The enduring strength of Chinese culture

The Han Chinese are one of the oldest, largest and most unified of the world’s ethnic groups.  Their current success is not only due to their government’s policies, but the enduring strength of their culture.

For many centuries, the Chinese had a claim to be the world’s most advanced culture.  Marco Polo, who visited China in the late 13th century, was astonished at the wealth and wonders of China, including transformative inventions such as gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press and paper money.

The purpose of the voyages of Christopher Columbus were to establish a sea route so Europeans could buy Chinese tea, porcelain (valuable dishware is still called “china”), silk and other manufactured products without going through intermediaries.

But then as now, there was a trade deficit.  As the Emperor Qianlong told the British McCartney mission in 1792-1794, the Europeans didn’t manufacture anything that the Chinese needed.  The British response was the Opium Wars.

Chinese culture was shaped by Confucius (Kung Tze), who taught the importance of duty, loyalty and responsibility—not individual self-expression.

Confucianism is based on five filial relationships—father to son, teacher to student, older brother to younger brother, older friend to younger friend and ruler to subject.

Society is seen as an extended patriarchal family.  Sons, students and subjects owe loyalty to their fathers, teachers and rulers.  Fathers, teachers and rulers have a responsibility to mentor and provide for their sons, students and subjects.

These are not equal relationships, but they are reciprocal relationships.  There is a historic Chinese belief that subjects have a right to rebel against rulers who have lost the “mandate of Heaven.”    

Government service throughout Chinese history was based on passage of examinations, a process that in theory and frequently in practice eliminated old-boy networks and provided opportunity for the poor but talented.

The Chinese have a history of absorbing not only their subjugated peoples, but their conquerors, such as the Mongols and Manchus, through intermarriage and cultural assimilation.  We can see this process going on now, with the Tibetans and Uighurs.

We Americans see diversity as our strength.  We attract people from all over the world, with different talents and ideas, and they all supposedly contribute to the common good.

But this only works if there is a unity underlying the diversity.  Bringing diverse people together in one place accomplishes nothing unless they have a common purpose.  Otherwise it is better to be unified and homogeneous, like the Chinese.

Belief in filial virtues means Chinese typically have strong family ties.

In some cultures, excessive loyalty to family can be a weakness.  Enterprising family members are held back by their duty to provide for their non-enterprising members.

But it can be a strength if the family is united in an ambition to be a dynasty.  The fictional Kee family in James Michener’s Hawaii, with its hard-driving matriarch, Char Nyuk Tsin (“Auntie Chow’s Mother), is an example of this.

Amy Chua’s “tiger mother” is almost a caricature of this.

I’ve been making a lot of sweeping generalizations about Chinese people, because that’s the only way to write about a vast topic in a short space, but of course every Chinese person is an individual with their own personality and personal view of life.

Confucianism was the official Chinese philosophy of life for a long time, but there are other Chinese philosophies, notably Daoism, which is the antithesis of Confucianism.

Kung Tze taught that you should form good habits through ritual, etiquette and study, so that you would always do the right thing in the proper way.

But Lao Tze taught you should relax, be yourself, go with the flow, take time to enjoy life, bend with the wind and take life as it comes—a philosophy to turn to when obeying the rules of Confucianism becomes too much.

Even though the historical Chinese empires were highly authoritarian, the Chinese outside China are noted for their entrepreneurial spirit.

Overseas Chinese in every place they’ve been allowed to settle, including the USA, have attained a higher average economic status than the general population because of a culture that values work, education and achievement.

This has been in spite of prejudice and discrimination.  In American slang, “a Chinaman’s chance” is no chance at all.  (Please do not take this as an excuse for prejudice and discrimination against other groups.)

One of the weaknesses of historic Chinese political culture is that it didn’t have place for the concept of a loyal opposition. 

In the USA, the UK and other Western countries, it is possible to be outspokenly critical of your government or your institutions, while obeying the law and maintaining a basic loyalty.

Historically, in China, you either give unquestioning loyalty to the ruling dynastic or you are an outcast or rebel.

There is a story about the Chin Dynasty, which was the first dynasty to unify China and which gave China its name.

Its ruler was a follower of Mo Tze, a Chinese philosopher who believed a ruler should command total obedience through harsh punishments.

He allegedly punished a delegation of village elders who issued a proclamation praising him for a military victory, because it was presumptuous of them to have an opinion one way or the other.

One day a local leader was driving a group of workers to report for forced labor, when he realized he wasn’t going to make his appointment on time.

He called the workers together and asked, “What’s the penalty for being late?”  “Death.”  “What’s the penalty for rebellion?” “Death.”  “Well, we’re already late…..”

The leader overthrew the Chin Dynasty and established the Han Dynasty, which was based on the ideas of Confucius and endured for centuries.

I don’t know whether the story has any factual basis.  But the fact that the Chinese tell it shows they don’t submit to authority blindly.

The China of Xi Jinping, with its blend of Maoist thought control, mercantilist capitalism and blood-and-soil nationalism, superimposed on traditional Chinese culture, could well become the dominant force and role model for the world.

I would be worry to see this happen. But I don’t think the Chinese people are foreordained to take this path.

The Chinese on Taiwan have created a successful democracy, combining the best things in the Chinese heritage with modern ideas of democracy and freedom.

As far as that goes, we Americans also have the power to take the best things from our own heritage, and marry them to good things we’ve learned from other cultures.  The question is: Will we?


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