As an expat moving to China to live and teach English, I was excited to learn more about the culture and immerse myself in it. Of course, I researched a great deal in advance to prepare myself for the experience, but nothing could totally prepare me for the complexities and differences I would face. Not that it was bad, in some ways it was quite interesting and fun. But living in China as an expat gives you the chance to explore it much deeper. And what I realized, was that Chinese culture cannot be easily summed up, nor can it be completely understood until you have experienced it first hand. So here are some Chinese culture facts that I've learned from my experience, which may help others prepare as they embark on their new adventures in China.
Chinese culture for the most part, has managed to remain separate from the western world. Much of the 'blending' that has taken place in other cultures and countries are actually due to the west's influence. The current era is only the second time in China's history that it has 'opened-up'. The first being the Yuan dynasty which was essentially Mongolian (although after sometime they got 'assimilated' as all the rest do too, and then overthrown as a result).
The second period of time could arguably be said to be during the colonial 'occupation' of Shanghai, but even that was only geographical and not widespread, so it's questionable whether this era can be cited as an example.
The third and current era of Chinese culture opening up to western influence was instigated by Deng Xiao Ping with his 'open-door' policy instigated in 1978. Yet the motives were certainly not 'let's all exchange our culture and live happily ever after, learning how to adapt to each other', but most certainly 'let's find out how to make money, prosper and be powerful as a nation.'
Many non-Chinese have found Chinese culture confusing, and that's to be expected. Chinese culture doesn't hold to principles in the same way as western culture does, and in fact this rigidness displayed by westerners is sometimes considered by native Chinese to be quite strange. However, Chinese culture is is largely based on the influence of the Taoism/Daoism and Confucism religions or philosophies.
What follows is a list of Chinese cultural precepts that I've found are rarely flexible, and a couple that are but I consider to be of particular interest:
Chinese family moves as a circle, from parents to children, and then back again from the children to their parents - when they've grown older and are working. This is exemplified in how parents take care of the kids when they are young, and when the parents are older the kids usually take care of them (often having the parents live with them!).
In western culture, for the most part, money moves downwards, and it's not considered any child's responsibility to be financially responsible for any parent when they are older. Parents typically take care of this consideration with savings, pensions and the like. Although children are often around to help, many parents in western countries don't want to be a burden on their kids. But in China, it's really expected that the children will take care of the parents later in life (and sometimes - parents will have quite high expectations in this regard).
Individualism is greatly valued and promoted in the majority of western cultures, possibly due to the education system requiring the student to have and express their own ideas and opinions, as a person with creativity and analytical ability is usually more productive and useful to our society. And as students move onto become professionals, this is further exemplified with the emphasis on personal achievements, awards, and promotions in their job.
In China however, and in some ways Chinese culture itself, individualism can be seen as a threat to 'the greater good'. A collectivist culture, the Chinese focus more on harmony. Challenging ideas, encouraging change is not always taken with the same enthusiasm as it is in western countries. Emphasis is less on the individual and more on the team or family as a whole.
Any form of communication within Chinese culture that may be likely to cause offense or loss of face, will be mostly indirect and filled with non-committal responses. However, what constitutes 'offense' in Chinese culture, is not necessarily equal to what causes offense in most western based cultures.
For example, sometimes in China saying to a male 'Wow, you're fat', can be perfectly acceptable depending on the situation and individuals involved. Obesity can be sometimes viewed in a positive light, as in 'fat = a lot of food = access to a lot of food = wealth'. Also, the concept of manners is very different in China than what is taught in western countries. For example, western countries tend to be overly polite and careful with our language. If a person is "fat" we might say they are "a little big" or "plus-size" however in China, fat is fat -- that's a fact. So words that might cause offense to a westerner in China, may not have been intended that way.
The associated imagery and thought process of a mainland born Chinese can be vastly different to most from other countries, by comparison. One reason is of course cultural, as in based on their own history and literature.
For example, ten years ago if you asked a mainland Chinese what a monkey eats, most would reply with the word 'peach', this is because in Wu Cheng en's classic 'Journey to the West A.K.A the Monkey king', Sun wu kong steals the heavenly peaches. Yet now, due to western influence, most of the younger generation will reply with 'banana'. But if you ask this question of most people from western countries, they would quickly say a banana.
Conceptually, it's not hard to consider that due to this difference, what would be considered a logical thought process in most western educated individuals, is not often followed by a mainland born Chinese. This is not to say it's not within the structure of their thoughts, only to say they are using a different reference point than expats in China may be using. For this reason, there are many work and life situations in China where expats may be a bit taken aback regarding the perspective on a situation from a Chinese friend or co-worker because it may be vastly different than their own.
In Chinese culture if someone has age or power over you, you are supposed to defer to them in all situations, especially in public. Traditionally, it is simply unacceptable for you to contradict them no matter even if you are quite obviously right. If you really must though, or have a concern to raise, you should only do it in private on a one-to-one basis, and definitely not when anyone else is in earshot.
What I've discovered about working and living in China, is that Chinese culture is like the layers of an onion. Many layers contradicting the previous layers precepts, but ultimately dependent on the situation at the time, ever flexible depending on priorities at any given moment. And while China has deep rooted traditions from years of being unexposed to the outside world, that is ever-changing with China's rise as a global and economic power.
Western influence is beginning to be seem more and more within China, and in some ways, is a direct contradiction to tradition. Younger generations are at a cross-roads, and it is quite interesting to talk with them to see how they are coping with the expectations of their parents / grandparents while navigating a totally new world.
But the same is true for expats in China from western countries. Too many of them would like to be able to frame Chinese culture with their own view and understanding of their own culture, but it just doesn't work; It's like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. At best it provides a limited viewpoint from which you can experience this fascinating evolution, and sometimes opposing cultural forces.