文章 Articles

Default settings and modern lifestyles

Have we lost the pleasure that beautiful homemade things used to bring us? Do we rely too much on new and disposable items? Yu Aiqun muses on simpler and happier times.

Article image

“Default settings” – in information-technology terminology -- refers to the basic way a computer system is set up until you decide to make any specific changes. One could say that in our lives, running water, flush toilets, electric lighting, gas stoves and telephones are all part of our own default settings.

As a Chinese woman of a certain age, I have experienced life without these defaults. When I was my daughter’s age, running water was only provided for four hours a day – two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Households had to store water in buckets. My mother used to get up early every morning when water was available and wash the whole family’s clothes. The only electrical appliances owned by our family of four were two 25-watt lights, two 15-watt lights, and a radio.

I was 16 before we had a telephone. As for the stove, I have seen the family go from coal briquettes, to liquid petroleum gas, to natural gas. My live-in nanny Xiaohan is from the countryside, and even today her family still burns firewood for cooking and heating. Their water comes from a well, and they have no flush toilet.

Over the years, the following have all been added to the default settings of my own life: television, refrigerator, washing machine, air conditioning, computer, extractor fan, water cooler, electric fan, rice cooker and microwave oven. My eight-year-old daughter has grown up with these things. She takes it for granted that every family has them, and that they are utterly essential. She cannot imagine being without them.

This is domestic modernisation. It seems that only once we have these things can we lead a respectable, dignified life.

But such appliances all need electricity. In China, 70% of electricity is generated by burning coal. This means carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and CO2 pollution.

I once read a story, in which a philosopher who has spent his life absorbed in study goes to a market one day. He is shocked, and says: “There are so many things here which I have no use for.”

For a long time I was confused – why would the philosopher be so shocked? But now I understand that his shock came from realising the huge gap between his own default settings and those of mainstream society.

Take showering as an example. Thirty years ago, my father – a doctor – went to Tibet for two years as part of the campaign to “aid Tibet”. In these two years, he washed only twice. The first was when he arrived, and the second was when he left. He said that people in the north of Tibet only wash twice in their whole lives – once when they get married, and once just before they die.

The writer Sanmao also described how some people living in the Sahara desert only wash once a year, and this cleansing is regarded as a solemn ceremony. In Xiaohan’s village in the north-east of China, they used to wash only when the season changed. Now they go each month to the bath house in the nearest town. The Dai peoples of Yunnan, in contrast, spend their lives by the water, and rely on it for an income. To them, showering is completely ordinary.

These different peoples wash according to the climate in which they live. How they wash, where they wash and how often they wash is all decided by the local environment, and has become part of their culture over thousands of years.

In modern urban life, washing has become totally separate from the local environment. It has become one of the ceremonies and symbols of modern life. Until I graduated from university, I only washed once a week, but now I have gradually got used to washing every day, and see this as a necessity.

Living in our modern societies, we calmly enjoy the various conveniences of modern life and have come to take them completely for granted; they have become our defaults. We very rarely stop to think do I really need a fridge? Do I really need air conditioning? Do I really need a car? Do I really need to shower every day? Do I really need a new change of clothes every day?

Every time modern technology presents us with a new possibility, we quickly learn to see it as a necessity, and it becomes a default. The process is becoming shorter and shorter. Consumption has become something that we see as only right and proper.

But is it really right and proper? I still have a few vague memories of the details of my childhood. Back then, people would cut up used drinks cans and use the base as an ash tray or vase. The string used for tying up parcels could be collected and sewn together to make bags – the bag I used to take to the market was made in this way. People also would sew together old calendars and cigarette boxes and turn them into curtains. No one looked down on these objects just because they were made cheaply. On the contrary, many of them were very well made, and could be seen as little works of art.

Now things like this are vanishing from our lives. There are now more and more beautiful new products available, and more and more disposable items. This has aroused in us a desire to buy, but it also means we have lost the pleasure that those beautiful homemade things used to bring us. Once, in an arts-and-crafts shop, I saw a curtain that was made to look like the old-style homemade curtains. The materials were not re-used objects, and the effect was not so good. Sometimes I think of all the old coloured paper that we throw away and think that it would be ideal material for this kind of thing. However, it seems that no one thinks about re-use any more.

This is modern society – a lifestyle revolving around consumption and with material satisfaction as the highest aim. The problem is that when new technology becomes a default in our lives, it can no longer bring us happiness or a sense of fulfillment. On the contrary, an absence of these defaults can make us unhappy. This kind of lifestyle leads to higher and higher default levels, and an ever-greater desire to consume.

When the resources that support this consumption have all but disappeared, and the environment can no longer take the strain, it will be too late to cancel these default settings. It is much easier to go from simplicity to extravagance, than to go from extravagance to simplicity. It has always been this way.


Yu Aiqun is a CCTV journalist and editor.

Homepage photo by kevsunblush

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

Appealing to altruism is not a sollution

Thank you for this article.

Its important to remind oneself and others that consumption should not be the meaning of life and shopping is not a recreational activity.

But though the article gives good reasons to abandon excessive materialism, these arguments cannot convince people - not even environmentalists - not buy.

We can only find solutions if know WHY to-have has become the credo and ultimo of modern life.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Good article!

It's high time we reflected on our modern lifestyle. I'm getting fonder of this website. Wish your site prosperity and success!
(This comment was translated by Bin Yang.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Who would simply give up the comfortable life?

Who would simply give up the comfortable life? Nobody, I'm afraid.
There is no turning back on this road. The desire to consume is ever irresistible like drug-using. Driving down on this road, the Earth will perish along with all life forms.
(This comment was translated by Zheng Shen.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The unity of the Nature and human

Chinese people have been in pursuit of the unity of the nature and human throughout the history right before the introduction of the western culture.
This precious traditional pursuit was then cast away. Without it we have fallen into the abyss of material consumption ever since.

(This comment was translated by Zheng Shen.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Is it all the Western society's fault?

Comment number 4 is too subjective. Could it be that only after Western imports arrived, China became luxurious? This is unreasonable. In ancient China, only the rich could afford to buy crickets for cricket fighting and antiques for their collections. But these were not necessities. Don't tell me that eating raw meat like a primitive person is the best way to be. --Translated by Michelle Deeter

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我们当然可以达成共识:购买无价值且日后几乎不使用的电子产品,或者单纯为跟上潮流去装潢家居,都不会让生活变得更加健康或令人满意。大多数人也会同意,彻底无视技术进步与科学发现同样会造成巨大纷争,而且会对解决目前已经司空见惯的社会问题的进程形成阻滞。富庶让人心灵空虚,贫穷则令人衣食不足。既然每个人既不希望自己超重肥胖,也不希望忍饥挨饿,那么在从整体上探求社会满足界限的过程中,我们必须于传统与创新中取得平衡。我同意作者认为无节制的消费主义是危险的。这一观点正确且显而易见。真正艰难的工作也随之出现:我们需要完善技术,并找到降低技术对于脆弱的人文文化以及自然自然环境所造成的负面影响的方法。正如作者的号召,要达到简单明快,摒弃繁复浮夸,我们无需回到古代,而是要去鼓励知识技术精英开发出平衡新旧的新方法。 -Star Gazer
(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)


Certainly we can all agree that buying flimsy electronics we rarely use, or decorating our homes simply to suit the current fashions, is not the way to a healthy or satisfying life. Most of us would also agree that turning our backs completely on technological advances or scientific discovery would cause great strife and prevent us from solving the social problems we already face on a daily basis. Riches leave our hearts empty and poverty leaves our hands empty. Just as each of us wishes to be neither obese nor starving, we must strike a careful balance between tradition and innovation when we try to answer the question of how much is enough for society at large. I agree with the author that unbridled consumerism is dangerous. This seems quite obvious. Now comes the hard work. Now we need to find out how to improve technology to reduce the adverse impact on our fragile human cultures and on our fragile natural environment. To achieve simplicity and reject extravagance, as the author rightly urges, we do not need to go back in time, but rather to encourage our brightest minds to come up with creative ways of balancing old and new.

--Star Gazer

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Hopefully it's only temporary.

I believe that the materialism is temporary in China. After such a long period of deprivation, one can hardly avoid exceeding the proper limits once one is able to. It's like the guy who has been starving for his life, who eats excessively when he is given food.

But I believe that with our fine tradition, before long we will realize that materials are not everything. As a matter of fact, people living in prosperous metropolises begin to pick up the simple life style already. And as the environmental awareness spreads wider and deeper, more consumers will start to take notice of their behavior as well as the impact they have on the environment. They have also begun to favor environmentally friendly products.


(This comment was translated by Zheng Shen.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





The downside of profit-orientation

Oftentimes we fail to realize what we really need, because they don’t bring commercial profits to businessmen. The reason why so many unnecessary things are thrown to us is that our commercial culture is firmly profit-oriented. Consumers are heavily influenced by it and buy many unnecessary products to lead a “normal, complete” life. Eric Hu
-Comment translated by Yang bin

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Refrigerator is not a necessity

Refrigerators and microwaves are not necessities.
Translated by Jennifer Yip

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


“There are so many things here which I have no use for.”自从我吃纯素以后,进入超市就是这样的感觉。食素后欲望就变少了,快乐感增加,很多观念都随之改变。对很多我们觉得“理所应当”的事情真的需要重新审视,发现真相。

Become a man of less wants

“There are so many things here which I have no use for.”--That's how I feel in the supermarket since I become a vegetarian.I have less desire,increased happiness. Things and my thoughts have changed. For many things we took for granted, we need to re-think and discover the truth.

Translated by Tian Liang