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Hierarchy, Conflicts and Communication in Chinese Culture

In the West two opposed images of China co-exist. On the one hand, there is the country of Communism, corruption, government repression, and authoritarianism. On the other hand, there is the country of harmony, group-thinking, compromise.

These two images of the same country are almost irreconcilable. How can we believe in a harmonious, peaceful, altruistic society when we not only know of the turmoils and cruelties of the past, but also hear of the exploitation and hardships of the present?

This double image of China is the result of a misinterpretation. In many respects, this Chinese dichotomy echoes another one, an older one. When Japan stunned the world by industrialising within a few decades, Western perceptions of Japan were, too, dominated by apparent paradoxes. As Ruth Benedict pointed out in her masterpiece, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Japan seemed to have two souls that contradicted each other. 

In the eyes of many Westerners prior to World War II, Japan was a riddle. There was the Japan of the samurais, with their culture of honour, loyalty and violence, the Japan of feudal wars, of militarism and imperialism. But on the other side, Japan stood out for her refinement and sophistication, expressed in her arts, manners, ceremonies, and highly developed social structure. Which one was the true Japan? The gentle, cultivated, well-mannered, or the aggressive, cold-blooded, brutal one?

Ruth Benedict highlighted this dilemma in the very title of her book. The chrysanthemum represents Japan's soft and gentle side, while the sword represents her warlike side. However, Ruth Benedict argued that it was a mistake to think of these two sides of the Japanese soul as a contradiction. In fact, they are merely two aspects of the same culture that must be understood in their context.

China, too, seems to be a riddle. Many Chinese people will often talk with disdain about Western decadence, arrogance, confrontational and aggressive attitude, selfishness, and lack of group solidarity and family values. They will praise their own peaceful history, their group- and family-oriented values, their ability to compromise, and their spirit of self-sacrifice and hard work. 

However, it is hard not to see behaviours that are at odds with such values: ambition, greed, corruption, materialism - how can we reconcile them with the image of harmony? This dichotomy is the result of an asymmetrical relationship that is somewhat similar to the one that used to poison the relationship between Japan and the West. Both sides project on each other their fears and wishes, their superiority and inferiority complexes, thus creating skewed, often ideological images of each other. We should therefore be very careful and avoid idealising either civilisations. 

Already in the 20th century some Western observers were awestruck by Asia's allegedly collectivist society. Alicia Little (Mrs Archibald Little), who lived in China between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, noted: 

[I]t is impossible to understand China unless it be first realised that the individual life is nothing there, and that the family is the unit; and yet further, that no one stands alone in China, as is so painfully the case in England, but that everyone is responsible for some one else, guaranteed by some one else (Intimate China: The Chinese As I Have Seen Them (Classic Reprint), Chapter III).

One is often inclined to assume that such interdependence of individuals should create altruism and eliminate selfishness, because selfish behaviour can only arise from individual ambition. And yet, as is often the case when one comes into contact with Chinese societies, ambition reveals itself as a major motivation of individual actions. A few pages later, Mrs Little gives an example of personal ambition that seems to contradict the principle that everyone is responsible for someone else:

The post of Taotai, or Governor of Shanghai, is one of the most lucrative in China. Tsai [apparently, the author is referring to Cai Jun (蔡钧 / 蔡鈞, pinyin: Cài Jūn), who took on the post of Shanghai Daotai on July 1897], who has made friends with all of us Europeans as no Taotai ever did before - dining out and giving dinner parties, and even balls - Tsai is known to have paid so much to obtain the post as would represent all he could hope to get in every way during the two years of office: about £20,000. He was dismissed from his post November, 1898; but possibly may be able to bribe heavily enough to get it back.  

The apparent chasm between the tale of harmony and solidarity, and what appears to be strong individual ambition and competition, can only be explained if one understands that harmony and group-thinking must be understood as hierarchy and social roles. Only by looking carefully at the hierarchical and role-specific structure of Chinese society, and at its distribution of power, authority, and influence, can one put in perspective its supposed contradictions. 

Harmony as a Rhetorical Instrument

Just as freedom and democracy are often used in the West to conceal less noble motives, so in East Asia the tale of harmony and tradition is employed to mobilise the forces of society, to empower the people ideologically. Mr Kishore Mahbubani has explained the psychological nature of the Asian values debate candidly in his book, Can Asians Think? 

It is vital for Western minds to understand that the efforts by Asians to rediscover Asian values are not only or even primarily a search for political values. Instead they represent a complex set of motives and aspirations in Asian minds: a desire to reconnect with their historical past after this connection had been ruptured both by colonialism and the subsequent domination of the globe by a Western Weltanschauung; an effort to find the right balance in bringing up their youth so that they are open to the new technologically interconnected global universe and yet rooted in an conscious of the cultures of their ancestors; an effort to define their own personal, social and national identities in a way that enhances their sense of self-esteem (Mahbubani 2004, p. 36).

The rhetoric of Asian values helps many Asian people to obtain that intellectual certainty, that feeling of moral equality and even superiority towards the West. Both the Western sense of superiority and its Asian response are the result of an ideological battle for supremacy that is not objectively justifiable, since different values can very well co-exist on an equal footing.

Harmony vs Conflict

The rhetoric of Asian values often tends to represent Asian societies as harmonious, while it conceals conflicts and tensions under the surface. In view of the extreme social struggle within these societies, this attempt to mask everyday conflicts reveals its ideological and psychological origin. 

In the following posts, I will show four examples of hierarchical relationships. I shall argue that hierarchy both creates conflicts and at the same time domesticates individuals in order to make them accept given power structures. Furthermore, I will show how hierarchy affects interpersonal communication. 

The four examples are:

- hierarchy and conflicts in the workplace

- power relations within the family

- clients-prostitutes relationships in a red-light district of Dalian

- drinking and KTV culture 


  1. Two thoughts:

    1. I have always thought of culture as a survival mechanism. "Different values" may "very well co-exist on equal footing", but that has never been the point. There is no truth in victory. The East Asian and Western-European cultural complexes are victors in a 2,000 year old contest for survival. "Ideological battles for supremacy" are part of the complex.

    2. Have you ever heard of the research psychologist Richard Nisbett has done on this count? I wrote a lengthy review article over at my place that explains much of it. As with Mr. Mahubani, he suggests that the major 'Asian' values are deeply seated in East Asian psychology, affecting their perceptions at the most basic levels. (Same for Westerners as well). His book is worth reading.


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