Chinese Culture is like an EnigmaWhat is culture? What does culture consist in? This question is really a hard nut to crack. Culture has no shape; it"s not susceptible of description. Culture has no scope; it"s hard to set bounds to. Culture is like air. We live in it every day, we can"t leave it for a moment, but when we hold out our hands and try to "take hold of" it we"ll find that it is ubiquitous and is with us all the time---only not to be taken hold of by us. A cultural phenomenon, whatever it is, cannot occur at random, by accident, and with no reason at all. The task set for the science of culture is to find the reasons and explicate them.
If we say that a Chinese symbol is an enigma and Chinese culture is also an enigma, then the ideological core of Chinese culture is the most enigmatic of all enigmas.
The core of culture, the ideological nucleus of a nation, is the general program of the existence and development of the nation. Once we seize hold of the general program, everything falls into place. Only when we have taken full command of the ideological core of a nation"s culture, can we have a comparatively deep and thoroughgoing understanding of the nation"s cultural characteristics, cultural personality, cultural behavior and cultural psychology. That is to say, only when a Westerner has mastered the ideological core of Chinese culture can he/she look at a Chinese with understanding, with penetration, and with precision. It is for this reason that in previous articles I have introduced you to the influence that Chinese classical philosophy has had on her culture. Philosophy is abstruse, while culture in itself is concrete, vivid and lively. Thus, the core of culture can be no other than a highly abstract philosophical generalization. Moreover, this kind of abstract generalization must be shown as true by the vivid, concrete, and lively cultural phenomena. It is difficult to derive the abstract from the concrete. It is even more difficult to return from the abstract to the concrete. Culture is doubtless made up of a great multitude of cultural phenomena. These phenomena, like biological cells that contain the secrets of life, contain the genetic code, so to speak, of a nation"s culture. A conclusion that naturally follows is: A nation"s culture embodies the nation"s cultural personality. For example, a Chinese traditionally bows or bows with clasped hands in greeting because, as some researchers think, Chinese people have "introvert" character. Westerners shake hands or embrace on meeting, because Westerners are "extroverted" in character. Extroversion causes one to extend his hand to grasp the other personĄŻs hand. Introversion makes one stretch out his hand to hold the other hand of his own.
There is another explanation which perhaps accords better with fact. Chinese people are not aggressive. They tend to be more on the defensive. The traditional way of greeting suits this purpose well, especially when the two sides are strangers to each other and stand at some distance from each other, as was often the case in former times. Each clasps his two hands in order to show there is no weapon in either. Each bows down in order to show there is no intention of making an attack.
Let"s talk about entertaining guests at dinner. People of all nationalities in the world have dinner every day and entertain guests to dinner from time to time. But the ways of entertaining and eating are greatly different. A Chinese businessman made an interesting mistake years ago in his effort to please foreign guests. Urged on by several Chinese friends, that person once asked two Americans to dinner. According to the usual procedure and partly out of politeness, he asked each of those people who were present to choose a dish from the menu. One of the two guests, who had probably been to a Chinese restaurant in the United States or had some experience in this regard anyway, took the lead and chose "sliced chicken with egg white" in a manner that smacks of expertness. The other American knowledge of Chinese food was a blank page. He was still at a loss what to do when everyone else had made their choice. Then, the host induced him to order a soup. Anyhow, it was meant for the whole group to consume at the same time as every other dish that had been ordered. The banquet commenced. The first dish that happened to be served was the sliced chicken with egg white. The American who thought that he knew the ropes asked, "Is this what I ordered?" Having received the affirmative answer, he said with delight, "So I"ll eat first." He moved the plate towards him and began to eat with relish, plying knife and fork. In embarrassment the few Chinese present couldn"t help but comply with the wish of the guest and began to eat each the dish he himself had ordered. Thus, the other American was doomed. He was forced to eat up against his will the soup with shredded pork and hot pickled mustard tuber, which was served last. As a matter of fact, this was a trifling matter. But it is just in such trifling matters we see the difference in cultural spirits. The ideological core of Chinese culture is consciousness of the group whereas the ideological core of Western culture is consciousness of the individual. What is consciousness of the individual? It means in a nutshell that everyone is a separate entity that exists by itself, and everyone is an independent person with free will. Because of this free will everyone must strive to gain happiness and welfare by his/her own effort and everyone is to be held responsible for his/her own act, whatever it is. Even if he/she has done something wrong under the blameworthy guidance of someone else, he/she alone must suffer the consequence. Because of the belief that everyone is an independent person, one should not tolerate interference by other people in his/her choice or act unless the choice or act constitutes a hazard to public safety or welfare. It is so not only with the choosing of one"s food or clothing, but also with one"s decision which candidate for a high government position he/she will cast his/her vote for. What I want to eat or to wear has nothing to do with other people. I don"t need to ask other people for permission. On the other hand, I should refrain from imposing my wish on anyone else. In a restaurant everyone should choose from the menu the dishes that he/she likes to eat, and everyone should pay his/her own bill.
What is consciousness of the group? It means in a nutshell that everyone is part of the group. The benefit of the group is the benefit of the individual. The individual must subordinate his/her will to the will of the group. The individual is not an entity, alone and by itself. It pertains and adheres to the group. Even the choosing of food and clothing is not something to be done by the individual completely without regard to the wish of the group. When people dine together, especially on festive occasions, there is a greater need for the individual to take into account the interests of the whole group. How disgraceful it would be if each of those sitting around the table should insist on ordering a dish that others had no relish for. Indeed, there would be no reason for them to have dinner together.
Therefore, difference in the ideological core entails difference in cultural personality.
Cultural phenomena, especially those which are almost universal around us, embody the cultural core, though we often lose sight of this fact because the phenomena are "too common".