“We will cross the river by feeling the stones.” – Deng Xiaoping
The Yangtze River runs ceaselessly deep and wide, carrying many generations of Chinese culture from the deep interiors of Asia; a cultural history of dominance and isolation that has defied conquering barbarians for centuries. While generating great force, the river is like the Chinese culture; it is fluid and adaptable, adjusting to temporary circumstances and perceived barriers as it empties into the Yellow Sea.
This is the heritage and culture of Shanghai and China presented to us by Dr. Kari Grosse-Ruyken, Associate Professor for Chinese Philosophy at the School for Humanities School of Tongji University, and former Deputy Director of the Sino-German University. Dr. Grosse-Ruyken’s interest in East Asian philosophy came at an early age. As a boy in Germany, he was required to study religion. Choosing to study Asian culture and philosophy as an alternative to Western religions, he found a hippy mentor who took him through the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This ignited a lifelong passion resulting in a Ph.D. from Bonn University through studies focusing on strategic thought in China.
Professor Grosse-Ruyken began his presentation with a parable: A peasant who comes home and is physically exhausted. He explains to his family, “I have been laboring trying to help the plants to grow.” The family discovers that their father has been tugging on the plant leaves, and as a result, pulled them out of the ground.
The parable was used to make a point about leadership and education. Like farming, you can plant seeds of knowledge and nurture growth, but not force it. To foster skills and personal growth requires fertile soil, beneficial environment, and patience.
This parable also has application to the differences between Western and Eastern philosophies as articulated by Dr. Ruyken. The Western dualistic view separates the universe into the Physical and Metaphysical, where one has control and influence on the other. With this perspective, the farmer is the metaphysical that directly imparts power and control over the growth of crops by planting seeds and tugging on the leaves. The Eastern view of the world is continuous and connected. You cannot separate any one element from another, so the farmer and the plant are one in the same. These vastly differing viewpoints are at the core of understanding the cultural differences between a Western approach to business versus the Eastern view of a holistic, integrated, and harmonious ecosystem. Every principle of doing business in China is grounded in culture.
What’s is culture? It can be defined as the totality of underlying assumptions, values, norms, attitudes, and convictions of a social entity. It is expressed in behaviors and artifacts that have developed over time as a best-practice under the challenges social entities have to face. Culture creates order out of chaos and coordinates and integrates a society/community. It reduces complexity and provides orientation.
The misperceptions of China are many due to the differences in Eastern and Western cultures. With the increasing exchange between East and West, we need to realize our origin to understand others. One culture is not necessarily superior to another; it’s only a pragmatic approach to what works within society. It is important to engage in cultural discussions, even though it ‘s hard to realize our weaknesses or strengths.
As mentioned earlier, Western dualism views the universe as divided into two spheres: Physics / Metaphysics and therefore full of differentiations. It is structured, permanent, and unchanging. The order has to be imposed from the outside; the world has a beginning and runs in a linear way towards a goal.
One contextual world
The basic assumptions of Chinese culture are due to their synthetic monistic worldview where order and creativity are continuous and imminent. Standards of order (e.g. truth, beauty, the good) are not givens or imposed from outside, but are historically emergent. In this way, the world is dynamic, auto-generative, self-organizing, and “alive.” Everything exists within its particular context. As a result, in a “high-context-culture”, what does yes mean? There are different degrees of yes. Yes (absolutely). Yes (perhaps). Yes (no). In the Chinese language, individual words have specific meanings depending on the situation, making negotiation of business transactions more nuanced and complicated.
Cultural hegemony and assimilation
Chinese identity is determined not by race or place of birth but by living according to the rules of the Chinese civilization. This allowed the governance of a diverse and expansive population for thousands of years and established a regulation within which other nations must abide.
In 1793 the ruler of China, Qian Long, sent a letter in response to King George III of Britain for trade privileges:
“……As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country’s trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty and cannot possibly be entertained. It is true that Europeans, in the service of the dynasty, have been permitted to live at Peking, but they are compelled to adopt Chinese dress, they are strictly confined to their precincts and are never permitted to return home…
…If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial Dynasty fills you with a desire to acquire our civilization, our ceremonies, and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even if your Envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil. Therefore, however adept the Envoy might become, nothing would be gained thereby.”
Do these same principles hold true today? While American companies drool over the possibility of marketing products to a country with 1.3 billion consumers, are they being naïve and imperialistic? Do they respect the culture motivating core Chinese beliefs? Or do they assume American presence indicates their acceptance of our foreign values? With China, as always, time will tell.