The place that is known as China has been four millennia in the making. And while the geographic boundaries have changed over time, there is an essence that is indeed China. More than a physical space, it is comprised of a series of attitudes and values commonly held although realized differently by groups within society. Like all national identities, it is based on perceptions and bias and is true just often enough to have validity. This commonality is both evident in and perpetuated by economic, political, and social institutions. For many in China, the market revolution of the last thirty years has caused drastic changes in these societal institutions. One wonders the extent to which there will be a resulting change in the shared cultural veneer.


The physical borders of China have changed a great deal over its 4000 years, beginning with settlements along the two rivers, the Yangtze and the Huang He (Figure 18). As the successive dynasties established themselves, declined and were replaced by others, a cultural reality pervaded whatever the geographic space was. Like most comprehensive attitudes, it was not all of any one thing but a mixture of complex and frequently contradictory elements. Even in the modern era, this veneer of commonality persists despite increasing divisions and incursions by foreign ideas and practices. For millennia, foreigners have been expected to assimilate to these ways, at least in terms of behavior.

Chinese culture tends to focus on the collective rather than the individual as opposed to the West where individual rights take precedence and different interests are all deemed valid. In China, consensus and collective purpose take priority. The group exists before the individual who by design cannot have rights over and against the collective to which he or she has responsibilities. Human beings are the measure of things. Social connections and family matter most; one displays favoritism to those to whom he or she is connected. This intertwining set of relationships, guanxi, speaks to both an institutional relationship and a personal one.

This collective mentality dates back several centuries before the Common Era, and was institutionalized in government and education through the Confucian ethics that framed public policy. This sentiment exists on a national level with strong expectations of loyalty. In the dynastic period allegiance was to the emperor, the family, the parents and one's ancestors. Today, loyalty to the Party and the state reflects this foundation of relational rather than individual participation in society. Although there are divisions by ethnicity, language and region, there is a common appreciation of the particularistic approach in which all are not deemed equal. One treats those to whom one is close differently, preferentially.

One must wonder how these attitudes will translate in the rapidly shifting economic landscape of China. Capitalism tends to promote individual gain over group achievement. Chinese companies that want to succeed in the global market place in the long run will have either adapt themselves or alter the operating style of Western businesses. But old habits do die hard and any foreign company doing business in China will need to some extent incorporate this particularistic approach. Other ingrained aspects of Chinese business culture, such as petty corruption and ritualized drinking, are also subject to re-evaluation in the market economy that increasingly defines Chinese business.

For much of its history, China believed itself superior to those who surrounded it, deeming them barbarians. China's current leadership has successfully generated renewed feelings of nationalism among its people. After a century of humiliation from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries, and then thirty years of political experimentation that led to great loss for many, the last thirty years have witnessed enormous growth and success. Now nationalism is based on positive results and the ability of the repressive political regime of the ruling Communist Party to promote its version of events. With the decline of socialism as its framing ideology, nationalism has become the state religion.

The Chinese also remain highly superstitious. The May 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province (Figure 31) unleashed centuries of folk wisdom. Even in an era of enormous economic growth, there is still widespread belief in lucky numbers, signs, omens and feng shui. What currently drives many in China is a desire to compete, to adapt and to be a player on the global stage. As many foreigners observe, they are the masters of innovation, great at figuring things out on the fly whether it is driving a car or managing a corporation.

Chinese culture has always reinforced the notion that there are differences between the elite and the masses. Throughout history, resourcefulness meant access to food and survival. This trait continues today. From the dynastic era to the Communist Revolution to the rise of a market economy, Chinese people have adapted and many have thrived. Uncertainty has persisted through much of its history, whether it was peasants on small plots of land or international corporations functioning in a global industry. The Chinese have learned to take advantage of all opportunities because they often do not know what is around the next corner.

Finally, despite a strong sense of the past, the current government displays a great willingness to obliterate history and those institutions that have been the foundation of daily life for millions of Chinese people. As it razes centuries old neighborhoods in Beijing to build up the city for the upcoming Olympics (Figure 28), it has destroyed structures that were the foundation of communal behavior. Likewise, Party leaders have ordered the destruction of villages that had existed for centuries to make way for major engineering projects like Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River (Figure 35). But perhaps the most pervasive aspect of Chinese culture is the ability to adapt and survive. Four thousand years is a long time to remain in existence, whatever form that existence might take.


The result of Chinese actions and attitudes has been deep divisions that underlie these commonalities. This inherent contradiction is part of a particularistic view of the world that identifies difference at every level. During times of weak central rule, these divisions of language, ethnicity, region, and location have not only surfaced but dominated Chinese society. In contemporary times, the rapid shift to a market economy has led to wide income disparities. Currently the greatest divide, which is often a proxy for the class division, is the urban/rural split. 60% of China's population works in the agricultural sector. And while Party policies matter increasingly less in the cities, local officials are still the elite in the country side, controlling access to land, funds and education.

More than 70% of China's population lives on less than $2 per day. While the elite of many portions of society are treated well, a billion Chinese are suffering with little opportunity to improve their circumstances. Ethnic divisions persist as well. Only 8% are minorities, but in a country of 1.3 billion, that is more than 10 million people. The most well known minority to Westerners is Tibetans, but in general, residential concentration of minorities allows for easy exploitation. Many of the children identified in the recent labor ring scandal in the Guangdong Province (Figure 31) came from the Sichuan province. Their parents did not speak or read Mandarin and they were easily fooled into sending away (or in some cases knowingly parting with) their children.


China's vast educational system mirrors and perpetuates the surface commonalities and underlying divisions of Chinese society. Its mission is enormous. There are 375 million children under the age of 18. While China has 26% of the world's school age students, it expends only two percent of global educational resources. The current approach is a pyramid system. Only 40% of the students go past ninth grade and of that group, only five to ten percent of high school students will get a world class education in one of 100 universities.

China hopes to build a system that will eventually support its burgeoning economy and reflect its world status. Education is planned by the Party leadership that establishes hurdles for advancement at each level. There is a strong curricular emphasis on math and science. Those who do make it to the university level, get the best facilities, teachers, and equipment. Selectivity is skewed towards the wealthy, urban elite. One rural village reports three students have made it to the university level in the last thirty years.

The education itself tends to be more descriptive than predictive and requires mastery rather than responsiveness. One questions the value of such a pedagogical approach in a rapidly industrializing society. Teaching tends to focus on repetition rather than inquiry. The strident exam system diminishes the value of subjects not being tested. Although some teachers are excellent, and knowledgeable about both pedagogy and content material, many are not and it is difficult to get the best teachers to take assignments in rural areas.

Elementary education is funded by local communities through a mix of local government revenues, donations for buildings, and fees for books and activities. Schools stress both the collective and the individual. Students and teachers work together to raise everyone's achievement but only so many can move forward through the exam funnel. Schools tend to cover a few topics in great depth. Class size is quite large with an average of 40 students per class in primary grades and 60 to 70 in high school classes.

The strength of the system is in its good intentions; the weakness is in the details with a strong emphasis on repetition and memorization. Much of the school day is designed to foster political ideology. In addition to content learning, students monitor one another in class, over homework, hygiene and politeness. Children are evaluated on many factors, and judged using national standards in areas such as cherishing the honor of the group, loving the nation, and participation in labor for the common welfare. Education is also a vehicle for Party indoctrination. Textbooks include the government's version of historic events. Tibet is presented as always having been part of the country and foreigners are presented as having brought nothing but humiliation in the 19th century. There is little about Communist Party failures, such as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The government is trying to ease the burden on parents by abolishing primary school tuition and other fees. In most cases, students are required to leave home if they are to attend school past the elementary level. Local schools are usually inadequate in terms of teacher quality, facilities, student achievement and access to higher education. As the May 12, 2008 earthquake showed, schools in provincial areas are often not even built to safety codes.

Education in China reinforces the cultural value of the collective over the individual. Parents make great sacrifices for children to have educational opportunities that are selective for advancement at each successive level. Children spend about twice as much time in school as students in the US do, but for Chinese youth, study and school are it. There is very little volunteer work, sports, church groups, or debate teams. None of these aspects factor into college admission, so few resources are devoted to them. Educational performance is one illustration of the ways in which children are to show loyalty and obligation to their parents. The death of so many children in the May earthquake underscores the fragility of a society that allows only one child.

As is often the case during a time of rapid growth, opportunities for advancement are often not linked to educational attainment but the model persists. The elite are identified, considered almost public entities and provided unlimited resources, but their success belongs to the collective. This paradigm certainly describes the training of Olympic athletes. They receive seemingly unlimited resources but are expected to sacrifice everything for the glory of the country. The Chinese government has been targeting those sports that could yield the largest number of medals for the fewest participants, such as boxing, rather than team sports. Boxing in particular illustrates the new China. Mao had banned the sport because of its violence, brutality and ruthlessness, all of which he deemed the hallmarks of capitalism. The current leadership now fields world class competitors in 11 weight classes.


Language is incredibly important to Chinese culture. Mandarin has been the official language for 2500 years and while there are over 250 dialects, there is only one written system. That served as the primary means to unify China throughout its history. Mandarin is not a phonetic language and each character stands for an idea, not a sound. This absence of a connection between written and oral language serves as an excellent illustration of the collective veneer of commonality that overlays widespread diversity within the country.

English now plays an important role in China's culture. For a long time, English was denigrated by the Chinese. For centuries, it was the language of barbarians and then the language of conquest, both economically and culturally. After the Communists took over in 1949, Mao expelled all missionaries, and by 1960 there were only 900 English teachers i the country. Mao considered English the language of class struggle and forbade its use.

After his death in 1976, more practical leaders prevailed, and English was extolled as a means to compete within the international arena. The current leadership views conquering English as a way to make China stronger. The problem is that while many learn textbook English, few learn how to speak the language. As a result, English language schools have been opening up, especially in anticipation of the Olympics this summer. Beijing cabdrivers, for example, have been issued the Olympic Taxi Handbook, a 312 page primer on the world which lists useful English expressions.

English is providing a new layer of veneer to Chinese culture. With increasing divisions by class, opportunity and power, the English language is rapidly becoming a unifying force. Every college freshman must have a minimum level of English comprehension and it is the only foreign language tested. But English, like so many other subjects in China, is taught by rote memorization.


In 1980, the government mandated that all families would be limited to one child. Concern over rapid population increase as well as a desire to raise living standards motivated this drastic measure. Perhaps there will be the desired economic effect but one must question the impact on traditional family structure and behavior. So much of Chinese culture is relational, based on the notion of filial respect and responsibility for one's parents. The impact on this social obligation has yet to be felt but as the parents with one child age, we will begin to see the repercussions of this policy.

One reality that has already surfaced as a result of the one child restriction is a marked increase in late term abortions, particularly of female fetuses. It was the son who was to care for the aged parents; if one's only child is a girl, parents frequently questioned their future security. The repercussions of this gender imbalance cannot fully be known, but by 2005, the ratio of male to female births in China was 1.08. The May 12, 2008 earthquake was devastating for many reasons, but particularly to parents who lost their only child, and in essence, their future security. The government recently announced its decision to continue the one child policy given that 200 million people would be entering childbearing age during the next decade.


1. How is China both a place and an idea?

2. How is the tension between the general and the specific perpetuated in contemporary China?

3. Have recent developments undermined the collective sensibilities of the Chinese?

4. Divisions have always existed in China. To what extent have these shifted in recent decades?

5. How have the institutional foundations of Chinese culture persisted over the centuries and accommodated enormous change?


In Print


  • Phillips, Richard T. China Since 1911. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
  • Roberts, Jag. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harv rd University Press, 1999.
  • Schoppa, R. Keither. Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.


  • Hessler, Peter. "Hutong Karma." The New Yorker. February 13, 2006.
  • Hessler, Peter. "Underwater." The New Yorker. June 7, 2003.
  • Hessler, Peter. "Wheels of Fortune." The New Yorker. November 26, 2007.
  • Hessler, Peter. "The Wonder Years." The New Yorker. March 31, 2008.
  • Osnos, Evan. "Crazy English." The New Yorker. April 28, 2008.
  • Osnos, Evan. "The Boxing Rebellion." The New Yorker. February 4, 2008.
  • Yardley, Jim. "China Says One Child Policy Will Stay for At Least Another Decade." The New York Times. March 11, 2008.


  • "Education in China: Lessons for US Educators." Report of US Education Leaders Delegation to China, September 2005.
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