A hot topic of discussion in the United States during the past few years has concerned whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public places, from courtrooms to school rooms. The thought is that a visible reminder of the great truths of our civilization can act as a brake on some our worst behaviors and as an encouragement for some of our best.

While some people have discussed the issue from a First Amendment point of view (the government shall not establish any religion), others question the basic premise: does repeated inculcation of the great truths of a society–visual and otherwise–really make a difference in people’s behavior?

China is about to find out.

As has been noted repeatedly here and elsewhere, the social climate of Chinese society is undergoing rapid, modestly controlled change.

Within the living memory of the majority of the population, the notions of equality (where nearly everyone was huddled together at the bottom of a very short economic ladder) and sharing (where there was little to share) have been replaced by self-centered attitudes more reminiscent of a frontier gold-rush town than a developing socialist society.

As a result, stories of wealth accumulation, corruption, financial excesses and the like have become all too frequent. Some people feel that this sort of irresponsible living is responsible for the social unrest related to the widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots”–a.k.a. “not-yet haves”.

As one of the steps to counter this trend, China’s President Hu has issued a set of pronouncements designed to refocus the citizens on the underlying truths of this society.

Arrayed in pairs of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” statements, the eight declarations have an echo of The Ten Commandments about them. (Apparently, when you don’t have the God-stuff to deal with, you can cover the essentials in less than 10.)

The following principles, displayed under a Chinese title translated “Eight Honors; Eight Disgraces,” have appeared throughout China in recent months:

1. Love the country; do it no harm.
2. Serve the people; do no disservice.
3. Follow science; discard ignorance.
4. Be diligent; not indolent.
5. Be united, help each other; make no gains at other’s expense.
6. Be honest and trustworthy; do not spend ethics for profits.
7. Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.
8. Live plainly, struggle hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

As is often the case, when expressed in English, something is lost in translation. When rendered in Chinese these verities have been described as reading “like rhyming couplets and … almost poetic.”

However you describe them, they are certainly getting a lot of play. Here in the outer reaches of the undeveloped region of West China, you can find these “Eight Honors; Eight Disgraces” in urban newspapers and student campus publications.

For good measure, they are emblazoned in yellow Chinese characters on red banners that are suspended across the major road leading from the classrooms to the dining hall on the campus.

The intent is to lift up your head, read the words, and lift up your moral spirit. The effect to date, however, has been–shall we say–less than fully successful.

In fact, this campaign may repeat our experience of growing up in schools in the U.S. where the Ten Commandments were displayed. That is, it takes more than an external reminder to effect an inward change. In fact, in some cases, the subject of the external reminder can become an object of ridicule and derision.

Don and Karen Barnes are in Nanning, China, teaching English and chemistry at Guangxi University. They took early retirement from government service in the United States and are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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