Chinese society is more oriented towards the community, whereas, in the West, more importance is given to the individual in general. Japan and Korea, where Confucianism has had an undeniable influence, present the same situation. Trying to understand a country requires going back to the sources that have given essential influences to the whole culture and civilization. Understanding them helps to avoid misunderstandings and slip-ups, not only in everyday life but in many areas, even economic and political. Ancient Greece was an essential mold for the formation of Western culture; at the same time, China moved in a completely different direction. In “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why ” Richard E. Nisbett summarizes their differences well. Let’s look at how he describes the Greek and Chinese approaches.
- Personal agency. The Greeks had a clear awareness that they were responsible for their own lives and free of the choices they made. One of the definitions of happiness was the ability to pursue excellence free from constraints. They had a strong sense of individual identity, accompanied by a sense of personal agency.
- The Greeks saw themselves as individuals with different attributes and goals.
- The debate. This sense of capacity to act must be linked to the tradition of debate. In his definition of man, Homer included the ability to debate.
- Curiosity. Curiosity is an important trait. Aristotle thought what the nature of man was. The Greeks speculated about the nature of the world while creating models. They composed laws by categorizing objects and events with a precision that allowed systematic descriptions and explanations around these models. Other ancient civilizations made systematic observations in the scientific field; however, only the Greeks attempted to explain their observations based on underlying principles.
- Harmony. On the Chinese side, the dominant point was not the ability to act personally on the world but harmony, behind the ideas of collectivity, respect, and mutual obligations.
- Community. Every Chinese person was first and foremost a community member or several communities, clan, village, and especially family. The individual was not an autonomous unit that kept his identity; he was integrated into society and social relationships; his unique pattern and role could change and become different. The Chinese were more focused on self-control than on control of the environment. The ideal of happiness was not a life of freedom with the exercise of one’s talents, but the satisfaction of a shared life with a harmonious social network. Greek vases and cups are illustrated with bacchanals, athletes, battles, while Chinese porcelain shows family activities and rural pleasures.
- While the Greeks for special occasions met and participated in games or poetry readings, the Chinese visited each other with the practice of 串门 chuàn mén (to visit) to show respect. Those who visited first were more highly regarded than those who came later.
- Mutual obligations. The moral system, inherited from Confucianism, emphasized obligations between the emperor and his subjects, parents and children, husband and wife, elder and younger, friends in a hierarchical system. Society allowed the individual to feel a part of society, where mutual obligations served as a guide to conduct.
On one side, Greek, individuality, debate, and action on the outside world dominated, on the other side, Chinese, harmony, collectivity, maintenance of social ties, and mutual obligations. In everyday life, scenes inevitably remind us of these specificities. A Chinese child at the Spring Festival will certainly not hear the same speech as his cousin in Europe at Christmas; part of the family will come to remind him that he must study seriously at school. One may have the impression that the elders are acting out of duty. Whenever I traveled with Chinese colleagues, when waiting at airports, I was surprised that if one was thirsty, he would not go and get a bottle for himself but would take several bottles for everyone. A marketing director explained to me with a bit of humour: “You see, for us, life is not a rest, we must always think of others in China! ».
7 June 2020