I would like to thank Liz Roux, a Chinese adoptee now studying at Harvard University, for her thoughts and for her editing for this writing I did many years ago when she was a baby.

January 26, 2018


Characteristics of Culture

A Personal Experience

Lillian Y. Zhang

Before I came to America, I had heard about many things: fast food, Coca Cola, divorce, crime, lawsuits, etc. When I came to America, I heard many things about Chinese culture: Feng Sui, Gong Fu, acupuncture, food, favoring boys, etc. I am surprised by how different we feel about our own culture and how other people feel about our culture.

I am also surprised by how I felt about my own culture in different cultural settings. In China, I was very negative about Chinese culture, just like generations of scholars and students in the past two hundred years. The Chinese culture is very conservative and passive. It was designed to maintain the established order and not to encourage any change. In the States, however, I realized that there are many things in Chinese culture that should be maintained even as China becomes an industrialized society!

On a personal level, I believe I became a mixed person. In the States, I still hear comments on how Chinese I am. In China, I hear comments on how American I am. Only with distance in a different culture can I understand my own culture, but others do not understand it the same way.

Cultural misunderstanding is expected, and before we understand why other people misunderstand our own cultures, we need to understand why we misunderstand theirs.

1.We are instilled with our own culture. The process starts in the daily routines of childhood. The values and lifestyles impressed upon us constitute a reference system from which we learn, compare, and understand new things. In this sense, we are conditioned by the time we look into cultures different from our own.

This reference system at personal level constitutes a huge umbrella to protect a culture from outside influence. For example, communism in China is a justification of a new government. It is so Chinese that it has more to do with the Chinese traditions than the Communist ideas. One example is Feng Shui. It is a very negative thing in China because it was derived from an ancestral worship tradition, a set of rules to locate a good burial spot for elders so that they could continue to bless their children in their next lives. However, in America it is deemed as a positive thing because Americans focus on the value of life in the present, not in the afterlife.

2. We tend to look at differences in other cultures. I do believe all cultures share the same values: honesty, loyalty, hard work, good to each other, etc. We are so used to it and happy to say “We are all humans” when we see the similarities. But cultures have different ways to carry out these values, and when we see the difference, we use “culture” as a ready explanation to appease our uneasiness. We need to remember that the difference we see in other cultures is only a tiny part of that culture!

For example, the foot-binding practice in Chinese women a century ago is actually comparative to the of suffering of Western women wearing high heel shoes and corsets. Also, Chinese people take turns to treat each other to meals in restaurants while Americans tend to split the cost. Another exemplification is that Chinese students do not ask teachers questions and American students keep asking teachers questions, both in an attempt to show respect to their teachers. The teachers themselves are seen more as father figures in the former and more as equal parties in the latter.

3. Media is powerful in modern society and influences our views of culture. For example, the movie “Joy Luck Club” portrays mother-daughter relationships in first generation immigrants well but does not one good Chinese man. In cases like these we have to remember that, in many Hollywood movies about Chinese people, many characters are portrayed as un-attractive, violent, and low-class.

Now let us turn to the subject of characteristics of culture. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the term CULTURE as following:

  1. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought;
  2. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population;
  3. These patterns, traits and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression. (There are other meanings but the above quotation is closest to our subject).

I feel humbled to realize how little I really know about my own culture and any other cultures. I want to use this definition structure to organize my thoughts.

  1. Culture Has Many Dimensions: Political, Legal, Religion, Medicine, Food, etc.

Political discussion is always sensitive but it is always important to understand politics in a cultural context because politics are very cultural. By discussing politics culturally, politics is not politics anymore. We do not need to agree with others but we do need to understand so that we know how to better influence others (if we want to).

One of the most “socially transmitted behavior patterns” of the Chinese people in modern Chinese politics as perceived in America is the independence of Tibet and Taiwan. Chinese people are against it because the old Chinese international law concept is LAND centered and the modern one is PEOPLE centered. As an agricultural society for thousands of years, LAND is a term of life and death. It is so dear in people’s heart that you make enemy out of anybody on street by telling them Taiwan should be independent.

Chinese people do not talk to lawyers and they do not like to sue each other. It is a good example for another dimension of culture: legal. For thousand of years, the Chinese society depended on the morality and a kinship system to maintain order that became a primary to mediate and resolve the disputes. China had the most advanced criminal system for thousands of years and the court system mostly handled criminal cases. Being sued, to many Chinese people, is perceived as serious as killing or stealing.

Religion is another important dimension of culture. China is often labeled as Atheist in the sense that Confucianism is no way a region, but a set of philosophical beliefs of the ruling class.

The basic beliefs are: Humans are born good and innocent; All humans are educable; and Of the ways of lives, the Harmony is Nature’s way and is the best way. The only way to reach the Harmony is education. All people should learn about these values and virtues and follow the moral standards; law is important but secondary. For thousands of years, the schools in China have been teaching Confucianism, including the Nationalist party and the Communist party, this set of virtues: Benevolence, Righteousness, Propriety, Wisdom, and Fidelity.

Confucianism took the leading position through the school system hundreds of years before Buddhism and Islam came to China. Perhaps this is why these religions did not become as central as Confucianism, which is acceptable to all beliefs. Here we came to a very important concept: Folk Religions. It is the term for the beliefs of the Ruled Class. It includes Buddhism, Islam, Polytheism, Totemism, Deism, many gods and goddess with specific functions, and, ancestor worship. There are three features in the folk religions. 1, All the folk religions are somewhat Confucius-nized; 2, There is no religious figure who has overall and absolute spiritual power; 3, They are practiced mostly on personal level and there is no institutional system to interpret their teachings. When these three above mentioned principles are violated, issues of beliefs become issues of politics.

In folk religions, the God and Goddess carry out all classic Confucius values and virtues. The figures are well known to all people in China so there is no particular threat of unknown to people. King of the Nether World loves beautiful names. The ghosts act just like you and me: sensitive, caring, and lovely. When talking to the God of Stove, only say good things! People do not share the beliefs all the time but we all love those figures and even feel appreciative of other people’s beliefs. The Chinese culture is tolerant and inclusive. It is strong because of its inclusiveness: Mongolians and Manchurians conquered the whole of China but adopted the Han governmental system, language and customs which were very. They even named their dynasties in the traditional Chinese system. In fact, the China territory expanded under these two dynasties in a way that no Han emperors could ever imagine. Mongolian had their religions but they did not impose their beliefs in the country.

Chinese language is the element that holds the culture all together. The first Chinese Emperor Qin adopted one standard for language, measurements, and governmental systems. People in different provinces can speak different dialects but all use the same written characters. Furthermore, Chinese is a pictographic language due to its agricultural history. We have poems, stories, and legends where we give souls to almost all natural items and beliefs. Almost all characters intrigue good feelings in Chinese people just by looking at them. I guess that is why we could use most of them for names.

Chinese medicine, as one of the scientific bases for the Chinese culture, has three features in its way of thinking. 1, The human body is part of the entirety of nature, so change in nature could cause change in body; 2, A symptom of illness indicates the problem with the whole body; 3. Each person is different, so the treatment should be individual. Chinse medicine also has two features in its practice: it is preventive, and the basics are easy to learn. I dare to say that two thirds of China’s city population have knowledge on the Chinese medicines and treat many illnesses at home. The Chinese people view western medicine as great in terms of tests and surgery, but believe that there are too many drugs and excessive treatment.

How could we forget Chinese cooking? Eating is so important to Chinese people!  While it boasts eight food systems, FRYING is the basic method in Chinese cooking. Why? As an agricultural society, fuel was a problem for thousands of years. Frying was the most energy efficient way of cooking. Yes, we do have many ancient terms for cooking but they were for banquets, emperors and religious events. So, frying is the only thing you need to learn about Chinese cooking (simple!)

There are many other aspects in culture: Education, family, gender, etc. I would not touch them in this short paper.

  1. Culture has many styles: Ruling, the Ruled, Regional, Sub-cultures, etc.

While the terms of Ruling class and the Ruled sound so Marxist, they do explain the reality in Chinese history since, for thousands of years, the government controlled production and commerce. The ruling class includes the governmental officials, Gentry class and government related business people. Most Chinese literature reflects the ruling class’s culture and value because they had the education, time and financial means to engage in intellectual activities. This literature is meaningful in understanding the culture of the ruled in a sense that they do lead the trend in life styles. Tea, silk, clothing, drama, names, etc. all started as upper-class habits. Chinese traditional dress was for women who did not have to work. But all poor families prepare one for their daughters. Before 1949, many countryside girls had no formal names but it was seldom the case for women from ruling class families.

The best example to explain regional culture is the difference between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Beijing is very political and people on the street think they represent China. Shanghai is very materialistic and they think they are the leaders in style and way of living for whole country. Guangzhou people are very realistic. They do have many dreams and what they could get today is more important. Among these cities, even the food is different. Beijing food contains more wheat, dishes more salty and plentiful. Shanghai food contains more rice, dishes are sweeter and smaller. Guangdong people eat everything eatable on this planet. So, American people are not the only ones who get upset when they see all these animals in cages in Guangzhou!

With regard to sub-culture, the most mentioned example is the culture of the young generation. There have been a lot of discussions recently in China about the definition of “generation”. Biological generation is still deemed as every 25 years. Culturally, many scholars label 1949-1979 as one generation, 1980 to 1989 another generation. After that, it is about five years to have another different culture, in terms of fashion, spending habits, music, attitude towards government, career, etc.

Women’s issues are another example for sub-culture study. The feminist movement in this country was a grassroots movement, and in comparison American women have stronger sense of self. In China, women’s rights were given to women in 1949 as part of the communist ideology. Without a profound educational campaign from women themselves, Chinese women, while they enjoy many rights such as education, voting, working, inheritance, etc., are still deep in many traditional ways of thinking. They work twice as hard at work and home. They do not complain.  In one example, China has a different retirement age for man and women. I do not hear any complaints about it. Another example, Chinese women always want boys more than their husbands because for thousand of years, women’s status at home or society depended more on having a son.

  1. Culture Has Many Shapes: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, etc.

When I fist came to Boston, I walked around Chinatown and was shocked by how many old Chinese traditions were maintained here in a different culture. Is it because it remains untouched by many political movements in China? Is it because American culture respects other cultures? To many people from mainland China, family temples or associations are ancient phenomenon. To have an old family clan member to handle disputes in a family is unthinkable in most part of mainland China! I looked at the paper money in the Chinese markets and could not believe my eyes. For thousand of years Chinese people burn paper money for their diseased family members. This custom was stopped after 1949. But here I saw all different kind of paper money on shelves! Chinese money for goods made in China. US money was for McDonalds!

Many things we hear about the Chinese culture are true in a sense that they happened in the past. Many things we hear about the Chinese culture are not true in a sense, since they happened in the past but not now.

Throughout 20th century we see a movement to challenge and reform the Confucianism. Facing the urgent need to modernize China, generations of intellectuals criticized and disowned this whole system. While almost all ancient Chinese written literature is still Confucius, its interpretations and understanding are very different now than one hundred years ago. It indeed was reformed.

In traditional Confucius, it is important that Means meet moral standards in reaching a Goal. Now, concepts of business secrets and marketing strategies are tolerated. Before, “Nature’s way is the highest way” was stressed for thousands of years. Now another concept of “Changing is Nature’s Way” is discussed. Harmony is still important but now we realize Confucius also says harmony is a balance. In Confucianism, there are three elements for success: People’s relationship, timing and location. Now in real estate market in China, many Confucius words are put on the importance of Location!

There is a discussion about the future of Confucianism in China and in all of Asia. For thousands of years, it is a philosophy for ruling class to rule, to study, to follow through life for personal perfection and harmony for the society. Now it become a business tool and become a very practical way of living by people on the street. There are many books on how to apply Confucius principles to manage a company, to market a product, to buy stocks, etc. In a recent Chinese newspaper I read two articles on how Confucius lived up to 96 years old and how he meditated. Just imagine how Confucius scolded business people! I laugh at how many Confucius scholars are upset about this, though I also do not like this trivialization of Confucianism!

  1. Culture Has Many Evolving Features—Some More Coherent and Some Not

I almost feel I know all Chinese people, be they from Mainland, Taiwan, or Singapore. Men look calm and quiet. Women always smile and are busy. Have we all studied the same poems and read same novels and cried for same stories when we were 15? Have our parents all compared us with other children for schools and grades? Have all of us had grandmas who waited and waited for us all to come to the Chinese New Year dinners? Have we all married the same type of spouse? Have we had all of same concerns: Children, school, family, etc.? What identifies us as Chinese?

The things we could identify with each other are the elements in a culture that stretch through thousands of years: overly evolved concepts of family and education; a very special philosophy evolved in wars, disasters, and famines; and a very simple understanding of life and death.

I am reluctant to distinguish the Chinese culture by saying that that culture emphasizes values on family and education. Which cultures do not value these basic social instruments? Still, it feels different.

For thousands of years, families provide connections and financial means for their children. Even now, most Chinese families pay for their children’s education through college and graduate school. Most people in rural areas financially support their children until they get married. Families also provide care and support for their elders. The traditional order in the family was that Son listens to father and wife listens to husband and everybody listens to the oldest man in the family, and that parents arranged marriages. This order was reinforced by laws and regulations and by endless teachings through folk drama, music and storytelling. Even though family ties became much weaker along with the economic reform, the family pressure is everywhere. In rural area, most elders live with their children and grandchildren. Marriage and divorce is everybody’s matter. I have a friend who married an American professor. He told me the other day that he realized he married her whole family.

The importance of education derives from the Chinese civil examination system dated back about 1500 years ago. There were three levels of examination: County, District and Central government. Emperors filled the important government positions with people who passed these examinations. Even for people did not get those positions, they enjoyed tremendous privileges in the society. For example, local government could not punish them with normal procedures. This system opened to whole society, regardless of your background, wealth, family connections, etc. Chinese history is full of important governmental officials from humble background who excel through school and the civil examination system and later made great contribution to the society. Their stories are told through generations.

When we put family and education together, we see a typical Chinese picture: Children’s schooling is whole family’s business. A B+ could make your mother cry for whole month. On any given day of examinations, you would see layers of layers of aged people surrounding that poor building. They are grandmas and grandpas and parents. Whose work is most important? Not the father’s work or the mother’s work, but rather the children’s homework. We start to teach our children Chinese characters when they are still babies. We give them extra homework everyday and send them to all after school programs we could afford. We do not expect them to support our old age but we continue to force them to study and to excel.

Another subject I heard quite often is the value on Collectivism. Chinese people do not consciously sense they have this quality. I realize we do only after I learn more about Individualism. There is no accurate term in the Chinese language to interpret this word. For the ones we have, it is close to “self-centered” and “egoism”, which are very negative terms in the Chinese culture.

Chinese people indeed have a strong sense of collectivism! Just look at the questions Chinese students asked President Bush in Qing Hua University! “We have 1.3 billion people and your position on Taiwan hurts us all!”

Where was that sense fostered in the Chinese history? When Qing Dynasty united China, the Emperor established a national government system: County, District, and Province. Under the county, it had a system called Bao Jia. Ten families were in one Bao and ten Bao constituted one Jia. Bao Jia system had many social and governmental functions: security, tax collection, charity, school, etc. and it was maintained till 1949 under the Nationalist government. All dynasties in the Chinese history developed a “Heavy Award and Heavy Punishment” policy for the Bao Jia’s performance. For example, if one person passed the national civil examination, the government would send a band to his hometown to announce the news, chanting his county and family name all the way there. If one person committed crimes, the whole family would suffer from the wrongdoings. Naturally, there were more good things that people do so the award appeared to be more associated with collectivism. There are a few of sayings about this award practice. One of them says: If one can fly, his dogs and chickens arise with him to heaven. We have another saying for the punishment side: Nine families die with one person’s crime. It developed into its worst form of crime by association when power struggle became fierce.

What else makes Chinese people Chinese? I talked to many friends. One thing that struck me is that we all believe deeply in fate. In a typical Chinese saying, the term is “meant to be”. Look at these concepts: Lives are in a circle — Building a good foundation for next life by helping others in this life. Things happen for reasons — Taking Middle Approach and Doing by not Doing. – One can never lose: You Gain by Losing and You Lose by Gaining. We take whatever comes and we have ways to feel good about it! When I go through all these Chinese way of thinking, I am so annoyed by its passiveness. When I feel annoyed, I realize it could be positive and even powerful.

For any culture that has evolved and survived for thousands of years, it must contain many good things that hold people together in a society. If it appears different, it must be because it has developed in a different economic environment and has a different coping system.

My Chinese friends often ask me about the American culture: attitude towards family, children, money, government, education, individualism, death, etc. I could not answer as if I forgot all the cultural shocks when I arrived. Indeed, the American culture looks so similar with the Chinese culture in essence. Only when I hear negative comments about the American culture can I explain the differences and misunderstandings.

I am still learning.