September 27, 2022

Tradition and Decay: Corporal Punishment in Chinese and Western Culture

In Crisis of the Modern World, René Guénon asserted that Western culture has reached its Kali Yuga, or final stage of decline, characterized by the loss of true metaphysical principles at the core of society. He claimed that we have become an empty shell, learning only about the physical world with our science, using only verbal logic with our philosophy, and measuring human value and success with money. He stated that even religion is failing to convey meaning, having been simplified to “a few rudimentary formulas”, “the narrowest and crudest literalism” and “a vague sentimentality having no significance”. 

We have become objective to the point where nothing we do well touches the human soul; and because this truly materialistic attitude can end only in strife and self-destruction, Guénon considered the West to be in a state of crisis. He advised that we look to the East to see examples of cultures living in a less hollow manner. I will here attempt to make a small contribution to this effort.

Respect in Traditional Chinese Culture 

Although Chinese culture has fallen into deep materialism since the time of Guénon’s writing—departing from tradition by force during the Communist Revolution and by temptation during the capitalist revolution—it has happened so recently that more ancient ways of being can still be recalled. Chinese people today will still tell you that their highest traditional value is filial piety (a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors). And this kind of respect is what their patriarchal society was built on.

Not so long ago, there was in every Chinese home an altar at which the family prayed to their ancestors. The rod to spank the children rested on this altar and the common practice for punishment was to have disobedient kids kneel in front of it for extended periods of time. 

I’d like you to imagine yourself as a child kneeling and staring at this shrine. Obviously, there is some pain and boredom involved in being punished this way, but this is only one aspect of the experience. This sanctuary is a supposed portal to your ancestors’ souls. Not only have your parents and grandparents paid their respects there, your ancestors are staring directly into your heart now, as you kneel before them. 

What thoughts went through these Chinese children’s minds while gazing at this altar? How small must a child’s individual will seem when compared with the countless generations who desired their traditions of respect to be passed on? What sense of responsibility must this punishment have bestowed? 

The obedience of Chinese children was at one time legendary. When children were playing and got out of line, a stern look was all it took for the kids to stop what they were doing wrong—for this glance carried with it not only the threat of physical punishment, but also the authority of bloodlines from time immemorial.

So at the core of the culture, there was the respect and veneration of those born before you. It was valued above all other ideals. If the cost of achieving this ideal meant corporal punishment, it was considered well worth it.

Modern Chinese Discipline 

Comparing these ancient traditions with the present gives an idea of what has been lost. In modern China corporal punishment is technically banned in schools, and the government has stated its desire to ban corporal punishment in all settings. The decision to do this was likely due to pressure from other industrialized nations. 

However, although the laws are written this way, the common practice may be quite different. It seems that harsh punishments are still commonly given to children and the internet is full of videos of teachers beating Chinese students, forcing them to kneel on uncooked rice and other things. And even if the rod has been spared, it’s usually replaced with intense verbal reprimands. 

So we have the case where there are punishments which can certainly be expected to intimidate children into compliance, BUT there is no core value being transferred through these punishments. It is done for pragmatic reasons, including the success of the teachers themselves. How will these students interpret their childhood discipline after they’ve grown up? Will they revere their teachers who disobeyed government edicts in order to punish them? It’s not likely. 

So, the contrast between tradition and new ways is stark. The traditional method seeks to convince and convict the heart while the modern method manipulates. The former is crucial to maintaining respect as the core metaphysic of the culture, while the latter extends from mere pragmatism. The traditional way shapes the next generation so that they will want to pass on their tradition, while the modern way is hollow and lacks a reason for existing.

Corporal Punishment in the West

Schools

The west was in this predicament just a short while ago. In the 1960’s and early 70’s corporal punishment was still common in schools. And similar to today’s China, the reasons for this punishment were peripheral and pragmatic, not aimed at any core principles guiding the culture, but rather performed merely for the maintenance of order. 

However, we in the West have entered a new phase. Since the late 1970s, corporal punishment has been rapidly disappearing from the Western world. It is illegal in all public and private schools in every country belonging to the Council of Europe, and also in the public schools of 31 states in America. Its use has been abandoned in an additional four states. 

Homes 

Physical punishment by parents has been in steady decline in the West. Only about a third of American parents spank their kids nowadays as compared with about half in the 1990’s, 62 percent in the 1950’s, and 74 percent in the 1940’s.

In Europe it’s almost disappeared. Corporal punishment in the household is already illegal in 31 of the CoE’s 46 member states, and there is a strong movement to make it illegal throughout the entirety of Europe. 

No More “Time Out”

Those who haven’t raised kids in the last two decades might be surprised to learn that there is also a movement within Western culture to eliminate any kind of punishment altogether through negotiation, modeling, etc. 

The Loss of Meaning in Western Culture 

Although we see a sharp decline in corporal punishment in the late twentieth century, Guénon and other popular writers such as Neitzsche and Spengler were writing about the loss of meaning in the hearts of Western men before this. So we can say that people stopped physically punishing their children after a sense of meaning was lost. 

It wasn’t worth it anymore.

So let’s look back and see what physical punishment meant during the West’s Christian past and see if we can distinguish what was lost.

The Mortification of the Flesh 

As a general principle, the punishment of the body was a culturally valid means of spiritual discipline. For those not familiar, the core of the Christian faith lies not in one’s behavior, but in one’s attitude — the heart. It is not enough to follow rules, one must want to follow them. This presents a problem analogous to free will in philosophy: one can choose to eat broccoli, but one cannot choose to like broccoli. Likewise, one can choose to always tell the truth, to serve others, and to humble oneself; but one cannot choose to have a virtuous disposition which naturally gravitates to these ways of life.

BUT a man can make an attempt to train his body the way a lion tamer trains a ferocious beast: by starving, beating, discomfort — things which were common for Christians to use in days of old. The Apostle Paul said, “I beat my body and make it my slave” and others followed suit. This process was (and is) called “the mortification of the flesh”. Here are several tools commonly used for this purpose in the medieval period:

The “discipline” — a whip used in the mortification of the flesh 

The “hair shirt” or “sackcloth” — an intentionally uncomfortable garment used in the mortification of the flesh.

Listen to this description of an extreme ascetic from St. Teresa of Avila: 

St. Peter passed forty years without ever sleeping more than an hour and a half a day. Of all his mortifications, this was the one that had cost him the most. To compass it, he kept always on his knees or on his feet. The little sleep he allowed nature to take was snatched in a sitting posture, his head leaning against a piece of wood fixed in the wall. Even had he wished to lie down, it would have been impossible, because his cell was only four feet and a half long. In the course of all these years he never raised his hood, no matter what the ardor of the sun or the rain’s strength. He never put on a shoe. He wore a garment of coarse sackcloth, with nothing else upon his skin. This garment was as scant as possible, and over it a little cloak of the same stuff. When the cold was great he took off the cloak and opened for a while the door and little window of his cell. Then he closed them and resumed the mantle—his way, as he told us, of warming himself, and making his body feel a better temperature. It was a frequent thing with him to eat once only in three days; and when I expressed my surprise, he said that it was very easy if one once had acquired the habit. One of his companions has assured me that he has gone sometimes eight days without food.

So we see that the physical punishment of the body was something more than a tool to control behavior. It was a war waged with the natural instincts of the flesh to enable one to engage in spiritual pursuits. Needless to say, this kind of medieval ascetic would be considered insane today. But before you cast judgement, imagine trying to take over a country with people of this mindset. What kind of pressure could you put on them to make them submit? How could they be subverted? What bribes could you offer?

With this perspective we can more fully understand what corporal punishment meant later on in history. For instance, one can understand why John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, wouldn’t ordain any ministers who didn’t fast twice a week. For a modern example, take the sixth generation preacher, John MacArthur. According to his testimony, his father physically disciplined him for his attitude rather than his behavior — a seeming attempt to reach into his psyche and make him prefer being upright. 

A Pattern Emerges

So we can see patterns starting to emerge. A traditional society has put its core values at the top of its priorities, and puts effort into instilling these values in its youth — not so they can dominate them, but so they can instill these same values into the next generation. They care about these values enough that we are willing to use all means necessary to pass these traditional values on. It is a cycle which, if undisturbed, should last forever. 

Then, something happens that makes the society stop caring about these things, and what follows is a hollow period in which we conduct violence out of habit. And as we have seen, because we are averse to meaningless violence, we stop using it — both Western and Chinese cultures are in the process of eliminating corporal punishment. Perhaps the next phase will be the end of all punishment.

However, it is easy to see the dangers involved in this apathy. The loss of corporal punishment is not a problem in itself, but rather a symptom of a society sculpting its youth in a directionless manner, and leaving the character of the next generation to chance. 

Conclusion

So shall we all go buy sackcloth and whip ourselves into something resembling our past culture? Perhaps not, but at this point we have completely done away with the concept of warring against the animalistic desires of the flesh. On the contrary, we’ve honed our ability to stimulate these desires, and in doing so we’ve created a culture that is a slave to our lower instincts. 

Of course, there are practical reasons for this: we’re able to produce more and more products and services and we need a more and more hedonistic populace to be able to consume it all. 

But is this the way we want to go? It is the exact opposite of our past ideals! How can we as a culture look ourselves in the mirror and see something good once we’ve become good’s opposite?

We must realize who we are and where we came from in order to know where we want to go. There is no future without tradition, rather there are only the millions of different futures imagined by each individual — none of which will emerge because of a lack of cooperation and mutual understanding.

Without tradition there’s no commonality, and without commonality there’s no real culture. But as we’ve seen, the traditions we pass on must be internal rather than merely external, so we must transform ourselves on the inside if we are to rid ourselves of this cultural rot. We must not merely “keep our kids in line” but convict their hearts of the things we hold dear, so that they might pass these things on to their children.