China's Worldview: Three Timeless Truths

01/05/2011 10:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What is Chinese culture? Now and forever, perpetual yet shape-shifting,in modern and ancient guises, the Chinese worldview can be distilled down to three inter-related Truths: a) a fatalistic, cyclical view of time and space characterized by meticulous interconnectivity of things big and small, b) a morally-relativistic universe in which the only absolute evil is chaos and the only good is stability, a platform on which progress is built, and c) the clan, not the individual, as the basic productive unit of society.

Cyclical Interconnectivity

The Chinese excel in logic and linear reasoning. They cream the GMATs. (Scores under 700 are shameful.) If a kid does not get good grades in math, he is not "smart." Verbal refinement, the mark of a cultured man, is a lovely asset but not an invaluable one. China's government is run by a legion of statistically-obsessed technocratic engineers, visionaries who have orchestrated a prodigious reformation of the country's transportation, energy, distribution and housing infrastructure. China, assuming bugs - political or otherwise -- have been purged from the system, is a well-oiled, glorious machine. As Miguel Patricio, beer giant InBev's Asia CEO, puts it, "The Chinese Communist Party is a ruthlessly efficient corporation." The Middle Kingdom 3.0 has been meticulously redesigned, up from bootstraps, in a top-down, linear, step-by-step manner. China's infrastructural and industrial transformation has left Brahminian Indians, people who derive primary delight from intellectual exchange, in the dust.

The impulse to study, diagram and prognosticate societal - and cosmological - design is ancient. The Yi Jing, or the Book of Changes, is one of the oldest of the Chinese classical texts. The book contains an intricate divination system - or the ba gua, comprised of four masculine (yang) and four feminine (yin) elements that can be combined into 64 hexagrams that progress cyclically, shifting from yin to yang and back again - that limns temporal progression. It explains everything from the stars in the sky to the sand by the sea. The earliest version of the text, written on bamboo slips, dates to the latter half of the Warring States period (mid 4th to early 3rd century BC) and manifests itself today in predictive readings of all sorts: palmistry, phrenology, feng shui, numerology and astrology. It explains why the Chinese people, despite the opportunities created by economic reform, remain fatalistic, eager to manage destiny but content not to challenge their place on Earth.

Critically, the Book of Changes is centered on the idea of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process and acceptance of the inevitability of change. Even today, the Chinese worldview shuns absolutes of any kind - legal, moral, psychological and economic. Contemporary, urban-hip Shanghainese tease Americans who exclaim, "Absolutely!" as hopelessly naive. Happiness, and success, can only be achieved when an individual achieves harmony with the surrounding world, one composed of many variables and few constants.

Change, and the wisdom to adapt to its inevitability, is one of the enduring hallmarks of Chinese identity. Ni Peimin, professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University, in an article on the philosophy of kung fu, articulates Chinese secular relativism nicely: "The predominant orientation of traditional Chinese thought is the concern about how to live one's life, rather than finding out the truth about reality. Instead of leading to a search for certainty, as Descartes' dream did, Zhuangzi came to the realization that he had perceived 'the transformation of things,' indicating that one should go along with this transformation rather than trying in vain to search for what is real."

Evil Chaos

Survival is not taken for granted. The world is ever-changing, cyclically, sharpening a pervasive instinct of self-protection. The challenge of aligning heaven and earth is monumental. Japan is a small island cocooned by Nature's protective embrace; China, continental in scale, is exposed to its vicissitudes. The nation has struggled to adapt to, sometimes conquer, its wrath. Historically, a sub-optimal crop would result in millions of deaths. Every year, the Yellow river - sometimes known in Chinese as the "river of tears" - burst from its banks, flooding broad swathes of countryside. Earthquakes, omens of celestial displeasure, strike frequently, with pitiless wrath. (The PRC's biggest hit in 2010 was Aftershock, a film about the human tragedy caused by Tangshan's 1976 devastating earthquake. Three hundred thousand people died.) After 2008's Sichuan disaster, one that killed more than 70,000, a shell-shocked nation grieved for seven days - television stations broadcast in black and white - then picked itself up and proceeded with the business of preparing for the Beijing Olympics, as if calamity were an inevitable fact of life.

Mother Nature has not been the only enemy. The invaders from the north were even fiercer. The nomadic Xiong Nu (and other Altaic-speaking) tribes were a constant menace along thousands of miles of unshielded, naturally-exposed territory. In an eternal battle against cruel weather and warriors, China has always, bravely and nervously, protected life. The masses didn't look up or out; instead, they glanced over their shoulders for the next menace.

It's a topsy-turvy universe. Danger lurks everywhere. The kindness of strangers is not taken for granted. (The Economist puts it nicely: "Although China gets on better with its 14 neighbors now than it has done for centuries, it still fully trusts none of them.) The Han, therefore, prize stability above everything else. All philosophical frameworks indigenous to China (i.e., Legalism, Daoism and Confucianism) reinforce the sublimity of order and the evil of chaos. "Stability" - a distinctly protective interpretation of "harmony" - makes progress possible. The supremacy of "order" is inculcated from birth and buttressed on legal, cosmological and societal levels.

Legalism, the governing principle that enabled China's first emperor, Shi Huangdi, to brutally unify the country more than 2,000 years ago, asserts "punishment" trumps "rights." The expression, "In order to scare the monkeys, you need to kill a chicken," says it all: to prevent turmoil, the interests of few must be sacrificed for the greater good, particularly given China's huge, unruly population. Profoundly utilitarian, traces of Legalistic philosophy are felt across the Chinese landscape: censorship of media, limits on religious freedom, autocratic teachers and Draconian laws to protect "state secrets." Legalism also explains why the vast majority of Chinese support the death penalty despite the absence of an independent judiciary. Father knows best.

Daoism dates from the sixth century BC and emphasizes cosmological order. The "Way" is an all-embracing "matrix" of the patterns by which things happen in the world. The ba gua reveals heaven's blueprint. It promises disaster - bad crops, tidal waves, impotence and indigestion -- if man and nature are not in sync. Daoism, however, is not purely "passive." It also promises "gain" if life is lived according to principles of the "Dao." In order to "flow," a human being, like water, must assume the shape of that which surrounds him. Harmony with nature is a means to an end, a prerequisite for forward momentum: to see the intricate interconnectedness of all things, to attain long life, to achieve spontaneity in thoughts and actions, to gain supernatural powers, and so on. (In Japan, harmony - with nature or other people -- is an end in itself. The Japanese celebrate the beauty of small things, from cherry blossoms and business etiquette to technological craftsmanship.)

In 21st century urban China, Daoist manifestations are everywhere: the enduring appeal of kung fu, the veneration of nature (atop the peaks of Hefei's majestic Yellow Mountains, crowds of noisy tourists fall silent), the ubiquity of bathhouses and spas; the avoidance of "heaty" foods; admiration of "round" things, including double eye lids, full moons and the number 8; addiction to massages, both PG- and X-rated types; passion for breeding "elegant fish." Chinese medicine, heavily influence by Daoism, links flow of vital energy with the "Way." Feng shui is de rigeur when it comes to office design. Employees will revolt if a master's recommendations are ignored; profit is assumed to dry up if the CFO's desk does not face the highway.

Confucianism, China's societal blueprint, also extols stability as the antecedent of forward momentum. Confucian thought, widely misinterpreted by many in the West as "static," is rooted in a complex code of conduct that explicitly and micro-analytically details, and fixes, the relationship between individual and society. The wu lun, or five key relationship "dyads" - between father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, friend and friend and ruler and ruled -- define social intercourse. The individual, yesterday and today, does not exist independent of his obligations to others. Confucian thinking reinforces the inviolability of duty and responsibility and promotes a regimented, often ritualistic, approach to daily life. However, we must reiterate Chinese are not "passive." They are ambitious, socially mobile and dynamic when liberated from the shackles of insecurity. To advance, however, one must accept convention, not rebel against it. For thousands of years, mastery of Confucian canon was the ticket to success. By internalizing "the rules," by passing the Palace Exam, even a peasant could achieve a brighter future for himself, his family and progeny. Ultra-conformist, all rote memorization, China's contemporary education system is still one of the most meritocratic in the world.

Today, the gravitational pull of Confucian dark matter can be felt everywhere: obsession with face (i.e., status projection); deep respect for authority, particularly during times of crisis or uncertainty; title and name card fixation; emotional and financial investment in luxury brands, markers of hierarchical achievement; reverence for professors and business tycoons, both presumed masters of the "system"; submission to parental expectations, on matters from what car to buy to whom to marry; slogans emblazoned on red banners promoting "eight honors," "eight shames" and "three represents"; faith in and subjugation to the Communist Party's implementation of its macro-economic growth model.

Legalism, Daoism, Confucianism: all propagate China's only morale absolute: stability is good; chaos is bad.

Egos, Not Individuals

The tension between regimentation and ambition - a pervasive "Confucian conflict" that manifests itself at every level of society and dictates consumer dynamics in every category, from cars to computers and sanitary napkins to shampoo -- results in deeply rooted anti-individualism. In the PRC, true, egos are huge. But refusal to go with the flow has always been, and continues to be a non-starter. The individual is not the basic productive unit of society. It is the clan. Paternal authority is almost absolute, no matter how successful the son. Grandparents are as invested in - and responsible for - a child's well being as are Mom and Dad.

The need for acknowledgement is fundamental. "Face," the currency of advancement, is traded at boardroom tables when deals are struck. Face can be "stolen" through deceit or granted as a gift. Face is spent, saved, invested. When taken away, financial security is threatened. If a businessman has lost all face, his career is finished. He slides backwards and disappears, ignominiously. (When I arrived on the Mainland, my insensitivity to face was a problem. We lost two client contracts -- with TCL, a leading television manufacturer, and Metersbonwe, the largest local casual apparel brand. In both cases, I "lectured" the decision maker in public, an unforgivable sin.)

Western individualism can be described as society encouraging the individual to define him or herself independent of external expectations. The Marlboro Man is iconic because he wields rugged individuality to tame a wild frontier. We admire Bill Gates' and Steve Job's conviction even more than their material success. Children are encouraged to express points of view during nursery school. College seniors read "What Color is Your Parachute," a roadmap to professional self-actualization. On the job, proactive risk takers are applauded.

Not so in China. Self-driven identity is an exotic aspiration. But it is also dangerous. "Pursuit of happiness," frivolous without financial gain, is an adolescent indulgence, unacceptable after marriage. Yong adults usually progress through a dream phase. ("I want to be a movie director! I want to live in France!") Then burdens of mortgage payments, bosses and judgmental in-laws snap them back to regimented reality. Even "post 80s" and "post 90s" singletons run with the pack. Yes, they are trendy, dyed-hair, tattooed fashionistas. Yes, they adulate self-made icons such as racer-cum-author-cum blogger Han Han, Alibaba's Jack Ma, and Kobe Bryant. Yes, they flock to the internet to express deeply-held convictions, railing against both corrupt officials and hegemonic superpowers that deny China's rise. However, individualism is embraced only when safe. On-line, they are shielded by virtual anonymity, a digital invisible cloak. At work, employees hunger for promotion, and will resign if pay and title do not increase every eighteen months. But no one expresses opinions when a) the boss disagrees or b) recommendations can't be "proven." The best boyfriends are guai guai, shrewd and well behaved.

Success standards, now and forever, are mandated by society, not defined by the self. During dynastic times, the scholar-noble was king of the hill; today, mandarins of capital allocation, in entrepreneurial or governmental guise, reign supreme. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping went on his famous Southern Tour and declared, "To get rich is glorious!" and "Let some get rich first!" Westerners assume China, at that point, embraced a free-market individualistic ethos. Nothing could be further from the truth. Deng defined asset generation for the Motherland's glory as the ultimate achievement. It became the contemporary standard of greatness, sanctioned by the State.

In Conclusion

The Chinese worldview is timeless. The "truths" of cyclical interconnectivity, "sublime stability" and a fundamentally anti-individualistic (yet proudly ego-driven) societal structure have been part and parcel of Chinese consciousness since time immemorial. They continue to shape 21st century China's perceptions of the world, albeit in modern form.