Greece and China, individual and harmony

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.

Greece

  1. 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.
  2. The Greeks saw themselves as individuals with different attributes and goals.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

China

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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! ».

Article on the influence of language

7 June 2020

4 thoughts on “Greece and China, individual and harmony”

  1. Thank you very much for having introduced me to these subjects, for having opened doors and given me much food for thought, and thank you especially for having introduced me to Nisbett. I have some remarks on the “life as a circle not a line” and “the Way versus the discovery of truth”.

    Mark Mazower, in his book “The Balkans: a short history”, claims that rural inhabitants of the Balkans also used to see life as a circle, not a line: the year consisted of seasons with certain essential farming tasks associated with them, and months and days which had each had a religious significance, e.g. religious holidays and feast days. When each year ended, the cycle of seasons, months and days began afresh.

    Another attitude that is not confined only to the East, and may be a characteristic of rural societies everywhere is the following:
    “… the Way, and not the discovery of truth, was the goal of philosophy. Thought that gave no guidance to action was fruitless” (Nisbett, p. 19).

    In conclusion, since the “polis” is such a key concept for the Greeks and only relatively has become so for the Chinese, the “town versus rural” aspects of the whole comparison might also be worth examining. Maybe Nisbett does that, I’ve only reached page 20 so far.

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      Thanks to Stéphane who recommended this book.
      I let you discover Nisbett’s book.
      The world is diverse and it is clear that we cannot make East/West divisions, just as China is not made of one block but of multiple varieties and external influences as well.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Stéphane. As a retired EFL teacher, I believe that the simplistic attitude even extends to the teaching of vocabulary. Anyone in the francophone world who is beginning to learn English learns that “le pain” in French is “bread” in English. However, that same person will get a massive surprise the first time they visit the UK or Ireland and taste “bread” for the first time.. and I imagine it wouldn’t be a pleasant surprise. Similarly, “village” in English can have a very different set of connotations from the (supposingly) corresponding word in the languages of countries from the Balkans eastward. A “village” in the English-speaking world can have a very mixed set of inhabitants, esp. if it is not far from a city (e.g. doctors, programmers, health workers, supermarket staff, factory workers, etc. – but no farmers), whereas a similar small collection of buildings covering the same area in the Balkans and Anatolia will probably be populated entirely by farmers, farming-related people, a few shopkeepers, and retired people. Regards, Lyle.

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