Lessons in Chinese Culture (中国文化)

Featuring traditional Chinese papercut and the nation's colors of red and yelllow

As part of the exchange program between Qingdao and Missouri State, our little group of MSU expats had to take a chinese culture class. I say had, but other than the fact it fell smack in the middle of naptime I rather enjoyed it. The class was taught by a Chinese professor, from a Chinese textbook (in English). Getting to read a history and culture book from the perspective of a country that’s not my own was a great learning experience.  The differences were subtle, but still interesting. This class, coupled with living in China for a few months now, has taught me a few things about Chinese culture and people. (One caveat: As a foreigner-particularly a westerner foreigner concerning Asia-I will NEVER pretend to be an expert or even particularly knowledgeable about another country’s culture. These are just a few things I think I’ve learned according to one class and personal experience. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.) All quotes are from Chinese Culture: A Course Book by Xue Rong and Feng Wenjie (Hefei: China University of Technology Press, 007) unless otherwise stated.

Their history is long. Like really, really long.

I knew this before, but I didn’t KNOW it. You know?

 China is one of the world’s oldest civilized nations, which dates back to more than 10,000 years.

What?? That’s insane. This takes into account very primitive civilizations too, though, which most countries have had at some point.

The year 221 BC is commonly used as the date when China became unified under a large kingdom or empire.

Okay, so even if we use this date as “the beginning of China,” that still means over 2,000 years of existence. Over 2,000 years of history and culture and development. For some perspective: the U.S. has been a thing since 1776, when the declaration/constitution was signed. That’s a bit over 200 years ago now. So the U.S. as a nation has approximately just 10% of the history that China does. Length-wise of course. I will never claim one country's history is richer in some way than another's.

Something else I find really interesting, is that for about 1,500 years until Marco Polo and other Westerners ventured east, China grew and flourished ON ITS OWN. Due to the topography-the world’s highest mountains to the west and southwest, harsh cold to the north, and sea to the east and southeast-much of China’s development took place without any outside influence. Before these silk road visitors, the Chinese were developing things like paper and gunpowder, along with great works of literature and art. All before the pilgrims even thought about eating turkey!

Religious philosophies are very different. But kind of the same?

When I think of religion, it first brings to mind some kind of interaction with a higher power. I know there are a multitude of religions in the world and this generalization is not accurate, but for me that’s what I initially think of.

In our textbook, I found the chapter on Chinese religion very similar to the chapter Chinese philosophy. In fact, one of the first sentences in the chapter on religion reads:

Chinese religion” is a general term used to describe the complex interaction of different religious and philosophical traditions that have been especially influential in China.

The three main traditions are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. I don’t think it’s necessary to go into the teachings of each of these here. I probably wouldn’t do them justice anyway. However, they all (originally) are more like a moral/life code or philosophies from a respected teacher as opposed to an interaction with a God figure.  The Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have been and continue to be in the minority in China.

The religious outlook of most Chinese people consists of some combination of beliefs and practices from the three major traditions just mentioned.

This is very different than the U.S., where (according to the Washington Post) Christianity is still the most practiced religion in every state. Judaism and Islam are the second most practiced in all but 15 states. This is important to note when thinking about the overall Chinese culture. The religious and philosophical ideas that have shaped their worldview are very different from the Abrahamic faiths that have shaped mine.

Very different, but there is one thing I believe we can all find common ground in:

 Love your neighbor as yourself - Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 - from the Bible’s New Testament, the basis for Christianity

For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land. – Deuteronomy 15:11 - from the Bible’s Old Testament, specifically the section that makes up the Torah in Judaism

It is righteousness…to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask… - from the Qur’an (2:177)

It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get. - Confucian saying

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. - Lao Tzu, founder of Daoism

The thought manifests as the word. The word manifests as the deed. The deed develops into habit. And the habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care. And let it spring from love, born out of concern for all beings. - Siddhartha Guatama, whose teachings founded Buddhism

Love is good, so love people. Especially those who have been hit hard by life and may not be feeling the love. At least, that’s what I get out of it.

Values of Chinese people. Textbook vs. experience.

After the first class, 王老师 (Wáng lǎoshī, or teacher Wang) asked us to look up the values of Chinese people. Here are some things the Internet and 王老师 said, contrasted with the brief experience I’ve had:

Respect and Hierarchy. The teachings of Confucius emphasize a person’s duty within their relation to others. Ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brothers, friend and friend. Within each of these one is to act in a certain way. This still manifests itself in a great respect for elders and minding your place. 王老师 told us that within families you call older relatives by their title-grandmother, aunt, etc-not necessarily their name. In her family, she doesn’t even know her grandmother’s real name! It’s just a good example of how their role in the family is of great importance.

Concerning respect of the elderly, she also told us how typically in China an older woman is proud of how old she is, whereas in the states I feel like women start lying about their age right around the big 3-0. Grandparents also often live with their children/grandchildren and have a very active role in taking care of the grandchildren. I’ve seen this for myself with one of my students. I always meet them at his grandmother’s home. While they do not live together, the family goes over there every single evening.

Saving Face. A Chinese person will go out of their way to save face, both for themselves and for others. For example, 王老师 said that if someone is going to be fired, oftentimes the boss or whoever must do the firing will ask them out to lunch first. I think maybe this is so that they do not have to walk through the building after being fired, but that’s just my own idea. I’m not really sure.

It also seems as if many people are concerned with seeming as if they can afford the best. I met one Chinese girl who said her boss always gives her very expensive brands as gifts, even though she doesn’t really want or use them. My friend in Shanghai said everyone wants the gold iPhone5 because it gives an appearance of luxury. The majority of cars I’ve seen have been very nice and new models. When a group goes out to dinner it’s common practice to get way more than can be finished, and usually one person treats. If that one person is trying to impress, I’ve heard they’ll buy the best of everything. Whether or not they can afford it.

Nonverbal Communication. It has been interesting to experience low- versus high-context cultures as described in my business textbooks. In high-context cultures like China often what is not said is just as-if not more-important than what is said. An example on the Internet was that in a meeting, if someone does not like an idea being presented they will usually not say so directly. They will oftentimes just say nothing in order to save face for the person presenting the idea. My friend ran into this when a family apparently no longer wanted her as a tutor for their daughter. Instead of saying so, they just stopped calling her or answering when she called. Eventually, she got the message.

Low-context cultures, like the U.S., are usually more straight-forward. We say what we mean and what we want. As an American, high-context cultures can be a bit frustrating. Don’t try to save face, just tell me what you mean! On the flip-side though, I can see how a Chinese person may think someone from a low-context culture could be rude.

Education: Traditionally, artists were not bums. Currently, high school is INTENSE.

Its [Chinese education] paramount purpose was to develop a sense of moral sensitivity and duty toward people and the country.

That pretty much sums up the gist of typical traditional Chinese education. However, something I found very interesting is that much of this focused on humanities-type subjects. Confucian teachings, calligraphy, poetry, and reading of great literary works. The Imperial test was introduced during the Sui dynasty (581-618)  to determine who got to be government officials, and by the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907)  the sections of this exam included: interview, writing from memory of the Classics, composition writing about Confucianism, answering questions about practical problems by writing, and poem-ode writing.

The literati, or scholarly class, were highly revered. Their lives were devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, and every literati worth his salt knew more than a thing or two about calligraphy, painting, a certain traditional musical instrument, and traditional board games. In the states, I feel like the people we learn most about in our brief history are revolutionaries like Paul Revere or inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. I don’t know much about the likes of Hemingway and….well actually American painters are slipping my mind right now. I don't know if that's a comment on American education or my own memory, it’s just interesting to note.

Now, Chinese education follows a similar model as the one I’ve been following myself. Elementary, middle, and high school followed by university if one so chooses. A variety of subjects are taught, similar to the structure of the subjects taught in the U.S. One difference is that they usually practice both English and calligraphy at a young age.

However, when looking at Chinese education as a whole it is still VERY different from what I’ve grown up in. Every student in the country takes a college entrance exam that determines which university they can attend, and therefore what careers and areas of study they can pursue. It’s based on rank, so the top-scoring students can get into the best university (Beijing University, so I’ve been told). As such, competition is INTENSE. Just because you get a good score doesn’t mean you’ve done well if all your peers scored even better. My language partner told me students usually live in dorms in high school. Classes can begin as early as 6:30 a.m., and go as late as 10:00 p.m. or so with night classes. Then they have homework.

Even young students can feel some pressure. Both the boys I tutor take several different types of classes outside of school. Alvin is learning piano, tae kwon do, and is in some lego-like building class. Harry is learning another language (Russian maybe? I’ve forgotten.), guitar, and is in a similar building class. These are in addition to lessons with me once or twice a week. It’s a lot, but I can understand. With so much competition you’ve got to try and give your child any edge you can for the sake of their future well-being.

It’s different from what I’m accustomed to. I don’t know if I could perform well in that system.

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That ended up much longer than I anticipated, but you get the gist! There's lots of stuff to be learned :)