10 Aug
2006
Posted in: Cultural Studies   
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Culturally China is Different

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Browsing quickly the bookmarks and blogrolls on my blog and trying to catch up with recent topics, I found the discussion on China Law Blog on the topic of “why China stagnated – why China had failed to keep up with Europe through the Industrial Revolution” very inspiring and some of the points are particularly impressive.The author did two posts on this topic: the first is entitled Why China Stagnated — Economic History As Lesson, and the second post titled Why China Stagnated — A Chinese Response is a post following a response by Too Proud Of Our Culture? on the blog named Made in China. And the second post brought in extensive comments from different perspectives, including perspectives of ‘insiders’ who live in China viewing the issue from inside, and that of the ‘outsiders’ who live out of the country looking at the question from outside, and there are also insiders’ views from outside, and outsiders’ perspectives from inside.

Although to answer this question is far beyond the scope of this blog, I found that the discussion is particularly noteworthy in terms of the range that the points made in the discussion have covered in the exploration of the answers to the question.While it is true that cultural arguments are “inevitably generalizations without empirical support (by China Law Blog in Comment), I share the same argument that “at the same time, culture has to play some role in a country’s economy, even if it is only a determinant of a country’s governance, which, in turn, influences its economy (by China Law Blog in comment reply). I am particularly interested in some of the cultural factors raised in the discussion:

  • China was so poor that it had to keep in mind how prosperous and powerful it was. And forgot how bad the situation was at the moment. So isolated that it blamed everyone but itself, and boosted its culture so ardently that people could forget, among other things, the weak military force and the disheartening per capita. (Too Proud Of Our Culture? )
  • China was closed off from trade (and hence from new ideas and technology), and the government and culture both discouraged rather than encouraged innovation and enterprise. (by Ann in Comments)
  • In a word, This is a very anti-business culture. (by Lin in Commnets)
  • Historically, China’s political system was top down, elitist. The elite were far too absorbed in Confucian-Buddhist-Daoist spirituality to imagine, let alone guide, the emergence of modern society. (by anonymous in Comments)
  • …But the Chinese seem to me to be extraordinarily good at working a system, but extremely bad at designing systems (mainly because they refuse to try, since a new system would involve change) (by Ann in Comments)
  • …They were supposed to listen to authority, listen to elders, and do things as they’d always been done. How can a society advance and innovate when all change is discouraged? (by Ann in Comments)

I noticed that basically people see China as in many ways different from other places of the world. In reality, it
is different, and in many ways! It was so many years ago, and it is still true today. And, it is also true that at the same time Chinese people, with a strong sense of ‘they’ and ‘us’, look at outside world as ‘not the same’. The observation by Mark Rowswell – a Canadian ” also known as Dashan (Big Mountain), is a cultural icon to a billion Chinese people” is particularly noteworthy:

The Chinese have no problem determining who they are as a people, where they come from, what makes them Chinese, their history, their culture. Those are things that for most Chinese are completely clear. That’s why I say that they have a very clear concept of who is considered us and who is considered them. (Who Says You Can’t Move Mountains? in Intercultural Magazine July 2006 Issue)

Here I believe that when saying ‘different’, people do not mean ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ and I think a perspective with a notion of cultural inequity would certainly lead to untrue judgements. In reality, this ‘difference’ could also mean that culturally there are many things which applicable in one place are not necessarily the same elsewhere. In China, and in most cases, even when things from outside appear applicable, they would be ‘naturally’ modified or adapted, to an extent greater than otherwise elsewhere.

Back to the question of stagnation, if we take it as true that innovations, particularly technology innovations is one of the important factors that produced driving forces for the Industrial Revolution, then we might start to worry about a future stagnation in China, since many people take take it as true that for many years culturally China had not been and is still not a innovative society. Looking at the its educational system both from inside a classroom and from above the national administrative system, one would certainly notice that it is a system clearly marked by the top-down culture, and it is examination driven. And the ‘famous’ entrance examination to tertiary schools, which we might find its traces in China’s history, is in fact suffocating innovative thinking. In this respect, I think this comment is particularly noteworthy:

…I think that a key advantage of the US, relative to most other cultures, is that it is excessively willing to tolerate change. That tolerance, combined with incentives, allows ideas to compete, which leads to innovation.(by Ann in Comments)

Technological advancement also needs a suitable cultural environment. The “too pround” mentality is certainly not a favourable one, while ‘too humble’ would also offer no help. An favourable cultural environment for innovation contains values like tolerance, openness, self-confidence, and positive attitudes towards changes, towards new things, towards difference, even towards wins and failures, and many more. Here I find the comment on Japan in the above discussion is also notable:

…Japan is an island – it’s a quite large island, but still there are limited resources, limited space, etc. The Japanese society hasn’t been able to afford the luxury of emphasizing appearance over substance. They’ve had to make things work, not just pretend that things were working. (by Ann in Comments)

China has long been a highly centralized top-down society, and it is true that its traditional philosophy did not appreciate the money-driven business culture. In the meantime, it has also been a self-relied ‘market’, which perhaps, sorry for the over-generalization, has contributed to some extend to the ‘too pround’ mentality. Interestingly, either sufficiency or insufficiency in agriculture in different times of its history did not produce enough impetuses for industrial revolution.

And also interestingly, the openning-up and reform initiated 30 years ago started simply from a desperate strive for agricultural sufficiency. And, as some pointed out, the centralization has actually contributed in its own way to the rapid economic development in the recent 30 years. It may not be wrong to say that reform without openning-up will not produce what it has achieved by far, while openning-up without reform is simply not imaginable.

So, what do you think?

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