At the launch of ‘The Irish and China’ book in Trinity last week, I was asked why so many Irish who had lived in China found resemblances between the two peoples.
I have come to the conclusion it is something very human that was preserved in both traditional cultures. In neither civilisation is boasting seen as ‘cool’, people feel ashamed if they hurt another‘s feelings and indirect speech is common in order to show respect for the person you are talking with.
I remember being told in Korea never to say ‘No’ to a request. Rather, say ‘I will think about it.’ We have much the same habit in Ireland. Some would criticise traditional Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Irish for this roundabout way of talking but it does show a commendable consideration for others.
Both cultures accepted that the individual should not be the centre of everything but part of a common effort to get on with each other and find happiness in the process.
In China, Korea and Japan this attitude was modelled and kept alive by Confucianism. In Ireland and Western Europe, up to recently, it was passed on through Christian practices and communities.
However modern culture, giving priority to personal emotions and urges, threatens this openness of ‘give and take’, of contributing to making society better for all and expecting others to do likewise.
When I put forward these views at the ‘Launch’, no one contradicted me. Perhaps it is a sign that politeness has not faded from Irish culture!