Basic Characteristics of Chinese Culture

Joseph S. Wu


Chinese culture is so substantive in content, so comprehensive in varieties, and has had so long a history, that to its outsiders, it is very similar to the elephant before the blind men in the ancient story. The blind men could not grasp the elephant in its entirety. They held onto some part, and from this vantage point they attempted to describe the whole animal. The man who has Chinese culture by the feet may say that Chinese people are conservative and this explains why it is so difficult for China to accept modernization. The man who holds Chinese culture by the tail may say that the substance of Chinese society is its family system and this accounts for the failure of some modern politicians’ attempt to establish communal life. The man who holds Chinese culture by the ears may say that Chinese people are spontaneously artistic, and this is perhaps the reason why they have been underdeveloped in scientific thinking. These interpretations of Chinese culture may not be mistaken, but they all commit one common fallacy: the fallacy of selected emphasis, or, the fallacy of taking the part for the whole.

Nevertheless, an insider of Chinese culture may not be able to grasp a complete and accurate picture either, nor is he able to present it to its outsiders. This is simply because that the one who is actually involved may still have the problem of failing to get clarity and objectivity. A lover being in love is usually unable to describe his own feeling until he has stepped out of it. This author was born in China, educated in Chinese schools and colleges. No doubt, he had direct contact and substantial involvement with Chinese culture. But, when he was an insider of the culture, if someone asked him about the nature of this culture, he would just be startled and baffled. It is because Chinese culture was a part of his life that he never had to question or wonder about it. After many years’ teaching in the American Continent, he has been given an opportunity to reflect upon Chinese culture at a distance. He is now in a position that he can see Chinese culture with fuller clarity and greater degree of objectivity because he is no longer involved in it as his practical environment. At the same time, he can be relatively free from the fallacy of the blind men, since he was once an insider, having a full and direct contact with the culture itself. With this advantage of being an insider-outsider, he ventures to communicate his understanding of Chinese culture to his readers in the English speaking world. In what follows, he will give an impressionistic, phenomenological, but reflective account of Chinese culture. He is going to present what he has observed as an insider-outsider. This consists in twelve characteristics to be presented in this essay.

  1. Agriculture As Economic Foundation

The term "agriculture" as a mode of production, or as a way of economic life, does not seem to bother with any explanation. But I would like to point out some of the qualities of this mode of life because they have shaped the character of Chinese culture.

Compared with the life of tradesmen and herdsmen, a farmer’s life is relatively fixed, settled, and relaxingly permanent. This is commonly referred to as "the lack of mobility." Because this style of life is more settled and at rest, it is easier for a farmer to raise children, and to develop a family up to a large population under one roof. Due to the lack of mobility, a farmer’s life is relatively free from risk and adventure. This may account for the origin of Chinese conservatism which will receive some attention later.

This kind of "attached to earth" and "dependent on land" attitudes also account for some moral qualities of the Chinese people, particularly, the virtue of patience. A farmer’s efficient production very much depends on the cooperation of nature. The process of the growth of a plant, from seed to full maturity, needs a certain period of time which can hardly be speeded up by human effort. In a technological society, attempts have been made to shorten the period of time needed for production. The popular usage "instant" in "instant coffee" and "instant noodle" fully discloses the lack of patience in modern life. But this kind of "instant" production can hardly apply to an old-fashioned agricultural process. I have learned that, in contemporary American society, in addition to instant coffee and instant noodle, a computer dating service can produce an "instant girl friend" or "instant boy friend." Similarly, a commercialized college can produce an "instant degree." But, I have never learned of any "instant asparagus," and "instant cherry tree," or an "instant redwood or pine." This indicates that agricultural production needs time and patience as a required condition for the life of a farmer.

From the development of the Chinese language, we have discovered many ancient characters which were names of agricultural products or natural botanical items. A very interesting phenomenon is that, the Chinese term for society is an "agricultural product." it is called she chi (or, she ji, 社稷 while "she" means "the god of the earth," and "chi or ji" means "the god of the crops". These usages really mirror the significant role of agriculture in traditional Chinese life.

Another strikingly interesting fact is the name of the founder of Chinese medical tradition. This person was a legendary figure among the ancient tribal kings who were said to have contributed significantly to Chinese culture. This legendary king was called "Shen Nung Shih" (or shen nong shi, 神農氏). "shen" means "spiritual," "holy,"or "divine." "Nung or nong" means "agriculture" or "farmer." "Shih or shi" does not have any specific meaning except denoting a person, or a person of prominence. So the title of this legendary king can just be translated into English as "The Divine Farmer" or "The Spiritual Farmer." It was said that this Farmer experimented with various kinds of herbs in order to discover their medical functions and thus founded the tradition of Chinese medicine and pharmacy. I still remember, in my childhood in Canton, when I caught cold, I was taught to take a kind of herbal medicine called "Shen Nong Cha" ("cha" literally means tea). This reveals the significance of this legendary figure which in turn discloses the importance of agriculture in the Chinese tradition.

  1. Naturalistic View Of Life

A naturalistic view of life is the direct offspring of the agricultural society. Farmers work on land in the open air rather than working on papers in an enclosed air-conditioned office. Closeness to nature and direct contact with plants and animals easily develop a naturalistic view of life which is hardly found in an industrialized society.

In spite of the fact that China has gradually become modernized during the last one hundred years, this naturalistic view of life is still rooted deeply into the Chinese mind of the contemporary era. Many Chinese overseas in the American Continent have saved enough money to purchase a Caddilac, but they do not even buy a Pinto or Tercel. This is simply because they still believe that walking is a more natural way of life than operating a motor behind the wheel. In a modern society, sleeping-pills are so popular that they are even sold in the supermarket without the prescription of a physician. But from the Chinese viewpoint. it is a violation of the naturalistic view of life because they do not believe that sleeping should be artificially induced.

In some modern Chinese cities like Hong Kong or Taipei where an average family can afford to buy a refrigerator. But very often Chinese people do not make the full use of this modern technological device. In many families, a refrigerator is primarily used for keeping drinks such as coca-cola, milk, and beer. They still prefer shopping their meat and vegetable afresh and transfer them directly from the market to their wok (pan) They would be surprised and even shocked if they learn that some American families keep their steaks, pork chops, and lobsters for many days and even over a month.

The naturalistic view of life has gained supports from ancient Chinese philosophers such as Laotzu (老子) and Chuangtzu (莊子). It was emphatically pointed out by Laotzu that Tao is a naturalistic principle. [1] Chuangtzu, in a mythical story, disclosed the futility of human effort to change nature.[2] According to this story, there was once a legendary emperor who had two intimate friends. This emperor treated both of them kindly and generously, so they always thought of repaying his favor. One day, they came up with an idea. All men had seven openings, so that they could see, hear, eat, and breathe. But the emperor was born defective and had none of them. So they decided to bore him some. Before they accomplished this enormous mission, the emperor departed this world miserably. This story suggests the importance of what is endowed by nature. The emperor was endowed by nature without sense organs, yet he could live happily by following the natural way. Nevertheless, his friends, with a good motive and kind heart, tried to exercise effort to change nature and thus led to a disaster.

Confucian philosophers also share this naturalistic view of life. Mencius told us a story about a stupid farmer who did not have sufficient patience to wait for the growth of the rice plants. He went to the field to lift up each of the plants by an inch and was under the illusion that he had helped them grow. After a few days, all the plants died.[3]

In ordinary Chinese language, there are many sayings which reveal this attitude of life. The most popular one, t’ing ch’i tzu jan (ting-qi-zi-ran, 聽其自然), "following the natural way" or "let it be as it is" has become deeprooted in the ordinary Chinese mentality, and serves as a guiding principle of the life of Chinese people, including all varieties of life style.

3. Simplicity and Contentment

The principle of simplicity follows closely the naturalistic view of life. According to the philosophy of Taoism, simplicity is the way of nature, so it should also be the way of man. This principle is also known by the principle of wu-wei無為)or non-action. "Nature does nothing, but everything is done."

Modern life, however, is a life of complication. It is complicated by both technological devices and social or political institutions. An average person in modern American society can own an automobile, a home with air-conditioning, heating, refrigerator, washer, dryer, and many other appliances in the kitchen. But from the Chinese viewpoint, the possession of these technological devices will generate tension and anxiety rather than happiness. Say, car troubles alone will be sufficient to cause you headache. If two or three devices fail to work at the same time, this technical tool will generate tremendous pressure upon your life.

The social and political relations of a modern man is complicated by the increased complexity of our system and the enactment of new laws. You have to meet tax deadlines, to observe the expiration dates of your different types of insurance. Above of all, you have to meet with the liabilities as a citizen and as a member of the community. This type of complication and the problems generated by technological devices usually reinforce each other. Take for example, if you own an automobile, you are required to buy auto insurance. Provided that your careless driving results in an accident with another driver who is injured critically and ever since paralyzed. Your luck is probably the confrontation of a lawsuit. At the same time, you may have problems with your own insurance company which may refuse the settlement proposed by the injured party. So this kind of complication of life can lead to infinite trouble and unrest. This is by no means the Chinese ideal way of life. For the Chinese, a guiding principle of life is that "Big things are to be reduced to small things, and small things are to be reduced to nothing."

Associated with the principle of simplicity is the experience of contentment toward material living. This is also a product of agricultural life. A farmer is well-contented with his anticipated harvest, and, unlike a modern man, he would not expect any excessive profits from the sharp rise in the stock market. His crops are produced through continuous effort rather than through risks or gambling. The virtue of contentment has been justified and even praised by both the Confucian scholars and the Taoists. As recorded in The Analects,[4] Yen Yuan’s ( ) material living was very much below the minimum standard of his time. He lived in a shabby lane with coarse food and simple clothing, yet he was living delightfully. Because of this, he was admired even by his master, Confucius, and praised by later Confucian scholars. In compliance with this principle of life, the Taoists seriously criticized "discontentment" as the precedent of misfortune and even the cause of disaster.

From the viewpoint of contemporary American society, one may criticize this Chinese view of life as a form of asceticism which may not fit the life of a highly developed civilization. But the present author would like to point out, contentment is not the same as the denial of any enjoyment at all. In addition, a life of contentment is, rather, a life free from frustration, anxiety, and sense of misery. Generally speaking, there are two extreme approaches to one’s material living. This can be demonstrated by the following equation:

Desires fulfilled Happiness (based on satisfaction) == -----------------------



The hedonists struggle to enlarge the numerator (fulfilling their desires), while the ascetics try to minimize the denominator (desires). Both are equally efficient ways to attain happiness. It is because, according to the principle of mathematics, the amount of happiness can be increased by either way. These two extreme approaches correspondingly represent the contemporary American way and the traditional Hindu way. But the Chinese way stands in the middle. If the numerator can be enlarged without exerting too much strenuous effort, the Chinese would go along with the hedonists. But if the numerator cannot be increased with human effort, they would go with the ascetics, reducing the denominator. This is the Chinese way of contentment, and is regulated by the principle of moderation which will be discussed later in this essay. Here, I would like to point out emphatically that the Chinese motto for living a contented life is Sui yu er an (隨遇而安), which means: "Being at home wherever you stay."

  1. Artistic Way of Life
  2. It was about fifty years ago, an American scholar made a very penetrating remark on Chinese way of life saying: "The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but throught art."[5] In spite of its apparent exaggeration, this is a very insightful characterization of Chinese culture. In order to understand this aspect of Chinese culture, we have to understand what it means to be artistic. Perhaps a brief contrast between art and science will reveal its implications. In the main, the distinction between the artistic and the scientific can be found in their respective modes of communication. The communication of scientific knowledge is primarily literal conveyance of meaning through abstract concepts, while the artistic mode is mainly suggestive presentation of concrete images. In science, truthful and accurate description is necessary, while in art, selective characterization is encouraged and preferred. Furthermore, in the artistic discourse, exaggeration, and even fictional construction are considered adequate, and, they are sometimes even desirable. As to the result of communication, the scientific way yields the recognition of facts and relations among them, while the artistic way yields appreciation and enjoyment through perception of sensory qualities. The Chinese language, having its substantive foundation in the construction of concrete characters, is primarily an artistic language. Although it has been asserted that the Chinese are not incapable of scientific thinking, and that there have been important scientific discoveries in Chinese history, it is still valid to say that Chinese culture is predominantly artistic. In the Western world, medical science, by definition, is a science. But Chinese medicine is an art. It is a demonstrable fact that many of the classical prescriptions were written in the form of verses. In addition, the fortune-tellers compose their fortune sayings in rhyming verses, even though they do not bear much poetic substance.

    There is another significant distinction between science and art, or better, between scientific culture and artistic culture. This distinction is embodied in the different learning methods of students, particularly beginning students. The fundamental learning method for a student in science is the following of rules and procedures. But in art, the learning process is the imitation of models. If we apply this distinction to a more concrete level in comparative culture, we can observe that Chinese cooking is still very much an art, while American cooking has become mostly a scientific procedure. One can never learn authentic Chinese cooking exclusively from a cook book recipe. It has to be learned through the imitation of a master-cook. But the American way is quite different. You can follow some instructions like the following: "Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Then put it into the oven for thirty minutes and it is ready to serve. In the main, in Chinese culture, a supposed science is still an art (like medicine), while in American culture, even an art has already become a science.

  3. Conservatism
  4. After some superficial contact with Chinese culture, a Westerner can easily get the impression that Chinese people are conservative. This is not mistaken if the term "conservative" is used in the descriptive sense, free from evaluative tone. "Conservatism" may have degrading connotations in American culture where "progressiveness’, is considered a premium. But for Chinese culture, being conservative can be a positive virtue. In fact, "conservative" and "progressive" are only relative concepts rather than absolute categories.

    To the present writer, Chinese conservatism is shaped by two cultural traits which have been discussed. The first one is the agricultural economic foundation, and the second one, its artistic way of life. Being agricultural, Chinese people have developed an earth-attaching attitude which in turn has developed a strong sense of permanence. This sense of permanence, being a built-in Chinese way of perception, sees the "eternal truths" in the sayings of their ancient sages, and thus prevent any arbitrary progression into novelty. Even when later philosophers produced new philosophical ideas, still they modestly interpreted their own ideas as merely elucidation of some ancient doctrines.

    Another cause of Chinese conservatism is its artistic view of life. This view is transformed into a way of how Chinese people perceive their own culture. A major motto of a scientific culture is "The more up-to-date, the more acceptable." In the development of science, the later development usually supercedes the former accomplishment. Take the example of physics, Aristotelian physics was superceded by Newtonian physics, which is, in turn, in its theory of space and time, superceded by the new theory of Einstein. But this principle of cultural progress can never apply to an artistic culture. It would be absurd to say that Shakespeare is superceded by Bernard Shaw, and Dickens by Hemingway. The value of a literary work is not to be judged by its practical relevance or instrumentality. It has intrinsic value in its own world. Therefore, in the world of arts, the principle "the more up-to-date, the more acceptable" will fail to apply. In the main, Chinese culture is predominantly artistic. It is quite natural for Chinese people to look back to Chinese history to search for values. In fact, masterpieces of art and literature, unlike scientific doctrines, are contemporary at all times.

    A side product of Chinese conservatism is the respect of the elderly. This constitutes a sharp contrast to contemporary American society. As the present writer observes, the American Continent is a paradise for the young, a life-struggle field for the middle-age, and a hell for the elderly. But in traditional China, the opposite was the case. It is quite interesting for a student in Chinese language to learn that the Chinese character for "filial piety" is composed of two elementary components. One of them is the character for a child(子)and the other is the abbreviated form of old age(老). This character or hsiao, means "the young’s caring for the old."

  5. Process View of The Universe
  6. In spite of a strong sense of permanence and a permanence and conservatism, Chinese thinkers have developed a process view of the world. From the very beginning of Chinese culture, Chinese people seemed to have recognized "change" as a primal fact of the universe. Among the Confucian classics, we found a specialized treatise profoundly dealing with the nature of change and how it affects human situations. This is the well-known I Ching or The Book of Changes (The Book of Creativity,易經).

    It should be noted that the Chinese concept of change in the I Ching is not a mere chaotic flux. It follows some immanent laws governing the growth of a living organism. This means that the Chinese view of change is an organic, creative, and developmental process in accordance with the principle of life. This is perhaps a natural consequence of agricultural life where the farmers have full contact with living beings such as animals and plants.

    The process view of the universe, as a cultural trait of the Chinese tradition, very often escapes the attention of Chinese metaphysical thinking. There is no wonder that a noted Japanese scholar Professor Hajime Nakamura mistakenly interpreted the Chinese metaphysical viewpoint as looking at world phenomena statically.[6]

    One may inquire if a process view of the universe is compatible with the social conservatism just mentioned. My answer is that there is no logical connection between social or conventional ideas and metaphysical thinking. Social conservatism may have its cause in politics, economics, religion, as well as social institutions, while a metaphysical view can be autonomous and developed independently.

    In spite of the lack of a proof of a necessary relation between language and thought, this process view of the universe is reveal by a recent writer who made the following comment:

    In English, the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs—so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.[4]

    The above comment is not simply an excellent interpretation of Chinese language, but also an enlightening suggestion to a correct understanding of Chinese metaphysics.

  7. Intrinsicness of Humanism

Humanism as the essence of Chinese culture is a well-known and firmly established fact without dispute among the sinologists or scholars in comparative culture. The well-known comment by Confucius on the unknowable nature of after life has been often quoted as an indicator of this primal fact:

Tzu-Lu (Zi-lu, 子路) once asked about the right way of serving the spiritual beings. Confucius replied, "We are not yet able to serve man, how can we be ready to talk about serving spiritual beings?" Then Tzu-lu asked, "May I ask about death?" Confucius said, "We do not yet know enough about life, how can we know about death?" [8]

There have been also movements of humanism in Western culture. Notable examples are humanism in the Renaissance movement and the humanism of the Existentialist movement in our century. Then, our question is, what is the fundamental difference between Chinese humanism and the movements of humanism in the West? The answer is that humanism is intrinsic to Chinese culture. It is so intrinsic to the culture that throughout the whole history of Chinese philosophy, it is but the history of humanism. European humanism appears a "movement" rather than an intrinsic cultural quality. Renaissance humanism is a movement rebelling against the religious authority of Christianity, while Existential humanism is a reaction against scientific materialism and modern technology. Chinese humanism, however, has been internal to the entire cultural development of China, and is embodied pervasively in all parts of Chinese culture.

A notable characteristic of Chinese humanism is that in Chinese cosmology humanity plays a central role. The concept of Fate in ancient Greece indicates the futility of human effort to cope with the inevitableness operating in nature. But in ancient Chinese cosmology, as embodied in the doctrines of the I-Ching, man is the co-creator of the universe. He actively takes part in the creation of the world and his own destiny. Even in religious thought, instead of worshipping some transcendent or supernatural force, i.e., God, they worship men—their ancestors. So, I may conclude that for the Chinese, man is truly the measure of everything, and that anything that exists, it is in existence for humanity, by humanity, and of humanity

8. Continuity between the Supernatural and the Human World

Worshipping another represents only one aspect of humanism in Chinese religious thought. Humanism in religious beliefs can be found in many other aspects of the culture. A very interesting phenomenon is that the world of supernatural beings is very similar to the world of man. The world of man is one governed by a hierarchy of officials with authority appropriate to their ranks and political positions. In traditional China the emperor had the supreme power. While the Chinese supernatural world exhibits the same nature. The supreme ruler is called Yu-huang Da-di (literally, Jade Emperor the Great, 玉皇大帝). Under him there is a hierarchy of "spiritual" or "supernatural" officials, possessing titles and ranks which are analogous to the political structure of the world of man.

Another striking feature of the Chinese supernatural world is that most (if not all) of the deities were originally members of the human world. It has been a popular belief among the Chinese common folks that if a person leads a moral life, possessing exceptional virtues or contributing a great deal to mankind, he will become a deity after his death and will probably receive award from the Supreme Ruler of Heaven. In fact, many of the popular Chinese gods belong to this type. For example, Kuan Kung (Guan Gong, 關公) was originally a general during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.). Due to his integrity and strong sense of justice, he became a deity and has been worshipped throughout the dynasties until the present. Another example is Lü-zu (呂祖) who was originally a poet in the T’ang Dynasty (618-907) . Because of his long time self-cultivation, he became a god in the Taoist tradition. It was said that Lu Chu gives prescriptions for the sick because he studied Chinese medicine during his life time in this world. When this author was in his childhood in Canton, he was given an opportunity to witness prescriptions in verses through the medium of a performer who was only an illiterate.

Another notable humanistic characteristic of Chinese religious beliefs is that in the rituals of worships, people usually offer on the altar or table ordinary delicacies to the deities as if the deities had the same taste of a living person. Wealthier people offer a whole banquet together with rice, tea, and wine. Poor people offer some simple and plain dishes accordingly.

The concept of a universal deity who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, is completely alien to the Chinese mind. The Chinese religious temper is one toward eclecticism and all-inclusiveness. They could not see the validity of accepting only one god and rejecting all others. For them, the universe is a very comprehensive and heterogeneous one. For each cosmic or local function, there needs an appropriate deity. The deities are finite and limited in power, just like what we are.

  1. Family Relations and Mutual Dependence
  2. Since the existence of the human race, family is probably the most fundamental social unit. But it has played an unusually significant role in Chinese culture. In Confucian ethics, one of the most important topics is the five human relations which are (1) sovereign-subject, (2) father-son, (3) elder brother-younger brother, (4) husband-wife, and (5) friend-friend. Of these five relations, three of them belong to the family. In fact, the remaining two have usually been conceived in terms of the family. The sovereign-subject relation is analogous to that of father and son, and the relation between two friends is similar to one between two brothers.

    In the book of Erh Ya 爾雅), one of the prominent Confucian classics, we could find over a hundred terms for all different kinds of family relations. Most of them do not have equivalents in European languages. Even today, in modern spoken Chinese, there have been many names for different relations which in English are under the blanket relational name "cousin."

    In a contemporary western society like America, an individual is liable for his own debts or his own misconduct. But in traditional China, privileges and liabilities, honor and shame, and even crimes of one single individual were shared with his family. This follows that an individual could not be released from his financial liabilities by the American simple procedure of declaring bankruptcy, for his liabilities could be inherited by his children or brothers and sisters.

    It was sharply pointed out by Francis Hsu that the most fundamental character of American people is self-reliance while that of the Chinese, mutual dependence.[9] When a Chinese individual faces a financial problem, instead of going to governmental agencies or savings and loans, he would first go to his relatives and then to his friends. He seldom gets turned down because his relatives or friends may think that a similar favor may be returned to them some day whenever such a need happens. This mutual dependence concept is reflected in many literary works of traditional China. In the famous novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), the hero Pao-yu (寶玉) was encouraged by his family members and relatives to study hard in order to win the honor through the pass of the civil examination. It was very obvious that the future of the whole family would depend on the future of this son. Later, when he passed the examination, even his uncle’s crime was pardoned by the emperor because of his earned honor. Thus a popular Chinese saying describes:

    One son receives royal favor,

    The whole family gets unearned wealth.

    Although feudal China has already gone into the historical past, yet this relational concept of human situations perpetuates into the modern scene. A striking example is found among the Chinese immigrants. Due to the unstable political situations in Asia, many Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, as well as other parts of Asia, have a strong desire to immigrate to the American Continent. In spite of the strict immigration rules set up by the U.S. government, Chinese immigrants are still coming to America at a steady rate. Many of them try to seek an immigrant status through a marriage relation. Immigrants from Europe usually make use of the immigration opportunity to take care of themselves only. But a Chinese individual, after becoming an American citizen, will take care of his whole family, relatives, and even friends. And in turn, his relatives will take care of many others through any possible relationships. Thus, instead of "One son receives royal favor, the whole family gets unearned wealth," we shall say:

    One child marries an immigrant,

    The whole family go to America.

    This concept of mutual dependence, particularly mutual dependence among family relations, presents a significant contrast against the social scene of the United States where individualism and self-reliance are held supreme. A further discussion or an evaluation of this will go beyond the scope of our essay here.

  3. Respect for Scholars and Contempt for Business Men
  4. Being in the American society for many years, I have been able to adjust myself to various aspects of American views and American ways of life. But, I am still seriously disturbed by the fact that scholars in the American society have not received their due share of respect. Top honors have been given to business executives and active politicians. Among the professionals, only medical doctors and lawyers are respected. This phenomenon seems to reveal one fact: American culture is very money-minded and short-sighted. Business executives, lawyers, and physicians are respected mostly because they are top income earners. Active politicians are respected because they can exercise immediate influence on the social and political scene. While scholars (most of them received much more education than lawyers and physicians), in spite of their devotion to world culture and to the contribution toward the future of mankind, appear a neglected and alienated class of people in the society. But in traditional China, the contrary was the case.

    According to the Chinese traditional hierarchy of social status, people were classified into four classes: (1) scholars, (2) farmers, (3) craftsmen, and (4) merchants. It has to be noted that some scholars were raised in the home of farmers and merchants. So, it was only a rough classification rather than a rigid categorization. According to this classification, scholars were the most respected class because they were also educators and political leaders of the society. Scholars were very often teachers who were extremely respected in traditional China. For the parents, the most honored guests of the family were usually the teachers of their children. According to traditional Chinese religious thought, one has to revere or even worship five kinds of beings. They were (1) T’ien (tian, ): Heaven, (2) Ti (di, ): Earth, (3) Chun (Jün, ): Emperor, (4) Ch’in (qin, ): Parents, and (5) Shih (shi, ): Teachers. In traditional China when there was not yet public schools, when a child was up to school age, parents usually "employed" (this word is not appropriate for it does not reveal sufficient reverence) a teacher for him. The teacher-pupil relation started with the ceremony of the pupil’s kowtow to the teacher. The reverence for teachers and scholars has perpetuated to the present century even after the overturn of the imperial China.

    The Chinese respect for scholars has been accounted for by the fact that Confucius was a scholar and a teacher, the first teacher in the history of Chinese education. But from the viewpoint of the present author, it is also due to the Chinese people’s love of culture and education. In a Chinese society (past or present), a cultured and well-educated but low-income individual is much more socially respected than a wealthy but uneducated person. This does not mean that Chinese people condemn wealth or money. But, for them, money has only instrumental value, while culture and education have intrinsic worth.

    Perhaps a very important characteristic of Confucian ethics is its downgrading of a profit-oriented personality. We find a statement in the : "The superior man sets his mind to justice, while the inferior man sets his mind to profit."[10] A sharp distinction between justice and profit with the downgrading of the latter, has since permeated the history of Chinese ethics. It is probably because of this, profit-minded business men, have never enjoyed any place of honor in the Chinese society.

    11. Predominance of Morality and Under-Development of Law

    Professor T’ang Chün-i (唐君毅), a leading philosopher of contemporary China, has pointed out that one of the major drawbacks of Chinese culture is the lack of a well-developed legal system.[11] This is perhaps the result of the influence of Confucian philosophy in which law-enforcement should have only the place of last resort. In a well-governed society, all the people abide with moral principles and thus leaves very little room for the exercise of judicial power. Confucius once remarked: "In hearing cases, I do not differ from others (i.e., other judges). But I maintain, however, the important thing is to have no cases to hear."[12]

    There is a very interesting story in Chinese legal history which illustrates this viewpoint. There were two brothers disputing over the issue of dividing properties inherited from their father. Both of them went to the court for a decision. If this kind of case had taken place in contemporary American society, no doubt it would take months to settle. In addition to the complicated procedures of filing documents by the attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant, the court probably has to employ accountants and real property appraisers, and summon witnesses for testimonies and evidences. Moreover, the judgment issued by a lower court is not yet final, for the defeated party can file an appeal to a higher court. Nevertheless, the Chinese judge, as the story tells us, handled the case in a very different way. He was reported saying to the brothers: "The most valuable thing in the world is harmony in the family, while the most valueless thing is material possession. Why do you two brothers sacrifice the most valuable for the most valueless? Go home and have no more fight. Be good brothers again." It was said that the case was in this manner forever settled. This kind of judicial story probably reflects a basic Chinese cultural trait already mentioned: love of simplicity, reducing big things to small ones, and reducing small things to nothing. Nevertheless, the predominance of morality and the underdevelopment of law in China, from the viewpoint of this author, reflects another fundamental cultural trait—the predominance of art and underdevelopment of scientific thinking. The legal mentality and the scientific mind share important common grounds—both emphasize clear definitions, orderly procedures, and credible evidences. All these three important matters are usually ignored or belittled by the mentality of the artist. Chinese moral thinking, unlike Western moral thinking in terms of rules, (like the Ten Commandments, categorical imperative, etc.) emphasizes the imitation of the model of ancient sages. This kind of imitation of models is akin to the artistic, and is prevailingly pervasive in Chinese thought.

  5. Moderation and Harmony

It seems that, without a mention of the doctrine of the mean in Confucian ethics, a characterization of Chinese culture will remain incomplete. Being shaped by agriculturalism, artistic view of life, and perhaps other cultural inclinations, Chinese people have developed the character of avoiding extremes or one-sidedness. The Chinese called this principle by the word chung (zhong, ) which has been referred to as "The Doctrine of the Mean." The term chung (zhong) as an adjective means "middle" or "central," and this doctrine can be called by a common-sense phrase "the middle way." But, as I observe, the verb form of chung (zhong, in fact the same written character) reveals more depth. As a verb, chung means "hitting the point," and this implies "being to the point," "being proper," or "what is just and fit." [Ku Hung-ming, 辜鴻銘] So, this doctrine can be interpreted as the doctrine of proper conduct.

Then, what is the standard for proper conduct? The answer from Confucian ethics is moderation, or, avoiding extremes, no matter they are extremes of deficiency or extremes of excess. Aceticism tells us to suppress our desires and to reduce our material enjoyment to nothing, while the American Playboy philosophy suggests that the best life-style is one of pleasure seeking, namely, to be a playboy. The Chinese rejects both viewpoints. They would like to enjoy life, but with moderation. Both aceticism and hedonism are wrong in being extremes. Wherever it has reached an extreme, properness will lose its place.

Together with the concept of moderation is the concept of harmony. In the classic of Chung Yung or Doctrine of the Mean, the word chung is associated with ho (和, harmony) to form a special term chung-ho.[13] As it was explained, ho denotes the state of harmony attained through the balancing of all aroused feelings. This is a psychological interpretation. In its very generalized sense, ho can be interpreted as equilibrium within an organism, a well cooperative relation among the members within a family, and peacefulness existing in a well-ordered society. This term has appeared for many times in Confucian classics such as Li Chi or Li Ji, 禮記) and the I Ching. In fact it is the most prevailing single notion in the history of Chinese culture, both the cultivated and the vernacular. It is the custom of Chinese people to post slips of red paper containing maxims or sayings of good fortune during the new year period. Two of the most popular sayings are ho ch’i sheng t’sai (和氣生財harmony brings fortune) and I-tuan ho ch’i (一團和氣, Being united in harmony). In ordinary Chinese, a well-flavored dish is called ho wei (和味)harmonized tastes), a drawn game is called ho chu (he ju, 和局a situation of harmony or peace), and a pleasant breeze is ho feng (harmonious wind). All these indicate that the concept of harmony plays a significant guiding role in Chinese modes of thinking and Chinese ways of life.

This concept of moderation and harmony can account for some phenomena of Chinese culture and society. It has been noted that the Chinese attitude toward religion is one of eclectics. one may worship the Buddha in the morning, then pray to Laotzu in the afternoon, and yet is "registered" as a Confucianist. This is a product of chung-ho which is an inclination to create balance among conflicting components. Therefore a typical Chinese mind is often bothered by the exclusiveness and intolerance of the Christians toward their pagan beliefs. For a Chinese, all religions lead to the same goal. In short, the tendency to compromise, or to be eclectic, is a logical product of moderation and harmony.

In theory chung-ho is a concept of ideal. But in practice, it may produce undesirable results. Due to too much readiness to compromise, individuals are too often willing to sacrifice their rights and freedom for the sake of the harmonious order of the family or the society. The result is social conformity. Too much tolerance for a totalitarian government, from an American viewpoint, is scarcely a virtue. But, from the Chinese viewpoint, tolerance for the evil is only a means toward a greater future.


These twelve characteristics of Chinese culture as presented in this essay are not intended to be exhaustive or complete. It is undeniable that a blind man tails to give an accurate description of the elephant. Then how about the zoo-keeper who takes care of the animal every day? It is true that he knows more about the animal than the people outside the zoo. But his communication to outsiders may fall short due to the limitation of human language. This limitation was revealed by the Taoist sage Lao Tzu more than two thousand years ago: "The Tao that can be spoken of Is not the Absolute Tao." [14]

I do not mean to quote Laotzu as an excuse for my possible failure in my communication with full clarity and accuracy. What I intend to say here is that my attempt in this essay remains only (using a popular Chinese metaphor) "an invitation of jade with a piece of brick" (拋磚引玉). This attempt can probably be explained more clearly by a Zen story. Once a Zen student asked the master where the moon was. The master pointed to the place where the moon was rising. Realizing that the student was still looking at his finger, the master said, "Oh, child. Don’t take my finger for the moon!"[15] My account is the finger, while Chinese culture is the moon. I hope my readers, with attention toward this essay, will not take the finger for the moon.



[1] Tao Te Ching¸ chapter 25.

[2] This story is found in the last section of chapter 7 of Chuangtzu (i.e., The Works of Chuangtzu).

[3] Mencius, 2A:2.

[4] The Analects, VI: 10.

George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 3.

Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, ed. Philip P. Wiener, Revised Edition (Hoholulu: East-West Center Press, 1964), pp. 177, 204.

Alan W. Watts. The Way of Zen (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 5.

The Analects, XI: 11.

This is one of the main concepts running through his Americans and Chinese (Garden City: Doubleday Natural History Press, 1970).


The Analects, IV: 16.

T’ang Chün-I, The spiritual Values of Chinese Culture (Taipei: Cheng Chung Book Co., 1953), chapter 16. 唐君毅,「中國文化之精神價值」(台北: 正中書局, 一九五三), 第十六章.

The Analects, XII: 13.

Chung Yung or Doctrine of the Mean (中庸).

[14] This is a well-known quotation from the first chap

ter of the Tao Te Ching.

[15] This is a famous story in the Zen Buddhist tradition and is contained in Chih Yueh Lu (Zhi Yue Lu, The Dialogue of Pointing to the Moon, 指月錄」,the title of which was named after the story.