Book Review

Peeking beneath the Surface


An Introduction to the Mainland Chinese Soul, LEAD Consulting, PO Box 32026, Raleigh, NC 27622, 2001, 66 pages.  Cost:  (paperback) $5.50, volume discounts available.  To order, contact LEAD Consulting, Ph:  919.783.0354.

Reviewed by Kay Danielson

In the introduction to this book, the authors set out their hope of getting the reader to set aside the over-worn cliché of describing the Chinese as “inscrutable.”  I applaud that attempt and think the authors have largely been successful. However, there is another over-worn cliché that is set aside as the result of this book—the one that describes mainland Chinese as “Communist” or “Marxist,” at least down at the level of the soul.

An attempt to describe the soul of a people numbering 1.3 billion is a daunting task and may seem a bit presumptuous to some. Quite rightly, the authors acknowledge this. However, they have done a superb job of taking this large subject, researching it, and packaging the results in a way that I believe accurately reflects the prevailing mood and worldview of the people of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the century’s end.

As the authors put it, it is an attempt at capturing “some of the soul-oriented insights that may impact how we relate to or communicate with Chinese” (p 2).

The book is based on an extensive research project conducted in China in the mid-1990s. The methodology included using visual images that allowed Chinese to provide a “cultural translation” of how they view themselves, their country, and their living conditions as well as surveys conducted in a variety of locations. These were followed by personal interviews with Chinese and foreigners with extensive experience with China.

The format is crisp, with each section broken down into four or five questions followed by several clear and concise responses to each question. Interspersed among the questions and responses are first person narrative stories of Chinese lives that illustrate and illuminate the points being made. These are extremely helpful in “giving flesh” to the concepts, and anyone who has spent time working in China or with Chinese people will find much that is familiar in them.

The book is divided into three major sections:  The Chinese Context, The Chinese Viewpoint, and The Chinese Spiritual Orientation.

In section one, the authors start by asking where to begin in thinking about ministering in the Chinese culture. The answers to this question generally focus on the Chinese pre-occupation with and orientation to the past. Chinese people in 2001 are keenly aware of the glories of their past. When Europe was a collection of barbaric tribes, China was the world leader in technology, education and social development. Yet, at the same time they are burdened with their more recent history of decline, foreign domination and economic weakness.

The authors also wisely point out the paradoxes and contradictions of the Chinese context. In China nothing is as it seems and those of us who engage China do well to keep this uppermost in our minds.

The writers then raise the question of how the past affects the Chinese today and go on to highlight some key features of Chinese culture such as its resilience, its long-standing authoritarian nature, and its emphasis on social relationships. These are particularly important because they help us to see that many of those cultural characteristics that we in the West might want to lay at the feet of Communism have, in fact, been present in Chinese culture long before Marxism appeared on the scene.

In the final part of section one, they explore the rapid change taking place in modern Chinese society and look at some of the key longings of today’s Chinese. I find it interesting to note that the longings mentioned—national restoration, family harmony and prosperity, personal success and inner satisfaction—are not vastly different from the longings and aspirations of most people of most cultures.

Section two raises the questions of how today’s mainland Chinese process life, how they learn and how they view foreigners. The issues raised about how they process life are particularly helpful because it is at these points that the most serious “culture clashes” occur when Chinese and foreigners interact. China’s arbitrary and mysterious power structure leads Chinese to accept unpredictability, pursue the path of least resistance and defer to authority much more easily and quickly than would most Westerners. Because it is a relational, or more communal culture, greater emphasis is placed on striving for the common good of the group.

Section three takes up the issue of Chinese spiritual orientation, looking at how Chinese view God, sin, salvation, and how they might respond to Jesus. The descriptions of Buddhism, folk religions, Daoism, Qigong, and science are brief and accurate. They can be helpful tools in aiding us to understand how Chinese might hear the gospel.

I am particularly pleased that the authors raise the question of what we can learn from the Chinese. Unfortunately, it is not a question commonly asked by foreigners working with Chinese. Yet, the Chinese have many lessons to teach us individual Westerners about caring for in-group and family members, respecting authority, and persevering in adversity.

As one who is involved professionally in preparing people for their sojourns (short- and long-term) in China, I am glad to see this book added to the conversation. It is a needed voice. Its conciseness and accuracy make it a valuable tool for anyone working in China or with Chinese. It makes Chinese culture more accessible.

So, I return to where I started. The freshness of this book lies in the fact that it gives us a peek beneath the surface of China, beyond the socialist structures and rhetoric to the actual belief system and aspirations of the people. I like to think of Chinese culture and society as a language, where the vocabulary is socialist, but the grammar is still essentially traditional. This book is a wonderful look at the grammar.

Image credit: People waiting at improvised bus stop by Matt Ming via Flickr.

Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting. View Full Bio