When we are speaking in Chinese, we tend to see groups. But when we are speaking in English, we tend to see individuals. This is one of the biggest differences between China and the West. Today, I’m going to help you make sense of your own lives, to help you reflect upon the life that we’ve always been so used to every day.
In Chinese, we call ourselves like “中国” -- the central empire. We always believe, especially in ancient times, that we are the center of the world. So several hundred years ago, when the western missionaries came to China and showed the Chinese emperor the map of the world, the emperor was really infuriated.
We have a long history. Chinese people are the only civilization that has always been living on this soil for thousands of years. We have a lot of dynasties, but we don’t have a lot of historical things. In China, once we have a new dynasty, we will burn down everything from the old. There is an American philosopher called George Santayana who said people who cannot remember history will certainly repeat it. The same thing happens again and again. And this is one of the reasons we should really start to cherish our history and learn something about it.
Food shows a lot about China. First of all, in Chinese language, there is an idiom like this: if we’d like to say something is useless, we would say, “Well, you cannot eat it!” For Chinese people, whether something can be eaten is a standard of whether something is valuable. We always tend to think about things in terms of its practical use, instead of some metaphysical values. And also, Chinese culture is generally non-religious. For example, Chinese people always get married at restaurants. There are many different reasons, but I’d like to propose one thing. The Chinese culture is, in the first place, a survival culture. In a survival culture, there are two most important things about survival. The one is to have enough food to eat so we won’t die; the other is to hurry up and have a next generation so the civilization will survive. This might sound a little bit different from western culture, but this is our survival mechanism. The Chinese culture is a collectivist or group-oriented cult ure. Chinese people don’t tend to have personal boundaries. Also in China, we always believe that the group is more important than the individual. In China, the safest thing to do is to be quiet and be like everybody, right? This is group-oriented culture. This is something very famous. Chinese tend to respect authority more than truth. Chinese students are not encouraged to challenge their teachers.
Chinese culture is generally regarded as a “face culture.” Shame is a most terrible thing in Chinese culture. For example, for Chinese people the least thing they want to do is to put your parents into disgrace. And the thing you want most is to bring awards to your parents, right? Also the face culture means Chinese are very indirect. Chinese people tend to not say what they mean and they tend to not mean what they say. For Chinese people, the most important thing is to be appropriate in a certain context. We usually say different things when with different groups of people. For the westerners they will consider this as lying. This will give people trouble if you live in a different culture.
Chinese people would like to put family in the first place. But in China, what we actually praise is to sacrifice our family for a bigger group. So the Chinese idea about their family is not like the western idea of a nuclear family. It’s more like family clan thing. We should be loyal to our family clan, to our own name, instead of just enjoying the intimacy that is supposed to have between family members. Chinese people inside a family should not show their affection. In Chinese culture the idea filial piety is the most important thing. It means to respect and obey our parents, our grandparents and our seniors. In China, the parents are more important than the spouse. This is what “孝道” means. This may cause problems, because according to psychology you are supposed to keep a distance with your parents to build your own relationship. The purpose of parental love is to let their children leave them, but in Chinese culture we have to stay with our parents. And this kind of problem usually causes a lot of tension among the younger generation.
Dr. GU Yue (Roy Gu) is Associate Professor in the School of English Studies at Shanghai International Studies University. He specializes in 20th Century American literature, literary theory,comparative literature, and intercultural studies. He received his B.A. from Beijing Foreign Studies University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English and American literature from Nanjing University. In 2010-2011 he was a visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published widely on topics concerning literary and intercultural studies, and has edited andtranslated several books, including a textbook on film studies, and a novel by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Dr. Gu has been teaching various courses on literature, intercultural studies, creative writing, classical music, and Chinese culture. He has won several academic and teaching awards, including “China’s New Academic Star” (issued by China’s Ministry of Education) and “TopTen Most Liked Professors” (Chosen by students).