Friday, 23 January 2009

Back to the Basics

Three nights ago I stayed up late to watch the inauguration ceremony of the 44th President of the United States live on television.

Quite deservingly, this is probably the most widely watched inauguration in history. At a time when people are losing trust and confidence in one another and even themselves, we all need to look up from someone with a hard-earned success for hope and the motivation to move on.

Barack Obama's inaugural address did not contain as many sound-bites as many supporters and commentators would have expected, but this absence does not prevent his speech from being a great example of the power of the basics - the basic and simple things that define who we are and yet we don't really remember that well, as much as we should do.

Without any subtitles and annoying disturbance of the news anchor, I tried to listen carefully to every single word Mr Obama said very early on Wednesday morning. What impresses me most was his emphasis to return to the traditional values of the United States that define who they are and how they succeed. According to the transcript of CNN, Mr Obama concludes as follows:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

I can't agree with him more. As the old Chinese saying goes, "We should all remember where the water comes from when we drink." Knowing our roots and keep them in mind from time to time is a basic requirement for many generations who wanted to stay confident in the face of challenges and adversities. Confidence comes from our roots, or the strong belief of who we are and what we can always adhere to. Setting aside the scepticism over the Obama administration's capabilities to keep Mr Obama's promises, this timely reminder should at least be sufficient in keeping people's hopes and courage aglow.

Mr Obama's inaugural address that put a great emphasis on tradition also prompted me to think about China. At a time when many people, whether voluntarily or reluctantly, look on to China for economic rescue, China still seems to be faltering at a crossroad, not knowing where it should go and what it wants to be. Some are very proud and complacent about what it has achieved over the past three decades. Some are extremely worried or sceptical of what would happen if the leaders continue to turn a blind eye to the domestic problems we have. But few of them think about our roots, our values and tradition. Understandably, this could be somewhat difficult for many of those currently at the helms because our heritage was almost extinct during the devastating disruption some 40 years ago. More importantly, the heritage that we know of today is mostly the legacy of Ming and Qing dynasties, arguably the most culturally corrupt periods in Chinese history. So much of our culture and heritage had been distorted and misinterpreted during the six centuries of Ming and Qing reigns. Compared with the highly intellectual and sophisticated Song Dynasty, Ming and Qing were embarrassingly deficient in imperial China.

Without a solid knowledge of where we come from and what our roots are, we easily become confused and puzzled. The voice of tradition seems too weak and remote to drive us ahead. Even the much-touted restoration of Han Chinese costumes has yet to become truly influential due to the inability to articulate the basics embraced by the nitty-gritty details of the extravagant costumes. Even more regrettably, few seem to read classics nowadays. Many of those who do are either dependent on second-hand interpretations or adopt a utilitarian point of view to identify bits and pieces to support their personal agenda. These arbitrary actions often misplace our tradition out of context and result in nothing but more confusion and puzzlement, leading us farther away from where we come from.

This is why I find Mr Obama's speech a timely reminder not just for the Americans and many others around the world who have been blinded by short-term economic gains, but also for my fellow citizens who have long lost sight of our valuable tradition and heritage. As we can see in the United States, a cultural paradigm shift starting with the return to our basics is the only way we can sustain our success and avoid repeating the mistakes we had.

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