Lead Article

Convergence or Divergence?

Chinese Culture in a Globalized World


In the early 1990s, Japanese-American scholar Fukuyama introduced his notion of "the end of history." Using the collapse of the Soviet Union as proof of complete victory for the Western free market economy and the democratic political system, Fukuyama asserted that since underlying antagonism between countries had been erased, the world was now one and history should come to an end. A decade later, American author Thomas L. Friedman also provided abundant evidence in his bestseller The World is Flat that globalization had essentially "leveled the playing field" among nations of the world. Both China and India not only share in this transformation, but are also in the process of being homogenized by the West.

On the other hand, also in the early '90s Samuel Huntington, a well-known American political scientist, identified another globalization variable in his Clash of Civilizations that represents a sharply opposing conclusion. His conclusion was this: Underneath outward similarities, cultural distinctions will not only persist but will also create intense conflicts. Less than ten years later, the events that took place on 9/11 confirmed Huntington's belief.

Consequently, how should we view the changes in China's culture and its influence in light of the globalization of the economy during the last thirty years?

To answer this question, we must first define "culture" in order to avoid misunderstandings. Using a tree as analogy, we can divide culture into three parts: leaves/flowers/fruits are the most visible and changeable; roots are the most stable, primary but obscured; and branches are between the two extremes. When looking at leaves/flowers/fruits, such as fashion, we can conclude that the culture is constantly adjusting. But by examining the roots, such as value systems, we see a rock-firm base. Any discussion on China's culture will need to deal with all three aspects. However, this article focuses on the roots of China's culture, the core or makeup of its people.

The Marketization Reform in China during the past thirty years kept pace with the economic globalization in the world, resulting in visible changes in China's economy and way of life. However, whether dramatic transformation has taken place in the core of China's culture or the value system of China's people requires further examination. Certain everyday occurrences and interesting phenomenon may reveal part of the answer.

Most people take the view that the 1980s and 1990s generations of Chinese were raised in the globalization and Internet era. They are close to the world and distant from traditional China. But when compared to so-called ABCs (American Born Chinese), distinction between the two groups is vast and unmistakable. The implication is that even in this age of information and globalization, traditional Chinese culture still shapes the character of its people. Furthermore, if you go to Singapore or Hong Kong, two international cities with predominantly ethnic Chinese and strong Chinese culture identification, you have no problem identifying a mainlander from his mannerisms and temperament. This distinguishing shows the subtle, remarkable influence of Chinese culture.

So, what are the fundamental factors that are still shaping the characters of Chinese people today? From Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism to the more contemporary materialism; from moralism to nationalism to pragmatism; from humanism to union of heaven and man, China unquestionably possesses unique cultural traits and profound power to influence. Is there some feature that is even more fundamental and can integrate all of these traits? The answer is affirmative. It is called "Individual and Family Based (Confucianistic) Secular Utilitarianism."

First of all, the factor is "individual and family based," which means that China's value system is more human-centric, not theo-centric. This is why most Chinese have an instinctive disagreement, apprehension and misconception regarding Judaism and Christianity, whose values are derived from God. This premise also explains how in predominantly Chinese Christian churches familial relationships are of foremost importance. In addition, emphasis on familial interests and relationships create a small-circle-mentality within the Chinese character, as opposed to the individualism and liberalism of the American spirit. People connections are essential in Chinese churches; hence, there is a tendency to form small groups in these churches.

Then there is "secular." This means that Chinese are intuitively disinterested in "the world to come." They do not completely reject the concept, though, particularly if it benefits life in this world. To a great degree, this explains how Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are somewhat compatible, with Confucianism being the primary basis for the Chinese way of life. The same reasoning occurs when a Chinese is exposed to Christianity: first, lack of interest; then acceptance if there are immediate gains; but the biblical message on the end-times is of little concern. Valuing life in this world also makes the Chinese relate easier with materialistic thinking. Their firm acceptance of Marxist beliefs was for the same reason.

The third part is "utilitarianism." The Chinese do not want to reject reasoning. As they grow older, idealism and romanticism are gradually replaced by rationalism. Chinese are famous for their shrewdness, hardworking spirit and thriftiness. With the May 4th Movement, Chinese began to embrace "Mr. Democracy" and "Mr. Science," establishing a scientific worldview based on materialism and the theory of evolution. Reform and open-door policies quickly and successfully brought in capital investment and technology from the West and China's economy took off. This "Individual Based Secular Utilitarianism" makes a Chinese person's religious belief more or less tainted with selfishness, self-centeredness, snobbery, calculation and philistinism.

Confucian ideology, which includes moral idealism, heroism, collectivism, nationalism and a vague sense of divine justice, creates a very complex temperament in a Chinese person. This complexity contributes partially to the characterization of "cultural Christians," "political Christians" and "intellectual Christians," as well as the trend toward moralism common in Chinese churches today.

Language, people, politics, history and natural environment are building blocks that make up the culture of a nation. After thousands of years of evolution and advancement, a sense of self-protection and self-reinforcement in Chinese culture silently beckons her people home. "The young rebel, the old preserve" is usually the typical model of mindset changing for the Chinese. The world is now in a radically changing era, and with the deepening of the economic globalization, the dissimilarity among cultures can be somewhat strengthened. In addition, China's fast growing economy will also increase the influence of her culture. For this reason, Huntington's prediction should not be overlooked.

Translation is by Alice Loh.
Image credit: Beijing Skyline from Jingshan Park by Sam Gao, on Flickr

Jerry Yu

Dr. Jerry Yu is a scholar in cross-cultural studies. View Full Bio