Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the U.S. has generated buzz about China’s image in the western media, marking yet another wave of discussion about the personality of Chinese people. When it comes to this topic, we cannot skip the fact that westerners as a whole have failed to understand well the cultural values Chinese have held for thousands of years.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (L) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, the United States, Feb. 14, 2012. (Photo: Xinhua)
In the autumn of 2008, I was invited by the Center for China Studies of La Trobe University to manage a project in Melbourne. The focus of the project was on how Australians interpret Chinese culture. As an important part of our study, I interviewed lots of people and asked questions about the image of the overseas Chinese in their eyes.
There are plenty of very interesting and impressive examples. Not only are my interviewees – adults and children alike - feeling curious about Chinese parents’ tendency to “supervise” the life of their children regardless of their age, but Chinese seem to appreciate the behavior that one can bear the setbacks and disappointments with silence while the Australian culture does not always take that as a virtue.
This point of view can powerfully affect the nation’s image in Australia when the cultural shock is related to the national traits of the Chinese people. Here’s a typical example: when talking about the Chinese businessmen in Melbourne, many of the interviewees are critical, posing doubts over the cultural values of the “China man”.
"If Chinese love something, maybe the answer is money…see? The shops and restaurants in China Town like opening 24 hours a day or 7 days a week or maybe 365 days a year.” "Chinese value those workaholics and they work happily even on weekends. So, I really want to know ever they dream of something different?” “I feel sorry but to be very honest, I am afraid that they work in need of money which is the primary excitement in the work they do.” In response to the arguments, the Chinese immigrants felt hurt because they regard those as remarkable qualities if one works hard to pursue his dreams.
A journalist with the British newspaper Guardian once wrote a story about the extravagant life of the Chinese new rich in southwest China’s Chongqing city after he was invited to a pub where the minimum charge was 800 RMB. The Chinese, however, would probably be confused with the criticism because treating friends from far-off places to the best enjoyment has been a respected virtue.
Thus, it’s not surprising the western media kept misreading the Chinese national trait as Xi’s visit to the U.S. was put under the spotlight.
The problems are of profound implication for China’s image. According to sociologists, it is personality and trait of a nation that present “the distinctive characteristics of a person’s character or the character of a group which relate to who they are and what is meaningful to them”. It means without an accepted cultural image, China is unlikely to build up a favorable national image and win the respect of people around the globe. Likewise, the misunderstanding will dampen the mutual benefits between nations in the age of globalization..
So what can China initiate? One of the answers is to watch, but not wait.
By Dr. Liu Chen
(The author is director of Center for Intercultural Studies, School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University)