My T’ai Chi master had only recently moved to the United States from China when I began studying with him.  He had spent the earliest days driving across America from east to west, experiencing his newly adopted homeland.

He was as fascinated by American culture as I was by Chinese, and we had many conversations comparing the differences.  He would ask me questions that his background had not prepared him to understand, touching on social, political and even sexual aspects of life in the United States.

One area he struggled with was American ethics and morality, and what he saw as the lack of a foundational philosophy or moral code that defined our collective behavior. One conversation remains fixed in my memory, even though it took place 25 years ago.

“Many Chinese don’t understand America,” he said. “My country has a culture that is thousands of years old, based on spirituality and honor. From our earliest days we’re taught that respect, honesty and humility are the cornerstones of life. We’re brought up to live by these principles and we’ve been told that it’s the only true path to enduring success.

“And yet, we see the United States, a baby nation barely 200 years old. You’re aggressive, greedy, self-interested and vain – all of the character traits we’ve been taught to avoid. But somehow, you have become a global superpower and you own everything.  We can’t understand America’s dominance because what it represents is contrary to everything we’ve been raised to believe about the way the world works.”

He paused, and then went on.

“We have a term in Chinese medicine that translates as ‘False Heat’. I can describe what it means like this:  Imagine a locomotive racing down the tracks at top speed.  There’s smoke coming out of the chimney, but if you look inside, the furnace is almost empty and there’s nobody stoking the fire.  Right now its speed and strength are intimidating, but there’s nothing underneath to sustain them, so sooner or later it will burn out.”

He paused again.

“Chinese people take comfort in this.  When we place America in the context of false heat, it proves our philosophy is correct.  There may be a brief moment of power, but it’s superficial.  It cannot sustain for the long term.”