China is the most populous country in the world and has the second largest land area. Its cultural influence is felt throughout the Asian region and has impacted the world on a large scale through the arts, sciences, cuisine, production and trade. Chinese culture has undergone a rapid and intense transformation over the past 50 years and continues to adapt to the modern world. Due to the country's massive size and long, complex history, it is difficult to summarise the society without running the risk of oversimplifying the culture. The immense geographic and demographic size of the nation accommodates many different ethnic groups that each have distinctive dialects, customs and traditions. It is important to recognise this diversity, as the West has a tendency to perceive the Chinese as a homogeneous people.
For two millennia, the Chinese empire was one of the most advanced and innovative civilisations in the world. The dynasties had incredible cultural and military success, conquering and absorbing neighbouring societies into their own. An ethnocentric understanding of the world came to resonate with the Chinese, as their experience with foreigners was generally limited to confrontations with those who tried to invade them or those that they overpowered and assimilated into their empire. Given this, when European traders arrived in the 1500s, the population initially struggled to comprehend how they fit into a wider, modern nation-state system. The Chinese had considered themselves the epicentre of the world for centuries, so the dynasty initially showed no real interest in getting involved in global politics.
The empire eventually collapsed and became reimagined as a nation-state. However, the Chinese sense of cultural superiority led the country to isolate itself further. As the Western and Eastern worlds advanced trade and began to globalise, China continued to be a secluded and 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 aimed to preserve China’s traditional values. Life was largely contained to the country’s borders with a closed economy (until 1978) and closed borders (until 1974). In 1978, the nation acknowledged the need for international involvement and began to embrace modernisation and globalisation. The Chinese Economic Reform heralded a new era of Chinese openness. Attention shifted to focus on prosperity, science and culture, with the Communist Party's control on individuals' liberties loosening.
In light of China’s history and recent fundamental change, one must appreciate that the people have been receptive or “open” to the outside world for only the past 40 years. Since this radical transformation, cities have commercialised and corporatised. The Chinese people now enjoy the freedom to travel, get an overseas education and learn other languages. Though behaviour remains tightly regulated and the culture still echoes the country's feudal past, China has become more internationally exposed. Contemporary Chinese culture is heavily influenced by a unique combination of its embedded traditions and this recent, rapid modernisation.
Today, a clear divide in social attitudes is visible in the different mindsets between the young and old, as well as urban and rural dwellers. The older 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 progressive ideals. There are also different opinions throughout the population regarding the importance of cultural preservation and modernisation.
Nevertheless, the country maintains a fundamental understanding of what it means to be Chinese. The Chinese cultural identity has been developed through centuries of shared history and customs (such as Confucianism, ‘filial piety’, ‘guanxi’ and the government's involvement in individuals' lives). As such, the current mindset of the Chinese people is a combination of their modern aspirations and traditional origins. The emerging Chinese culture is being defined by its innovation, preservation and recent cultural and economic evolutions.
Ethnic and Language Composition
The Chinese government officially recognises 56 ethnic groups within the country, with the vast majority identified as ethnically Han Chinese (91.6%). This ethnic group outnumbers the minority ethnic groups in every province and autonomous region, except for Tibet and Xinjiang. For this reason, the dominant culture, traditions and written language in China are that of the Han. Where minority ethnic groups are found in large numbers, the areas are often classified as autonomous regions (e.g. Tibet). In some areas of China (such as the southwest), many ethnic groups reside within the same geographic region. They may live in isolation from one another, as each has generally maintained their own distinct cultural traits and language. Some also have different economic structures.
As China’s ethnic landscape is largely homogeneous, the population’s diversity is generally understood on a linguistic basis. There are several language families represented in the country. The Sino-Tibetan family is by far the most salient. Within this language family, Han Chinese is the most widely spoken. However, the Han speak several mutually unintelligible dialects largely distinguished by regional differences. By far the most known is ‘Mandarin,' also known as ‘putonghua,' which means ‘ordinary language.' There are three variations of Mandarin depending on the region. The ‘Beijing Hua' (‘Beijing dialect') is the most widespread and has been adopted as the national language. It is taught in schools, thus nearly all Chinese can speak, read and write Mandarin.
Written Chinese uses characters to express words, ideas or principles. While there are nearly 50,000 characters, only about 8,000 are in regular use. While people in different regions may struggle to understand each other’s spoken language, most use the same basic set of characters and can communicate in writing.
Confucianism is a guiding philosophy in China that emphasises 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’ (‘social cohesiveness').
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 essential 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 utmost respect and devotion. Filial piety is akin to the 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.
Unity and Interpersonal Interactions
China has one of the most collectivist cultures in the world. However, economic growth and 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. Individuals are taught to keep to themselves and respect the law and authority 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 fundamental 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 are influenced by the concept of face. Face is the quality, embedded in most Asian cultures, representing a person's reputation, influence, dignity and honour. Individuals 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 the government and business entities incorporate it into their decision-making processes. For example, a company may buy expensive equipment that is never used to improve their face.
Another important concept in interpersonal interactions is that of ‘guanxi’. The word ‘guanxi’ is a general term used to describe relationships that may also result in the exchange of connections or favours that benefit both people. The principle of guanxi commits friends, family and, at times, business colleagues to assist one another. Violating guanxi can lead to a loss of face or honour. Guanxi plays a large role in business interactions and relations. Guanxi often refers to ‘networking’, which is reflected in the Chinese saying, “nei wai you bie” (“insiders are different from outsiders”). Good guanxi can sometimes be necessary to creating opportunities that otherwise would not be accessible. Mutual trust is essential to guanxi. In turn, many Chinese will prioritise relationship building, particularly in a business context.
Politeness and Courtesy
Perceptions of politeness and courtesy (‘limao’) in China differ from those in Australia. Traditional Chinese courtesy rests on the lifelong hierarchical relationships reflected in Confucian ideology. These relationships are already clear, meaning that the Chinese do not feel the need for constant verbal reinforcement through courtesy words like ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’. Many Chinese feel that saying such terms in the company of elders, relatives or close friends creates formality and distance that should not exist. Moreover, some can feel that the repeated use of courtesy words in a habitual way can come across as lacking sincerity.
This tradition continues today whereby the Chinese way to show politeness and kindness is to shorten the social distance between one another. Thus, courtesy words act as a buffer or space that indicates formality and distance. From a Western perspective, the contrast between the politeness of what one does and the bluntness of what one says can seem confusing. For example, when at a restaurant among friends, a Chinese person will usually pour tea for everyone present at the table before pouring their own. Yet, they may not say ‘excuse me’ when asking for someone to pass them food. In this way, a cultural difference in manners can sometimes be perceived as rude. However, be aware that respect and courtesy are simply exhibited in different ways.
Population Density and Public Spaces
With a huge population, China has a high population density (especially in its cities) and the space of the average piece of housing is smaller than what is the norm for families in Australia. Therefore, many Chinese favour using public spaces, such as parks, to undertake their personal activities. As crowding is normal and expected, people are generally less protective of the personal space and privacy of themselves and others. The Chinese generally have quite loud public demeanours. People may openly express their emotions, carry out their conversations within earshot of others, sing or even dance with indifference for those around them. Not only is this considered normal behaviour, it generally does not inconvenience the broad Chinese public.
This cultural difference in public manners sometimes leads foreigners to interpret Chinese as being rude or disrespectful. In the English-speaking West, public spaces are generally places where their solitude, privacy and personal space is respected. For example, it is common courtesy to lower the volume of one’s voice to avoid disturb those in your vicinity when on public transport, in a park, a library or a cafe. Nevertheless, this is not always the expectation in China. Public spaces are anticipated to be ‘renao’ (bustling with noise and excitement) as various people carry out their own activities. People may practice Tai Chi, calligraphy, or even do ballroom dance classes. It is common for other members of the public to join in the activity or stop to watch.