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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The Origins of Taiwanese Identity

The current discussion about Taiwanese identity is very much influenced by the ideological and political battle between those who think that the Taiwanese people constitute a separate nation, and those who think that the Taiwanese are simply a subgroup of the larger Chinese nation. Between 1945 and the end of the 1980s, when Taiwanese national identity was repressed by the official pan-Chinese ideology of the Guomindang regime, the only point of view that could be publicly expressed on Taiwan was that Taiwan was a province of the Republic of China (ROC) and the ROC was the only legitimate government of China. After the end of the Martial Law era, Taiwanese who believed in independence from China began to shape public discourse. 
 
It is important to note that collective identity – and the case of Taiwan is no exception – is seldom coherent and homogeneous. Identity is a combination of different elements. A person can have a class identity, a religious identity, different local identities (city, region etc.), national and cosmopolitan identity etc., and all these layers can – and usually do – coexist. For example, a person who was born in Berlin can be a Berliner, an East or West German, a German, and a European, and if he is an immigrant, another layer might be added. These different elements do not exclude each other (as nationalist ideologies often assume), but just make up the complexity of individual identity.
Let us now examine the emergence of Taiwanese identity during and after the Japanese colonial period.  

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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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Sources of the Taiping Rebellion: The Deposition of Li Xiucheng

On July 19, 1864, after a months-long siege, the city of Nanjing, the capital of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天國; pinyin: Tàipíng Tiānguó), was stormed by forces of the Qing imperial army. This was the last act in the bloodiest civil war of all time. From its beginning in 1850 until 1864, when it ended, the civil strife caused the death of at least 20 million people.

It all started in the 1840s, when the “God Worshippers”, a group of insurgents led by Hong Xiuquan, a political and religious leader who claimed to be a Christian prophet and Jesus’ brother, began to conquer vast territories in the rich and fertile southern provinces of the empire. Their aim was to overthrow the Manchu government in Beijing and establish a new dynasty. But in the end, all the suffering and sacrifices came to naught. The armies of the rebels were defeated, and the Heavenly Kingdom collapsed. The Qing dynasty remained in power, but it was as weak as ever. The prestige of the Manchu rulers was gone. Besieged by economic and social decay, foreign aggression, corruption and inefficiency, the Qing state managed to survive for nearly four decades, until they were overthrown by Sun Yat-sen‘s revolutionaries in 1911 (Sun regarded the Taiping as predecessors of his own anti-Manchu insurgence).

In the summer of 1864 Nanjing was at the mercy of the victors. The imperial troops looted, murdered, raped, and enslaved the civilians who had survived the siege, regardless of age and gender. Even the commander of the imperial army, Zeng Guoquan (曾国荃 / 曾國荃; pinyin: Zēng Guóquán), was disgusted by the brutality of his soldiers. “Children and toddlers,” he wrote, “some not even two years old, had been hacked up or run through just for sport.” He had prohibited acts of violence, but there was nothing he could do to rein in the fury and greed of his army (see Stephen R. Platt: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, 2012, Chapter 16).

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Sun Yat-sen: Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary

Sun Yat-sen (source: Wikipedia)
Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925) was a Chinese revolutionary and politician. During the Late Qing era he fought to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty and establish a new, modern Chinese state. His political doctrines, most notably the Three Principles of the People, had a deep impact on the development of China in the 20th century. Sun Yat-sen is the founding father of the Republic of China (ROC) and the founder of the Guomindang (中國國民黨, literally “China National People’s Party”), the oldest still active political party in the Chinese-speaking world.
 
His legacy is still alive both in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC in Taiwan. Sun’s doctrines are enshrined in the ROC Constitution. Article 1 states that “The Republic of China, founded on the Three Principles of the People, shall be a democratic republic of the people, by the people, and for the people“. In the PRC, however, the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Guomindang (RCCGD) both claim to represent the true spirit of Sun’s ideas.  
 

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