The Way We Think: Chinese View of Life Philosophy
Author: Li Gang
Price: RMB 39
Paperback, 162 pages
Published by Sinolingua Co., Ltd.
The Way We Think: Chinese View of Life Philosophy explores comparisons between Chinese and Western cultures. The book consists of three parts — Social Behavior, Family, and Moral Principles — while introducing over 30 ways that Chinese people conduct themselves in society, trying to present concepts through cases. It displays the profound and intricate Chinese culture in an easy-to-understand manner for foreigners. Readers can thus form a bigger picture through these insightful snippets so as to get a clearer view of the character, values, and ethical standards of the Chinese people.
Author Li Gang has a doctorate degree in philosophy and his research mainly focuses on the comparative study of Eastern and Western cultures and social philosophy. During his study at Cambridge University in the U.K., he was the chairperson of the Cambridge China Forum. Li Gang mentions it was the cultural environment there that brought him a first-hand understanding of Western culture where previous experience had just been extrapolations from various media sources.
In the first part of the book, Social Behavior, the topics discussed are Mianzi Outweighs All Else, Harmony, The Culture of Eating, A Sense of Propriety, The Concept of Time in the Chinese Culture, Feelings and the Law. The second part, Family, is about some interesting phenomena pertaining to it, for example, Holding Dear the Family, Men and Women Play Different Roles, Marriage Development in China, Child Is Everything, and Filial Piety – Chinese Old Tradition. In the third part, Moral Principles, the author analyzes Chinese people’s cherished characteristics like Diligence, Pragmatism, A Man Stands by His Word, A Combination of External Flexibility and Internal Integrity, Reserved and Implicit Chinese People. People who are particularly interested in exploring Chinese culture and who are curious about discovering and exploring the differences in sophisticated comparison would be able to understand the uniqueness of these topics.
“Mianzi” is an important and interesting word in Chinese language that has evolved into a synonym for “dignity” and even beyond its literal meaning. It embodies a significant concept deeply rooted in Chinese society. Face consciousness is a typical phenomenon in Chinese culture. Since establishing and maintaining a favorable social relationship means a great deal to individual development, the Chinese are quite careful about others’ opinions and feelings. In the words of Lin Yutang, a master of Chinese culture, one characteristic of the Chinese nation is their value of humanity and the respect of others. No humiliation would be more unbearable than a wound to their feelings. Its seriousness is held at the same level as a duel between two Western gentlemen.
Of Chinese mianzi, Western scholars also have incisive observations. In the book Chinese Characteristics, author Arthur Henderson Smith (1845-1932) talks about mianzi in the first chapter. “In China, mianzi is an intricate collective noun, which has far more connotations than what we can describe or understand,” he wrote. “It is the key to discovering many important characteristics of the Chinese nation.”
“Harmony” is an important category of thought in traditional Chinese culture. Ancient people stressed the importance of harmony in the universe and the harmony between humans and nature, and what is more, the harmony between people. Confucius (551-479 BC), a Chinese philosopher and great educator, emphasized this when he said, “In the application of decorum, it is harmony that is of value.” Mencius (372-289 BC), a Confucian philosopher, advanced this idea when he wrote, “A favorable climate is not as good as topographical advantage, but topographical advantage is not as good as unity and coordination among people.” “Harmony” is not only a measure of value but also the goal of people’s associations. In summation, to value harmony is to effectively avoid extreme attitudes and confrontational actions, reduce conflicts between people, and address the sources of social friction. This is beneficial to Chinese society because it enriches people’s relationships by adding a human touch and promoting stability.
Ancient Chinese sages have said, “Food is what matters most to people.” Eating is the first necessity for human survival. It is also a lifestyle. Today, table culture in China not only conveys mutual feelings but also fulfills the function of social communication. Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu wrote, “Eating performs many social functions, such as establishing a close relationship, or settling a business contract.” A Chinese-style dinner party has functions of social contact, sending a message of becoming close friends, and identifying all diners as part of the same group. Eating and drinking together promotes friendship and resolves difficulties and conflicts. It is an outstanding Chinese way of dealing with matters.
Another huge difference between the Chinese and Western cultures is that the Westerners consider individualism to be the priority. Traditional Chinese society was agrarian, and the family was the most important social unit with regard to production and consumption. Family is a mainstay of Chinese culture with the traditional humanistic culture originating from the concept of family. The social identity, values, responsibilities, rights, and obligations of the individuals were all closely related to their family clans and relations in traditional Chinese society. Chinese people value family ties and often say that “blood is thicker than water.” The affectionate feeling based upon ties of blood is an indispensable part of the life of Chinese people. “Family is the last bay of the soul” undoubtedly emphasizes that family is one’s most reliable settling place.
Chinese people are prone to be reserved when expressing personal views, which is often difficult for foreigners to understand. The reserved style of speech and behavior of the Chinese can be traced back long into history. Confucianism, which centered on courteousness and benevolence, came into maturity as early as in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC) and then Warring States period (475-221 BC). On the one hand, it requested that those in power rule the country with their virtues; on the other hand, it requested that the ruled abide by social morality, and to “improve one’s self” was the very essence of being a member of society. Throughout history, Confucianism has penetrated all aspects of the life of the Chinese people and has been strengthened as norms of social value by generations of educated people and philosophers.
The large majority of Chinese people believe that one should keep a low-key profile and be reserved when socializing with other people. As a result, they are unwilling to express themselves or show their emotions in a very frank and straightforward manner. The tactfulness of the Chinese has resulted in a large number of idioms and metaphors that add to the rich texture of the Chinese language. For example, when praising the beauty of a young lady, idioms such as “lovely enough to cause the fall of a city or a state,” and “the beauty overshadows the moon and flowers” are used. “To reserve half of what you want to say to yourself,” if applied in an appropriate and tactful way, is one of the approaches to respond to another’s request. One’s attitude is tactfully shown, avoiding face-to-face conflict, and leaving oneself some room to maneuver. It fully reflects the differences between Chinese and Western cultures and the arts of Chinese people in social behavior.