In 1952, following the Soviet model, Tsinghua University was stripped of its humanities and social science departments and became an MIT-like university entirely devoted to engineering and science. Eventually it became clear this was a mistake. Fifteen years ago a School of Humanities and Social Sciences was established to begin to restore things. Two weeks ago, because I am a faculty member in that School, I got a fancy tea set to mark the 15th anniversary of its founding. Here is what the tea set looks like:
I asked a Chinese friend of mine to explain it to me. She pointed to the tools in the box with the cups. “They’re useless,” she said. She pointed to the slatted bamboo box. “I think it’s useless,” she said.
To pour the tea you put the cups on the slats. The box is slatted so that if you spill some tea while pouring the surface will continue to look good. It’s not the total uselessness my friend saw but she is right that the added value of the slats and the tools, in practical terms, is very low.
My theory of human evolution says that the reason for gifts, ceremonies, and special days (such as Christmas) is to provide a demand for hard-to-make stuff. This allows artisans on the cutting edge to make a living and further develop their skills, advancing the start of the art. This is why gifts and ceremonial things are typically hard to make and, were it not for their value as gifts, not worth making. My friend’s reaction illustrates this. My theory predicts that this feature of gifts, ceremonies, and special days has a genetic basis and should be found in all cultures. This example shows it is found in a culture quite different from American culture.