Song Dynasty Imperial Examination, 11th century illustration (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Chinese state media once called China a “world superpower in stress“. According to a 2012 survey, 75% of Chinese workers are stressed, compared with 47% in the United States, 42% in the United Kingdom, and 58% in Germany. Over 70% percent of Chinese white-collar workers suffer from overwork, which poses a serious risk to their health. China Daily cites rising home prices, long working hours, overtime work and living costs as the main sources of stress.
A survey showed that almost 70% of Chinese women believe that a man must have a house and earn more than 4,000 yuan (USD 634) a month in order to have a relationship with a woman and eventually ask for marriage. “The concept of marriage in China is becoming more practical nowadays,” China Daily quoted a Shanghai professor as saying. “No matter how self-confident a woman is, she will feel she is losing face if her boyfriend or husband doesn’t have a home.” Continue reading
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.
“Sometimes, kids feel that studying is hard and stressful because parents are over anxious and expect too much,” writes the Student Health Service website of Hong Kong‘s Department of Health. “If parents’ expectations go far beyond their kids’ ability, the kids would be discouraged and lose confidence as they are not able to meet their parents’ expectations … Avoid comparing your kids with others in their presence. Negative remarks, such as ‘You’re really good at nothing! Such poor marks! Look at your cousin. He’s always the top of the class every year.’ will only hurt them.”
The fact that a government department gives such advice to parents means that parental pressure on children is not only based on anecdotal evidence, but that it is a fact which affects the lives of a large number of Hong Kong children. In 2016 alone, 35 Hong Kong students committed suicide due to academic pressure.
Chinese parents’ insistence on academic performance is notorious. Studies have shown that Chinese students and adults have a high level of work motivation, which is often explained as a result of a “socially oriented” drive to achieve success “not for personal glory, but for the good of one’s family, group, team, or nation” (Handbook of Chinese Organizational Behavior: Integrating Theory, Research and Practice, ed. by Xu Huang, Michael Harris Bond, 2012, p. 503).
In this article we shall analyse the particular connection between “face” (mianzi), filial piety and work motivation. We shall argue that the ancient Confucian tradition of subordinating children’s interests and desires to the needs and wishes of parents, and of sacrificing oneself to achieve “glory” for the sake of one’s parents, are a fundamental element of career drive in Chinese culture. Continue reading
Lu Xun, one of China’s most influential writers of the 20th century, once described “face” as the “guiding principle of the Chinese mind” (中國精神的綱領). “Face” (面子), he remarked, is “a word we [Chinese] hear often and understand intuitively, so we don’t think too much about it.” But Westerners seemed to struggle to grasp it. “Recently foreigners have begun using this word, too,” Lu Xun wrote, “but apparently they’re still studying its meaning. They think that it is not easy to understand.” Lu Xun gave one interesting example of “face”:
People say that during the Qing Dynasty foreigners would go to the Zongli Yamen [the Foreign Ministry of imperial China] when they wanted to put forward requests. If their demands were rejected, they would threaten Qing officials, who would then get scared and comply at once. Yet they would let the foreigners go out through a side door and not through the main door, so as to show that the foreigners had no face [面子], while, by contrast, China had face and was in a higher position (see: 魯迅: 說“面子”).
Since Lu Xun’s anecdote may seem quite outdated nowadays, let us look at two modern examples of the use of “face”. A netizen asked on Zhidao Baidu (a website similar to Yahoo! Answers):
Is it bad if my boss treats [us/me] to a meal and I don’t go?
A user replied:
If you don’t go it means you don’t give face to your boss … Nowadays face is the most important thing for a boss. If you don’t go, forget about making a career in that company … Let me give you a piece of advice: you’d better go! Relationships are very important, if you don’t cultivate them, you won’t achieve anything. That’s how society works these days …
The second example is from Taiwan‘s PTT. A user wrote:
In 1959 the renowned American anthropologist and sinologist Arthur P. Wolf went on a study trip to Taiwan with his wife Margery. They spent two years in the house of the Lims, a “joint” family who lived in a small village in the countryside. Living side by side for a long period of time with a traditional Taiwanese family allowed the American couple to gain deep insight into the society and culture of the island.
This experience prompted Margery Wolf to write an account of those years, a book that is today almost forgotten, like many other great books, but which, more than fifty years after its publication, is still worth reading.
The House of Lim describes the life of rural Taiwan at a time when the modernization of its economy and society was still in its infancy. She depicts a world in which the old Confucian family system dominated life in an almost totalitarian way. Individuals were embedded in a network of relationships based on formality, hierarchy, social roles, and obligations. Continue reading
A magistrate holds court (late 19th century. Author unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
China’s Televised Confessions
On January 17 Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen, made a high-profile confession on China Central Television (CCTV), saying that he had turned himself to the authorities voluntarily. He confessed to having caused the death of a 20-year-old woman while drunk-driving back in 2003. According to China’s state media, Gui had subsequently fled mainland China with fake documents. “Returning to the Chinese mainland and surrendering was my personal choice and had nothing to do with anyone else”, the 52-year-old said. “I don’t want any individual or institutions, including Sweden, to interfere in anything to do with my return”.
Gui Minhai had mysteriously disappeared from his home in Pattaya, Thailand, on 17 October 2015. A camera in his Thai condo showed him that day as he came back home carrying groceries. Shortly afterwards, he drove away together with a man who had been waiting for him in the garage. According to Gui’s daughter, he suddenly stopped communicating with her. She did not know what had happened until she received an e-mail from Lee Bo, one of her father’s business associates: “Your dad has gone missing”, Lee wrote. “We’re afraid he was taken by Chinese agents for political reasons”. It has been suggested that Gui’s alleged abduction may be part of “Operation Fox Hunt“, launched by Xi Jinping in 2014 with the aim of forcibly repatriating Chinese citizens wanted by the government, including political dissidents. Thailand’s immigration authorities had no record of Gui leaving the country, a circumstance that contradicts Gui’s claim of having returned to China voluntarily. Continue reading
When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 and the Republic of China (ROC) was proclaimed, the revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen embarked on an ambitious experiment to modernise the country according to liberal Western ideals of democracy, human rights and division of powers. The new Republican government issued a Provisional Constitution which guaranteed progressive democratic rights, including judicial independence. However, after the first elections held in 1913, general Yuan Shikai unlawfully seized power and suppressed the elected parliamentary majority. Sun Yat-sen and his party, the Guomindang, were forced into underground opposition. When Yuan died in 1916, the central government fell apart, and regional warlords created personal fiefdoms in which they ruled like monarchs.
The 1912 Constitution was inspired by the ideals of the American and French revolutions. But the failure of democracy, the repression suffered at the hands of Yuan Shikai and the warlords, and the threat of foreign imperialism convinced Sun Yat-sen that democracy in China was unattainable as a short-term goal. He observed with keen interest the events of the Russian revolution, and the triumph of the Communists led by Lenin seemed to him an example of a revolutionary party that had succeeded where the Guomindang had failed. Sun asked for Soviet help, and Russian advisers were sent to China to reorganise the Guomindang on the basis of Leninist principles. Continue reading
In the previous posts we have shown how Legalist and Confucian values as well as the legal codes of imperial China have influenced the legal system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). We have concluded that the Communist state emphasizes Legalist principles and legal traditions that aimed at protecting dynastic rule from rebellion and treason. Confucian values, by contrast, play only a secondary role. We shall now show how two other states belonging to the Chinese cultural sphere, the Republic of Singapore and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, have incorporated traditional Confucian principles into their legal system.
Singapore And Filial Piety
Singapore is a multicultural society with English as its main official language. However, because three-quarters of its population are ethnic Chinese, Chinese culture and traditional values have exerted a deep influence on the official discourse and the legislation of the city-state. During the first two decades following the foundation of the Republic in 1965 and the consolidation of power by the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), traditional values did not play a substantial role in policy-making. The government was too busy building up the state and the economy. At a time when the West still led the global economy, Singaporean leaders did not seem eager to emphasize Asian traditions. Continue reading
The Great Hall of the People, Beijing (photo by Thomas.fanghaenel, licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons)
In the previous post we have described the similarities and differences between Maoism and Legalism, and in particular we have shown the parallels between Maoist and Legalist doctrines regarding the establishment of an autocratic, centralised state. Moreover, we have demonstrated that Mao Zedong rejected Confucian values, which he viewed as “reactionary”. In this post we will show how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the post-Maoist era has preserved elements of Legalism, Leninism and of the imperial legal system; at the same time, however, it has also rediscovered Confucianism as a more humane and family-oriented ideology which helped the Communist state overcome the brutality and the excesses of Maoist class struggle. Beijing’s attempt at combining Legalism, Leninism, Maoism and ancient imperial traditions has created a state with ideologically inconsistent and weak foundations. Yet at the same time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has succeeded in preserving power and consensus exactly because it draws upon such broad and various traditions.
Red guards during the Cultural Revolution – Image by Belinsky (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons
When Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stood before the tremendous task of rebuilding the state on the basis of Soviet-style Communist principles. Yet despite their desire to create a new China, Communist leaders drew on old political and social traditions which brought about a hybrid of ancient imperial policies and Communist doctrines. Other Chinese states, such as the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan as well as Singapore, have also incorporated traditional values and ideas into their state-building process. It is the purpose of the present and the following articles to show how the two most important ancient schools of thought – Legalism and Confucianism– have influenced the legal systems of contemporary states in the Chinese cultural sphere. First, we shall analyze the relationship between Maoism and Legalism; in the subsequent posts, we shall examine the rediscovery of Confucianism and the blending of Confucianism and Legalism in post-Mao China; and in the last post, we will see how the ROC and Singapore have assimilated and adapted Confucian tenets.
Mao Zedong And Legalism
According to Fu Zhengyuan, the” transplantation of Marxism-Leninism into the Chinese political tradition was a smooth and seamless process”. Numerous Western scholars, too, have noted how the political traditions of imperial China created a fertile ground for Communist ideology. In particular, the ancient philosophy of Legalism, with its emphasis on state power, wealth and strength, appears to have facilitated the creation of a totalitarian, centralised and oppressive government. Fu goes as far as to argue that the PRC is the realisation of a Legalist “utopia” (Zhengyuan Fu: China’s Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling, 1996, p. 128).
As we have explained in a previous post, the Legalist school was a philosophy that aimed at creating a strong, rich and powerful state under the leadership of an absolute monarch. Legalism emphasized the establishment of a comprehensive legal system in order to rule the state effectively and to prevent uprisings. The laws should be harsh so as to instill fear in the people and make them ready to fight and die for their king, as only by such means would the state maintain an army capable of crushing its rivals. Internally, the Legalists were concerned with the threat of rebellion and treason. They believed that the legal system should reward the capable and punish the guilty so as to stamp out every attempt to subvert the state.