Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Death of Mí Xìn

I am not sure what it was about my upbringing that led me to question everything, trust no-one and expect the worst of people. It probably has something to do with the religion shopping that I witnessed my parents go through when I was a toddler. The types of religions they sampled were full of Amway sales-people and predators of every sort. My paranoia could also be related to the string of incidents that I witnessed in my later childhood, both personally and in the public media, that caused me to quickly realise that not everyone was what they presented themselves to be.

The trigger for this post was listening to the very poignant song Daisy, by Karine Polwart. A particular Facebook war involving some Pentecostal Christians brought this song to mind, I recorded my own cover here. The message in the song is a very sad one, it was apparently written by Karine to her unborn niece (who turned out to be a boy).

To crudely summarise Karine’s beautiful lyrics, “the world is full of horrible people”. I wouldn’t say the message is entirely depressing, because there is also a subtext about using your judgement to measure people by their actions and face the complicated world with self-worth rather than the worth rented to you by others, in exchange for their love, respect, money or just not hurting you.

This led me to the subject of this post, mí xìn (??). This Chinese phrase is now widely translated as superstition or superstitious belief; however, this translation is largely a result of the Cultural Revolution and its efforts to stamp out the Four Olds (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas). The more finessed translation is one of faith, trust, or unquestioning loyalty.

I love looking into the origins of Chinese characters as the meaning is often much richer than that found in our non-pictographic language. The first character, mí, is made up of a character for walking/movement and another one showing lots of directions. The second character, xìn, is made of the characters for person and word, meaning trust, i.e. “A person’s word”. So putting this together we can get “following a person’s word whatever direction they send you in”. I’m sure many scholars of Mandarin will dispute my interpretation, but it makes sense to me.

So is this blind faith, that was so much a part of countless pre-modern societies, always a bad thing? Was Another Brick in the Wall, really a step forward for society? Many young people (and old) no longer respect their parents, teachers, policeman, doctors or anyone else in society with traditional authority. The respect seems to have shifted to winners of reality TV, pop-stars and actors.

This didn’t happen by accident. My year 6 teacher, who I never got on with, was jailed for abusing his wife and daughter. The incidents of corrupt politicians, negligent doctors, child abusing priests, corrupt policemen, judges and public servants are on a 24-hour repeat news reel. We live in a society where, just like in Communist China, we have torn down the traditional towers of respect.

I wonder if this is because the statistical likelihood of striking a bad apple in these fields has drastically changed, or because the global news cycle means that we now hear about them more often.

There are situations in society where this mí xìn is very valuable, if not critical, to stability. How can children learn without trust in their teachers? How can you do well at your job without learning from more experienced co-workers and supervisors? How can a government function if the populace has no faith in their elected officials? Unfortunately, the very people in these positions are failing us, and have been exposed as failing us for so long that their institutions no longer have credibility.

Obviously I don’t expect to provide the answer for a utopian society here, but I can say that the Chinese Communist approach of abolishing everything has had terrible consequences. The American reality-TV experiment has resulted in a farcical Presidential election campaign. There must be a way for a society to institute a process of rational judgement to decide who deserves respect, who is best placed to exercise authority and who can be trusted.

It is probably Orientalist nostalgia which makes me look at the Native American, Celtic and Aboriginal Australian societies and think that they seemed to have better ways of finding the right contributing role for each person and ejecting those who weren’t good for the society. In the west we seem to pick the people who are the worst and appoint them to rule us. Thank you Karine, for telling it like it is, I wish there were more people that thought about things.