Updated: Dec 4, 2020
China's rise often causes a headache for us. How can a country, so fundamentally different from the Western system, be so successful and increasingly dominating in our world? Hypotheses such as population size, geography, and exploitation are all insufficient since they fail to explain why other countries with similar advantages (or maybe disadvantages) did not yet achieve China's recent success.
Instead, if I had to nail down the major factor for China's success to one single word term, I would say it is the joint culture. Culture is an extensive term, though. When we say culture, we commonly refer to very obvious aspects such as food, lifestyle, clothing, and architecture. Culture is often perceived as pretty tangible and visible and can easily find itself mixed up with certain stereotypes. In the following, when discussing China's cultural features, I will use two different definitions to distinguish among two separate segments that shape China's overall national culture and explain its advantages.
The first cultural segment is an ethnic and factual definition. 92% of the Chinese citizens belong to an ethnic group called Han. It is the largest ethnic group globally, making up nearly 18% of the global population. Apart from the close genetic relationship and a relatively homogenous society, China has a long and proud history, giving most Chinese citizens a common identity. This identity is shaped by daily necessities such as their cuisine, domestic customs, and the physical and educational environment such as Chinese art, architecture, mythology, literature, and festivals. All these cultural elements are clued together under the roof of one common language – Mandarin. Mandarin is the standard Chinese language spoken by nearly every person in China Mainland.
Despite international influences (may it be from Western or other Asian civilizations), China managed to keep its fundamental and visible cultural pillars down to the present day. In today's global world, we witness, in many places, that strong social cohesion is much less common than we naturally assume. Of course, China is facing certain cultural threats as well. This risk is one primary reason why the Chinese government is increasingly putting effort into preserving cultural values by banning or reducing foreign content (e.g., cinema films) and enforcing Mandarin as the default language in schools (whether for Han Chinese or Chinese minorities).
You can't touch it
Whereas the first cultural segment is tangible and visible at first sight, the second one is more hidden and complex. This area is closely related to values and mentality. Through the profound history and the overall accepted state philosophy Confucianism, Chinese people share very similar values and attitudes reflected in their daily life, work mentality, and communication patterns.
All these elements have been developed and embraced over millenniums. Whether it is a constantly changing internal environment or challenging external conditions, the Chinese commonly find a way to adapt to new situations quickly and pragmatically. Put another way: You cannot afford to be a slow pig in China. In China, dynamics and momentum are everything. This phenomenon can be observed from large international brands down to daily personal action with quick response time behavior and a high change frequency. Some of these conducts could be considered chaotic, unreliable, or impatient by Western standards, but if applied properly and in the right context, they can be powerful advantages.
Another important aspect that must be mentioned in this context is communication and behavior towards others. Concerning interaction, life today is still highly influenced by Confucian principles. These principles ensure clear roles in particular interpersonal constellations (e.g., between ruler and subject). Through this establishment, China is a so-called high-context culture, which in essence means that there is a lot of mutual understanding without comprehensive explanations needed. It makes communication generally extremely effective and efficient.
You might also have noticed fundamentally different interaction styles if you compare Westerners' general behavior with most Chinese people. Chinese people are often perceived as more introverted than other civilizations. This introversion is usually confused with a lack of confidence or lack of emotion or skill. I have to disagree with such paradigms strongly. The explanation for such perceptual images is the importance of modesty and the necessity of saving face in China. People who expose themselves too much and rather sell their personality than their ideas are perceived as untrustworthy.
In China, actions speak louder than words.
How cultural capital utilization works
What is the large advantage of all that? The Chinese cultural universe does not outclass others, but it works so well because almost all Chinese subscribe to it. After all, Chinese culture is so powerful because it is internalized and omnipresent. Certain strengths, such as fast adaption, are not unique to China, but most other countries do not commit broadly to it. You find some individual regions or groups of people who share the same drive, but hardly can you encounter such a large group of people acting in concert.
This fact is crucial to understand often overlooked when analyzing China. For people who hadn't had the chance yet to go to China or who never dealt with Chinese people in a professional environment, it might still be hard to imagine the exact extent of this purposefulness. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind for a deeper understanding.
Finally, an important marginal note: My article should not suggest that culture is the only component of China's success. First of all, there is no superior culture. There are only those countries that preserve their culture better than others and jointly exploit their strength. Secondly, as China's history has proven multiple times, especially during the last century, culture cannot always compensate for severe mistakes (e.g., the wrong economic system). A healthy national culture is a powerful engine but won't work with the wrong fuel.
Right now, and I believe in the future, the preservation of China's culture looks like an ideal complement to its economic growth and expansion. Eventually, it is a big advantage over some other countries that are rather drifting apart internally.
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