Monday, 1 January 2007

Chinese Culture

Is China a Collectivist Country?

One of the standard images of the difference between 'Western' culture and 'Chinese' culture is in terms of the dimension collectivism-individualism. The Netherlands would be highly individualistic in these terms and China would be collectivistic. On the basis of this difference it has often been predicted that Chinese will be better team players and cooperate in groups more easily than the Dutch, the Swedes, the Americans. From my own observation, this is not true. (See also
What we often see in Chinese groups - in school, in business - is a very high level of competition between individuals. We also see a a lot of opportunism and low trust. It seems as if each individual person wants to become number one, a process that blocks open communication and cooperation. This very individualistic behaviour seems to be linked to the special type of collectivism in China, sometimes labeled 'vertical collectivism'. In school, in business, in sports, each individual represents his or her own family or group of friends. Loyalty is not primarily to the school, the business or the sports club, but to the own social circle. This pattern is very old: in Imperial China, the impersonal selection system for government jobs created a high degree of competition between families and individuals for the small amount of open positions. In principle, the system was always achievement-based: anyone, poor or rich, could become a civil servant. In practice only those with time to invest in study would have a real chance.

So, is China collectivist? Yes, in a special sense it is, but it combines loyalty to the ingroup with fierce competition and low trust vis-a-vis outsiders, resulting in something Westerners would rather see as individualist, opportunistic behaviour.

So, as Tony Fang from Stockholm university suggests, there are really two contrasting sides of Chinese culture, which are expressed in different contexts, and whose mutual relationship shows a yin-yang logic. On the one hand, there is the Confucian ethic, focusing on harmonious relationships inside the family, inside social groups. On the other hand there are ideas and principles which emphasise personal skill, energy, tactics to deal with opponents, like the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in martial arts, character writing and traditional health practices. Much of the Western literature about China seems to focus on the harmonious, collectivist and 'light' (yang), side of the culture. However, to understand the culture, we must pay attention to the 'dark' (yin) and hidden side of the culture, in personal manoeuvring, tactics and tricks.

A 'monocular' view of China as a collectivist country does not do justice to its 'binocular' culture, where everything can be seen from two points of view.

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