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Understanding the Chinese

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The authors of China 88: The Real China and How to Deal with It discuss Chinese values and how they are influenced by its rich past as well as its rapidly developing present.
This chapter is from the book

1.1 Confucian Values

When foreigners think of China, they often wonder at its size. But China is also ancient, with a past that stretches well back into history. The Chinese can trace their culture further into the past than any western civilization, into the murky depths of the earliest recorded history of mankind itself. It is therefore not surprising to find a wealth of tradition and embedded customs in modern Chinese society. A fundamental aspect of those traditions and customs is derived from the writings of Confucius.

Confucian values emerged from a time when China was a feudalistic society ruled by dynastic families. For 2,500 years, Confucian values have permeated almost every facet of Chinese society. Confucianism has never been a rigid doctrine followed to the letter by everyone in society, however. Currents of change in society have affected the way Confucianism was interpreted and implemented in everyday life, and those changes continue today.

Profound changes have swept China in the last 100 years, starting with the overthrow of the last Imperial Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, in 1911 and the establishment of the Republic of China. Invasion by Japan was followed by decades of war, both with the Japanese and among competing Chinese forces until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Upheavals continued, with the Communist Party implementing its plans for a communist-socialist country amidst cold-war opposition. Policy mistakes led to famine and hardship while struggles for power within the top ranks of the party led to outbreaks of extremism such as the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, with the government’s new “Open Door Policy,” the domestic economy became more market oriented, and capitalist elements were allowed to emerge. The current system is known to the Communist Party as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”1

The profound changes in China over the last 100 years have meant that everyone born prior to 1980 or so has experienced life as a series of upheavals that have created substantial pressures on the value system, culture, and customs that infuse Chinese society. Confucianism and traditional Chinese values still reign in many ways, but some of the traditional values have been abandoned while others have been retained but with modifications. Further, clear generational divides have emerged in terms of the values a generation embraces, and the consequent culture that emerges.

Whatever change is happening in Chinese culture and society, it is emerging from a clear and dominant set of traditional values commonly known as Confucian values. Although an average Chinese might not associate his or her value system with Confucius, the teachings of this ancient philosopher still provide the background of much of modern society’s ethics and tradition. To understand modern Chinese society, one must understand the past and the foundations from which new values and cultural mores are emerging.

Social customs and values, such as guanxi (relationships) and mianzi (face) are rooted in a Confucian ethic. These customs and values are seen throughout the society but we focus our attention on a few such key relationships, such as husband and wife, father and son, and teacher and students. We describe the traditions that underlie these key relationships, and also discuss how a new set of emerging values is redefining the nature of these relationships. A battle is occurring between the old ways and the new in ways that will redefine modern Chinese society and culture - a China that is increasingly globalized, increasingly interconnected via the internet and other new media, and increasingly wealthy and worldly.

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