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Understanding China: Individuality VS. Unity in Chinese Culture

Chinese culture is so completely different from Western culture

We’ve have traveled China for two months. The first couple of weeks were, although great fun, quite difficult and different. Chinese culture and people are so completely different from what we know that it seems impossible to ever fully understand what’s going on. Traveling in China leaves you feeling bipolar. One minute you absolutely love it, the next you hate it and want to see the whole country burn. I’m still not sure if I liked China or not.

When we were in Xi’an I picked up a copy of Xianease where Jennifer Yip wrote this article. Reading this made me understand a little more about the Chinese culture and why they do like they do. Jennifer wrote some more articles about understanding China and Chinese culture. You can find them on the Xianease website, just look for ‘Perspective’. We’ve got her permission to post it here.

Perspective: Individuality VS unity

Over the summer, several things happened. Most importantly, the Olympics were held for 16 days. Of course, everyone had Olympic fever during that period.
I taught summer intensive classes over the long break. In the teacher’s lounge at the language training school where I worked, the Chinese teachers there would often discuss the Olympic competitions from the night before. One teacher expressed how she thought the Chinese athletes took the competitions a lot more seriously, were a lot more anxious about the Olympics compared to their counterparts, and gave themselves more pressure to succeed and to win medals. Another teacher said her husband cried when he watched Chinese sprinter, Liu Xiang, fall over a hurdle and suffered an injury. When I heard that, I thought, “Cry? Isn’t that a bit extreme, even for watching the Olympics?”

I did not understand nor could I relate to the Chinese people’s emotional reaction to the athletes at the time. So I asked the resident expert in my household, my husband, about the mentality of the Chinese as related to this topic. He explained, “You know with the Chinese people, we always think and operate as a unit, not as an individual like westerners. For example, when Chinese people identify themselves, they always tell you their surname first, then given name. This is to explain which family they belong to, i.e., which group they are part of. Whereas, when you introduce yourself to someone, you always say, “Hello, I’m Jennifer Yip.” You say it that way because you are Western. That is based on individualism. You always tell the others exactly who you are, based on your given name first, not your family name.

If we look at the way the Chinese write addresses, we can also see how they view themselves as a unit. For example, when you mail something at the post office here, the address that you write in Chinese, for the sender’s and recipient’s addresses, always starts with the country first (e.g. China, province, city, street name, number of street). This method of writing an address is indicative of Chinese culture, i.e., you identify which country you are from first, not which street you live on first. Again, this is based on the mentality of belonging to a group. For westerners, it is the complete opposite. You list the number and street name first in the address.”

Now based on the perspective of belonging to a unit or a group, I can understand the Chinese people’s emotional reaction to their countrymen and women’s Olympic performances and why the Chinese athletes gave themselves more pressure to win. For them, it is like putting the weight of the entire country on their shoulders.

As a foreign teacher at the university where I work, I’ve noticed the prominent theme of belonging to a unit or operating as a group from my students as well. When the students talk about their plans after graduation, they always speak in the same fashion. They always include something about “When I enter society…” For the young adults at the university, they already know their role, i.e., they will become a part of the massive society in China. Many of them will obey their parents’ wishes and do what their parents ask them to do, even if it means sacrificing their own dreams and not being truly happy.

Even a few of my students said to me last semester, “Individualism would not work in Chinese society. There would be too many conflicts, too many people in one group who want different things.” Decisions are made based on the consensus of a unit here, such as your parents and/or grandparents, your team members, etc.

Even in the summer intensive classes that I taught in, conforming to a group or to group standards was prominent in the way the kids (between the ages of 8 to 16) played team games. For example, when we played jenga, a team member rarely pulled out a piece just based on his or her own decision. The student always waited for the advice of his or her team mates and listened to them carefully before making a move. The students were reluctant to act on their own. Whereas, if I were playing jenga with my friends, we’d pull out a piece any way that we’d like without caring much of what our team members say or advise us to do. That’s because for westerners we are accustomed to making decisions based on individual thinking, not conforming to please the entire group.

Taking the entire group into consideration is admirable. Or does it not mean you are not able to think for yourself? Acting on something just based on your own wishes may be selfish. Or is it? These are some of the differences between individuality vs. unity.