China and the US: 2 different approaches to culture

In China and America, ideas of civilization and antiquity are deeply entrenched within modern conceptions of national culture.

Like any culture, China’s is deep, ever-changing and multifaceted, and it can be hard to speak concisely or determinately about anything so variable and intangible. There are, however, certain recurring, generally held attributes: Confucianism and its general urgings toward stability; collectivism over individualism; and a Taoist understanding of the world as interconnected and seeking equilibrium.

China’s deep well of art, cuisine, literature and innovations are all, in part, a product of these sociological underpinnings. All of this developed gradually over more than 5,000 years, a remarkable length of time for cultural traits to survive. It’s no wonder the Chinese point to that and are proud of it.

If we were to look at how Americans might deconstruct their own national culture, we would probably see things like the American democratic system, American English, American philosophies, as well as elements of popular culture such as American music, food, literature and film. But we would also see things like Shakespeare, Hobbs, Plato, Athenian democracy and the Roman empire — elements of the ancient and old worlds.

While these can’t be said to be strictly American in the same way that the Chinese alternatives maybe can, they are held with a comparable sense of pride and reverence in the American psyche. 

Since the aspects of American culture that are ancient in origin are also shared with other Western countries, one tends to value strictly American creations — art, music, innovations and ideas — and thus new world ones over those of the ancient and old worlds, at least in the immediate arena of culture-making.

So, one may see that despite modern political arrangements, in both China and America ideas of civilization and antiquity are deeply entrenched within modern conceptions of national culture. But how does this play out in the real world?

“In the Chinese language there is wenhua (文化) for culture but also wenming (文明) for civilization,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China scholar and history professor at the University of California Irvine. “They go together, and the root has something to do with creation and texts and things passed on.”

Similarly, we can sometimes talk that way as well. We use the term of someone being cultured to mean sort of possessing in these kinds of civilized awareness. Like China, America also traces its cultural origins to antiquity and ancient civilization.

Chinese impressions of American culture are generally one-dimensional and very new. Consider this anecdotal example: A few years ago, I was teaching English to a class of college students. I wrote the words “China” and “America” on the whiteboard, in two separate columns and had each student come up and write an English word they associated with each country. The results were intriguing.

Under “China” they wrote: long history, traditional food, Great Wall. Under “America” was a much longer and varied list that included sexy, fast food, iPhone, Disney, economic crisis. It was clear that most of the things they associated with their own country were of the past, while associations with America were mostly of the very recent. Of course, such an informal polling cannot be seen as authoritative, but I would venture to suggest other young Chinese would respond similarly.

It makes sense that outsiders might associate America with newness. America was founded on novel ideas and a fresh start. The notion of a clean slate is ingrained in its national psyche. Indeed, it is a part of the country’s global reputation.

“We have it in our power,” said the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, “to begin the world all over again.” Instead of revering antiquity, Americans regarded it with suspicion. “The past is dead, and has no resurrection,” wrote 19th century novelist Herman Melville.

In China, such notions have long been not only uncommon but heretical.

“Study the past if you would divine the future,” wrote Confucius. Only in the past century or so, microscopic in the span of Chinese civilization has this begun to change.

Where American and Chinese societies differ as well is in multiculturalism. American society has for most of its existence been an ethnically diverse one. If China is known around the world as the oldest continuous civilization, America is known as the melting pot.

Its ethnic diversity has undeniably contributed to its national culture and in the same way that many Chinese speak proudly of their long history, Americans tend to speak proudly of the melting pot.

Yet the melting pot society, and the American national culture that has sprung out of it, is exactly what has been targeted as somehow illegitimate by my Chinese friends. What I saw as cultural integration, they saw as cultural theft. What I saw as something that binds together American culture, they saw as disqualifying it. How do we reconcile these opposing views?

In the end, the difference may be in the syntax. In America, the word “culture” when spoken in conversation increasingly refers to aspects of popular culture: film, music, food; tangible cultural elements and often those of the recent past or present. In China, it seems more often to refer to things of the distant past.

“(That China is a place of ancient culture), it has become an increasingly common way of talking about China. It’s become one of the things that the government sort of celebrates most,” says American historian and author Wasserstrom.

President Xi Jinping has expanded the Chinese film industry and increased promotion of Chinese culture abroad. In a 2010 speech on art and literature, Xi (among other things) stressed that the two cultural realms must “persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people.”

Throughout all of this, there has been the Chinese Dream campaign. The national campaign has contrasted messages of hope for China’s future with passionate references to its past.

Despite obvious differences, American and Chinese societies share several characteristics. They both live in physically large countries. They both are fiercely proud and patriotic. Admittedly, neither country’s culture can be summed up in a thousand plus words, nor can the myriad opinions on this topic of the nearly two billion people between them. What one can say with confidence however, is that both countries certainly do have a culture. They just might be looking at them from different angles.

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