The Chinese Character

As Chinese society plunges headlong at a breakneck pace into the 21st century, old customs fall by the wayside and traditional values seem irrelevant to countless young people. After all, what wisdom does Confucius have to offer about global trade? How can Laozi guide anyone seeking a job in China’s burgeoning cities, with their fast-paced life and cutthroat competition?

On the other hand, travelers to China, as well as those who live among the Chinese for any length of time, see that beneath the exterior of Nike shoes, Levi jeans, and wired professionals hanging out in Starbucks, there seems to lie a fundamentally different mind-set, something non-Western and distinct.

Does anything uniquely “Chinese” remain stable and steady in the midst of the vortex of shifting values and practices that we are now witnessing? If so, what characteristics provide a common identity among so many different people scattered around the world? Wherever they are found, Chinese people around the world tend to exhibit the following traits.

Reverence for the past

Though they may not know much about their history, the Chinese take it very seriously. They will insist that Chinese culture is the oldest in the world, with five thousand years of continuous records and a civilization rich in literature, art, philosophy, religion, government, and unparalleled cuisine. They can point to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the literary classics, and a great deal of tradition as evidence that they are heirs to a mighty and ancient civilization.

More than that, Chinese of all sorts, including the government, seem eager to invoke the authority of the past to justify actions in the present. Indeed, sometimes they feel actually burdened by the weight of all that has gone before.

Pride in their country

Historically, Chinese have tended towards a “group” mentality, the sense that one’s identity comes not from individual action or attributes, but from membership in a unit of society. Self descriptions include first belonging to a family, a class in school, a clan, a nation rather than individual accomplishments. Therefore, to a degree that perhaps many Westerners cannot feel, Chinese identify with their country. They are immensely proud of its achievements over the centuries, and thrill to the news of Olympic victories. Indeed, hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing fills them with huge satisfaction.

Lurking in the shadows lies another reality, one which causes intense shame: China’s recent history holds as many defeats as victories. Since losing the first of several “Opium Wars” to Westerners in the mid-nineteenth century, China and its people were deeply humiliated by one defeat after another. By the beginning of the 20th century, actual partition of China by foreign powers seemed imminent. In the 1940s the Japanese invasion brought the most populous regions of the nation under alien control. The subsequent Civil war between Communists and Nationalists further shredded national unity.

Given this, imagine what millions of Chinese around the world felt when, in 1949, a victorious Mao Zedong proclaimed, “China has stood up!” It doesn’t take much to see why Chinese worldwide, regardless of their political affiliation, applaud the economic, diplomatic, and even military rise in recent decades.

Looking ahead, the 2008 Olympics mean far more to the average Chinese than hosting the Games might to citizens of other countries. For them, it is a sign of international recognition and affirmation of China’s “rightful” place in the family of nations – at the head of the table!

Concern for “face”

In a culture where your identity, and even survival, depends upon the approval of others, “face” (personal reputation) is all-important. Westerners ignore this reality at their peril. “Face” explains why Chinese may not tell you what they really think about your business proposal, lest they make you lose face. The same dynamic has hindered fast and factual reporting of outbreaks of virulent diseases such as SARS and avian flu: Neither local officials, nor hospitals, nor the central government, want to look bad.

Indirect communication

Though individuals and regions vary, Chinese generally tend to communicate less directly than Westerners. Differing opinions are especially hard for them to state directly. Instead, a question (“Do you think this price is too high?”) or delaying tactics (“Let me take some time to think about this”) may indicate strong disagreement or reluctance.

When unhappiness is expressed, an intermediary might be used. Simply failing to follow up on a request may substitute for saying “No” at the outset. “Perhaps” may really mean “Certainly!” “I’m not sure” may hide a strong “I don’t like this!” To achieve true understanding, we must learn to listen for cues. Above all, when conflict seems imminent, we must not push Chinese into a corner and demand a direct response. We may not like the result.

Group orientation

Although rapid urbanization and modernization have greatly reduced the power of the group, Chinese still tend to see themselves not just as individuals but also as part of a larger whole, especially the extended family. To a degree seldom seen in the West, young people may feel a sense of obligation, which includes not only their parents, but also other relatives. For example, you may find them giving financial support to a distant cousin who wants to study overseas.

Focus on this world

Popular Chinese religion, traditional Buddhism, and Christians may talk about rewards and punishment in the afterlife, but most Chinese concern themselves with success or failure in this world. Even religious activities are often directed towards securing material blessings such as health, wealth, or children. Sometimes this concentration on the here-and-now injects urgency, even anxiety, that may be hard for Westerners to understand.

Obsession with material prosperity makes more sense in the context of recent history. For instance, you may remember that 20 million people died of hunger in the middle part of the 20th century, and that perhaps 100 million suffered terribly during the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Intense pragmatism

Chinese characterize themselves as practical, even pragmatic, and with good reason. Though their history does not lack philosophical and religious speculation (during the early “hundred schools” period and then later when Confucianism and Buddhism influenced each other), by and large, ethics has trumped ideology.

Chinese tend to value actions more than words. They watch what you do to see if it matches what you say. Likewise, they like to show love and loyalty in visible, practical ways, rather than in flowery talk, which seems cheap to them. True contrition must also be demonstrated by changed behavior, rather than merely saying “I’m sorry.”

Pragmatism makes Chinese superb merchants. Less bound by rules and regulations than Westerners, they will find a way to “make it work.”

Diligence

If you wanted one phrase to describe the Chinese, it might just be “hard working.” They have good reason to see themselves as diligent, for they believe that effort is more important than talent, and so put in long hours in the office, the factory, the laboratory, the practice room, and the study. It is no wonder Chinese students graduate at the top of the class!

Outsiders might fault the Chinese for neglecting family and the life of the spirit, but few can question the success that has come as a result of sweat and toil.

Finances

A great deal of Chinese diligence is driven, of course, by the desire to accumulate wealth. The Chinese are not the only ones who value financial success and security. Otherwise, Jesus would not have said that we must choose between worshiping God and or Mammon, as if these were the only two options. Having said that, however, we should note that the Chinese seem especially pre-occupied with (and good at) earning and saving money.

Another chapter in this book points out how China’s economy has surged ahead in the past decade or so. If that alone were not one indication of why the Chinese were called “the Jews of the Orient” in former days, savings rates, and even a shallow acquaintance with Chinese people, will prove their outstanding business acumen. Foreigners will be surprised, perhaps even shocked, when their Chinese friends ask, “How much did that cost?”, and then proceed to say that a better bargain could have been found elsewhere! In the United States, one can see the fruits of their labors, for Chinese have succeeded admirably in achieving “the American dream” of a big house, a new car, and children sent to the best schools.

The other side of this picture is the sense among many Chinese that older values, such as friendship, have succumbed to the more recent rush to riches. But if you had just been given the chance to escape from poverty and to enjoy a level of comfort once considered luxury, and if millions of your compatriots still struggled just to survive, perhaps you would be single-minded also. Who knows?

Emphasis upon relationships

From the time of Confucius, or maybe before, Chinese have placed a premium upon interpersonal relationships. For centuries, the following five relationships have claimed highest loyalty: – emperor-minister; father-son; husband-wife; older brother-younger brother; friend-friend –. Over time, these priorities have shaped a culture of relationships.

Until very recently, China was a nation of rule by men rather than rule by laws. Even with the institution of a new legal system, the old ways still predominate. People are more important than principles, relationships more than rules.

Furthermore, it was not “what you know,” but “whom you know” that mattered, and that is still the case. There is no direct English translation of the key concept guanxi, as it denotes an entire way of life, an orientation, a fundamental approach to getting things done. It all happens through networks of friends, patrons, and those under your care. “United we stand” might be an equivalent American idea.

Building such ties is essential, not only for success, but for survival itself. Consequently, loyalty, a major feature of Chinese culture, stands out as a primary virtue. If you make friends with a Chinese person, you may find that (1) you have a friend for life and (2) you are expected to act like a “friend indeed” when your friend is “in need.”

The most important relationship, of course, is with your own family. That used to mean the extended family (the world for “everyone” literally means “ big family”). Even now, with the one-child policy and the prominence of the nuclear family, this sort of identification with, and commitment to, the larger family unit remains strong.

Hierarchy

From earliest times, Chinese society has been hierarchical. Four out of five Confucius’s key relationships reflect a clear distinction of position, prestige, and power, albeit with obligations for the superior to the subordinate.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party, the army, and the government not only contain numerous grades within, but rule with absolute authority over the masses below. More than that, however, in each unit of society everyone knows his place.

This sense of who is superior to whom shows up in polite, and even familiar, conversation. Rarely does a younger or junior person address a senior by name alone; almost always, the proper title is included, or may even substitute for the name. Thus, when speaking to the head of a school, you may simply say, “Principal,” without any addition of a personal name. Family members, with whom one enjoys the closest association, will often also be addressed by title: “Older brother,” “Uncle older than my father,” etc.

Of course, as in the time when Mencius taught that the Emperor enjoyed “the Mandate of heaven” ( and thus his throne) only as long as he retained the trust of the people, there are powerful democratic forces at work in modern society... Now, with Western music and pop culture invading the younger generation, and with the heritage of the Cultural Revolution, when all authority (except that of Mao) was attacked, younger folk may chafe more openly against abuse of authority than did their elders. But, by and large, the tradition remains.

Common values and concepts

Foreign observers have often noted the remarkable homogeneity of Chinese culture. Similarity of views throughout the populace may be due in part to an educational curriculum mandated and controlled by the central government, as well as the influence of the “group mentality.” In addition, thousands of proverbs still in common use reinforce a uniformity of thought and expression. In many cases, these proverbs have an element of truth, but may not reflect the whole truth.

You will hear the same phrases countless times in different contexts. There are “five grains” and “four seas.” “American cuisine is limited to a few dishes and is tasteless; Chinese food is the best in the world.” (The latter statement may be true, but the former would be challenged by many housewives, chefs, and compilers of cookbooks.)

“American culture is only two hundred years old; Chinese culture has a 5,000 year history.” “All religions are the same; they urge people to do good.” (Again, though this is partly grounded in truth, it neglects the fact that Americans trace their culture to the Ancient Near East, Israel, Greece, and Rome, that Christianity is far more than an ethical system and that Chinese written history post-dates that of the Jews.)

Despite its record of imperial aggrandizement over the past two thousand years, and multiple surprise attacks (Korea, the Offshore Islands occupied by Taiwan, the Soviet Union, India, Viet Nam) since 1949, we are repeatedly told that “Chinese love peace” and “China is not an expansionist power.” “Chinese care for their old folk, but all Americans abandon their parents to nursing home” (even though 95% of all American seniors either live alone by choice or stay with their children).

Newcomers must learn to simply swallow their impulse to correct or qualify such statements, for they are accepted as self-evidently true. Only residence overseas sometimes alters these perceptions.

Love of food

Let us state the obvious: Chinese focus on food to a degree not often found among other peoples. Rightly proud of their cuisine, they revel in its variety and taste. Friendships are formed and nurtured at the dinner table. Business deals can’t succeed without a meal. Conferences and visits from out of town or across the ocean begin and conclude with a feast. Even an apology is expressed not in words but by an invitation to dine together.

The traditional greeting was, “Have you eaten yet?” This not only makes sense in a country noted for disastrous famines, but it also reflects sound psychology. Your next words should take into account the state of the other’s stomach!

Chinese love to talk about food: Its preparation, taste, and regional differences can occupy most of a dinner conversation, to the amazement of foreign guests.

A bountiful feast

It is perhaps appropriate, then, to illustrate the Chinese character by imagining ourselves invited to a typical Chinese feast. The table is loaded with one delicious dish after another. The guests sit at a round table symbolizing social harmony exchanging polite conversation about food, their families, and especially the success of their children, who are either studying law, medicine, science, or commerce at a premier institution or bringing in a handsome salary at a prestigious job. The elders are seated at the place of honor, their backs to the wall, and are served first. The dishes bear poetic names, reflecting a long literary and culinary tradition. Beautiful Chinese lanterns illuminate the restaurant, painted with scenes from classical art and legend.

After talking about their children, the group discusses the latest indication of China’s rise as a world power. Unless they are native Taiwanese, everyone present beams with pride in the reversal of centuries of humiliation and return to global influence, even dominance. When you express your admiration for the Chinese, they respond by saying something good about your country and your culture.

At the end, everyone returns home pleased. The guests are satisfied that they enjoyed such a fine meal at another’s expense while the host is delighted that he was able to demonstrate generosity (a key virtue among the Chinese) while proving that he has succeeded in this world.

Readings

  • Bond, Michael. Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology
  • LEAD Consulting. An Introduction to the Mainland Chinese Soul
  • Harmony In Conflict: Active Adaptation to Life in Present-day Chinese Society, Volume 1