Worldview & Culture – China vs the West

It is self-evident that you should be aware of the many cultural differences that exist between China and the West before you travel here.  And it’s a must if you want to have any hope of being successful in conducting business in China.  If you really want to maximize your understanding of China, however, you must understand the differences in underlying philosophy that gave rise to those cultural differences.

Our expectations for the future flow from the way in which we interpret the past.
Our expectations for the future flow from the way in which we interpret the past.

The way we look at the world is largely determined by the way in which we decipher it.  Understanding drives expectation and our understanding, in the end, is a by-product of the reason we use to explain the reality of past experience.  And if understanding drives expectations it is expectation that drives behavior, for it is expectation that gives our behavior purpose.

And since behavior, in the end, defines culture, it follows that it is a commonality of logic and reason, more than a common political, social, or geographic history that binds and defines a culture.  Culture, in other words, is but the behavioral expression of the way we reason.  For it is expectation that drives behavior; the way we reason that defines those expectations; and that behavior that collectively defines a culture.

It can be argued, therefore, that Aristotle, whose teachings ultimately gave us deductive reasoning and formal logic, is the father of Western culture, a culture built on the linear and scientific logic that flows from deductive reason.  (What is science, after all, but a deductive methodology for explaining reality?)IMG_0307

Much of Western culture, as a result, rests on an unshakeable belief in the universal and unerring relationship of cause and effect.  If A, then B.  (Aristotle:  “We make war that we may live in peace.”) There is a deductively logical cause for every effect; there is a predictable effect for every cause.

Within such linear reason beginning and end, cause and effect, or right and wrong, cannot occupy the same logical space.  They cannot co-exist.  Truth and reality are digital and absolute, waiting to be discovered through structured analysis and deductive reasoning.

The Chinese worldview, in contrast, was built on the more holistic and rhetorical philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism, philosophies that rely less on syllogistic argument than analogy and adage.   The intellectual context within which Chinese culture has evolved, as a result, has been less rigidly linear and more open to inductive reasoning and aphoristic conclusion. IMG_0034

As a result, in the Chinese worldview, and the culture it has spawned, the relationship between cause and effect is less linear and absolute and more contextual and relative.  Outcomes, from this perspective, represent the relative balance between opposing forces, creating a more holistic perspective within which cause and effect is not easily segmented or deductively understood.  Truth and explanation, as a result, are more relative, less absolute.  Beginning and end can, in a very real sense, occupy the same logical space, opening the door to the potentially circular and often oblique logic of proverb and axiom.  (Confucius:  “And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”)

The difference between Chinese and Western culture, in other words, is the conceptual difference between the circle and the straight line.  While the worldview of Western culture is ordered, incremental, and presumes there is such a thing as rational behavior, the Chinese worldview is holistic, non-incremental, and puts rational behavior in a situational context.

Summer_Palace_Chaoyang_Street0001It is crucial that you understand this difference if you hope to fully appreciate and enjoy all that China has to offer.  Otherwise you are likely to miss much of the cultural splendor behind what you see and observe and will surely be frustrated, if not irritated, by behavioral norms that, on the surface, seem to conflict with your own.

This is particularly true if you want to conduct business in China.  Whether you come here to establish a national presence in the Fast-Moving-Consumer-Goods industry or simply to buy products to stock the shelves or your retail store back in the U.S. or Europe, business is a process by which we seek to influence behavior.  It’s not enough to merely react to developments.  Successful business is all about influencing events and affecting outcomes.

If you want to be truly effective in doing business in China, therefore, you must understand the motivation behind the rules.   You must understand the philosophical context within which those rules and norms evolved.  Only then can you stop re-acting to events and start en-acting your own plan to achieve your business goals and objectives.


Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China


Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.