By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

An aspect of Chinese culture you don't hear much about

Reading a recent article in the Financial Times of London on protests in China ("Unrest Escalates Over Development Site") reminded me of a big difference between Chinese and U.S./western European cultures that I don't think gets much attention in discussions of China.
The protests are about land sales to local real estate developers who bring big profits to government and party officials. What caught my eye is how police reacted to the protests, in many cases beating demonstrators with their bare hands.
It reminded me of a book I read last year about the famine in China at the time of the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s. According to the book, village officials often beat peasants who weren't working hard enough, sometimes to death. But it also reminded me of other things I have learned about Chinese culture in recent years. There is virtually no Chinese student whom I have asked about this who does not report having been periodically beaten or hit by their parents when they were growing up. (Think of a more extreme version of the recent "Tiger Mom" book.) If you watch Chinese movies, people in authority are frequently seen screaming at underlings, or at a minimum speaking in what to Western ears at any rate sounds like a very gruff, impolite tone of voice. Many Chinese I know appear more or less terrified of their bosses.
There is some discussion in cross-cultural literature on organizations describing the Chinese work environment as a "high power distance" culture -- a fancy word meaning there is a big gap between bosses and subordinates in Chinese culture. But the undertones of violence seem to go beyond that.
I'm not sure if I'm right about what I'm saying. It's based on personal impressions, and it's not something that appears in the primers on Chinese culture to my knowledge. Any Chinese people or China experts want to comment on this? (For the benefit of any Chinese readers who might find the above to be perfectly normal and to wonder why I am writing about it, I will say that everything I describe above would be unusual in contemporary American culture.)
It is even more speculative to ask whether, if this is true, what implications it has for dealings between western countries/cultures and the Chinese government or businesses. At the risk of being on really thin ice here, I wonder if this implies some version of "weakness won't be appreciated" -- that is, that people expect leaders to be strong, and if you're not strong, people won't think you're a leader. Comments on this would be appreciated as well.

Posted on Sep 29, 2011 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Oct 5, 2011 lao wai

One must remember that for 2,500 years that China was a man's world. Women were no better than cattle. A woman's in-laws could treat her as a slave and even execute her out of displeasure even to the protests of their son. Things are slowly changing in China. Today there are many women in the positions of power throughout China. My wife is Chinese. She holds an important position at a publishing company in China. She tells me that she holds a man's position of power and respect. I expect to see more of a shift in power to the women in China. Due to the child policies and the belief that a man can go further in society and provide better for the family there exists now a huge unbalance in the ratio of men to women. Chinese women will be able to be selective in their choice of partners. This will allow them to move up in society. Today the poorer men are having to import wives from other surrounding countries from poor villages. Watch to see where this trend goes in ten years. I wonder if Kelman keeps a record of the ratio of female to male students coming to his classes. Has he seen a trend?

Sat, Oct 1, 2011 Jabberwocki

Oh, Steve, we are just corrupt and violent in ways that are different from the Chinese. It's easy to say who is more violent and who is more corrupt, isn't it?

Fri, Sep 30, 2011 earth

The US was founded with the words “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” and expect that to carry on into adulthood even if some have differing expertise and position of responsibility. My boss knows she is totally incapable of doing what I do, to treat me with disrespect would reflect on her as being less than reasonable and therefore less than adequately intelligent to do her job.
These words were included to counter the feudal and Judaic-Christian attitude of the “divine right of kings”. Though clearly less intelligent than everyone else, funny thing that inbreeding, the aristocracy were “better” and could not be questioned, “rex non protest peccare”. (Questioning would, of course, demonstrate they had no clothes on.) That attitude still persists in areas like the diploma mills for the rich and powerful (ivy league schools) and the “hero worship” of movie stars and such.(People and the grocery store tabloids) Little minds like to look up, and down, but not across. Hopefully, as the US spirals down it won’t embrace that silliness. However, I am not going to hold my breath given the push to claim the nation was founded on Christian principles instead of the antithesis of them. (TJ and BF both used Islamic concepts in the Declaration of Independence and, at least with BF, arguments against slavery. Unfortunately, BF died the night before a vote over slavery that might have saved the US the civil war.Pitty that, Some actually tried to declare George Washington king, the brown nosers)

Fri, Sep 30, 2011 earth

The United States didn’t go through a feudal period like the Far East did. Feudal societies considered subordinates as chattel that could be summarily executed at the whim of the “lord”. This tended to be carried over into corporate behavior, Europe included. The TV show NCIS excepted, a boss that physically hit a subordinate could be charged with assault in the US.
Whereas in the US “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” in the Far East “the nail that sticks out gets pounded down”. That being explained to be by more than one Chinese student.

Fri, Sep 30, 2011

This is probably a side-effect of supervisors having gotten their jobs through connections rather than through qualifications. The same thing happens in Western cultures to a lesser degree. You should ask employees of Western companies how often this occurs. I think you'd be surprised.

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