It is often said, or at least I have heard said many times, that one of the main differences between Eastern and Western culture is that the West is more individual-centric, while the East is more community-centric. At one point I would have agreed, although after living in China for several years my thoughts on this matter have developed into something slightly different.

What is meant by “individual”, and what is meant by “community”? It cannot be denied that Western culture certainly places higher emphasis on individuality and freedom, whereas Eastern culture is far more hierarchical. In the United States, those we consider adults (often counted as those 18 and older, or 21 and older) are considered free agents. Sure, their family and friends may pressure them to behave in certain ways, or promote or dissuade certain ideas, but in the end most people recognize that an individual’s decisions are their own to make, and their choices are generally respected. Even if the choices they make are bad ones, most everyone will acknowledge that those choices are an individual’s to make.

In China, however, the lines between child and adult, between free decision making and subservience, are significantly blurred. In China, adulthood is not measured by age but by milestones. A married 22 year old with her own house and car may be considered more of an adult than an unwed 30 year old who has neither. The idea of an “age of majority” seems to be non-existent here. One cannot be legally married in China before they are 21 (for females) and 23 (for males). And in China, one never truly grows up.

For a Chinese person, no matter your age or position in life, you are inherently bound to obey your parents. In a way, it is a form of social security, as parents support their children through university graduation and beyond. The support does not merely extend to paying tuition, but in most Chinese families, includes buying a house for their child upon graduation (home ownership is basically a prerequisite for marriage in China, but that’s a story for another essay). Due to the extensive support given to Chinese children by their parents, a feeling of indebtedness and obligation exists in Chinese society. As soon as the child enters the workforce, he or she is expected to send their parents monthly payments, usually a significant portion of their total salary. I recall seeing an article by a well-paid (by Chinese standards) news anchor on CCTV, the Chinese state-run television network, in which he broke down his 10,000 RMB monthly salary and explained why even a high salary like that is not enough to live on in an expensive city like Beijing. He broke down his expenses, and “sending money to parents” accounted for at least 10% of his total.

When a young couple births their first (and most often, only) child, nine times out ten it is expected that the parents, from either side of the family, will move in with their child and child’s spouse, and stay for an indefinite period of time. It’s not forever, but this period can last for several years. The American custom of throwing our aging parents into an assisted living home is frowned upon for being “unfilial”, although it is becoming more and more commonplace in The Middle Kingdom. More common, though, will be that elderly parents in need of assistance will once again move in with their Children. Adults in China, by which I mean those older than children but younger than the elderly, are faced not only with the burden of raising their children, but with supporting their parents through old age, and eventually death. These things are so ingrained in Chinese culture that is in fact enshrined in the laws of The People’s Republic of China — failure to remit money to your parents, and failure to visit your parents during the Spring Festival holiday, though seldom enforced, are both punishable crimes.

I believe that saying China is a culture which values community is a misnomer, as what is truly prioritized is not the community at large, but rather the family unit and an individual’s “inner circle”. If you are inside of a Chinese person’s inner circle, which may include relatives (including extended family) and very close friends, you are golden. A Chinese person who considers you near and dear will go to the ends of the earth and will bend over backwards to help you. On the other hand, if you exist outside of this circle, your existence is basically meaningless and irrelevant to the Chinese person. Obviously I am speaking in general terms and coloring 1/5th of the world population with one broad stroke and are not always the case, but in my experience, and the experience of many others, these ideas generally hold water.

In American society, while people do recognize individual will and value personal rights, there is also evinced a much larger sense of being a part of a larger community. Americans generally concern themselves with the lives of their friends, neighbors, and fellow townsmen, and on a broader scale, with all other Americans and citizens of the world. Charitable giving is much more commonplace in the United States, as can be seen by the actions of average, even lower and middle class citizens, in supporting charity organizations for disadvantaged people both in and outside of the country.

In China, beggars, the homeless, and other marginalized peoples are generally ignored and looked down upon. An 80 year old woman in the street is not viewed as a person whose life circumstances brought them to such a pitiable and miserable place, but more often as a scam artist trying to cheat honest, working folk out of their hard-earned pay. To this extent, beggars are frequently ignored and abused. If it were your own grandma freezing in a gutter, you would take her into your home, and feed her, and keep her warm, and look after her. But when it’s somebody else’s grandma freezing in the gutter, she can, to put it bluntly, go fuck herself.

Charitable causes in China are generally viewed as scams, and very few charities exist in the country. Homeless shelters, food banks, women’s shelters, et cetera, are by and large unheard of. One can hardly blame the Chinese for thinking this way, when generally the people in charge of such organizations do in fact frequently siphon off money for lavish dinners and the purchase of luxury clothes and cars. The most high-profile instance of this happened with the Chinese Red Cross, whose alleged “General Manager of Red Cross Commerce”, then 20-year-old Guo Mei Mei, posted pictures of herself online, driving a Maserati and sporting luxury bags from Hermes.

From time to time, a large enough patriotic furor can be drummed up by the media (which is held on a tight leash by the government), stirring the people into a frenzy of helping their country or their fellow citizens. One rare instance of widespread charitable giving occurred after the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Millions of people across China donated, but this donation spree is what directly led to the outing of the previously mentioned Guo Mei Mei. Another example is the disputed Diaoyu islands. One of the only times in recent years in which public protest was allowed was a manufactured (non)issue over a territorial dispute with Japan. Thousands of Chinese took to the streets, burning down Japanese food restaurants, looting Japanese companies like Uniqlo and 7-11 (which in China is run by the Japanese Seven & I Holdings company), trashing and overturning Japanese made cars, and even beating the (Chinese) drivers of those cars, for their perceived betrayal of their country. The driving force behind all of these events is a 1 square kilometer, uninhabited cluster of rocky islands in the South China Sea, which the Chinese and Japanese governments both claim ownership and seek to control the resource rights of the island. In Japan, the issue was met with general apathy and did not register as big news.

Chinese homes are most always kept immaculate and organized. Keeping your home tidy and neat is very important, and customs such as taking your shoes off at the door and wearing house slippers indoors are near-universal. This would imply that the Chinese value cleanliness, and they do, at least in their own homes or in the homes of friends and relatives. But as soon as you leave a Chinese house, you are immediately inundated with graffitied advertisements (even on the wall next to the front door), litter everywhere, general grime, and people spitting, defecating, and urinating in the streets. Littering is not frowned upon by most people here, and while in the States most people would be ashamed to be caught by their friends while throwing trash on the ground or out of the car window , in China it is not shameful and is even encouraged by many. It is my own personal opinion that the reason for such dirty behavior is that shared space is not valued and considered worthy of being kept clean. And why should it, it’s already dirty anyways, and if you throw something on the ground outdoors eventually Someone Else will be along to pick it up. It is simply not acknowledged that the cleanliness of public space depends on the actions of every individual, and instead responsibility is passed, because unless something directly involves you or your inner circle, it is pretty much Someone Else’s problem.

And in China, it is always Someone Else’s problem. Times are changing, and personal accountability is becoming more and more of a thing, but China as a nation whose people view themselves as all being in the same boat is still a ways off. Until that change comes about, expect China to remain dirty and corrupt.

China non-fiction

QR Code
QR Code community (generated for current page)