ASIAN CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY: HAPPINESS, LOSING FACE, CONFUCIANISM AND BUDDHISM

ASIAN CHARACTER

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Young women in Japan
There seems to be seem some character differences between Asians and Westerners but defining these differences and interpreting their significance is difficult and even dangerous. It has been said for example that Asian society based more on intuitive insight and tradition while Western society is based more on logic. But defining exactly what tradition, intuitive insight and logic are is difficult, especially if you factor in cultural relativity.

It can be argued that Asians are more honest than Americans anyway. In many instances Asians are more likely to admit a crime if they have committed it. The adversarial Western model of jurisprudence is alien to some Asians.

It also be can argued that Asians are less likely to express anger of strong emotions in public. Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check. Controlling and not expressing emotions is viewed as a sign of strength.

The same discipline is applied to social situations. An executive with the Chinese computer firm Lenovo told U.S. News and World Report, “Westerners tend to speak first, then listen, and easterners tend to listen, then speak.”

Asians seem to be more willing to share their personal space with others than Westerners. There is little privacy in Asia. People live close together and are used to having people around them all the time. Wanting to be by oneself is considered kind of strange.

Facial expressions for things such as fear, sadness, happiness and disgust are fairly universal. One of the groundbreaking experiments that bore this out was conducted in the 1960s by psychologist Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco. He showed some photographs of Americans expressing different emotions to the isolated Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Even though the Fore had never been exposed to western faces before the readily recognized emotions such as surprise, anger, happiness, fear and sadness. When the experiment was conducted in reverse with Americans examining out photographs of Fore expressing different emotions the results were the same.

Gordon Nagayama Hall, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the editor of the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology

Happy Asians

Jofelle P Tesorio wrote on the Asia News Network: “Asians are happy people. They smile, sing and dance a lot and have a carefree and positive attitude. So it is not surprising that Asia is relatively a “happy region” according to some happiness index surveys. The World Database of Happiness study indicates that Asian countries are within the middle range of happiness---how long and happy people live. Asian’s response to the question “how happy do you feel as you live now?” has been fairly high with the small Himalayan country Bhutan topping the list. [Source: Jofelle P Tesorio, Asia News Network, April 11, 2008

In another study in 2006 called Happy Planet Index (HPI) by a British think-tank New Economics Forum (NEF), Vietnam (12), followed by Bhutan (13), have been cited as the happiest in Asia, even happier than United States (150). According to NEF, this report is “an index of human well-being and environmental impact”, which moves beyond crude ratings of nations according to national income, measured by gross domestic product to produce a more accurate picture of the progress of nations based on the amount of the Earth’s resources they use, and the length and happiness of people’s lives.” In the report, a list has been provided about the ranking of the countries. The NEF study measured life satisfaction, life expectancy and environmental footprint, which is the amount of land required to sustain the population and absorb its energy consumption.

More affluent countries in Europe fell at the bottom half of the HPI because of low ecological footprint while relatively poor countries like Republic of Vanuatu (1), an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean and Bhutan were on top of the list. Asia’s rich like Hong Kong, Japan, Brunei, South Korea and Singapore scored low in the study because they mostly fell in the last indicator, the ecological footprint, but some scored relatively high in life satisfaction and life expectancy.

But happiness in Asia seems slipping. A 2007 survey in Thailand, known as the land of smiles, says its gross domestic happiness index, which measures collective contentment on a 1 to 10 scale, fell to 5.1 points compared with 5.7 the year before. The survey demonstrated the public’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with various sectors including security, public utilities, good governance, trade, social justice, allocation of resources, education and community problems. Some analysts also say that Bhutan’s happiness, although almost all of the candidates in the last elections banked on gross national happiness, is also at risk as consumerism has slowly enveloped the tiny nation.

How asian nations ranked among 178 countries: Viet Nam: 12; Bhutan: 13; Sri Lanka: 15; Philippines: 17; Indonesia: 23; China: 31; Thailand: 32; Maldives: 39; Bangladesh: 41; Malaysia: 44; Timor Leste: 48; Nepal: 54; Mongolia: 56; India : 62; Burma: 77; Hong Kong: 88; Cambodia: 91; Japan: 95; Brunei: 100; S Korea: 102; Laos: 109; Pakistan: 112; Singapore: 131.

Loss of Face and Saying No

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In Asia, it has been said that "face is more important than truth or justice" and losing face is often an individual’s greatest fear. Face is essentially respect in a community and is a crucial underpinning of society. Loss of that respect threatens the relations of individuals with almost everyone in his or her world and is hard to get back once lost and thus is avoided at all costs.

”Face” is equated with honor. Maintaining dignity and avoiding embarrassment is at the heart of maintaining face. Some people describe the West as a guilt-based society where people's behavior is dictated by their personal hang-ups. In Asian societies, on the other hand, are often described as shame-based society, in which behavior is often defined by fear of losing face. It is considered very bad taste to publically criticize a person since it results in a loss of face within the community. Necessary criticisms and suggestions should be made in way the that no one is blamed and shame is not cast upon any individual.

Southeast Asians consider it rude to say "no" directly. They often say something like "maybe," "I am busy," or even "yes" when they really mean "no," or convey a no answer in way that foreigners don't understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion with Westerners who like a "yes" or "no" answer, and who tend to believe there is a possibility of a "yes" unless they are told "no" straight out.

Studies on Social Differences Between Westerners and Asians

Dr. Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, did a series of experiments that measured how Westerners and East Asians reacted to different stimuli. The study generated some interest because the experiments were carefully controlled and they seemed to show that East Asians from Japan, China, South Korea thought more “holistically”---paying more attention to context and relationships,”while Westerners, were more “analytic”---detaching themselves from a context and relying more on preconceived notions.

In one study a group of Japanese and a group of Americans were shown an underwater scene with one large “focal” fish swimming among group of smaller fish. The Japanese tended to describe the scene and setting while the Americans tended to focus more on the big fish. When both groups were shown a picture with the same big fish in a new scene the Japanese tended to focus more on the new background and describe it while the Americans continued to be focused on the big fish. Based on these findings it was theorized that in the social world, East Asians are more likely to place situations in their context that Westerners.

In another study one group of Koreans and one group of Americans were shown essays that took strong positions on nuclear testing and told the writers were forced to write what they wrote. After undergoing a similar writing experience themselves, the Koreans were much likely to say the writers of nuclear essay were not expressing their sincere opinions while Americans were more likely to say the were sincere. Based on these findings it was theorized that East Asians are more likely than Westerners to view human behavior in terms of the social pressures people are under.

More Studies on Social Differences Between Westerners and Asians

In another group of experiments one group of Asians and one group of Americans were given weak arguments that opposed an opinion they had on a particular issues. The Asians were more likely to say the weak arguments had some merit while the Americans solidified their opinion by “clobbering the weaker arguments.” When presented with two sides if an issue, such as funding for adoption research, Asians were more likely to recognize both sides.

In a study at the University of California, Chinese subjects and American subjects were asked to analyze a conflict between mothers and daughters. The Americans were much more likely to take sides on the issue while the Chinese were more likely to argue that both sides could viewed sympathetically.

In a study in which participants were given the choice of two philosophical arguments for resolving a contradiction, Americans favored logical arguments while Chinese preferred dialectical approach. The study also found that Asians were more willing to accept proverbs with contradiction such as “too be modest is half boastful” while Americans found such proverbs irritating. In yet another study American subjects were more likely to accept a “logical” argument such “all animals with fur hibernate. Rabbits have fur. Therefore rabbits hibernate” while Asians were less likely to accept such a statement if it seemed implausible.

Some have argued that the difference are based on traditions and can be linked with difference between Confucianism and Greek philosophy. Others say the differences are rooted in language and religion. Bu before jumping to conclusions about Asians it worth considering is the fact that Asian-Americans tend to have views that are indistinguishable from Americans.

Confucianism and Character

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Confucius

Many codes of behaviors that revolve around young people showing respect to older people and students showing respect for teachers are based on Confucianism. Confucianism puts a strong emphasis and following teachers, superiors, family members and elders. Liu Heung-shin, the editor of a Hong Kong magazine, wrote Chinese identity is "connected to Confucianism, built around families and connections. It's something Chinese people can feel, even if the don't describe it in words."

Love and respect are principals that were practiced more in the context of the family than in society and humanity as a whole and equality was not necessarily the goal of a just society. These ideas help explain why nepotism is so rampant, why Chinese are so horrified by the way Westerners treat the elderly and why the Chinese are more likely to mind their own business if they witness a great injustice being inflicted on a stranger.

Confucian values were displaced somewhat by Communism and Maoism. Since Mao's death and the launching of the Deng economic reforms, Confucianism has made a comeback only to be displaced somewhat by materialism, money and superficial success.

Confucian and Taoism basically contradict and are in conflict with one another. Confucianism, emphasizes achievement and propriety while Taoism stresses unseen strengths in being humble and in some cases, being perceived as average.

Asians often do not seem as self absorbed as Americans. One explanation may be religion. Buddhists talk about diminishing the self and looking to other for guidance and information

Basic Tenets of Confucianism

Confucianism stresses the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past and emphasizes self improvement. The two major doctrines of Confucianism are: 1) zhong, based on the Chinese character that combines "heart” and "middle," meaning fidelity to oneself and humanity within; and 2) shu, meaning cherish the heart as if it were one’s owner.

Confucianism is a social code based on morality rather than laws. Confucius said: “If you govern by regulations and keep them in order by punishment, the people will avoid trouble but have no sense of shame. If you govern them by moral influence, and keep them in order by a code of manners, they will have a sense of shame and will come to you of their own accord.”

Confucius believed people should look to the past to gain insight into how to behave and said virtuous men should follow the examples of the great ancestors. The Analects outlined the four basic concepts of Confucian thought: 1) benevolence, love of humanity and the virtues of the superior man (jen); 2) moderation in all things (chung yung) and harmony with nature (T'ien): 3) filial propriety, duty and the rules that define good social relationships (li); 4) the "rectification of names" or recognizing the nature of things by giving them their right names (cheng ming).

Unlike Taoism, which emphasizes the natural way, Confucianism emphasizes the social way. It assumes that the natural world---i.e the seasons, day and night and the agriculture cycle---follow the same code as mankind; that all events on earth are the due to the “decree of heaven”; and the natural course of events, whether they be related to society or nature, is a reflection of the “Way of Heaven.”

Five Virtues of Confucianism

rightConfucianism recognizes five cardinal virtues: 1) benevolence in terms of sympathy for others (jen); 2) duty reflected in the shame felt after doing something wrong (yi); 3) manners, propriety and feelings of deference (li); 4) wisdom, in terms of discerning right and wrong (chih;) and 5) loyalty and good faith (hsin).

Benevolence is regarded as the most important of the virtues, and some effort is made to define it, with the Golden Rule being only one attempt. Manners are also given a lot of attention and means both the outward actions and inner feelings of respect. The concept embraces not only etiquette but also customs, rituals and conventions of all kinds.

Early Confucian focused a lot of attention on the relationship between morality and human nature and the whole idea that they are dovetailing and conflicting forces. Almost every side and view was taken on the subject. One prevailing idea was that human nature was a mixture of good and bad and the amounts of each could vary a great deal from individual to individual. Another important concept was that human nature was something that was evil Yet another view was that human nature was something that was in tune with the forces of heaven.

In the end the view expressed in “The Book of Rites”---That in man which is decreed by heaven is what is meant by “nature”; to follow his nature is meant by the “Way?; cultivation of the Way is what is meant by education”---became the prevailing view. One Chinese chatline user said, China “is an unusual society. Many Chinese like to shift responsibility and duty to others. If that person succeeds, he is revered. If the opposite happens, he will be condemned.”

Confucian Beliefs About Social Relationships

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person’s worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian leadership, crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Jackie Chan raised some eyebrows in April 2009 when he said that “Chinese need to be controlled. Before an audience of business leaders on Hainan Island in China he said, “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not. I’m really confused now. If you’ve got too much freedom you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic...I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age."

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too.” One Chinese woman who worked in marketing told The New Yorker, “In both the U.S. and China, people say that the family is the No. 1 priority. But in the U.S. they really mean it. In China, everything is about career and getting ahead.”

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filial piety scene

Buddhism and Character

The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “Buddhism is a “Nay-saying” religion, rejecting all life as suffering and promising release from it; yet when one is actually in a Buddhist country it is hard to resist the impression that one is among the liveliest, the most invincibly cheerful, the most “yea-saying” people on earth.”

Describing his people the King of Thailand told National Geographic magazine, "Thais seem to be happy go lucky but are quite strong. Our people are relaxed, not high strung or stiff. They are hospitable---to strangers and to new ideas. The majority are Buddhist---and the Buddhists have never had a holy war. They are polite. Honorable politeness. They have courage but are not harsh---strong but gentle."

Poor people in Buddhist countries often have a big smiles on their faces, something that many people believe is attributed to the fact they spend so much time praying and engaging religious activities. Religion is a daily, if not hourly, practice for many Buddhists. Tibetans, for example, seem to spend hours each day praying or spinning prayer wheels.

Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. This outlook and is sometimes viewed in the West as a lack of ambition or unwilling to work hard to get ahead.

Buddhist Morality

Buddhism also provides guidelines for village justice, namely in the form of the five basic moral prohibitions (the Panch Sila, or the five precepts for the laity): 1) refrain for taking life; 2) don’t steal; 3) avoid illicit sexual activity; 4) don’t speak falsely; and 5) refrain from consuming inebriating substances. These guidelines are supposed to be followed by both lay people and monks. Devout Buddhists and monks are also supposed observe a number of other prohibitions such as avoiding dancing, singing, eating after midday and wearing jewelry and cosmetics.

The religious historian I.B. Hunter wrote: “The criteria of Buddhist morality is to ask yourself , when there is one of three kinds of deeds you want to do, whether it will lead to the hurt of self, of others, or of both. If you come to the conclusion that it will be harmful, then you must not do it. But if you form the opinion that it will be harmless, then you can do it and repeat. A person that torments neither himself or another is already transcending the active life.”

Among Mahayana Buddhists there is a great deal of discussion of what is beneficial for people and what isn’t since people don’t always necessarily know what is good for them. Mahayana scholars discuss things like whether it is an act of kindness to kill an animal in extreme pain or give whiskey to an alcoholic and debate about the merits of medical technology which can make people healthier but ultimately is a benefit provided by material objects rather than spirituality.

See Eightfold Path and Buddhist Morality Under Beliefs

Buddhism, Desire and Attachment

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Young Theravada Buddhist
monks in Myanmar
Buddhists believe that humans want many things and want to keep them forever, which is impossible and creates a constant state of desire, which in turn causes suffering and fear of further loss. To get beyond desire and pain one has to find an alternative.

William Dalrymple of the Paris Review talked with an elderly Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang. The monk said, “The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride, and attachment. Of course no human being can do this completely. But there are techniques that the lamas taught us for diverting the mind. They stop you from thinking of yaks, or money, or beautiful women, and teach you to concentrate instead on gods and goddesses. [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]

When asked about the techniques the monk said, “The lamas taught us to stare at a statue of the Lord Buddha and absorb the details of the object the color, the posture, and so on, reflecting back all we knew of their teachings. Slowly you go deeper; you visualize the hand, the leg, and thevajra in his hand, closing your eyes and trying to travel inward. The more you concentrate on a deity, the more you are diverted from worldly thoughts. It is difficult, of course, but it is also essential. In the Fire Sermon, the Lord Buddha said, The world is on fire and every solution short of nirvana is like trying to whitewash a burning house. Everything we have now is like a dream impermanent. This floor feels like stone, this cupboard feels like wood but really it is an illusion. When you die you can’t take any of this. You have to leave it all behind. We have to leave even this human body.” [Ibid]

Dealing with Loss the Asian Way

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak wrote in U.S. News and World Report: Some experts say that Asian cultures tend to be more interdependent than western cultures. Manoj Shah, a psychiatrist at Schneider Children's Hospital on Long Island, went to Gujarat, India, after a devastating earthquake in 2001. In providing mental health care to the victims, he explained, Indian culture "fosters interdependency and is sociocentric rather than egocentric. Individuality and privacy are not encouraged. These characteristics lend themselves to group therapy." But there is a continuum for these relationships. "We are not like the Japanese, where everything is the company, or the society, or the community. And we are not as individualistic as western culture. We are somewhere in between." [Source: Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, U.S. News and World Report, January 17, 2005]

”While this model may be true in India, elsewhere in Asia this interdependence has another side. One of the few studies of Asian populations in stressful situations found that they tended not to seek support from others the way westerners tend to. Interdependence, in this cultural context, involves a concern for interpersonal harmony and concern over loss of face. "Loss of face involves fulfilling one's social role," says psychologist Hall. "Seeking the help of others might be perceived as burdensome and upsetting the harmony of these social relations." [Ibid]

”The way people communicate further illustrates the importance of cultural sensitivity. Anthropologists and linguists point to two basic communication styles: high context and low context. Westerners tend to communicate in a low-context style, using words to explain nearly everything. Asian cultures, by contrast, are high-context cultures, valuing and emphasizing nonverbal communication. Eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions communicate even more than spoken language. "Not every culture is a talk-it-out type of culture," says psychologist Neil Boothby, a professor of public health at Columbia University who worked for Save the Children with the children of Banda Aceh for years before the tsunami, during the civil war. Now, he will return to cope with a more traumatic disaster. "Some people will pray, some will meditate, some will seek solace in burial rituals and things of that nature. At a minimum, a western approach to talking about things could be ineffective; at maximum it could be harmful." [Ibid]

Asian Values

In the late 1990s it was fashionable to explain Asia’s economic success and prosperity in terms of “Asian values,” a collection of attributes such as a belief in hard work, thriftiness, propensity to save, filial piety, national pride, respect for order and authority, coherence of a society, and a commitments to common ideals, goals and values that place the common good ahead of the individual. Questioning authority and seniors was regarded as disrespectful, un-Confucian and un-Asian.

Some Asian value advocates went further and argued that Asian values created a better society. High rates of crime, unemployment, divorce, drug use and welfare dependency in Western societies were explained in part, the advocates said, by the fact that Westerners were lazy, selfish and greedy; and they sent their elderly to nursing homes and married several times. Asians by contrast did not have so many problems because they cared for their grandparents, shunned divorce, worked hard, saved their money and were devoted to their families.

Some Asian values advocates argued that the group-oriented, Confucian "Asian Way, " with its emphasis on respect for authority was better than the democratic, Judeo-Christian, individualistic "American Way." They suggested that imposing Western notions of individualism on Asia corrupted Asian society and Asian-style authoritarianism was the best way to develop economic growth.

Many of the pro-Asian-value pronouncements came out in the mid 1990s and were made with a degree of haughtiness. All one had to do was look around Asia, the advocates said, and see all the economic success to realize that the Asian model was better. One proponent of Asian values said, ''We're doing pretty well for ourselves, and we don't need America to play “father knows best” anymore.'"

Advocates of Asian Values

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Mahayana Buddhist monks
chanting in Japan
The highest profile advocates of Asian values were Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of Singapore, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Lee claimed there is no such thing as a “victim of society” in Asia. Mahathir said, "The Eurocentric world is finished. Asians have now found the formula." In his book The Voice of Asia, he wrote, "Western societies are riddled with single-parent families...with homosexuality...with unrestrained avarice, with disrespect for others and, of course, with rejection of or religious teachings and values." He also implied that Asian values not European values were universal.

The Chinese scholar Kishore Mahbubani told the Washington Post in 1995, "Many Western societies---including the United States---are doing some major things fundamentally wrong today, while a great number of east Asian societies are doing the same things right...An yes if standard of living means number of square feet in your home, or the number of channels on your TV, American leads the world. But of standard d of living means not be afraid to go out at night, or not worrying about what filth you children will see on all those TV channels, then our Asian societies have the higher standard."

A Japanese scholar said, "By following the insights of Confucianism, we avoid the social catastrophes befalling the West, the result of centuries of individualism and egotism...[The Confucius Golden Rule is stated in the negative] and Confucius thus advocated tolerance. The Christian rule encourages well-intentioned activism. But sometimes well-meaning people are importune and self-righteous. Western individualism leads to a clash of egos that will destroy tolerance."

Even South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung got into the act, "For the past several hundred years, the world has been dominated by Greek and Judeo-Christian ideas,” he wrote. "Now its time for the world to turn to...Asia for another revolution in ideas."

Asian Values and Economics

According to the Asian values argument: 1) "strong governments" (dictatorships) "delivered much better economic growth" while democracies such as India and the Philippines were "inefficient"; and 2) Confucian- based principals such filial piety, hard work help create economic success. The argument went contrary to what the German sociologist Max Weber had argued before: that Confucian values discouraged the attributes needed to succeed in capitalism

The nations that nations that weathered the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98---Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines---were all democracies and the ones that recovered the quickest---South Korea and Thailand---were also democracies.

After the Asian financial crisis it became quite fashionable to dismiss Asian values. The authoritarian economies were criticized for cronyism, nepotism, favoritism, lack or accountability and lack of common sense financial decisions.

Critics of Asian Values

Some critics of Asian values theory argue the theory is a rational for dictators and authoritarianism and say that Confucianism has been distorted and used as a "high-minded rationale for maintaining personal power.”

Critics point out that Confucianism was not as rigid as it is made out to be and Western thought is not as liberal and individual-based as is suggested. They argue that many of the traits described as Asian and as Western could also be described as universal. Both cultures prize hard work, education thrift, and investing in the future. Others have argued that Asia’s economic success has been achieved by embracing Western market economics rather than coming up with something uniquely Asian. Christianity, liberal democracy, and Marxism are other Western ideas that have been widely embraced in Asia.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in Foreign Policy: “There is no simple answer to why certain societies succeed at certain times...Cultures are complex: one finds in them what one wants. If one wanted to find cultural traits of hard work and thrift within East Asia, they are there. If one wants to a tendency toward blind obedience and nepotism, these too exist. Look hard enough and most cultures exhibit these traits.

Asian values are changing as values in the West did as people become more mobile and the extended family becomes less important and nuclear families have become smaller. Talk about Asian values was taken less seriously after the Asian finanical crisis in 1997 which was partly blamed on Asian-style cronyism and collusion.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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