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Chinese Culture and Customs

(Lecture Notes)

By Weisen Li

Professor in Economics and Deputy Dean of School of Economics

Fudan University

1Introduction: Chinese Culture in General

(1), Chinese History Summary

China is one of the areas where civilization developed earliest. It has a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. Chinain Chinese “中国”,the character of which literally translates as the “Middle Kingdom”, because the Chinese have always view their culture and nation as lying in the center of human civilization.

More than a million years ago, primitive human beings lived on the land now called China. About 400,000 to 500,000 years ago, the Peking Man, a primitive man that lived in Zhoukoudian southwest of Beijing, was able to walk with the body erect, to make and use simple tools, and use fire. Six to seven thousand years ago, the people living in the Yellow River valley supported themselves primarily with agriculture, while also raising livestock. More than 3,000 years ago these people began smelting bronze and using ironware.

In China, slave society began around the 21st century B.C. Over the next 1,700 years, agriculture and animal husbandry developed greatly and the skills of silkworm-raising, raw-silk reeling and silk-weaving spread widely. Bronze smelting and casting skills reached a relatively high level, and iron smelting became increasingly sophisticated. The Chinese culture flourished, as a great number of thinkers and philosophers emerged, most famously Confucius.

In 221 B.C., Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, established a centralized, unified, multi-national feudal state. This period of feudal society continued until after the Opium War in 1840. During these 2,000 years, China's economy and culture continued to develop, bequeathing a rich heritage of science and technology, literature and the arts. The four great inventions of ancient China - paper-making, printing, the compass and gunpowder - have proved an enormous contribution to world civilization.

Chinese civilization peaked at Tang Dynasty (618-907) when Tang people traded with people all over the world. This is why Chinese residing overseas often call themselves Tang Ren, or the People of Tang.

In 1840, anxious to continue its opium trade in China, Britain started the Opium War against China. After the war, the big foreign powers forcibly occupied "concessions" and divided China into "spheres of influence"; thus, China was transformed into a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society.

In 1911, the bourgeois democratic revolution (the Xinhai Revolution) led by Sun Yat-sen abolished the feudal monarchy, and established the Republic of China, therefore starting the modern history of China.

In 1949, Chinese Communist Party established the People's Republic of China, driving Kumingtang Party to Taiwan Island.

In 1978, China adopted the Open Door policy, ending the 5000 thousand's history of self seclusion.

(2), Three Streams in the Traditional Chinese Culture

Chinese culture has been molded by the three philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Briefly, Confucianism deals with human relationship, Taoism deals with life in harmony with nature, and Buddhism deal with immortal world. For Chinese people, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are more philosophies than religions. Most scholars believe that Chinese people have been less concerned with religions than other people are. Therefore, for Chinese people, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are not religions but philosophical teachings

(a) Confucianism: Confucianism is based on the teachings and writings of the philosopher Confucius. It is an ethical belief system rather than a religion, and is based upon the concept of relationships. In Confucianism every relationship has the dual aspect of responsibility and obligation. Therefore the relationship between mother and child, husband and wife, brother and sister all have responsibilities and obligations. However, Confucianism goes beyond the family, and encorporates the relationship of individuals with the state, subject and ruler, bureaucrat and civilian. If these responsibilities and obligations are observed, then society will be a just and harmonious one.  

Foundations of Confucianism

Three Principles: (三纲)

The king is the master of the minister; the husband is the master of the wife; the father is the master of the son. These three relationships represent all the relationships in a highly hierarchical society.

Five Constant Virtues: (五常)Goodness, Rightness, Ritual, Wisdom, Credibility (仁,义、礼、智、信)

Goodness(仁)=literally ,love of people

The Chinese character “仁”(pronounced as “Renconsists of two morphemes: “人”(person, human) and“二”(two,hence the “Ren” actually means “two persons” and “Ren” therefore includes everything that is good when peple get along with each other and includes such connotations as tolerance, forgiveness, deference, filial obedience (to parents), faithfulness (to the master)wisdom, honesty, and so on. It is the core of five norms of Confucianism.

Rightness(义,)=friendship, fraternity.

Rightness (义)pronounced as “yi” overlap with goodness but is above all other relationships. Confucius says that a gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is rights as lesser men to discover what will pay. An often used compliment when praising a man who is willing to give up his own interests to help a friend is “yiqi”: personal loyalty. Friendship is to some degree a kind of blind obligation.

Ritual (礼)= ethical norms

In the Analects, Confucius says that one should regulated by ritual. He believes that governing the people by political force, keep order among them by chastisements and they will not do wrong things, but they will lose all self-respect. Governing people by moral force, keep order among them b ritual, and they will keep their self-respect and understand. Therefore, according to Confucian teaching, in the use of ritual, harmony is prized. A harmonious relationship is most important element of governance and therefore should be retained at any cost.

Wisdom (智)=cleverness and knowledge.

When you have knowledge, you have wisdom. Confucius says in the Analects that the good are not worried, the wise are not confused, and the brave are not afraid.

Credibility(信)= believabilityreliability, trustworthy

This involves doing what you say you will do.

(b) Taoism: Tao (pronounced "Dow") can be roughly translated into English as path, or the way. It is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It "refers to a power which envelops, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites (i.e. there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female.)"

The founder of Taoism is believed by many to be Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), a contemporary of Confucius. (Alternate spellings: Lao Tze, Lao Tsu, Lao Tzu, Laozi, Laotze, etc.). He was searching for a way that would avoid the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society during his lifetime. The result was his book: Tao-te-Ching (a.k.a. Daodejing). Others believe that he is a mythical character.

Taoism started as a combination of psychology and philosophy but evolved into a religious faith in 440 CE when it was adopted as a state religion. At that time Lao-Tse became popularly venerated as a deity. Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, became one of the three great religions of China. With the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty in 1911, state support for Taoism ended. Much of the Taoist heritage was destroyed during the next period of warlordism. After the Communist victory in 1949, religious freedom was severely restricted. "The new government put monks to manual labor, confiscated temples, and plundered treasures. Several million monks were reduced to fewer than 50,000" by 1960. During the cultural revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, much of the remaining Taoist heritage was destroyed. Some religious tolerance has been restored under Deng Xiao-ping from 1982 to the present time.  

(c) Buddhism: The origins of Buddhism are to be found in India, and entered China in the reign of Emperor Han Ming Ti in about 65 AD, which is roughly about the time that the book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament was written. Despite this early entry into China, it did not gain any mass following until the around 290 AD. Its popularity came during a time of social disorder and barbarian invasion. Buddhism's promise of personal salvation, although very much against the norms of Chinese collectivism and emphasis on family and society, attracted many during a time of great uncertainty.

Buddhism was established by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or 'enlightened one'. Siddhartha Gautama was a prince of the Sakya kingdom on the borders of what are now India and Nepal and was a contemporary of Confucius. Although living in luxury, Siddhartha Gautama was exposed one day to the sufferings of the masses. This greatly affected the prince and he began a search to find relief for human suffering. This he found when he received a moment of enlightenment while meditating under a Bo tree.

From this moment the prince became the Buddha - the enlightened one. The Buddha taught that desires are the source of pain, and that by overcoming our desires we can overcome pain. To achieve this he advocated meditation and pursuing the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a set of rules similar to the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. The objective was to reach Nirvana - the condition of spiritual peace, where all cravings, strife, and pain have been overcome and the spirit merges with eternal harmony.

Buddhism split into two major trends quite early on in its development: Greater Vehicle (Mahayana) and Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana). Hinayana remained closer to the original Buddhism and is the variation of Buddhism practised in the countries of South East Asia. The Buddhism of China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, and Vietnam, however, stems largely from Mahayana Buddhism which incorporated some more traditional religious practices such as the belief in repetitive prayers, heaven and deities (bodhisattvas) who would help people gain salvation. It also readily adapted to the land and people it converted. In China, it split into several schools, including Ch'an (Zen in Japan), T'ien-t'ai (Tendai in Japan), and Pure Land.

Actuallysince Song Dynasty, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have mixed and combined into to Chinese culture and Chinese mainstream Philosophy as well.

The Chinese language:

although not unique, is one of a very small group of languages in which the written form does not vary with different spoken forms. Therefore, although a Cantonese speaker listening to a Mandarin speaker may not understand anything that is said, he or she could read the most complex and technical of speeches and understand everything.

To illustrate this, take the following phrase: 'one hundred and twenty three'. To a Mexico speaker who understands no English, the above sentence could mean anything. However, replace that sentence with '123' and suddenly the Mexico speaker reads 'sto dwadeczia cze' while an English speaker reads ' one hundred and twenty three', a French speaker 'cent vingt-trois' and so on. In Chinese, it is not simply numbers which can be represented without spelling, but the entire language.

In total there are over 45,000 Chinese characters; however, a vocabulary of 4,000 would be good, and a vocabulary of 9,000 unlikely in anyone without a university degree. In a bid to increase literacy in China, the government has simplified many elements of Chinese characters, making them far easier to memorise. Literacy in China is now at 80% of the adult population, compared to say India at 50% or South Africa at 81%. This is not a small achievement given the complexity of the written form of the language, and the low base level of literacy in 1949 at the end of the civil war.

If the written form of the language is complex, the spoken variations are just as staggering. There are eight major language groups with some 600 dialects - all sharing the same written form. There are a further 136 non-Chinese languages spoken in China. All Chinese languaages use tones to distinguish different words.

Mandarin, which is spoken in the Beijing region and in northern China generally, has four common tones. Cantonese, spoken in southeastern China, has nine tones and is quite different from Mandarin. A simple word such as 'ma' can have a variety of meaning depending on which tone is used - meaning anything from mother to horse. The closest English speakers get to varying the meaning of a word using tones is interogative words such as 'what?' which can mean anything form the literally 'what' to an expression of disblelief 'What!' or a dimissive word reach really means 'go away'. The concept is far more complex in Chinese, and the difference in meaning can be extreme - and tones are used for every single word. 'Mai' can mean buy or sell depending on the tone!

For all its complexity, the Chinese language has one saving grace - its grammar is fairly straight forward. Word order for English speakers is not unusual. All verbs are regular, and there are no tenses in the sense of English verbs changing from the present (going) to the past (went) and the future (will go). There is no definite or indefinite article ('the' or 'a') no plurals or irregular adjectives. In English big bigger biggest does not correspond to good better best, but in Chinese, such words are always regular.

Learning Chinese is a challenge, but learn Mandarin and you will be able to communicate with over 20% of the world's population. Today a standardised Mandarin known as Putonghua (literally 'the common language'), is the official language of government and education, and everyone in China is taught to speak it. It is essentially the same dialect that is spoken in Taiwan.


China has a very old and rich tradition in literature as well as art and the performing arts. The earliest writing are generally based on philosophical or religious thought, including the writings of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Lao-tzu (about 4th century BC). These works concentrated on ethical and social relationships as well as concepts on government and military matters. A strong tradition of historical writing exists in Chinese culture. After the fall of a dynasty, for example, a grand history of the late dynasty was commissioned and written by scholars in the next dynasty.

In addition to philosophical, religious, and historical writings, China also produced poetry, novels, and dramatic writings from an early date. Poetry became well established as a literary form during the Tang Dynasty, from AD 618 to 907.

Early Chinese novelists often chose central themes of relationships, personal development and character building and the actions of individuals when confronted with unusual of supernatural events. Probbaly the most famous such novel in the West is the classic Ming version of 'Shui-hu chuan' (The Water Margin). The adventures of the 'Monkey King' are also well known through the popular television adaptation.

China's literary tradition continues today, though much 20th-century writing has concentrated on efforts to reform or modernize China. Probably the most famous 20th-century writer is Lu Xun, a poet, essayist, and novelist whose work focused on the need to modernize through revolution. Under socialism, writers have been expected to uphold the values of the socialist state, though the degree of control over their output has varied. Certainly the writings of Lu Xun make for excellent reading.

(3) Nature of the Chinese Culture and its Main Difference from Western Cultures

(a) Family-centered communitarianism vs individualism.

In most western countries, in particular Anglo-Saxon countries, people emphasizes personal freedom, personal rights, and privacy etc.. In contrast, in Chinese societies, no matter in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Singapore as well as overseas Chinese communities, people more emphasize relationship, and “we-ness” and “community”. This leads to the following 4 key words in understand the Chinese culture which is different from western cultures.

(b) 5 key words in understanding the contemporary Chinese Culture:

1. Guanxi (关系)

The Chinese term for relationship is “guanxi”, one of the most important cultural traits of Chinese people. The term “guanxi” may be better translated as personal contacts” or “personal connections”. “guanxi” can also be understood as “reciprocal obligation”, i.e. “a special relationship individual have with each other in which eachcan make unlimited demand on the other”, “friendship with implications of a continual exchange of favors”, or “the establishment of a connection between two independent individuals to enable a bilateral flow of personal or social transactions”.

guanxi” derives essentially from the Chinese family system. In the traditional Chinese family, whenever small immediate or extended, members are mutually obligated to help one another. “guanxi” is strongly colored by Confucian reciprocal obligation toward family members. Through the establishment of the “guanxi”, people bond with each other with respected obligation toward each other. “guanxi” is essentially a network.

guanxi” is usually established among people who share a commonality of certain identies – for example, tongxue (schoolmates), laoxiang (fellow viligers) and laopengyou (old friends). China is not a full-fledged market economy yet, which makes it difficult to allocate resources through market mechanisms alone, therefore, “guanxi” is a major means of resources aalocation. Without “guanxi”, one “simply cannot get anything done”. In recent years, making intensive use of “guanxi”, or getting through the “backdoor” to get things done, has been legitimately criticized by the Chinese government. However, in china hardly any aspect of social life is not touched by “guanxi”.

guanxi” pervades the whole Chinese business process. Many sholars find that “guanxi” stratey is helpful for seeking background information about potential Chinese partners, negotiating prices and terms of payment, and implementing contract. Many western business men believe that doing business in china is not just a matter of price and product. To succeed in the Chinese market, foreign businesspeople must rely on friendship or good personal relationships (“guanxi”), which often take time and patience to build. At least most people believe that a fine “guanxi” with high level officials in Chinese bureaucracy can facilitate market penetration and smooth negociation and generate good business.

2Reqing (人情)

Closely intertwined with “guanxi” is “renqing” an important vehicle in Chinese social exchanges. “renqing” which literally translates as “human feelings” is defines by one western scholar as “covers not only sentiment but also its social expressions such as the offering of congratulations, or condolences or the making of gifts on appropriate occasions. The rule of “renqing” in Chinese society as fellows: “if you have received a drop of beneficence from other people, you should return to them a fountain of beneficence”. A Chinese who has done a favor for you automatically feels that he or she is owned a favor from you in return. Actually “renqing” follows Confucian notion of reciprocity. There are many Chinese expressions that associated with “renqing”, such as giving somebody a “renqing” (song renqin) owing somebody a “renqing” ( qian renqing) ect..

3. Li ()

renqing” is related to another Confucian concept “li”. We have already discussed li in above when I talk about Confucius philosophy. Here I should add that “li” in Chinese has many meanings in English expression such as “etiquette”, “decorum”, “protocol”, “rites”, “propriety”, “ceremony”, “rule of conduct”, “courtesy”, “politeness”, and so on. In Confucius’s time, however, the term “li” originally referred to “the social hierarchy and order of the salvery system of the Zhou Dynasty (dating back to 1100 B.C.), which regarded by Confucius as an ideal model of any society. It was not until the publication of the book “li ji” ( On li ) 200 or 300 years after Confucius that the current meanings of “li” came into use.

As we mentioned before, Confucianism stresses responsibility of individuals, who must behave according to certain prescribed principles of “li”. “li” . “li” dictes the manner in which Chinese position themselves in hierarchical society and perform their roles accordingly. Therefore, “li” can be understood as doing the proper things with the right people in the appropriate relationships.

4, Keqi (客气)

li” is closely related to another Chinese term: “keqi”, In Chinese, if someone is aid to be particular bout “li”, then he or she is very “keqi”. In Chinese “ke” means “guest”, “qi” means “air” or behavior”; together the term “keqi” means “behavior of guest”, or in a generalized sense, it means “polite”, “courteous”, “modest”, “humble”, “understanding”, “considerate” and “well-manned”. Politeness, or “keqi”, is basic principle observed by the Chinese in their everyday communication.

5, Lian (, face) and Mianzi (面子)

In mainland China, people often use “lian”, in Taiwan the people usually use “mianzi” ,but actually they refer the same thing. “Lian” can be properly translate into “face” in English. In here I directly use English word “face” to discuss the special characteristics of Chinese culture. As many sinologists noticed, although a universal human nature and a ubiquitous concept that occurs in all culture, face is particularly salient for Chinese culture. Even some scholars believe that the concept of face is in fact Chinese in origin. In Short Oxford Dictionary on Historical Princeples , “to lose face” is rendered directly from the Chinese phrase “diu lian”: English explanation is “ to lose one’s credit, good name or reputation”.

“Face” is evident in all aspects of Chinese life. The Chinese often avoid the word “No” to save face for both parties. Words such as “bu fangbian” (inconvenient) , “tai kunnan” (too difficult) or “huoxu” (maybe) are aften synonyms of “No” in Chinese culture. The Chinese “Yes” (shi) can also be elusive – a word that has little meaning because it is used t repond to almost everything, such as “Yes, but it is inconvenient” – it actually means “No”.

Face is also evident in a Chinese business negotiation context. Many observers find that the Chinese prefer to do business with large companies with world reputations to gain face. Even in business negotiations, you can use the face to explain the Chinese negotiation style – for example, meeting in a group, proceeding cautiously and slowly – from the face perspective. Therefore, it would be difficult for Chinese negotiator to make concessions because of his face consciousness. To deal with Chinese face in negotiation, I advice that you must give face to the Chinese and avoid actions that cause them to lose face. I will further discuss the matter in the last part of this lecture when I talk about Chinese negotiation tactics.

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