How Chinese and Americans Understand Culture


One night in Kunming, China last December I was out to dinner with a former professor, a middle-aged Chinese woman. She had just returned from a trip to Washington D.C. and at one point during the meal we began contrasting America and China on a number of different fronts: infrastructure, geography, weather, fashion. When I brought up the differences between Chinese and American culture she interjected, “What American culture?” The U.S. is too young a country to have a culture, she began arguing. In her mind, real culture was something that could only exist after thousands of years of civilization. Besides, she argued, American culture is merely a collection of snippets from other cultures. It is not a true culture. This was not the first time I’d heard such criteria for culture from a Chinese friend. What does this perspective, if anything, say about how the Chinese generally view culture as a concept and how that might differ from the American viewpoint?

Whereas American ideas of culture acknowledge a certain package of shared traits – food, language, music, customs – as a base requirement, the Chinese alternative, it seems, ascribes a much heftier weight to time.

China, it is often said, has the oldest continuous civilization. While true in many respects – it has remained largely politically coherent since the first millennium BC – this is also slightly misleading. The five thousand or so years of human habitation in the land we now call China, today a territory larger then it’s ever been, has been a changing hodgepodge of kingdoms and dynasties with often diverse ethnic make-ups. And what we think of as Chinese usually is limited to the Han ethnicity, which makes up around 90 percent of the population. The remaining minority groups – Tibetans, Yi, Zhuang, Dai, among a few dozen others – have their own sets of cultures, traditions and histories. Still, there are forms of Chineseness that have persisted through millennia and it’s certainly something to be proud of and celebrate.

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But the idea that Chinese culture is somehow more advanced then others because of its long life is one of the bedrocks of what is called “Han chauvinism,” a sociological disposition that favors the Han ethnicity over others, and it has real implications for how Beijing conducts its affairs. In both the disputed territories of Tibet and Xinjiang for instance, the Chinese invoke history and culture to argue for Han claims on each region. In its ongoing spat with Japan the fact that the original settlers of the archipelago came from China is often cited patronizingly.

This mindset serves a clear political purpose. China has been plagued throughout its history by war, chaos and factionalism. The idea that all Han come from the same historical place and that Han culture is superior, if a single culture at all, is a powerful force in unifying people under an emperor or a flag.

Americans have this too, of course. American exceptionalism, the belief that American values are qualitatively superior to others, is evident in our movies, our books, our understandings of history, and of course our foreign policy. Our own cultural exceptionalism was shaped, like the Chinese version, by our development as a powerful civilization and our interaction with surrounding groups. In both the Chinese and American experiences in territorial expansion the frontier forces faced violent resistance from native peoples and in both experiences the natives were regarded as members of an inferior race. The success of both China and America in expanding its territory over that of surrounding peoples’ validated each civilization’s notions of itself as culturally superior. Moreover, in China’s case, aggressors that invaded China from abroad, the Manchus and the Mongols notably, actually ended up adopting Chinese culture and becoming Sinicized themselves. This too contributed to the notion that Han culture was a step above the rest.

Like any culture, China’s is deep, ever-changing, and multifaceted and it can be hard to speak concisely or determinately about anything so variable and intangible. There are however certain reoccurring, generally held attributes: Confucianism and its general urgings towards stability, obedience, and societal hierarchies; collectivism over individualism; and a Taoist understanding of the world as interconnected and seeking equilibrium. China’s deep well of art, cuisine, literature and innovations are all in part a product of these sociological underpinnings. All of this developed gradually over more then five thousand years, a remarkable length of time for cultural traits to survive through. It’s no wonder the Chinese point to that and are proud of it. Yet China is not unique in this.

If we were to look at how Americans might deconstruct their own national culture we would probably see things like the American democratic system, American English, American philosophies, as well as elements of popular culture such as American music, food, literature and film. But we would also see things like Shakespeare, Hobbs, Plato, Athenian democracy and the Roman empire – elements of the ancient and old worlds. While these can’t be said to be strictly American in the same way that the Chinese alternatives maybe can, they are held with a comparable sense of pride and reverence in the American psyche. Since the aspects of American culture that are ancient in origin are also shared with other Western countries, we tend to value strictly American creations – art, music, innovations and ideas – and thus new world ones, over those of the ancient and old worlds, at least in the immediate arena of culture-making.

So we see that, despite modern political arrangements, in both China and America ideas of civilization and antiquity are deeply entrenched within modern conceptions of national culture. But how does this play out in the real world? “In the Chinese language there is wenhua (文化) for culture but also wenming (文明) for civilization or civilized,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China scholar and history professor at the University of California Irvine. “They go together and the root has something to do with creation and texts and things passed on. You can see they’re connected. Similarly, we can sometimes talk that way as well. We use the term for someone being cultured to mean sort of possessing in these kinds of civilized awareness.” If, like China, America also traces its cultural origins to antiquity and ancient civilization, why then are so many of my Chinese friends so quick to disqualify American culture as undeveloped or infantile? Part of it might be a lack of exposure.

“I think it’s maybe ignorance because they don’t really know what America is,” says Yan Sun, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York and scholar of ethnic relations in China. “They may have read about it in the paper but the reporters don’t know of it either. The kind of American culture that gets exported isn’t Broadway but NBA.”

Chinese impressions of American culture generally are limited to the one-dimensional and very new. Consider this anecdotal example: A few years ago in Kunming I was teaching English to a class of college students as a substitute teacher. Having no experience in teaching, I improvised an activity for the students. I wrote China and America on the whiteboard and had each student come up and write an English word they associated with each country. The results were intriguing. Under China were things like, “long history,” “traditional food,” “Great Wall.” Under America, a much longer and varied list, was “sexy,” “fast food,” “iPhone,” “Disney” “UN,” “economy crisis” and “homosexual.” It was clear that most of the things they associated with their own country were of the past, while associations with America were mostly of the very recent. Of course, such an informal polling cannot be seen as authoritative, but I would venture to say that other young Chinese would respond similarly.

It makes sense that outsiders might associate America with newness. America was founded on novel ideas and a fresh start. The notion of a clean slate is ingrained in its national psyche. Indeed, it is a part of the country’s global reputation. “We have it in our power,” said the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, “to begin the world all over again.” Instead of revering antiquity, Americans regarded it with suspicion. “The Past is dead, and has no resurrection,” wrote 19th century novelist Herman Melville. In China, excepting the frantic years of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, such notions have long been not only uncommon but heretical. “Study the past if you would divine the future,” wrote Confucius. Only in the last century or so, microscopic in the span of Chinese civilization, has this begun to change.

Where American and Chinese societies differ markedly as well is in multiculturalism. American society has for most of its existence been an ethnically diverse one. “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world,” wrote Melville. If China is known around the world as the oldest continuous civilization, America is known as the melting pot. Its ethnic diversity has undeniably contributed to its national culture and in the same way that many Chinese speak proudly of their long history, Americans tend to speak proudly of the melting pot. Yet the melting pot society, and the American national culture that has sprung out of it, is exactly what has been targeted as somehow illegitimate by my Chinese friends. What I saw as cultural integration, they saw as cultural theft. What I saw as something that binds together American culture, they saw as disqualifying it. How do we reconcile these opposing views?

In the end the difference may be in the syntax. In America, the word “culture” when spoken in conversation increasingly refers to aspects of popular culture: film, music, food; tangible cultural elements and often those of the recent past or present. In China, it seems more often to refer to things of the far past. “[That China is a place of ancient culture] has become an increasingly common way of talking about China. It’s become one of the things that the government sort of celebrates most,” says Wasserstrom.

Since coming to power, president Xi Jinping has tightened the Party’s control over the cultural playing field. He has expanded the Chinese film industry, and increased promotion of Chinese culture abroad. In a 2010speech on art and literature Xi stressed that the two cultural realms must “persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism.” Throughout all of this there has been the China Dream campaign. The national propaganda campaign, mostly consisting of publicly displayed posters, has contrasted messages of hope for China’s future with romantic allusions to its past.Depictions of classical embroidery designs and ancient painting motifs partnered with slogans like, “Honesty and sincerity passed down from generation to generation; Confucian classics last forever” and “Spring is always ahead for our motherland” are common examples of the posters. Unlike propaganda posters of the past that advertised overtly socialist imagery, the China Dream posters conjure up images of a faraway past. In doing this the Party is utilizing material that, as New York Times writer Ian Johnsonpointed out, “used to be derided by the Party as belonging to China’s backward, pre-Communist past; now, these aesthetic traditions are a bulwark used to legitimize the Party as a guardian and creator of the country’s hopes and aspirations.” Within this atmosphere, culture has, in some ways, become a politically charged topic.

Despite obvious differences, American and Chinese societies share several characteristics. They both live in physically large countries. They both are fiercely proud, patriotic, and pay scant attention to the outside world. Admittedly, neither country’s culture can be summed up in a couple thousand words nor can the myriad opinions on this topic of the nearly two billion people between them. What one can say with confidence however is that both countries certainly do have a culture. They just might be looking at them from different angles.

Brent Crane is a Washington D.C.-based writer. Follow him on [email protected]

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