Saturday, February 11, 2017

Unraveling Chinese Culture

With more than six years of living in China, I think I've gotten a grasp on the visible and immediate aspects of the culture: food, language, dress and mannerisms – what sociologists call 'Big C' or 'material culture'. Understandably, I'd now like to delve into and understand 'Little C', also known as 'non-material culture': the ideas, beliefs, values and norms that drive society.

That aspect is confusing and mysterious; seemingly contradictory at times. To an outsider, it is quite nearly unpenetrable.

Questions about gender equality: why are daughters not listed on the family scroll, the document that details a clan's history (See No Girls Allowed entry, posted April 2011)?

Questions about how elderly are treated: why is anyone senior to the person in question treated like a helpless, doddering fool who cannot do anything for themselves (See The Voice of the Old entry, posted ___________)?

Questions about mannerisms: how can spitting, generally being loud and obnoxious, and defecating outdoors be socially acceptable? (See What is Rude entry, posted December 2016)?

To these questions and more, the answer invariably is: “Well, that's just the way it is. That's our culture. You can't change that.” Any further questioning results in: “You can't understand. It's Chinese tradition.” In other words, a total shut-down. Woe to the one who pushes the issue further! S/He is likely to be deemed rude and obtuse, and hostile to the Chinese way of life.

This article is born of my ongoing frustration at trying to manage my affairs by myself, and a recent conversation with my protege, Tony. He has long since graduated and has made a life in Xiamen (She-ah men). He came back to Wuhan for Lunar New Year. It was the first time we'd seen each other since his graduation.

Battered as I've been lately on the rocks of invisible, impenetrable Chinese culture, it was foremost on my mind to quiz my young, progressive friend about the insurmountable mores that now define my life in China. I did not get answers I expected.

“Well, that's just the way it is. That's our culture. You can't change that.”.

Or maybe I should have expected it. Progressive and open-minded as he is – he is dating an older woman, a grave taboo in Chinese culture!, the fact remains that he is Chinese and that is the standard answer to any “why?” regarding Chinese culture.

“What style clothing are you wearing? Western or traditional Chinese?” I asked him.

“Western.” came the reply.

“What type of music do you listen to: soft rock/pop or traditional Chinese?”

“Pop music and some rap.”

“What about your car? Chinese brand?”


My dear Tony (and other Chinese friends), you cannot cherry-pick aspects of your culture to use as a weapon or a blockade against those who wish to understand you better or function in your society. Either you support China by embracing every aspect of the culture from clothing to music, or you admit that your culture is evolving, just as every culture in the history of civilization has done.

And, if you do admit to an evolving culture, then you must question or, at least, entertain and ponder questions about it.

The evidence of cultural evolution is blatant. Hardly anyone in China wears the tradition tang zhuang. Jackie Chan wears one in publicity photographs – and I quite admire him for it, representing China as he does, but you don't often see people going about their daily life so-clad. Women seldom wear qipao (tchee pow), the traditional silk, form-fitting dress. Buying a qipao can be quite expensive, and there aren't many shops that sell them (or tang zhuang), except for around Spring Festival time.

Innovations in cooking these days tend more toward western style: less frying, more steaming and boiling. Cooking shows on TV highlight the health benefits and ease of such food preparation. Ovens, so hard to come by and expensive when I first arrived, litter department store shelves and are widely available online (as well as other implements of western food culture: dishes, utensils, etc.). High-end, western-style restaurants, not just fast food places, are highly frequented.

Mandarin is becoming polluted with words from other tongues, mainly English. The Chinese word 'baobei' is phonetically similar to 'baby', modified from 'baobao', the traditional word for 'baby'. Baobei is used as a term of endearment for adults, same as in English-speaking countries, as well as for children and babies. Other terms: 'shala' – salad; 'pizha' – pizza; 'hambao' – hamburger and others, all reflecting western foods, pepper the language. And the list of word adaptations grows as the culture advances.

Rap, techo and pop music dominate the airwaves. Walk down any street where there are clothing shops and you are likely to hear a pulsing disco beat blaring from an outdoor speaker. Granted, the lyrics are in Chinese but western influence on Chinese art is undeniable. Whereas gunplay was seldom to never a feature of Chinese movies, these days, more and more gangster style shootouts can be seen in theaters and television shows.

The trail of cultural adaptations to the west is long – basketball, anyone? Hiphop dancing? But perhaps the most dramatic evidence of China's changing culture is the absence of foot binding, a centuries-long tradition that was officially banned in 1912, even though the practice continued in some parts of the country until the 1950s.      

Clearly, Chinese culture is in flux. Equally clearly, people's obstinancy toward aspects of the culture that have traditionally been deemed distasteful – stigma against females, the handicapped, LGBT and single mothers, to name a few, is impeding the progress of society. The refusal to consider any questions about Chinese culture leads to a stonewalling of advancement.

Similarly, soliciting the aid of westerners in teaching and developing the country but denying them any understanding of the culture's mores and equal social rights such as banking, mailing and healthcare at the same cost as Chinese is souring the attitude of said westerners.   

Cultural evolution does not only come by governmental decree. In fact, individual attitudes and mores are what drives societal change. If people refuse to ponder society's greater questions, what chance is there that advancement will prevail?

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