18.9 C
New York
Friday, May 27, 2022

A way of life: The Chinese Culture

By Chantale Jimenez

 CSMS Magazine Staff WriterIn-depth analysis Shanghai, ChinaAs china flexes its muscles and ready to become the next super power, it is quintessential to understanding the true nature of the Chinese culture. In fact, the rise of China is now the subject of strategic debates in the corridors of western powers. The main Chinese language (Mandarin) is increasingly used as a major course of study in foreign language education, and venture capitalists see China as the new Asian Silk Road in their pursuit of the snow leopard. All eyes are on this giant country, as it prepares to host the Summer Olympic. This is why our staff writer, Chantale Jimenez, who went on special assignment for CSMS Magazine, files this report from her stay in Shanghai, China’s most vibrant city. It is an in-depth analysis of the Chinese culture.  American Children once fancied that if one digs straight down and keeps on digging, eventually one would emerge on the opposite side of the earth: in China. However, geographically inaccurate this may be, it neatly epitomizes an unshakable belief that China is not merely different from the United States, or more generally from the Western world, but so completely different that it is in all respects the polar opposite.

Nationality and Ethnicity

 China is a multi-ethnic society in which the government officially recognizes 56 “nationalities”, or ethnicities: the majority, known as the Han, compromise 92% of the country’s population; the remaining 55 groups include Zhuang (at around 16 million, the most numerous minority), Uygurs (a Turkish-speaking people), Mongols, Tibetans, and the others are officially termed “national minorities” (Gunde, 2002). When speaking of the “Chinese”, we refer to the Han. It is they who inhabit the historical heartland of China, speak the Chinese language, and follow the customs. Historically, relations between the Han and minority people have been complicated and variable. Over the centuries, as the Han population grew, its people spread outward into areas they considered the frontier, coming into contact with non-Chinese peoples, and in many instances driving them into the hills and mountains or entirely displacing them. When Han and non-Han peoples have met, the encounter at times has been violent. In recent centuries, Han and Chinese speaking Muslims in the northwest and southwest have lived in close proximity, carried out business together, and at times intermarried, but from time to time they have also been at each other’s throats, with clashes sometimes growing into full-scale rebellion and civil war (Gunde, 2002).


 In China, one may be at the same time a Confucian, a Taoist [Daoist], and a Buddhist, with Christianity and Islam being added (Bond, 1991). One of the enduring features of religion in China has been that many people are perfectly comfortable in following more than one faith. The old notion that China has three religions—Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, or as is usually said today, that it has five religions the aforementioned three plus Islam and Christianity—does not accurately describe the situation on the ground. In the first place, it is difficult to call Confucianism a religion since it lacks a clergy and is little concerned with spirits and deities. Furthermore, there is a huge universe of so called popular folk religion, a rich and diverse amalgam of beliefs and practices that do not neatly fit within the boundaries of Confucianism, or Daoism or Buddhism (Gamer, 2003).            Today most Chinese probably consider themselves non-religious. Nonetheless, a great many of these “non-religious” people participate in observances and ceremonies. Especially for people in the countryside, participating in or at least supporting festivals and observances that are ostensibly religious is an accepted part of community life. For instance, in many villages collections are taken up to fund one religious festival or another, and all families are expected to contribute and almost all in fact do so (China News Digest, 1997). No one is required to “believe” in any of the gods that are being honored, but every family is expected to support community solidarity.

Food: Fan and Cai: The Culinary Foundation

 It is sometimes said that while every nation has its own characteristic ways of cooking, only a few possess a cuisine. Chinese cooking qualifies as one of the world’s greatest cuisines. A Chinese meal stands on two legs: fan and cai. These two words have no precise English equivalent or an equivalent in any other European tongue, because the concept is uniquely Chinese. Fan consists of grains and other starches, and cai of meat, vegetables, fruit and everything else. A complete Chinese meal contains both fan and cai. The preeminent form of fan is steamed rice. Moreover, rice is generally the preferred and most widely available form of fan (Gamer, 2003).

Family and Gender

 The family has been central to life in China, so much so that each family is like an atom in the universe that is Chinese society. Familial relationships in traditional China spread outward, into larger and larger circles. At the center is the nuclear family, consisting of the husband/father, wife/mother, and their unmarried children. In addition, many households contain a parent or both parents of the father. Some households, known as “joint families,” also contain at least two married brothers, with or without children (Gamer, 2003). Parents arrange marriages for their offspring, sometimes before they are old enough to live together and consummate the marriage. When a boy is married, he brings his bride to live with his parents. When the father dies, he divides his estate equally among his sons. Marriage does not lead to the creation of a new household. Usually, new families are created through partition of the family estate after the death of the father. Each son might use his share as the economic foundation for a new, smaller family he now heads, moving out of the parent’s house to establish a nuclear family. One son may stay with or take in the widowed mother to create a stem family (Bond, 1991).

Family Relations       

 The traditional Chinese family is most emphatically male-centered with respect to the distribution of authority, patterns of authority, patterns of employment, residence, inheritance, a pronounces preference for male offspring, and oppression of women. Female infanticide – the killing of female babies at birth – was practiced among some poor families before 1949. Due to these women are outnumbered, today the imbalance is phenomenal; 107 males for every 100 females. The function of marriage is to produce male children who would perpetuate the husband’s line. If a couple may have only one child, and if they strongly prefer a son, they have the option of deciding on an abortion. (Gamer, 2003).  


 Sex was a taboo topic in China before the 1980s. Any materials relating to sex, even nude works of art, were strictly forbidden. Even marital sex was not discussed. Today many people still avoid talking about sex either privately or publicly. A 1990 survey reported that over half of respondents never discussed sex with others (Gunde, 2002).

Socializing the Chinese Child

 The Chinese child is brought up to regard home as a refuge against the indifference, the rigors, and the arbitrariness of life outside. This feat is achieved by indulging the infant, restraining the toddler, disciplining the schoolchild, encouraging the student to value achievement, and suppressing the divisive impulses of aggression and sexuality throughout development (Bond, 1991). Constantly during this process one is taught to put other family members before oneself, to share their pride and their shame, their sadness and their joy. Family relationships become a lifelong affair, with family activities continuing to absorb the lion’s share of one’s time and responsibility.

Early Restrictiveness

 Control over the child’s movement begins in infancy. Babies are often swaddled in restrictive clothing and held or physically immobilized in a chair, back harness, or cot. Parents consider the floor or ground to be dirty, and discourage, indeed prevent, babies from exploring and manipulating much of their accessible environment. Given the small size of most Chinese homes, there is not a great deal of space to cover anyway. Control is exercised physically rather than verbally, especially in the early years. The Chinese tend to not speak to their young children as much as Americans do, and treat those not as separate thinking beings but rather as physical extensions of themselves. This non verbal pattern of relating may set the stage for the subsequent verbal inhibition of the Chinese outside their family circle and may indeed account for their relatively lower performance in verbal tests of intelligence (Sivin, 1988)

Parenting Pattern: Discipline 

 The Chinese associate a dominating style of control with lower levels of parental warmth. Chinese parents are found to be authoritarian and to use restrictive and controlling child rearing strategies, however contrary to the findings; the parents perceive themselves as more authoritative (Steinburg, Lamborn, Dornbusch & Darling, 1992). The Chinese perceive mothers as the more caring and the father as the more disciplinarian, less responsive, less demanding, demonstrating less concern, but harsher. The mothers in Asian American families still primarily do the childbearing. The mothers use permissive parenting techniques when the children are infants. However, as the children grow older, mothers rely primarily on non-physical disciplinary techniques, inculcating in the child a strong sense of family obligation, which continues to be reinforced as the child grows older. The mothers rely on shame and guilt techniques to control the child’s behavior whenever they deviate from their parent’s expectations (Suzuki, 1980). There is less communication with fathers, and adolescents tend to have negative feelings when communicating with fathers than mothers. The pattern of distance in affection between father and child conforms to traditional division of roles and is found also in Western countries. It poses a problem in the Chinese culture where so much importance is attached to the relationship between father and son. Without adequate affection and warmth in this relationship, the children will perform their roles in the family without the emotion to keep the unit viable (Sivin, 1988).

Immigration and Parent-Child Relations

 In Chinese immigrant families, disengagement between parents and children during adolescence may be greatly intensified at a time when children often need their parents’ guidance and support most (Garcia & Magnuson, 1997). Compared with their native counterparts, immigrant children face more challenges and risks in their development. Immigration, a highly stressful event in itself (Smart and Smart, 1995), strips children of their familiar environment and supportive network of extended family and friends. Many immigrant children experience trauma in the process of crossing the border or in their resettlement in the new country (Laosa, 1989). After arriving, the need to learn the new language and culture in an unfamiliar context can create tremendous acculturation stress. Chinese children’ fight against discrimination is a constant struggle many immigrant children face in school and in the larger society. Poverty is yet another critical risk factor. Nearly a quarter of the children of immigrants live below the poverty line, compared to 11 percent of white children (Elmelech, 2002). Poverty coexists with other factors that increase risks, such as residence in neighborhoods ridden with violence and gang activities as well as school environments that are segregated and overcrowded.            Immigrant families can play a positive role in children’s adaptation by providing a buffer against these external threats (Athey & Ahearm, 1991). A dominant theme in current immigration research suggests that preserving parental culture, language, and ties to the ethnic community can facilitate upward social mobility in immigrant children (Elmelech, 2002). Children are more likely to adjust well to a new culture when they are not isolated from their culture of origin. The closest link for Chinese immigrant children to their culture of origin is their parents. The children become much more vulnerable to risk factors in their adaptation and adjustment when they lose this base and buffer.            Immigration often brings changes to the family roles and tends to destabilize family relations over time (Foner, 1997). One of the most salient issues is the acculturation gap between parents and children (Laosa, 1989). There is a dissonant acculturation, when children’s learning of English and American ways and simultaneously loss of the immigrant culture outstrip their parents (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). After migration, children often pick up English and absorb the new culture sooner at school through contact with teachers and peers rather than their parents, who may be more removed from the “larger American culture,” particularly if they work with co-ethnics—a typical case for many new immigrants. Dissonant acculturation often leads to increasing parent-child conflicts in immigrant families and adaptation challenges for children (Chan & Leong, 1994). Immigrant parent-child conflicts may become particularly acute during adolescence, when an adolescent’s yearning for independence is combined with acculturation into mainstream values of individualism.

Preventive Measures to Control Childhood Aggression


Training in non-aggression begins early, of course, in the home. Chinese parents are extremely intolerant of hostility directed towards themselves and discourage fights among their children by putting pressure on the older children to concede to their younger siblings, thereby demonstrating the process of conciliation (and the responsibility of seniority). When the children begin to associate with other children, the implications of having an aggressive child are creating discord in the community. One child may develop a reputation for being rough, disobedient, and competitive, dangerous credentials in any Chinese setting (Bond, 1991).  Consequently, those taking care of children punish their charges’ aggression in circumstances where such discipline would appear unacceptable to Westerners. If a neighbor makes a direct complaint, a parent will often discipline a child without ascertaining the facts. Chinese parents will rarely encourage their children to fight back under any circumstances, and they exercise more disciplinary control over their children’s aggressive behavior than America parents do (Steinburg et al., 1992)


The Educational Context: Early Schooling 

 Schooling begins very early by Western standards. In the People’s Republic of China, for example, kindergarten starts as early as 18 months, with infants spending up to ten hours a day, six days a week, in the institution. A typical Chinese kindergarten seems more like a primary school. The Chinese sit neatly arrayed in rows, following rote methods of learning, receiving explicit instruction in numbers, letters, and characters (Steinburg et al.). Disruptive behavior is not tolerated. Reprimands, isolation, or striking are used to enforce discipline. Fractious children are sent to the principal, who will often call in the parents and demand that they try harder to make their child more tractable.

Achievement Motivation

 Achievement goals are often presented as being for the benefit of a group, be it the family or the state, rather than the individual. Other people, rather than the individual, often define the standards against which achievement is to be measured. Childhood achievement is almost exclusively defined in academic terms. Social skills, athletic ability or personal fulfillment are secondary to doing well in school.  The obsession with academic achievement remains today, since academic achievement is still a major escalator to higher position. Parents exert massive pressure on their children to do well in school. Homework is supervised and extends for long periods, extracurricular activities are kept to a minimum, effort is rewarded, tutors are hired, and socializing is largely confined to family outings (Glick, 1984).The Role of the TeacherTeaching is an exalted profession in Chinese culture, commanding the same respect as is due to one’s father. So teachers are generally well provided for, except when their moral authority makes their potential opposition to a political regime dangerous. Students respond to teachers as to a stern parent; with attention, silence and feat. They do not question teachers, or challenge their judgments, provided the teacher behaves with moral integrity (Bond, 1991).The ClassroomAsian classrooms are more efficiently managed than the American classrooms; greater amounts of time are devoted to academic activities and to imparting information in Asian classrooms. Attentiveness on the part of children is high, transitions from one activity to another occupy little time, and children seldom engage in irrelevant activities during class periods. Much less time is devoted to small group or individual activities; most of the class time is devoted to activities where the teacher is in charge (Glick, 984). Low Salaries and Heavy WorkloadsAccording to the 2003 statistics, the average annual salary of Chinese primary and middle school teachers was 13,000 Renminibi (rmb) per year or 1,108 rmb per month (People’s Daily Online 2004). That is the equivalent of $1,621 U.S. dollars (USD) per year or $135 USD per month. Low salaries are a major issue facing Chinese teachers, along with the shortage of qualified teachers. Low salaries are a burden on teachers’ personal and economic lives. Financial pressures cause emotional stress and force some god teachers out of the classroom (Romanowski, 2006). In addition to low salaries, the workload for teachers is great. Large class sizes, limited resources, and parental pressures have forced teachers to work long hours and provide lessons to students on weekends. In China, students often attend classes on Saturdays and Sundays to improve their English abilities, study an additional language, or develop in other areas such as piano or dance. When Chinese students go on break, classes are rescheduled to avoid missing valuable learning time (Merryfield, 1995).High-Stakes TestingChinese education is the epitome of high-stakes testing. Students spend their school life preparing for the ultimate examination- the College Entrance Exam (CEE). Today, the CEE not only grants or denies admission to the university, but students’ performance on the exam has a direct impact on their lives. One student stated, “If I didn’t pass the college entrance exam, I would have no future” (Romanowski, 2006). The key issue is that the exam dictates the curriculum; the exam prevents teachers from addressing other knowledge and skills in fear of failing to adequately prepare students. The curriculum is then reduced to only what is covered on tests, in turn limiting students’ access to knowledge and skills. This intense obsession with testing, dictates all aspects of education in China. The result is that Chinese students can master and memorize incredible amounts of knowledge and information and are excellent at preparing for exams, but they lack the ability to critically think, develop their own opinions, and engage in creative activities (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001.).ReferencesAthey, J., & Ahearm, F.. (1991). Refugee Children: Theory, Research and Services. Baltimore,  MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Bond,M. (1991). Beyond the Chinese Face. New York: Oxford University PressChan, S., & Leong, C. (1994). Chinese Families in Transition: Cultural Conflicts and Adjustment Problems. Journals of Social Distress 3(3): 263-281.China News Digest,Global News, no. GL98-057. (April 22, 1998).Elmech,Y. (2002). Children of Immigrants: A Statistical Profile. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.Foner, N. (1997). The Immigrant Family: Cultural Legacies and Cultural Changes. International Migration Review 31 (4): 961-975Fong, V. (2007). Parent Child Communication Problems of Chinese Children.Gamer, R. (2003). Understanding Contemporary China. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner PublishersGarcia, C., & Magnuson, K. (1997) The Psychological Experience of Immigration: A Developmental Perspective. In Immigration and the Family. Pg. 91-132. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence ErlbaumGlick, P (1986). How Chinese Families are Changing: American Demographics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson PressGunde,R. (2002). Culture And Customs of China. Wesport. CT:  Greenwood PressLaosa, L. (1989). Psychological Stress, Coping and the Development of the Chinese Immigrant Child. Princepton, NJ: Educational Testing ServiceMerryfield,M. (1995). Teacher Education in Global and International Education. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education,Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. (2001). Legacies: The Story of the Second Generation. Berkeley: University of California PressRomanowski, M. (2006). Kappa Delta Pi Record. Vol. 42, Iss. 2; pg. 76. Indianapolis: WinterSivin,N. (1988) The Contemporary China. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson PressSmart, J., & Smart, D. (1995). Acculturation Stress of Chinese Children: Loss and Challenge. Journal of Counseling and Development 73(4): 390-396Steinburg,., Lamborn, S., Dornbusch,S. & Darling, N. (1992). Impact of Parenting Practices on Adolescent Achievement: Authoritative Parenting. Child Development. 63 (5), 1266-1281. BerkeleyL University of California PressSuzuki, B. (1980). The Asian American Family. Pg. 74-102. New York: LongmanZimmerman, B., & Schunk, D. (2001). Self Regulated Learning and Academic Achievement: Theoretical Perspectives (2nd edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence ErlbaumAlso, see Role of alternative languages in our society                China’s People Liberation Army still going strong

Related Articles

Stay Connected


Latest Articles