China is often described as a nation with unchanging values and an alien culture, inscrutable and radically different from our own. Chinese culture is said to be characterised by unquestioning loyalty to the State, emphasis on the group to the prejudice of the individual, networks of personal and business connections (the term guanxi has entered the business lexicon) and high regard for “face”.
In these essays, leading scholars of Chinese studies have however shown that China has a much more complex culture. We must avoid “East is East and West is West” thinking if we are truly to understand and engage with the contemporary People’s Republic of China (PRC). To do this, we need to identify China’s core values and their historical roots.
Cultural inheritance and continuity were declared core values by President Xi Jinping, who endorsed Confucian philosophy in an important speech in 2014. Since then, Confucian teaching has been used and promoted to advantage State affairs, particularly concepts such as loyalty (zhong 忠) and harmony (he 和). Confucius (551-479BCE) preached the importance of moral standards and sincerity, and of maintaining the correct “five relationships” (wulun 五倫) – between ruler and people, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend. Elaborated and adapted by his disciples and later scholars, this teaching became state orthodoxy and the basis of the education system and selection processes for civil servants over many centuries. Over the centuries, the relationship of the ruler and the people came to be prioritised and loyalty to the State prevailed over filial piety (xiao 孝).
Today, when Xi Jinping couches his official statements in the language of the Confucian classics, this establishes his credentials as a valid successor to a long line of emperors and presidents before him. He speaks of building a harmonious society (hexie shehui 和諧社會) and enforcing good government and social stability. Chinese people have always believed that these win favour with Heaven, while unjust and cruel government will forfeit the heavenly mandate. For Confucius, harmony was achieved through the practice of ritual and music and through the virtuous conduct of leaders. To the leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), harmonious society most likely means economic development and social stability, but many PRC citizens regard it as a euphemism for “stability at all costs”.
Sometimes loyalty to family may be stronger than the ruler/citizen bond. In the early years of the PRC, Mao Zedong took drastic action to break this relationship, for instance by forbidding ancestor worship, but the clans have fought back and reclaimed much of their former authority. Today there are also new groups in which the individual is merged into a corporate identity, such as schools, universities, religious associations and business corporations. Loyalty to family is often transformed to loyalty to these and, above all, to the government and the state. The watchword of government is “Unity above all.” Bearing in mind that the PRC is larger and at least as diverse as the whole of Europe, the task of holding the nation together is extraordinarily demanding.
Although Confucius defined the individual in terms of relationships and membership of groups, a person was still free to choose his path in life (women were not mentioned). A peasant might become an emperor, through application to study, through joining a righteous rebel, or simply by a fortunate encounter. Belief in fate (yuanfen 缘分) became common after Buddhism reached China. Luck could be increased by creating a favourable environment (eg fengshui 风水), by word and by deed. Philanthropy would be rewarded, in this life or the next. Association with righteous leaders and prosperous people might allow their luck to rub off.
Still today, relationships must be nourished and cultivated, by sharing meals and the exchange of gifts and favours. Relationships are (of course) two-way, so the act of giving implies that something will happen in return. This cultural expectation can conflict dangerously with international business ethics, so it is important for those engaged commercially with the PRC and other centres of Chinese culture to understand this expectation. Since the PRC economic reforms in the 1980s, many privately-owned businesses have sprung up and there is often an overlap between personal and business connections. Australians should take care to distinguish between these and maintain absolute transparency in the giving and receiving of gifts.
When meritorious conduct and righteous behaviour are recognised by others, the individual is said to have gained a good reputation by virtuous conduct or in other words to have gained face (mianzi 面子). This is something like social credit, as the term is usually used in the West (but differs from social credit in the PRC in an earlier essay). Conversely, face is damaged by anti-social behaviour and loss of reputation. Face is particularly important in the light of the “five relationships” mentioned above, which determine the status of an individual.
Confucian and Daoist teachings emphasise that humankind should live in harmony with the Dao 道 (sometimes translated as the “Way”), the source and pattern of the universe. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, droughts and floods disturb ecological and societal balance, very much as Shakespeare wrote, “The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” Traditional Chinese philosophy elaborated this: when events reach an extreme and a tipping point, there will be a reversal. The wheel of fortune will turn. Rulers and people aim therefore for the Middle Way (zhongyong 中庸), but will also be resilient in the face of disasters, knowing that they are not final. The PRC adherence to Five Year Plans for national development can be understood in terms of the influence of Middle Way thinking.
I have been working on comparative humour studies for more than a decade, with particular application to Chinese humour. In this field, it has been demonstrated that humour and other emotions are common to every person on this earth and basic to our shared humanity. Where there are differences, these are determined by varying historical experiences and by the political and cultural make-up of various social groups. The enduring values of Chinese culture are not dissimilar to our own. The differences derive from the historical and political environment. In the case of the PRC, how cultural inheritance and historical continuity could be used to justify and legitimise State authority is and will remain a challenge for generations to come.
Jocelyn Chey is a former senior diplomat with postings in China and Hong Kong and presently holds honorary positions at the University of Sydney and Western Sydney University. She is an Adjunct Professor at UTS and is co-author and co-editor of two books on Chinese humour.
For further reading, see:
1. Chan, Shirley. The Confucian Shi, Official Service and the Confucian Analects Chinese Studies Series, no.38. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen. 2004. ISBN10: 0-7734-6215-5 ISBN13:
2. Li Rui, “From the Liu wei 六位 (Six Positions) Discussed in the Liu de 六德 (Six Virtues) to the San gang 三綱 (Three Principles of Social Order)”, in Shirley Chan (ed), Dao Companion to the Excavated Guodian Bamboo Manuscripts, Springer, 2019. Pages 339-354.
See also previous articles in China Series:
JOCELYN CHEY. Pearls and Irritations China Series.
DAVID WALTON. China finding its place in the world.
YINGJIE GUO. China finding its place in the world.
WANNING SUN. China finding its place in the world.
MOBO GAO. China’s enduring core values.
JAMES LAURENCESON. China in a time of change.
GEOFF RABY. China in a time of change.
HAIQING YU. China in a Time of Change
COLIN MACKERRAS. China’s enduring core values.