Culture clash

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 11:47AM

Maslow’s hierarchy highlights the fundamental difference between contemporary western and Chinese thinking which explains why the teachings of Confucius have been little understood.

Civil liberties in the west enshrined in the bill of rights have been expanded conveniently to empower one with personal freedom resulting in an individualistic society . The self centeredness of meeting one’s needs and desires above integrity is what gives rise to greed and lust, discussed in earlier posts.

Central to Confucius’ teaching is the concept of ren meaning fraternity of the righteous which is a pictogram of two words and meaning relation between two persons, e.g. father-son, bossemployee, friends etc. No man is an island and the Chinese see themselves in a complex fraternity where our actions affect those around us. Hence the first four cornerstones 孝悌忠信 defines integrity in relation to others (parents, older siblings, superiors and friends) and the latter four 礼义廉耻 deal with personal virtues, emphasizing societal values before self. This is especially evident in the manner in which Chinese address their relatives. There are different words for uncles and aunts depending on their relation not to oneself but to one’s father or mother’s rank in the family. In Chinese culture, one is but an entity in a fraternal matrix and one has to know one’s place.

To Confucius, ethics is not what we expect of others and not ourselves. When his student Ran Qiu conducted himself without principles and integrity, his misdemeanors not only brought shame on himself but also on his teacher Confucius who openly disowned him. In individualistic, self-centered societies, shame is rarely felt, let alone borne by association.

When his favorite student Yan Hui died, his students offered to give him a grand funeral but Confucius was reported to have said that he must not as he did not give his own son a grand funeral. One would be mistaken to conclude that Confucius was parsimonious. When in fact he was merely honoring the respect Yan Hui had for him. Yan Hui looked upon Confucius as a father and he in turn treated Yan Hui as a son. In Chinese tradition, it was improper for a father to give his son a grand send-off. If he had done so, he would have abated Yan Hui’s respect for him. Only an understanding of the cultural ties and bonds would enable one to appreciate fully the nuances.

Another contemporary example of this cultural difference is the wearing of surgical face masks by Japanese and other Asians. Whilst to rest of the world, face masks are worn to prevent one from being infected with airborne diseases through contact with others, Japanese wear surgical masks when they have a cold to prevent themselves from infecting others. They would deem it inconsiderate not to wear a mask if one has a cough or cold. This act of altruism often goes unappreciated and even misunderstood.

Jason Lee of Reuters wrote in the NY Times on August 20 “Xi JinPing takes aim at western ideas” ideas such as human rights. The clash of cultures and the chasm between Chinese and Western core values remain as distant as the East is from the West.

Dr. Wong has ended his posts with the FCPA and in future weekly posts on contemporary lessons from Confucius will be found on this website.