Chinese society was shaped for a long time by Confucianism and then by Communism and now by making money. Diwei (“status”) is all-important in modern China. Otherwise China is a very diverse place and the Chinese are a diverse group of people. Attitudes, feeling and values vary from individual to individual, group to group and region to region and it is difficult to make generalizations. Chinese society has gone through enormous changes in the past century and changes in daily and economic life have been particularly rapid in the past decade. A popular expression that describes how fast society is changing goes: "He who thinks is lost."

China, the world's largest society, is united by a set of values and institutions that cut across extensive linguistic, environmental, and subcultural differences. Residents of the southern and northern regions of the country might not understand each other's speech, enjoy each other's favorite foods, or make a living from each other's land, and they might describe each other with derogatory stereotypes. Nonetheless, they would regard each other as fellow Chinese, members of the same society, and different from the Vietnamese or Koreans, with whom some Chinese might seem to have more in common. [Source: Library of Congress]

Most societies in Southeast Asia are characterized by bilateral descent while societies in China, Korea and Japan are characterized by patrilineal descent. In the former sons or daughters may inherit property while in the latter only sons inherit property and in many cases traditionally have taken up the same trades as their fathers In the Maoist era in China the Communist Party made many decisions about a person's private life, telling them when and who to marry, what birth control methods to use, and what jobs to take. Today, life is much more about choice than it used to be. People now have more say in choosing their jobs, their spouses and they things they want to buy though arguably their lives are still more constrained than those of people living in the West.

“Chinese society, since the second decade of the twentieth century, has been the object of a revolution intended to change it in fundamental ways. In its more radical phases, such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the revolution aimed at nothing less than the complete transformation of everything from the practice of medicine, to higher education, to family life. In the 1980s China's leaders and intellectuals considered the revolution far from completed, and they intended further social change to make China a fully modernized country. It had become increasingly clear that although many aspects of Chinese social life had indeed undergone fundamental changes as a result of both political movements and economic development, the transformation was less than total. Much of the past either lived on in modified form or served to shape revolutionary initiatives and to limit the choices open to even the most radical of revolutionaries. [Ibid]

Good Websites and Sources: Book: Civil Discourse, Civil Society and Chinese Communities by Randy Kluver, John Powers/ ; Book: Studies in Chinese Society by Arthur Wolfe, Emily Ahern, Emily Martin/ ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Library of Congress ; Sources on Chinese Society ; Mao on Classes in Chinese Society ; Disparity of Income ; Chinatown Connection ; Book: Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance edited by Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden (Routledge, 2010)


Conformity, Exclusion and Individualism in China

left Conformity is a strong force in China. Going against the grain is not encouraged and being labeled as different can be a crushing insult. You see few punk rockers in China and men with earrings, long hair or pony tails stand out. One of the worst fears of many Chinese is to be excluded from a group. The nail that sticks up get hammered down is an expression in China as it is in Japan.

Still, the Chinese also have a reputation of being more individualistic that other Asians. "The Chinese have never been able to organize collective effort with the sort of enthusiasm and efficiency of the Japanese," Scholar William McNeil once wrote. "There is a kind of ruthless individualism in Chinese life, a competitiveness and acquisitiveness." There are also so many people in China that individuals have to assert themselves or they get lost.

The Chinese have a highly developed sense of “in group” and “out group” which means they are more likely than Westerners to do things for their friends and less for strangers. Chinese can be rude to people they don’t know.

Stability and predictability have traditionally been valued more than flair and spontaneity; maintaining appearances has been more important than self expression. Expressing individual rights taken for granted in the West can land someone in jail or a labor camp in China.

Individualism Versus Collectivism in China

There is a Chinese proverb that goes: “The bird who sticks out his head gets shot." Behavioral and sociological test often show that Americans emphasize individuals where as Chinese and other Asians stress relations and contexts. To generalize even further people in Western countries tend to value rights and privacy and are likely overvalue their skills and their importance in a group while people in Asian societies tend to value collective action, duty and harmony and tend to understate their skills and downplay their contributions to the group.

When an American is shown a fish tank full of fish he more often than not they describe the biggest fish. When a Chinese or Asian person is shown the same tank he usually describes the context in which the fish swim.

When an American is shown a picture of a chicken, cow and hay and told put together he usually picks the cow and chicken as both are animals. When a Chinese or Asian person is asked to do the same task he usually picks the cow and the hay, since the cow need the hay to survive, thus stressing the relational aspects of the picture. The conclusion here is that Americans tend to categorize things will Asians stress relationships.

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain these difference, Some say that Western values have their roots in ancient Greek Philosophy with its emphasis on individualism, reasoning and self discovery, ideas that were built up in Renaissance and Enlightenment. They then go onto say that Asian values have their roots in Confucianism, which emphasizes harmony and propriety, and this in turn is rooted in a kind of tribalism. Some have suggested that collective societies are most likely to spring up in hot areas with a lot if disease as means shunning outsiders who might bring in disease.

Most societies are collective in nature. There are few individualist ones. Some studies seem to indicate that individual choice is an illusion, rational choices are made taking into consideration of subconscious and social influences and that collectiveness is most in tune with human nature. Many would ague that relationships are a key to happiness. People with the most friends and social networks find success in their lives while people who have few social bonds are more likely to be depressed or contemplate suicide.

On changes in attitudes among Chinese athletes one American Beijing resident told the Washington Post, “Here in China we care about the nation. In America you care about just the individual. This is changing, the young people care about the individual here now. They just want to play for themselves. For the older people they just want to play for the nation.”

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
and what its like to be one in 1.3 bilion

Lack of Trust in China

Traditional bonds of trust and keeping one’s word have been weakened in recent years. Lawyers don’t trust their clients who often slip out without paying their bills. Nor do they trust judges who often make their decisions based on politics rather than the merits of the case. Job applicant lie to potential employers. Clients rip off their customers. Husbands have affairs. Friends cheat friends and uncles steal money from their nephews. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 2006]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Rules aren’t clear and must be navigated on the fly. The food supply is full of life-threatening fakes. Factories spew chemicals into the air and water at alarming rates. Power and connections far outweigh justice, and social tension is growing.”

One Chinese lawyer told the Los Angeles Times, “Living in such a society is tiring for everyone. You’re forced to be vigilant so you don’t fall into pits, which are everywhere. Everybody is a victim and at the same time is an offender.” A Chinese sociologist said “Mistrust in China is less a problem of individual morality than the system. Even someone so moral he'd jump into the water to save a drowning person might still cheat to survive."

Reasons for the lack of trust include 1) the Cultural Revolution and other social and political upheavals that undermined traditional Confucian bonds, relationships and moral codes; 2) the immaturity of the market economy and its emphasis on making money above all else; and 3) the lack of religion and a fair justice system.

The transformation to a market economy has made China a very competitive place with people doing anything the can to get an edge. If one has connections however one can easily skirt the rules or even arrogantly ignore them. If one lacks connections or is otherwise powerless they can easily be trampled on by those with power and connections.

Space, Crowds and Privacy in China

right Chinese are rarely alone. They like crowds and street life, they keep the doors of their homes open, and like many other Asians, they enjoy traveling in groups and going where everyone else is going. The Chinese fondness for crowds is summed up with the word renao, meaning “hot and clamorous.”

The Chinese are able to live together in close quarters with a minium of friction. What would seem like an unbearable lack of privacy and space to Westerns seems cozy and neighborly to Chinese. New arrivals are told to pull up a seat rather than rebuffed.

Privacy isn't as important to Chinese as it is to Westerners. It is not unusual for a passenger on train to share his or her four person compartment with a 78-year-old women and a honeymooning couple doing what newlyweds usually do on their first night together. On the trains you also see people doing their washing, partying to loud rock music from cassette players, playing cards, and lounging around in their underwear or pajamas.

Many Chinese customs, values and personality traits arise from the fact that Chinese live so close together in such a crowded place. Everyday Chinese navigate and maneuver their way on crowded sidewalks and roads and sit elbow to elbow in small restaurants. If there weren't strict rules and a high degree of tolerance for things Westerners perceive as rude behavior, people would be at each other's throats more than they already are.

Personal space is hard to find in China and thus the concept of privacy is more of state of mind than a condition of being alone. The Chinese are very good at shutting out the world around them and making their own privacy and losing themselves in their thoughts or what they are doing while surrounded by people. Chinese have a hard time understanding the desire of some Western too be alone, sometimes interpreting this desire as arrogance.

Communists taught people to eschew secrets and share everything. In Beijing it became common for people to socialize seated on toilets with no doors or partitions. The playwright Guo Shixing told the Los Angeles Times, “Privacy is a concept only recently adapted from the West. Everyone was supposed to be equal. And if you had anything different from the others you became the focus of attention. By sharing the toilet since childhood, you lost all shyness.”

Village Society in China

Village society is often tradition bound and built around loyalty to family, extended families and hometowns. The basic political and social units in village societies are the tribe, clan, family and the village. Elders and leaders wield much authority. Many villages are made of a single extended clan often with a single name such as Ma.

Traditional societies are often based on three elements: prestige, competition between clans and individuals, and the concept of reciprocity of gifts of money, goods or services. Prestige is measured in terms of political power, knowledge, material possessions and the ability to accomplish feats.

Village societies are held together by systems of community responsibilities in which everyone agrees to help everyone else with agricultural chores such as planting, harvesting, and building irrigation ditches as well as things like constructing community buildings. Leaders make sure all these tasks are done efficiently for everyone in the community and no one sluffs off.

The social code that defines community responsibilities is often combined with religion, mythology, tradition, morality and tribal law. Leaders are sometimes believed to be aided by supernatural forces in carrying out the community's tasks.

Most of the world's societies are patrilineal, meaning that things like social status, property and family names are all inherited along patrilineal lines---passed down from father to son. Kin groups are also usually patrilineal. This means that relatives of the father of an individual are welcomed as family while those of the individual’s mother are welcomed as guests.

Societal Conflicts in Villages and Lack of Change in China

Village life can be very competitive. There is often a struggle for resources bubbling just under the surface. Villagers know each other well and conflicts seldom arise by accident. Slights are assumed to be deliberate and they often are. Once a conflict gets going it often persists and structures are created to manage it not resolve it.

According to the Encyclopedia of Culture: “Villagers live by tradition and lack the incentives, knowledge, or security to make changes. Change is seen as a disruptive force and threatening to the harmonious relationships that villagers have established with their environment and their fellow villagers.”

Villages were traditionally ruled by the patriarch of the clan. Often times most of the people in a village were related and most people had the same family name. The patriarch settled disputes and oversaw community matters. Meetings were held in village clan temples, where the ancestral tablets (genealogical records) were kept.

Clans, Village Councils and Headmen in China

left The most important social institutions in villages are the clan, the village council and headman, or chief. Villages are composed of perhaps five to 25 clans, with other members of clans sometimes living in other villages, sometimes not. Clan leaders make up the village council. Clans are ranked and the leader of the highest clan is the headman (leader of the village) and the most prominent member of the village council.

Villages---and cities, towns and communities---have traditionally been dominated by powerful families and clans. Clans are usually composed of several extended families that are related to one another and usually have a common ancestor that often provides the clan members with a family name. Social status is determined by rank of a clan and the position within the clan. Status within the clan is determined by family background and meritorious deeds performed for the clan.

The headman is the highest moral and legal authority in the village. He supervises the welfare of the community, settles disputes, makes decisions on water allocation, education and fishing rights and sometimes advises villagers on who to vote for. But he is by no means a dictator. Before carrying out a decision he must have the endorsement of other clan leaders in the village council. Many villages have a council house, where village people (usually men) meet to discuss problems and issues facing the village.

In some societies the headman is also a shaman, healer and religious leader. In other societies healing and religious duties are taken care by someone else. Some headmen are authoritarian; others work closely with their councils; but ultimately they are the ones who have to make tough decisions and the buck stops with them. Many villages have a means of getting rid of a headman if he becomes too unpopular. There are not many examples of headwomen.

There is often some kind of liaison that acts as an intermediary between the village and the local and national government. See Local Government, Government

Challenges for Chinese Economic Society

Michael Keane of Queensland University of Technology wrote: “In China these days much discussion focuses on how Chinese society can ‘upgrade’, particularly in regard to the millions of people with low levels of education living outside the large urban centres. Moreover, the aging of China’s population is having a direct impact on the numbers of people registered in work. Such a decline is to be expected over time but combined with increasing minimum wages and growing average incomes, the nation is moving inexorably closer to what economists call the ‘Lewis Turning Point.’ This occurs when the economy can no longer create wealth by adding cheap labour. As Matthew Crabbe from Access Economics points out, the challenge now is to generate added-value through increased efficiency, innovation and high-value production. [Source: Michael Keane, Queensland University of Technology, Asian Creative Transformations, December 2, 2014 ||||]

“In China GDP dominates everything. While economic data may often be suspect there is no doubt that the government aspires to keep GDP indicators stable. In the past this has been achieved largely by the strength of ‘made in China’ exports. But like many tales of progress, there is more than one side. Despite the suggestion that technology is now changing China and that China is moving closer toward developing a service-led economy, it is clear that the Chinese economy still relies heavily on physical infrastructure and physical labour. Hundreds of millions of people want work: without the guarantee of work China would have social disruption on a large scale. This is the fear that keeps the government on its toes.” ||||

China’s Connected Economic Society

Michael Keane of Queensland University of Technology wrote: “China is a more technologically connected society than ever before; it has leapfrogged stages of development by adopting and adapting technologies. In 2014 China had 646.6 million internet users. In 2012, according to Access Economics 242 million people purchased goods and services online; 55.4 million of these purchases were transacted on mobile phones. Indeed the rapid growth of mobile purchases, from ‘negligible’ in 2009, is evidence of a connected society. [Source: Michael Keane, Queensland University of Technology, Asian Creative Transformations, December 2, 2014 ||||]

“A particular problematic area across China for China’s digital society is intellectual property. As a signatory of the WTO, China is obliged to manage violation of intellectual property. Commercial digital service providers such as Youku Tudou, Netease, Sina and Tencent are taking down pirated content from their sites, realising that international collaboration and investment depends on observing the rules of the game. China’s smaller-scale enterprises also realize that they have to break away from the model of simply replicating by learning to monetize the IP generated from the content or technology they create. Businesses are struggling with change and the task of managing intellectual property in rapidly moving digital sectors; labour markets are changing as consumer spending increases with millions buying commodities online rather than from bricks and mortar shopping arcades; meanwhile TV programs, films and games are more accessible online than through state-owned media outlets and many of these media sectors are cashing in despite high rates of piracy. ||||

“According to a report by McKinsey & Company there are 6 million e-merchants listing products on Taobao. This is having a strong impact on private consumption while at the same time accelerating innovation in services, in advertising and marketing, payment systems, warehousing and IT systems. This surely is a manifestation of the creative economy however defined—and it is driven by technological innovation. ||||

“Digital technologies are transforming the relationship between culture, creativity and innovation. This is further exemplified by the so-called BAT grouping of companies: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Thanks to the entry of these cash-rich IT-based companies into the market new forms of production, distribution and consumption have evolved for screen-based content. In this instance convergence, and the greater latitude provide to new media than to traditional media by China’s regulators, have allowed incumbents to experiment with form, content and business models. The developments in media content that are now happening in China reflect global changes. BesTV, Youku-Tudou, iQIYI, PPTV, Netease, and LeTV are China’s answer to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Google TV. They are commissioning and buying original content on an unprecedented scale. ||||

“These technologies are transforming Chinese culture and society and people’s ways of interacting with information. While dramatic changes have taken place in the way that people in China live, work, play and interact with government, employers, peers and family members, the fact remains that the development master plan is underpinned by a deep seated acceptance of the need for social order; for instance new regulations issued by the media regulator State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio and Television (SAPPRFT) early this year require all content streamed on video sites to undergo scrutiny. ||||

Image Sources: 1) Posters, Landsberger Posters; 2) Cinfucius images, Brooklyn College; 3) Street scene, Nolls China website ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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