Jan 12, 2018 in Research

Chinese Culture

From the days of the silk trade, the opium wars and the first forays of the west into Asia, the Orient has always had some sort of mystique about it. There has always been something about the life of the Asian people that piqued the curiosity of the west: the simplicity of their life style, the way every single thing is organized in their life and even something as common as drinking tea that is ritualized. Their value system made anything from Asia intriguing to the westerners. In fact, it does even now, since it is considered fancy to eat Asian food or to be a member of some new oriental religious persuasion. China, for as long as the historians knew of its existence, represented or embodied such a concept. It is the only country, or better to say culture, that has remained largely unchanged by the advances of western culture. In this paper, I shall attempt to look at Chinese culture as a westerner, and see what it was before, how it has changed and what contributed to its evolution, comparing its aspects with those of the UAE culture.

Culture is a set of values and responses that include one person and exclude another one from any given social group. Any culture has its peculiarities: its food, art, commerce, customs, clothing, language, religion and government to mention a few. At the center of culture is the family.

The typical Chinese family is patriarchal and patrilineal in structure, where the father is the undisputed and unopposed ruler of the family (Culture and Society Defined). He has the final say in all what happens in all the family with his influence extending even to the spouses of his sons. The family unit is typically nuclear and monogamous. Being usually the breadwinner, the father determines the direction which the family takes, while nothing in the family is done without his blessings. The Chinese family has a hierarchy that heavily favors the males. The oldest male in the extended family is the leader of the family and he makes all the decisions on family matters. He is the head of the family business and in conjunction with the fathers of other families arranges marriages for the members of his family. Being in his bad graces can have very far reaching consequences. Women are permanently inferior to men to such an extent, that if a man has three children and the last child is the only male, he is considered as the first born (Freedman, 1979). Married women cannot immediately and directly voice their opinions in a new family, except they do this through their sons. In the UAE, this is pretty much the same, except for the fact that polygamy is commonly practiced and encouraged by the Islamic legal system, though women are valued even less than in China.

The Chinese revere the age, considering it as the duty of the young to take care of the old folks. In Chinese society, it is considered as a matter of pride to care for one’s aged parents, unlike in the west, where the old people are quickly taken to elderly homes. The family unit is very important and the sense of duty for it is the one that Chinese youth takes seriously. Probably, this is why most Chinese marriages tend to go the distance. Their marriages are the family affairs and in many cases the young couples never really know each other until after the marriage ceremonies. It is nigh on impossible to find Chinese couples that would enter into a marriage without the blessings of the elders of the family (Freedman, 1979). Thus, divorce is quite the rarity in traditional China.

A very important part of any culture is various festivals and ceremonies that are performed in the country. The Chinese have a couple of important festivals, the biggest one of which is the New Year. This holiday means to the Chinese as much as Christmas means to Christians. It is based on the lunar calendar and known to the Chinese as Guo-Nian (%u8FC7%u5E74), which can be translated as the “passing of the nian”. This New Year festival is based on the old Chinese mythical story of a horrible monster Nian, who was coming to China once a year and wreaking havoc on the poor villagers, killing and destroying villages in one night. Every night at the time when he was supposed to come, the villagers would huddle together and wait till the morning. Then, one year, an old man came up with the novel idea that burning bamboo would scare the monster, as, apparently, the monster was for some strange reason scared of the red color (if to look at any picture of the New Year celebration in China, one may see that the red color is very prominent), as well as of the firecrackers. Unexpectedly, the plan worked, and since then, the Chinese have been scaring the monster away at the same time every year (New Year story). This year the Guo-nian fell on the 31st of January and was christened the year of the snake. Typically, Chinese families travel huge distances from their home towns to big cities to celebrate the New Year. It is now a week long holiday, but traditionally, the festivities are 15 days long. Anyway, it is celebrated with fireworks, lion and dragon parades, preparation of special Guo-nian dishes, giving money to children in red envelopes and loud drumming throughout the night. The celebrations are concluded on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival is celebrated by hanging various colorful lanterns, huge pyrotechnic displays and the lion dance, although various areas of China have their particular variants of celebrating the holiday. In the UAE, people have no cultural festivals except the various Ids as stipulated by the Islamic calendar (Huda).

Nothing tells about people like their food and the Chinese are special in this. Take tea for instance; to a westerner, there is the black, green and the fruit flavored variants. To us, tea is just a beverage, something to drink when we are cold or something to sip while chatting with friends. But for the Chinese, it is very symbolic and plays a huge role in family life. Tea is so particular to them, that they have the whole tea ceremony with the special utensils that are set aside just for tea making, the water of the right kind and the tea pot for a certain kind of tea, which cannot be used for any other kind of tea. They have exalted tea making to an art. For the Chinese, it is more than just beverage. If fastidiously followed, it may have calming and even therapeutic effect. It is so important that every family event has a special part of tea drinking. There exists a generally accepted opinion in the west that the Chinese eat just rice. While that is not wrong per se, it is enlightening to know that the Chinese do have other foods, which may include dumplings, tofu, noodles, wheat, sorghum, wonton, yams, various soups and vegetables. Moreover, the Chinese have several different recipes for each food type.

That Chinese art has remained fairly constant throughout the upheavals in its history, which is a testament of its enduring qualities. To historians, Chinese art history is separated into the periods of rule of different Chinese emperors. One of the most enduring symbols of Chinese art is the terracotta army, built during the Qin dynasty. Archeologists can also tell about other works of art from the Ming, Han and so many other dynasties that represent different periods of Chinese art evolution. Chinese art is unique and expensive.

One of the biggest shocks that may hit any foreigner, or Saiyan, as foreigners are referred to in China, is the change in the pace of life and priorities. The western culture believes in the individual swimming upstream alone, taking no prisoners, and living with ever increasing deadlines and appointments. The Chinese, however, believe that family and relationships come first, and that one has to find their inner calm and target. The Chinese, due to their family structure are uniqueness, respect greatly such notions as age, wisdom and ability. These things can be opposed to the west with its aspiration for wealth, success and achievements. The Chinese commercial behavior is also interesting in the sense that they place great value on the relationship between the buyer and the seller. Bargaining is as important to the Chinese as the sale itself. A Chinese entrepreneur will rather sell at a loss than lose a customer, though it does not mean that he is any less business savvy. A westerner, trying to resolve an issue or come to any sort of agreement with a typical Chinese person, will most likely be frustrated and confused. This is because the Chinese traditionally talk in circles, giving hints and subtleties of meaning and in non-verbal cues, while the westerner typically talks in straight, analytical and logical patterns. This is why the westerners regard the Orientals and the Chinese in particular rather unhurried and calm people.

Ancient China has transmitted to its people an enviable legacy of culture, attitudes and life style. Unfortunately, having opened its doors for trade, China has got more than just money and friends. Many guests with new standards, both welcome and unwelcome, have come to the country: western values, morals, fashion, opinion, government and life styles are all new threats to the fabric of Chinese culture. It can be easily seen in China’s big cities that had the normal family centric and group oriented psyche of the typical Chinese culture before, but now are being modified to the individualistic and independent value system of the west. The importance of family for young Chinese people is slowly changing. Business was usually a family affair, but today young people are willing to start their own business, and, consequently, gain independence from waiting in line for the family business. While that is, in itself, a good thing, the other side of the coin is that the sense of duty to family becomes not as firm. Placed side by side with the traditional family structure of the Chinese people, this could be a real damage to just plain evolution.

Another emerging problem on the way of modern-day China is the constantly expanding population. Its population of 1.3 billion people in 2011 presents huge economic problems for the government, because this puts a strain on the existing infrastructure and housing. In addition, the number of elderly people (200 million in 2013) to be catered for increases significantly (Minter, 2013). This makes the Chinese government implement very strict one child policy. It stipulates that each Chinese family must have one child only with a few exceptions (Kane, 1999). The situation is quite opposite with the UAE population of 7.8 million people, which is made up of 75% of expatriates. The UAE governments’ position is to create an environment that will facilitate a population boom. It is strongly averse to any contraceptive measures. Islamic law permits polygamy and the government is trying to ensure that it records an actual growth in population of Emirates.

China is a wonderful country with a very rich and robust cultural heritage. Its architecture, cuisine, music, art, poetry and measured way of life are refreshing. Its culture has slowly been modified, but it has largely remained unique, and even unchanged in some regards.

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