Chinese Culture: Chinese and Western Cultural Differences

Chinese culture for the most part, has managed to remain separate from the western world, and also much of the ‘blending’ that has taken place in other cultures and countries due to the west’s influence. The current era is only the second time in China’s history that it has ‘opened-up’. The first being the Yuan dynasty which was essentially Mongolian (although after sometime they got ‘assimilated’ as all the rest do too, and then overthrown as a result).

The second period of time could arguably be said to be during the colonial ‘occupation’ of Shanghai, but even that was only geographical and not widespread, so it’s questionable whether this era can be cited as an example.

The third and current era of Chinese culture opening up to western influence was instigated by Deng Xiao Ping with his ‘open-door’ policy instigated in 1978. Yet the motives were certainly not ‘let’s all exchange our culture and live happily ever after, learning how to adapt to each other’, but most certainly ‘let’s find out how to make money, prosper and be powerful as a nation’

Many a non-Chinese have found Chinese culture confusing, and that’s to be expected, because it is (for a non-Chinese). Chinese culture doesn’t hold to principles in the same way as western culture does, and in fact this rigidness displayed by westerners is sometimes considered by native Chinese to be quite strange, this is based on the influence of China’s infrequently mentioned (these days) religion of Taoism/Daoism in the mainland, which has been deliberately sidelined by China’s communist government.

In a nutshell (a very simplistic nutshell), Daoism maintains the principle of flexibility in the face of all situations, ‘be like water’ being one of the guiding principles (again, I’m hugely simplifying, I’ll do an in-depth post on it at another stage).

What follows is a list of Chinese cultural precepts that I’ve found are never flexible, and a couple that are but I consider to be of particular interest:

Money: within a Chinese family moves as a circle, from parents to children, and then back again from the children to their parents when they’ve grown older and are working. In western culture, for the most part, money moves downwards, and it’s not considered any child’s responsibility to be financially responsible for any parent, as in general, they’ve mostly taken care of this consideration with savings, pensions and the like.

Individualism: Individualism is greatly valued and promoted in the majority of western cultures, possibly due to the education system requiring the student to have and express their own ideas and opinions, as a person with creativity and analytical ability is usually more productive and useful to our society. In China however, and in some ways Chinese culture itself, individualism can be seen as a threat to ‘the greater good’.

Communication: Any form of communication within Chinese culture that may be likely to cause offense or loss of face, will be mostly indirect and filled with non-committal responses. However, what constitutes ‘offense’ in Chinese culture, is not necessarily equal to what causes offense in most western based cultures.

For example, sometimes in China saying to a male ‘Wow, you’re fat’, can be perfectly acceptable depending on the situation and individuals involved. Obesity can be sometimes viewed in a positive light, as in ‘fat = a lot of food = access to a lot of food = wealth’. The idea that it may simply be genetic, is almost never considered by mainland Chinese.

Thought Process: The associated imagery and thought process of a mainland born Chinese can be vastly different to ‘perhaps’ most other countries peoples by comparison. One reason is of course cultural, as in based on their own history and literature. Ten years ago if you asked a mainland Chinese what a monkey eats, most would reply with the word ‘peach’, this is because in Wu Cheng en’s classic ‘Journey to the West A.K.A the Monkey king’, Sun wu kong steals the heavenly peaches. Yet now, due to western influence, most of the younger generation will reply with ‘banana’.

Aside from this form of example, what would be considered a logical thought process in most western educated individuals, is not often followed by a mainland born Chinese. This is not to say it’s not within the structure of their thoughts, only to say they do not limit themselves to it in thought and communication.

Age and Power: In Chinese culture if someone has age or power over you, you are supposed to defer to them in all situations, especially in public. It is simply unacceptable for you to contradict them no matter even if you are quite obviously right. If you really must though, or have a concern to raise, you should only do it in private on a one-to-one basis, and definitely not when anyone else is in earshot.

There are some others I can think of, but for the moment these will do, the others are ‘circles within circles’, a bit like the film ‘Inception’ with seemingly never-ending depth and complexity. As I often tell people, after my first year in China I was confused, after the second year I then thought I understood Chinese culture, the third year I was confused again with the contradictions, then fourth year the same as the second, and then confused again.

It was only after the repetition of this, that I found the common denominator: Chinese culture is like the layers of an onion, with many layers contradicting the previous layers precepts, but ultimately dependent on the situation at the time, ever flexible depending on priorities at any given moment.

Too many westerns would like to be able to frame Chinese culture with their own view and understanding of their own culture, but it just doesn’t work; It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. At best it provides a limited viewpoint, the like of which is diametrically opposed to actual Chinese culture based as it is on situational flexibility.