Chinese Culture

Core Concepts

  • Modesty
  • Tolerance
  • Filial piety
  • Loyalty
  • Stoicism
  • Selflessness
  • Face
  • Unity

Due to the country’s massive size and long, complex history, it is difficult to summarise China without oversimplifying the culture. It has the highest population in the world and the second largest land area. This immense size in both respects accommodates many different ethnic groups that have their own distinctive dialects, customs and traditions. It is important to recognise this diversity, as the West tends to perceive the Chinese as a homogenous people.

China has one of the most collectivist cultures in the world. However, economic growth leading to increased financial independence is giving rise to more individualistic attitudes. People are encouraged to share the same mentality or goals as their family, workplace and government. In return for demonstrating loyalty and commitment to duty, an individual gains a sense of protection and unity. As such, the social organisation of China is characterised by people’s interdependence (instead of their individuality). Individuals are taught to keep to themselves, control their impulses and respect the law and authority in order to maintain societal harmony. The Chinese consider national unity and cooperation to be essential for society to function harmoniously. This is reflected in the most intrinsic foundations of the culture. For example, all regions in China follow the same time zone despite the physical landmass spanning five geographical time zones. This provides for a national sense of belonging and equality.

The cultural emphasis on unity and harmony also means that the Chinese have a strong relational focus. Interpersonal interactions are approached sensitively, with an acute consideration of people’s feelings. All behaviour and communication in China is influenced by the concept of face. Face is the quality, embedded in most Asian cultures, representing a person's reputation, influence, dignity and honour. By complimenting a person, showing them respect or doing something that improves their self-esteem, you give them face. Similarly, people can lose face. Therefore, individuals in China usually act deliberately and with restraint to protect their self-worth and peer perception. Conservative conduct is the norm, as people don’t want to stand out and/or risk losing face by doing something that is considered inappropriate. Face is so intrinsic to Chinese culture that even government and business entities incorporate it into their decision-making processes. For example, a company may buy expensive equipment that is never used just to improve their face. Confucian values (e.g. filial piety) and cultural customs (e.g. guanxi) also influence interpersonal interactions. These guide individuals on how to behave and how to show respect in order to prevent the loss of face.

Confucianism is a guiding philosophy in China that puts emphasis on the importance of healthy human interactions. It promotes the idea that relationships between people are unequal and that everyone should have defined hierarchical roles (for example, ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). It teaches that when this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations between individuals and, therefore, in society as a whole. The Confucian logic of obedience, responsibility and adherence affects many aspects of Chinese behaviour and attitudes about virtue. The Chinese sense of duty and societal cohesiveness is encapsulated in the principle of Li: ‘doing what we are supposed to do’.

One may notice that within Chinese society, interactions are tiered and require a level of deference and respect from one party. Within the social hierarchy, a person’s position, occupation and level of education are important to their status. However, age is often an overriding factor that determines the level of respect people should show. The importance of age is emphasised in Confucianism as ‘filial piety’. This is the core concept that requires one to give parents and elders utter respect and devotion. Filial piety is akin to reverence of one’s ancestors and may entail unconditional obedience of seniors.

It is important to note that traditions and Confucian values are losing popularity in China. They still influence the way society functions; thousands of years of traditional education has deeply embedded Confucian concepts such as modesty, obedience, loyalty and filial piety into society. However, the more traditional tenets of Confucius’s teachings (such as sexist ideologies and rural land tenure) are increasingly viewed as relics of China’s feudal past. In fact, various aspects of Chinese culture have significantly evolved in the past few decades. A brief review of China’s early history will help provide the context needed to understand the country’s more recent changes.

China’s Seclusion
For two millennia, the Chinese empire was one of the most advanced and innovative civilisations in the world. It had a conquering, dynastic rule during which its experience with foreigners was limited to (1.) confrontations with those who tried to invade or (2.) people from neighbouring conquered civilisations that they absorbed into their empire. As such, an ethnocentric understanding of the world came to resonate with the Chinese1. The population initially struggled to comprehend how they fit into a wider, modern nation-state system; for centuries they had regarded themselves as the epicentre of the world. As a result, the dynasty showed no real interest in getting involved in global politics.

The dynasty eventually collapsed, however the Chinese sense of cultural superiority led the country to isolate itself further. As the Western world advanced and began to globalise, it continued to be a secluded, introverted, conservative country into the 20th century. Diversions from traditional conventions were strongly resisted. From the late 1940s onward, the sovereign government rejected globalisation, enforced national unification through a stringent communist regime and became intent on preserving China’s traditional values to suit its agenda. Life was contained to the country’s borders with a closed economy (until 1978) and closed borders (until 1974). In the eyes of the West, this made China an anomaly in the world of trade.

China’s Emergence
The Chinese Economic Reform of 1978 heralded a new era of Chinese openness. The nation acknowledged the need for international involvement and began to embrace modernisation and globalisation. Attention shifted to focus on prosperity, science and humane culture, with the Communist Party’s control on individuals’ liberties loosening.

Since this radical transformation, the society has changed rapidly. Cities are commercialised and corporatised. The Chinese people now enjoy the liberty to travel, get an overseas education and learn other languages. Though behaviour is still tightly regulated and the culture still echoes the country’s feudal past, China has definitely become more internationally exposed. In looking at this fundamental change in Chinese society, one must appreciate that the people have only been receptive or ‘open’ to the outside world for the past 40 years. Chinese culture is heavily influenced by a unique combination of its embedded traditions and recent, rapid modernisation.

Today, a clear divide exists in Chinese societal attitudes, mostly reflected in the different mindsets among young vs. old and urban vs. rural. The senior generation and rural Chinese tend to value traditional culture and try to preserve and uphold it. On the other hand, Chinese youths and city dwellers tend to be more accepting and enthusiastic about more progressive ideals.

Despite attitudinal divides regarding cultural preservation and Westernisation, the country maintains a fundamental understanding of what it means to be Chinese – 93% of the population shares the same ethnicity and cultural background. The Chinese cultural identity has been developed through centuries of shared history and customs (such as Confucianism, filial piety, guanxi and the government's personal involvement in individuals’ lives). As such, it can be appreciated that the current mentalities of the Chinese people are an amalgamation between their modern aspirations and traditional origins. The emerging Chinese culture is being defined by its innovation, preservation and recent cultural and economic evolutions.

1 Bains, Gurnek. 2015. Cultural DNA: The Psychology Of Globalization. New Jersey: Wiley.
  • Population
    [July 2016 est.]
  • Languages
    Mandarin (official)
    Plus other dialects
  • Religions
    No Religion (52.5%)
    Folk Religion (21.9%)
    Buddhism (18.2%)
    Christianity (5.1%)
    Islam (1.8%)
    [2010 est.]
    Note: China is officially atheist.
  • Ethnicities
    Han Chinese (91.6%)
    Zhuang (1.3%)
    Other (7.1%)
    [2010 est.]
    Note: The Chinese Government officially recognises 56 ethnic groups including Hui, Manchu, Uighur, Miao, Yi, Tujia, Tibetan, Mongol, Dong, Buyei, Yao, Bai, Korean, Hani, Li, Kazakh, Dai and other nationalities.
  • Cultural Dimensions
    Power Distance 80
    Individualism 20
    Masculinity 66
    Uncertainty Avoidance 30
    Long Term Orientation 87
    Indulgence 24
    What's this?
  • Australians with Chinese Ancestry
    1,213,903 [2016 census]
Chinese in Australia
  • Population
    [2016 census]
    This figure refers to the number of Australian residents that were born in China, excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan
  • Average Age
  • Gender
    Male (44.4%)
    Female (55.6%)
  • Religion
    No Religion (63.2%)
    Buddhism (16.2%)
    Catholic Christianity (3.4%)
    Other (11.4%)
  • Ancestry
    Chinese (94.1%)
    English (1.8%)
    Russian (1.4%)
  • Languages
    Mandarin (65.3%)
    Cantonese (22.5%)
    Samoan (2.5%)
    Chinese (6.0%)
  • English Proficiency
    Well (49.41%)
  • Diaspora
    New South Wales (48.9%)
    Victoria (29.4%)
    Queensland (8.5%)
    Western Australia (5.2%)
  • Arrival to Australia
    Prior to 2001 (38.2%)
    2001-2006 (23.7%)
    2007-2011 (33.7%)
Where do we get our statistics?
Country CN Flag