“How should we view the changes in China’s culture and its influence in the light of the globalization of the economy during the last thirty years?”
Dr. Yu notes that just a few years ago, that question would have been answered by, “The world is flat.” “History has ended. The West has won.” The popularity among young Chinese of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Nike, and a host of other American brands, not to mention the penetration of Hollywood and Western media in general, gave the impression that the next generation of Chinese would be “just like us,” only a little different.
By dividing culture into three parts: “leaves/flowers/fruit; roots; and branches, Yu helps us to see that, yes, the Chinese cultural “tree” bears some “leaves, flowers, and fruits” that look Western. Going down deeper, however, one finds that the “roots” are still quite different, and will likely remain so.
What are these “roots”? They are the enduring values and concepts which characterize Chinese culture and render it quite distinct from others, including Western culture. Yu describes this underlying cultural substratum as “Individual and Family Based (Confucian) Secular Utilitarianism.”
First, “China’s value system is more human-centered, not theo-centric,” which makes it initially hostile to Christianity. People stand at the center. Thus, even in Chinese churches, “familial interests and relationships create a small-circle-mentality.” That fosters a “tendency to form small groups.”
Second, it is “secular,” that is, intuitively uninterested in the world to come. Chinese value life in this world, and thus tend towards materialism. Appeals to rewards or punishments in the next life will not strike them as particularly relevant.
Third, the Chinese world view is “utilitarian.” Reason is valued, but only if it brings some worldly benefit.
Confucian ideology adds idealism to this mix, creating a very complex Chinese temperament. Its sense of divine justice feeds the current desire for the vindication and re-assertion of China in the world.
These observations are consistent with the argument of Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations; Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World (Global China Center review) and the chapter on “Chinese Character” in China: Ancient Civilization, Modern Society, by Peter Yu and this reviewer.
For more details, read the full article, as well as another essay in the same issue of ChinaSource Journal, "Chinese Church Leadership: Cultural Continuity and Discontinuity.”