Directness, Hierarchy and Social Roles in Chinese Culture

Social hierarchies, “face” and etiquette have traditionally played an important role in Chinese society. These elements of social interaction are reflected in the way people talk and act. In particular, it has been argued that Chinese people “are much more vague and indirect than Westerners”. One may find such views even in authoritative news outlets. For instance, in an article published in The New York Times in 2009, a professor was quoted as saying that “Americans often perceive the Chinese as indecisive, less confident and not tough enough, whereas the Chinese may see Americans as rude or inconsiderate.”

But is this assessment true? Are Chinese people really less direct than Westerners? Or is directness simply related to social roles in different ways? In the present article we shall examine how the network of rigid relationships, of formalities and duties that bind people together in Chinese society shapes communication and social behaviour in a way that differs from the West.

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Western Values – Asian Values: A Chinese Revolutionary’s View on Western and Chinese Family

One of the major differences between China and the West is the importance which the family – with its hierarchical structure and its complex web of social roles, regulations, duties, and moral values – has in Chinese society (see: Filial Piety in Chinese Culture). Despite major social and economic changes, the Chinese-speaking world has retained some of the core elements of the traditional Confucian family. This is also demonstrated by the fact that the legal system of countries in the Chinese-speaking world has been heavily influenced by Confucian values.

The Confucian worldview is based on the idea that human relationships are functional and hierarchical. The individual exists only as part of a network in which interaction is regulated by age, gender and social position. It is no coincidence that many Chinese who visited the West during the late-Qing and early Republican era were troubled by the lack of hierarchy, social roles, and rules of propriety in Western societies.

It is very interesting to read nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge accumulated in two centuries of contact between East and West, what Chinese travellers thought about the West at the turn of the 20th century. One of the most captivating books about the Chinese perception of the West is America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat by Wu Tingfang.

Wu Tingfang (1842-1922, 伍廷芳; pinyin: Wŭ Tíngfāng), also known as Ng Choy (伍才; pinyin: Wŭ Cái) was born in the so-called Straits Settlements, in what was then a part of the British Empire. Wu Tingfang was a politician and diplomat who spent several years in the United States. He was a monarchical reformist, an advocate of the movements that tried to modernize Imperial China. However, before the Chinese Revolution of 1911, he became a supporter of Sun Yat-sen, championing the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China.

Wu Tingfang played an important role in the 1911 revolution. He served as a foreign affairs representative for the Shanghai Military Government and subsequently for the revolutionary government. Afterwards he was appointed as the chief Republican delegate in the negotiations between the Republican revolutionaries and the Manchu government which lasted until the abdication of the imperial dynasty on 12 February 1912 (see Linda Pomerantz-Zhang: Wu Tingfang (1842-1922): Reform and Modernization in Modern Chinese History, 1992, p. 193).

Indeed, his name was even mentioned in an edict issued on December 1911 by the Empress Dowager, in which she declared that

the representative of the People’s Army (i.e. the Revolutionaries) Wu Ting-fang, steadfastly maintains that the mind of the People is in favor of the establishment of a republican form of government as its ideal […]. This is a matter that should not be decided by one part of the nation alone […] Therefore it is advisable to call a provisional National Convention and leave the issue to the Convention to decide (see Harley Farnsworth MacNair: Modern Chinese History – Selected Writings. Vol. 2. 1927, p. 717).

Wu Tingfang was in many respects a product of the British colonial experience in Asia. Born to a merchant family in Singapore and raised in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Wu was educated in missionary schools before going to Great Britain for professional legal training. A pioneer in modern journalism, Wu was the first Chinese to receive British training as a barrister, the first Chinese to practice as a barrister in Hong Kong, and the first Chinese to serve as a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Pomerantz-Zhang 1992, p. 1).

In 1896 Wu was appointed China’s Minister to the United States, Spain and Peru (ibid. p. 3). After several years in the United States, Wu Tingfang wrote down his impressions of American life, customs, and society. These impressions became the book America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat (1914). One of the chapters of the book deals with ‘American women’. Coming from a Chinese background, Wu was astonished by the independence of American women and by the fact that they chose their husbands by themselves, an inconceivable thought in China at that time:

One very conspicuous feature in the character of American women is their self-control and independence. As soon as a girl grows up she is allowed to do what she pleases, without the control of her parents […] This notion of independence and freedom has modified the relation of children to their parents. Instead of children being required to show respect and filial obedience, the obligation of mutual love and esteem is cultivated. Parents would not think of ordering a girl or a boy to do anything, however reasonable; in all matters they treat them as their equals and friends; nor would a girl submit to an arbitrary order from her mother, for she does not regard her as a superior, but as her friend and companion.

I find it is a common practice among American girls to engage themselves in marriage without consulting their parents. Once I had a serious talk on this subject with a young couple who were betrothed. I asked them if they had the consent of their parents. They both answered emphatically that it was not necessary, and that it was their business and not their parents’. I told them that although it was their business, they might have shown some respect to their parents by consulting them before committing themselves to this important transaction. They answered that they did not agree with me, and as it concerned their own happiness alone, they had a perfect right to decide the matter for themselves. This shows the extreme limit to which the Americans carry their theory of independence. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I fear this is a typical and not an isolated case. I believe that in many cases, after they had made up their minds to marry, the young people would inform their respective parents of their engagement, but I question if they would subordinate their own wishes to the will of their parents, or ask their consent to their engagement.

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The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Racial Discrimination in the United States

Introduction

“Money monopoly,” said Denis Kearney in a 1878 address,  “has reached its grandest proportions. Here, in San Francisco, the palace of the millionaire looms up above the hovel of the starving poor with as wide a contrast as anywhere on earth. To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.”

Denis Kearney (1847–1907) was a leader of the American labour movement, a demagogue who blamed Chinese immigrants for the economic woes of the Californian working class.

What is a demagogue? According to Reinhard H. Luthin, it is “a politician skilled in oratory, flattery, and invective; evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices” (Reinhard H. Luthin: American Demagogues: Twentieth Century, 1954, p. 3).

Kearney did not create anti-Chinese sentiment. The fear and prejudices against this particular group of immigrants were strong among white people in the United States, so strong that one can find them in numerous speeches by politicians throughout the 19th and early 20th century, as well as in literature.

One fascinating example of anti-Chinese feelings in the US is the science fiction short story by American author Jack London entitled “The Unparalleled Invasion“. In this dystopian story he articulated the fear of the “white man” being overrun by hordes of Chinese, of Western civilization and power being undermined by Asia. He imagined a future in which China, after learning from Japan how to develop economically and technologically, would pose a threat to European Empires in the East and outnumber “white people”. London wrote:

China’s swift and remarkable rise was due, perhaps more than to anything else, to the superlative quality of her labour. The Chinese was the perfect type of industry. He had always been that. For sheer ability to work no worker in the world could compare with him. Work was the breath of his nostrils. It was to him what wandering and fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure had been to other peoples. Liberty, to him, epitomized itself in access to the means of toil. To till the soil and labour interminably was all he asked of life and the powers that be. And the awakening of China had given its vast population not merely free and unlimited access to the means of toil, but access to the highest and most scientific machine-means of toil. China rejuvenescent! It was but a step to China rampant. She discovered a new pride in herself and a will of her own…

This passage shows one core element of “sinophobia” (fear of the Chinese): the Chinese people’s capacity for hard work and self-sacrifice, which appeared to the “white man” almost inhuman. Let us now  examine another excerpt:  Continue reading

The China-Taiwan Issue and the American Civil War

On November 6, 1860, the 19th presidential election of the United States of America was held. Abraham Lincoln, a relatively unknown politician born into a poor family, received 1,866,452 of the votes; although his three opponents combined received more votes (2,815,617), Lincoln won and became the 16th President of the United States (J. G. Randall / David Donald: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1961, p. 133).
For the slave states of the South, Lincoln’s election was an insult. The new President was opposed to slavery. A large part of the white citizens of the South considered slave ownership as one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. They not only considered the black population inferior to themselves and by nature servile, but their entire economic structure and way of life depended on slave labour.
On November 13 the legislature of South Carolina under Governor William Henry Gist called a convention that would decide on the future of the State. Popular sentiment was by that time in favour of secession. On December 20 the South Carolina Convention passed by a unanimous vote of 169 an ordinance declaring that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the ‘United States of America’, is hereby dissolved” (ibid., pp. 135-136). Within a few months, six more Southern States seceded from the Union: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
On February 4, 1861, delegates from these states met at Montgomery, Alabama, where they promulgated their own Constitution. This was the founding act of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander Stephens of Georgia were elected President and Vice-President respectively.

 

The evolution of the Confederacy (source: Wikipedia)

 

Davis believed – as most Southern Confederates did – that they were faithful to the principles of their forefathers who had fought against British rule and had established an independent state. In his Inaugural Address he stated:

The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of the States subsequently admitted to the Union of 1789, undeniably recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign States here represented, proceeded to form this confederacy … (quoted in: Hugh Tulloch: The Routledge Companion to the American Civil War Era, 2006, p. 91). 

Vice-President Stephens was clearer about the true motive behind secession: the issue of slavery. The Southern states were primarily slave rural economies, and they resisted attempts by the Northern industrial states to limit slavery. In his Address on the Confederate Constitution of March 21, 1861, Stephens said:

The new Constitution has put  at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution … [Our new Government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth (ibid., p. 93; my emphasis).

Flag of the Confederate States of America

Lincoln, however, was an unswerving opponent of secession. He wanted to preserve the Union, by peaceful means, if possible, or by war, if the Southern states ‘rebelled’ against the central government. In his own Inaugural Address in March 1861, Lincoln declared:

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‘Pretty, Innocent Asian Girls’: The Cult of Cuteness in East Asian Societies

Different countries have different aesthetic standards: the shape of houses, streets and squares, the way people talk and dress, the landscape, orderliness, chaos etc. – these are all elements that make up each place’s unique atmosphere. 
 
Aesthetic traits such as fashion and manners belong to the visible characteristics that distinguish peoples in different parts of the world. Of course, every individual is different. But at times it is possible to find features that are peculiar to certain areas. One of them is undoubtedly the ideal of beauty. As far as East Asia is concerned, the cult of ‘cuteness’ surrounding the concept of female beauty is certainly one of the most fascinating phenomena which sets this cultural area apart from others.
 
Cuteness is ubiquitous in East Asian countries: from ‘Hello Kitty’ to high-pitch voices, from fashion to manners, one can easily detect numerous aspects of this phenomenon which indeed is one of the most conspicuous differences between Western and East Asian countries. Where does this phenomenon come from? What are its causes? 
 

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