Chinese Cultural Values and their Manifestations in Daily Life

Chinese culture today is a product of over 5,000 years of social and philosophical tradition, political and cultural history, and dynamic and constant change. While Chinese culture has changed much from its historical roots, there is still a strong grounding in tradition, particularly to the deeply-held values developed over millennia and the powerful social binding produced by cultural expectations and practices.

Some of the earliest influences on Chinese culture are rooted in ancient spiritual, philosophical, and religious practices: those of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Confucianism and Taoism began at approximately the same time: their initiators lived within a century of one another, Lao-Tzu living during the 6th-5th century BCE, Confucius living during the 5th to 4th century BCE.

Taoism: one of the earliest major influences on Chinese culture, it is a key foundation to many traditional ways still practiced today. Taoist thought was codified by the writings of Lao-Tzu, in his book called the Tao Te Ching (sometimes Dao De Jing). The classic is an explanation of how to live within the Tao,  Way of the universe. The key teachings of Taoism include:

  • (Action) Without Action/Control: this idea is a central guideline that emphasizes uniting one’s will with the flow of the universe.
  • Naturalness: this idea is a central guideline that embraces simplicity, freeing oneself from selfishness and desire.
  • The Three Treasures: three key virtues prescribed by Taoism, considered vital to the way of the Tao.
    • Compassion
    • Moderation
    • Humility

Confucianism: a philosophical tradition dating back to the writings of Confucius in 551 BCE, but which truly emerged as a dominant cultural factor during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220CE). Confucianism emphasizes morality, and established a code of duties and upstanding conduct for a harmonious society; the code of Confucius extends to all members of society, giving guidelines for governance, family, and individual conduct. The key morals espoused by Confucian thought and practice include:

  • Harmony
  • Benevolence
  • Righteousness
  • Courtesy
  • Wisdom
  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Filial Piety

Buddhism: Introduced to China in 67 C.E., Buddhism was brought from ancient India. Enormously influential, its practice has lasted even to the present. The tradition and teachings of Buddhism focus on freedom from suffering through the elimination of desire as described by the Four Noble Truths, the retributive mechanism of karma, the aspiration towards Nirvana (roughly, “enlightenment”), and the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path includes prescriptions for:

  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Though these religious and philosophical practices have passed their peak moments of influence in Chinese culture, they remain as important guidelines for personal ethics, values, and behavior in China.

Chinese culture holds many values in high regard, not only those espoused by religious and philosophy. Some of these include:

  • Education, as a mark of achievement and status: Confucian values have always treasured education, both as a mandate of worthy leaders, and for personal merit. Hard work for one’s education is considered one’s family duty, and is a social norm.
  • Courtesy and gift-giving: Etiquette is a very highly regarded social value in China. One important part of Chinese etiquette is gift-giving. A famous saying, “the gift is trifling, but the sentiment profound”, compliments the Chinese custom of giving gifts in a variety of social situations. To do so demonstrates courtesy, and it is considered appropriate to give gifts for a ride variety of events. When celebrating festivals, birthdays, weddings, or visiting a client or patient. Guests also customarily bring their hosts small gifts when attending family parties and celebrations: foodstuffs like wine, tea, candies, fruit, or pastries, or other goods such as cigarettes or flowers are appropriate for such occasions. It is both polite and expected that the receiver thanks the giver of a gift. This may e done through thank you notes, a phone call afterwards, or any other gesture of thanks. Also, when receiving a gift, one repeatedly expresses that the gift was in no way necessary (“Oh, you shouldn’t have”), and then give sincere thanks.  The tone and context of this response can differentiate between a politeness or a sincere thanks.
  • Personal dignity, Saving face, “Private” questions:“Saving Face” is an extremely important part of daily life in China.  It is considered a moral duty to defend one’s personal, family, or other group/network’s reputation.  One may “give face” by improving an in-group member’s social esteem: complimenting them, praising their achievements in front of a superior, or other actions will “give face” to a social ally.  Similarly, one should avoid actions that will “take away (damage) face”; actions that would cause someone to “lose face” include criticizing or embarrassing someone, giving a direct negative response (such as declining an invitation directly with a “no”), or giving direct disagreement with someone’s idea. Regarding private questions: Domestic or private concerns are not the same by Chinese standards compared to those in the U.S. In China, it is considered normal to ask questions about weight, salary, age, marital status or an item’s cost. In such cases, one is expected to give a very brief answer and continue the conversation normally. Avoiding answering the question would be interpreted as suspicious. This is because the questioner is most likely not very interested in the information itself, but by asking is showing a gesture of sincere interest in getting acquainted, as well as of courtesy.
  • Harmony in communication: as previously mentioned in part of the “saving face” custom, it is important to understand indirect communication. The traditional harmony value of Confucianism has a major role in how this plays out in conversation. Chinese culture emphasizes nonverbal communications and context, rather than the direct words of a message.  Silence can convey tremendous meaning, and add shades to the context of the communication.  Meanings are usually implied rather than spoken outright, especially if they are negative. What is not said is at least as important as what is spoken aloud.  An avoidance of saying “no”, preferring phrases such as “We will do some research and discuss it later”, is a staple of the indirect communication used by Chinese culture. Silence is regularly employed to imply the presence of problems, and can even be used to imply a “no” answer. Truthful responses are not necessarily the most likely to occur, especially with foreign visitors. Many Chinese regard telling someone what they want to hear as better than telling an unpleasant truth, hence the harmony aspect. It is socially disastrous for a host to openly conflict with a guest.  Also, in an acknowledgement gesture of “I hear you”, Chinese often give a nod and a smile, which simply indicates listening. A high virtue in Chinese culture is to be a good listener, by listening more and talking less. This is both out of courtesy and out of respect, both high values in Chinese culture.
  • Social roles
    • Gender roles
      • Males: Traditional Chinese family customs designate the man as the family member responsible for taking care of, protecting, and maintaining the entire family. The man of the family also holds all the decision-making power for decisions regarding his wife, children and other family members. Customarily, the man also provides for everything his children need, including education and other expenses until they are married away. Arranged marriage was a tradition for a long time, but is not as common as it once was. In contemporary, modern Chinese culture, the man and elders are still taken into consideration regarding family decisions, including things like marriage, but their final decisions are no longer strictly binding.
      • Females: Traditionally, Chinese mothers are in charge of the home, the children, and the family as a whole, and are expected to stay in the home. In contrast, many contemporary, modern Chinese women have careers, but it is not uncommon that occasionally they rely on financial support for their needs from a husband or father.
      • Elders: elders of a family are treated with reverence and respect because of their experience and wisdom. In traditional and modern families alike, younger family members give elders respect, take care of them, and look up to them. Traditionally, including and especially rurally located families, households can consist of up to five generations living together.  It is not uncommon for grandparents to live  in multi-generational homes with their children and grandchildren. After death, the lives of elders are commemorated by ancestor altars in a family’s home. Ancestor altars commonly display candles, photographs of the remembered, and favorite items of the deceased.
      • Children: in Chinese culture, dutiful obedience and filial piety are expected of children in relation to older relatives, particularly parents and grandparents. While children do receive much financial assistance from their parents, this reinforces the idea of duty to one’s elders, as being financially dependent may suggest. While strict rules of conduct and harsh punishments (including corporal punishment) for behavior are considered normal in China, cultural values also dictate a degree of value and respect for children. An example is the national holiday Children’s Day, which celebrates children in the country, and is accompanied with a day of giving one’s time, gifts, and happiness to one’s children.
  • Humility: In China, social values promote modesty in achievement and harmony through humility.  Achievements and leadership are viewed through the lens of the contribution to society and to one’s group, rather than for individual gain. Duties from family, local, societal, and national sources are expected of every citizen, and the individual is de-emphasized in contrast to these groups. In spoken Chinese language, the term for “self” is connoted similarly to selfish, a negative concept. All this is summarized by the famous proverb, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Traditionally, Chinese culture shuns those who promote personal interest over societal benefit, this kind of behavior is interpreted as a lack of piety and duty.Chinese culture abhors boasting and self-promotion; this is considered poor form, as socially adept persons are typically humble when their achievements are mentioned.  Persons who behave with modesty and respect, in spite of ample skills and talents, are given admiration in the context of a cultural distaste for arrogance.

Hospitality Customs

  • Host custom: Guests are treated with great dignity and encouraged to do as they like. This is exemplified through the great ends Chinese hosts will go to in order to accommodate their guests. One generally does not openly disagree with or scold one’s guest, even if their behavior is undesirable. For example, if a guest wished to smoke cigarettes in a host’s home, it would be extremely rude to deny the request.
  • Host custom: Guests often receive a very generous treatment, especially in regard to keeping the guest occupied. This may include food and drink, personal tours of nearby locations, and other accommodations. When guests are received or sent off, they are often accompanied to and from their destination (i.e. a host will wait with the guest at an airport or train station). These practices often feel very uncomfortable for Westerners, but are considered common custom and a host’s duty in China.
  • Guest custom: It is a sign of politeness to repeatedly refuse a host’s hospitality gestures. This demonstrates that one is not greedy, and that one does not wish to trouble one’s host. Two or three refusals is considered proper before accepting a courtesy, further refusals would indicate that one sincerely does not want the offer. In contrast, bargaining culture with street vendors in China is initiated by a refusal: if one does not wish to purchase a vendor’s wares, one should simply ignore them entirely.
  • Host and guest custom: gift giving is generally expected of both hosts and guests. Because generosity is considered a major virtue, it is common for a variety of gestures of generosity to occur. This may occur in several ways: giving abundantly, leaving the price tag on an item, or other displays.
  • Guest custom: when an item is particularly generous, once common-courtesy refusals have been expressed, it is a sign of a good relationship and an honor to the giver if a truly generous gift is accepted.
  • It is not uncommon for strangers to call one another by the word “friend”, particularly if one wishes to gain something from an interaction. This can spur host-like interactions among strangers, because this is a part of in-group expansion and networking in China.