So are you Japanese or Chinese?

September 17, 2009

These last few months, in preparation of the book that we are compiling and publishing here in Kuching Sarawak, I find myself engrossed in combing through scores of books published locally pertaining to the Chinese immigrants in Borneo.

The history and evolution of the local Chinese communities as viewed through cultural filters, personally, is fascinating.

As a Chinese, born and bred in Singapore, my own cultural experience serves as a good example of how cultures adapt in order to fit into new environments, all with the objective of survival and flourishing particularly if going back is no longer an option.

Any Chinese from say, Indonesia, reading this will know exactly what I am talking about. The Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Singapore Chinese experience when juxtaposition affords an exceptional cultural illustration of what Frank Hsu, the Taiwanese anthropologist working in Sibu here, terms” trans-national cultural progression”.

But, Chinese are Chinese, regardless of whatever geographical location they relocate to and there are distinguishing qualities that set them apart.

To a non-Chinese, it’s easy to get lost sometimes in sorting out say Chinese and Japanese cultures as they share certain amount of commonalities and maybe even “roots” at some point in history.

So when you hear concepts like “using the arts to control ego”, attaining self-enlightenment and even Zen, it more likely that you are looking at something Japanese.

Yes, I hear some of you going “Zen” started in Shaolin and all that, but consider this, how many average Chinese are into Zen or how much of Chinese cultural practices stemmed from Zen?

Anyway, I found a very well-written article that spells out the basic characteristics of Chinese Culture, an article that you would be well-advised to spend some time reading……

Basic Characteristics of Chinese Culture

Joseph S. Wu


Chinese culture is so substantive in content, so comprehensive in varieties, and has had so long a history, that to its outsiders, it is very similar to the elephant before the blind men in the ancient story. The blind men could not grasp the elephant in its entirety. They held onto some part, and from this vantage point they attempted to describe the whole animal. The man who has Chinese culture by the feet may say that Chinese people are conservative and this explains why it is so difficult for China to accept modernization. The man who holds Chinese culture by the tail may say that the substance of Chinese society is its family system and this accounts for the failure of some modern politicians’ attempt to establish communal life. The man who holds Chinese culture by the ears may say that Chinese people are spontaneously artistic, and this is perhaps the reason why they have been underdeveloped in scientific thinking. These interpretations of Chinese culture may not be mistaken, but they all commit one common fallacy: the fallacy of selected emphasis, or, the fallacy of taking the part for the whole.

Nevertheless, an insider of Chinese culture may not be able to grasp a complete and accurate picture either, nor is he able to present it to its outsiders. This is simply because that the one who is actually involved may still have the problem of failing to get clarity and objectivity. A lover being in love is usually unable to describe his own feeling until he has stepped out of it. This author was born in China, educated in Chinese schools and colleges. No doubt, he had direct contact and substantial involvement with Chinese culture. But, when he was an insider of the culture, if someone asked him about the nature of this culture, he would just be startled and baffled. It is because Chinese culture was a part of his life that he never had to question or wonder about it. After many years’ teaching in the American Continent, he has been given an opportunity to reflect upon Chinese culture at a distance. He is now in a position that he can see Chinese culture with fuller clarity and greater degree of objectivity because he is no longer involved in it as his practical environment. At the same time, he can be relatively free from the fallacy of the blind men, since he was once an insider, having a full and direct contact with the culture itself. With this advantage of being an insider-outsider, he ventures to communicate his understanding of Chinese culture to his readers in the English speaking world. In what follows, he will give an impressionistic, phenomenological, but reflective account of Chinese culture. He is going to present what he has observed as an insider-outsider. This consists in twelve characteristics to be presented in this essay.

For this full article by A. Prof. Joseph Wu, click here.

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