great example of alleviating suffering of orphans while preparing orphans to become self sufficient in the future. A scholarship to go to school helps smart kids that couldn’t otherwise afford to go to a great school to get an education that helps them be a more positive force in society. Don’t you think this is “good” charity? “Good” charity also has the added value of transforming the heart of the giver. Even if there is no huge benefit to society (e.g. just helping out 1 person) it can provide benefit to one’s one character development, which is ultimately I believe more important as accumulating wealth and power. Anyway, I think you probably agree with these ideas, I just think the statement “I don’t believe in charity” is too much of a blanket statement because there are lots of types o charity.

  9. @elliottng, you are right. It is true for any word — there is good or bad of the same “thing”.

    Basically we are saying the same thing, but just because of the ambiguity of word itself. How can I (or anyone) use a word to explain the thousands of different types in this world? This is the challenge I (and any writer) face.

  10. Hi, Jianshuo, I was led here by China Law Blog.

    Excellent points.

    As you indicated in the “We are in a hurry,…art work.” passage, slowing down and spending more time, THE most luxurious thing in the world, for beauty and grace is seen as an unworthy compromise by a lot of contemporary Chinese people. Just three hours ago, my ex roomie, who just returned from a trip to west Europe, mocked the slow pace in France, Austria, Switzerland and all, you know. “Europe is hopeless. Look at all these people who don’t know how to hurry up!” ,she mimiced, in pride and agreement, the words of her guide for the trip. Now, that guide has been living in the SLOW Europe for over ten years and obviously still hasn’t started to appreciate the beauty and grace of not living in a hurry.

    Does slowness really cut competitiveness? Think again. Take coating of a mega vessal. If you work nonstop regardless of the weather, you deliver months ahead of schedule but the ship goes into bad shape very soon. If you go slow, however, the ship will be good for a long long time. Who wins at the end of the day?

    Now look at the buildings that have been added on China’s landscape in the past two decades. Look how badly they age. Look how undesirable a living space those condos from early 90s have become. The cracks, molds in my two-year-old government office building. Look at the nonstop patch work on brand new roads.

    If you take into account the much faster depreciation rate of things made in a hastily fashion, a lot of time in defiance of sound technical standards, and average out the total investment to a much shorter life span of, say, 60 years, as opposed to 5 centuries or more, which is not too uncommon a life span of old beautiful creations, you’d see that rapid growth not balanced by care for beauty and quality, is costly and erases much of the good deeds it does to people in not too long a timeframe.

    The tearing down and rebuilding of houses and roads can go on forever to keep the GDP growth look good, of course.But I hardly need to remind you of the resource depletion on the poor planet of Earth.

    In this calculation, the sacrifice of beauty and grace for now is made in vain. So I wouldn’t say, hey, let’s wait till we get rich to start caring about beauty and grace. We’d have done too much of a mess to our cities, our Mother Nature, to be able to make a meaningful remedy.

    I want quality things that last, now. Quality in design, material and workmanship. Beauty.

  11. Don’t be too impressed by words on a wall.

    It may be too simplistic to conclude that – “We are in a hurry, that we don’t dare to slow down to spend the time to really appreciate the beauty of our life. We are afraid to put time and effort to make our living environment more beautiful, and healthy. We are afraid that spending time with fine art is too luxurious. We are afraid something is too beautiful that may be treated as outrageous. When we talk about how many hours workers spent to create an ancient garden, we often said it in a negative way – “look at how luxurious the bad guys are!” However, we ignored the fact that really beautiful thing does take time. So the market is full of craps that a worker created in one hour, and very rare can we see some decent art work.”

    We are in a hurry because we need to make enough money to sustain our families. Grace and beauty can wait. Not everyone has the time to admire a bowl when there is no rice in it. We are not afraid. We are too busy. There is no grace or beauty in poverty. Anyways, the current defination of beautiful in China is pretty outrageous so we are not missing much, and much of what is deemed as beautiful by the new rich are quite vulgar.

    The olympic bird nest is a piece of crap. So are the many “modern” additions in our cityscape. Time will not change the fact that they are bullshit on a bed of roses. Appreciate the jobs they created though.

    The worker create crap because he has no pride- Major problem for everyone.

  12. I think you should all take a look at this:

    Grace and beauty come from every moment in which we are free to ‘experience.’ Where do our definitions come from, which we spread so liberally across a page? What are they worth if unsupported by a freedom of mind? Albert Camus once said, “Intelligence in chains loses in lucidity what it gains in intensity,” so, first, free your mind from the shackles of contrived thoughts, and re-inhabit your bodies. All that is relevant may come only from ‘experience,’ because in actuality, ‘experience’ is all that is. It will be difficult, and it will seem fruitless; but one must not lack hope. Remember these words of Bayazid Bistami (804-874 CE): “The Thing we tell of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.”

  13. @wonton, I totally agree with you that the Bird’s Nest is crap in terms of architecture, a total travesty, like a burlesque dance in a teahouse. The spirit of the place (genus loci) is destroyed with that monstrosity.

    Indeed what is beautiful now in China is vulgar and outrageous. Sad and painful.

  14. Sadly I have come to the conclusion that the problem is not that we Chinese are afraid of grace and beauty. We simply have no idea of what is grace and beauty. We fearlessly ape western culture at the expense of our own, totally oblivious of the sacrilege. The grace and beauty of our own culture, built up over the centuries, is lost in the name of modernity. What we get in the end is a bunch of condescending structures thought up by individuals with no sense of our heritage. I will choose our hutongs over the bloody UFO or bird’s nest anytime. And it’s not because I am afraid of grace and beauty. I am sorry but the skyline of Pudong looks more like a comedic doodles of a 3rd rate cartoonist.

    One day we shall look back at what we have done and long for China.

    I fear we are all rushing to a place we are not even sure we like.

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