This story about a foreigner passing out on the subway in Shanghai caught my attention; and I thought it might interest some of our readers as well. It turns out that after fainting and falling to the floor, not a single person tried to help the foreigner. The explanations in the article seem a bit dubious; and there’s no fat villan to throw in front of the subway car, which would make for a more interesting discussion; but I’m guessing a few of you might have some thoughts on the piece nonetheless.
Fascinating case – thanks for this, Michael! For my part I find the explanations pretty plausible taken together (except for the one about disease). There were some interesting experiments in the U.S. in the 1970s:
I’m surprised to hear that people faint so often on one Shanghai subway line that there’s a way riders routinely handle it.
I gather that the idea of universal principles can come across to Chinese audiences as the idea of treating everyone the way one would treat any stranger—indeed, treating everyone impersonally.
Probably interesting in this connection is Sungmoon Kim’s paper “Beyond Liberal Civil Society: Confucian Familism and Relational Strangership” (PEW Oct. 2010), though I haven’t looked at it in years.
This case in particular, unlike the toddler case that the article also mentions, does not seem to suggest as much a lack of empathy or willingness to help strangers (which seems to be what both the author and anthropologist Yan want to read into it) as it does a lack of knowledge on how to react effectively in emergency situations. Witnessing someone losing consciousness is in itself a shocking experience. In addition to not panicking, which seems to be the immediate reaction of a lot of people in this train upon seeing other people moving rapidly without perhaps even knowing what exactly happened, one needs sufficient knowledge on first aid to decide rapidly and confidently how to act to help the person directly. If not, reporting it to the subway officials at the station as soon as possible might be a second best thing to do, which I suspect was what a lot of them actually did after getting off. These being said, I think the general fear and anxiety n Chinese public space, as interviewee Zhao mentions in the article, is more relevant to this case than the anthropologist’s comment on the lack of a “modern notion” of empathy.
Just for your information, in the most recent issue of Dao (September 2014), there is a paper by ZHAO Wenqing, a PhD. candidate at the City University of Hong Kong, entitled “Is Contemporary Chinese Society Inhumane? What Mencius and Empirical Psychology Have to Say.” The paper starts with a similar but a lot more serious and more widely known and discussed case of a little girl called Xiao Yueyue. Here is the abstract of the paper:
This essay discusses the tragic news story of a Chinese toddler, Xiao Yueyue 小悅悅, in light of Mencius’ ethical philosophy and modern studies of moral psychology, which help in understanding the problem of passive bystanders that has long vexed the Chinese public. Mencius never said that every person would act to help when a child is in danger; he did not even say that people would feel sympathetic for every child in a real life dangerous situation. He simply asserted the existence of a fragile sprout of sympathy that demands constant cultivation and a proper environment to be grown into actual altruistic behavior. This essay also compares and contrasts Mencius’ theory to the works of Martin Hoffman and Daniel C. Batson and shows some of the ways modern empirical psychology supports Mencius’ understanding of sympathy and altruism.
Here is the link of the paper if you have access to it:
sorry for this late response, but the same thing happened to me on 4th street, Arts District, Los Angeles. Fell down due to melted asphalt on street, 12 people stepped over me and left me there, finally a homeless person came by and helped my up, took me to 1st Aid. It is the world we all live in.