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Karl-Heinz Pohl {*}

Spiritual Traditions

For Which Today's Chinese Stand


    From the conference of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria, on 18 February 2006 on the topic "Chinese Trends. Highlights on the Empire of the Middle", documented in the journal of the Academy 'zur debatte', 3/2006
    webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Culture and Intercultural Awareness

A constant factor in the changeful history of the China image is that China always represented a kind 'counter world' to us: They are not only our antipodes (the world would stand there - seen from us - literally on the head), other realities too corresponded and still correspond to the simile of a 'counter world'. One writes vertically instead of horizontally, books are opened from the rear instead of the front, and by bidding someone welcome one gives one's hand to oneself.

In the following we want to try to approach the culture and society of this counter world, of this fairy tale country. First, since the mental traditions of the Chinese culture are the topic, it is necessary to clarify the concept 'culture'. What is culture? Are Beethoven or Goethe "high culture"?

The iceberg model of culture is known. It means that only the superficial characteristics of a culture are visible (as with the iceberg: the smaller part rises out from the water); the parts that are at the bottom of the visible parts and are connected with religion and philosophy (value conceptions etc.) are invisible. Hence culture is to be understood here not as "high culture" but in a more comprehensive, culture-anthropological sense, i.e. as orientation knowledge (or orientation system): usually we are not aware of it; we, as it were, inherit it; it shapes our action and behaviour, but, as a rule, we are not aware of its working. When in the following culture is the topic it means everyday culture, behaviour, in particular value conceptions. To put it briefly: mentality; all the things which shape our activities in life. To that extent all human achievements are to be understood as culture (not just only literature and music). We speak for example of legal culture, political culture or economic culture.

Knowledge of culture is therefore not unimportant. Cultural (and intercultural) competence has become important for business (not only specialized technical and social competence). How does intercultural competence show itself? If one, on the one hand, is aware of one's own cultural stamp and on the other hand, sensible for the rules, expectations, value conceptions etc. of the people of other cultures, i.e. if one is able, when required, to switch on different optics.



The aim of an (inter)cultural approach to China would be to understand that strangeness of China from its history and cultural coinage, and to learn to act accordingly with Chinese.

The US senator James William Fulbright said once about intercultural education: "The essence of intercultural education lies in acquiring sympathetic understanding - in the ability to see the world in such a way as it seen by others, and to admit the possibility that other people may see something not seen by us, or that they could see it more exactly."

An important aspect of intercultural understanding with regard to China (but unfortunately also a much neglected one) is the moulding by recent history. In this connection we must understand culture first of all as a process of collective remembrance.

The Chinese consciousness has been determined by other collective experiences than Europe:

  • It experienced the colonial age on the side of the victims. A predatory west, that didn't care a rap about moral, had since the Opium Wars (approx. 1840) invaded China, and had snatched from the country one area after the other by a chain of unequal (i.e. immoral) treaties. The Englishmen had imported opium in shoals, and had brought the country mentally to the verge of ruin. In short: China was lowered thereby to a half-colonial status.
  • "A traumatic and disgraceful experience for a country that regarded itself in former times as the centre of civilization in the world. It is important to know: This trauma hurts even today yet. The attitude of many Chinese towards western people is therefore a mixture of admiration and refusal.

Now we come to the moulding by culture, to the cultural roots themselves. We suppose, as a matter of course, that our cultural standards are everywhere valid (ethno-centred view). Historically seen our ethno-centred view and behaviour had however devastating effects. The feeling of western superiority (the European-centred view) led to the colonial subjugation of half of the world. When you look more closely you'll see that this feeling of superiority (European-centred view) is religiously moulded by monotheism, mission mentality, and claim to absolute authority [Absolutheitsanspruch]. This is an attitude which nowadays is overcome in the religious sphere (thank God!), but it is coming back with a vengeance as political sense of mission. One could see it in such a way: the West has successfully globalized, resp. universalized its (originally coming from Christianity) universally conceived value system - (conflicts resulting from it can at present be seen in the relationship to the Muslim world).


China's Mental Traditions

Yin Yang Thinking

Yin Yang thinking was the clamp holding together the whole Chinese thinking (if not even the East Asian - see the Korean flag). What are the fundamental conceptions?

  • All growing results from the cooperating of two polar forces (Yin and Yang).
  • "It is, as it were, a cosmic sexual act that produces all life of the world, because Yang and Yin stand also for the coinage male - female.
  • Yang is the creative principle, Yin the completing principle.
  • "Yang is the sun side, Yin the shadow side.
  • "It is important that the two forces are not in conflict with each other but cause and supplement each other (no dualism of light and darkness).

One is not wrong to see the origin of the Chinese harmony thinking in the Yin Yang model, because the principle says: balance of the opposites by constant change; aim is a dynamic equilibrium. Yin Yang thinking determines the whole Chinese everyday culture.



Confucianism is admittedly not a religion but social ethics, though with religious function. Its aim is the striving for a highest good in daily life. The central thought is that human beings live not for themselves but stand in the centre of various relation circles; the family is most important. The family is not only the core and germ cell of society, but the society model takes its inspiration from the family. For the family functions on the one hand by the performance of obligations (e.g. responsibility and giving a good example on the part of parents), on the other hand by the consent that guarantees its existence (controversy leads to the breaking of families).

The social élite is only legitimated for political leadership by family qualities, such as responsibility, sense of duty, example for others. For two further basic requests of Confucianism are the cultivation of the individual's character (the individual sphere), and the order of the world (the social sphere). That means, only the (morally, in respect of character) cultivated human being is destined to cooperate in putting the world in order (proverbially: to be inwardly a sage, outwardly a king).

Meanwhile one speaks of post-Confucianism (or meta-Confucianism). Confucianism has also politically strongly been enhanced because of the economic miracle in other post-Confucian countries of Eastern Asia. Thereby also Confucian secondary virtues are emphasized, such as diligence, sense of duty, patience, economy, frugality etc.



It forms the opposite pole to Confucianism (though in the sense of Yin and Yang, i.e. not hostile but complementary or in the sense of mutual completion). Daoism is also a philosophy respectively an art of living, if not even of survival (in contrast to the Confucian moral teachings).

A quotation of Laozi, "When man is alive he is soft, when he is dead he is hard and dry." Daoism is connected with the Chinese arts of fighting and with the strategy schools (which are possibly its origin), i.e. it is an art of survival: The soft is closer to life. Water can erode hard stone. Thus the arts of fighting are based on Daoist insights, respectively on the principle of flexibility / aliveness. Hardness means immobility. The fighting philosophy of Daoism reads: The best defence is - to be not there. You are to get over (to survive in) a fight by flexibility.

The bamboo is the symbol for these qualities; thus a poem label on a bamboo picture reads:

    Keeping firmly to the green mountain it does not let go. / Its roots it sets deeply into the clefts of the rock. / In spite of thousand attacks it is firm as ever, / it takes the wind from the east, the west, the south and the north.



Buddhism came in the first century from India to China, but in China it got a completely different culture-specific coinage, in particular by the connection of Daoism and Buddhism as Zen- (Chan-) Buddhism. Zen Buddhism (flowering period 8th to 13th century) came about the 9th century to Japan. We therefore understand it today as something Japanese, but it is basically a completely Chinese matter.

The original philosophy of Buddhism is the following: to recognize life as pain. Detachment from the world by meditation leads to the removal of pain and to the acquirement of the Buddha status. Quintessence of Zen however is: to live consciously in the 'Now' and 'Here' (the present moment and place) - that is illumination / enlightenment (salvation from suffering). That means: The attempt to attain the Buddha status defeats the attaining of the Buddha status. Illumination lies in not striving for illumination. At the bottom of our nature we are illuminated, but we do not know it. Thus the true way / sense lies in retaining in the everyday life a detached mind (this corresponds also to Daoism): Hence the ordinary thing is the holy.

Summarized, there are important differences between the Chinese thinking and our tradition:

  1. There are no faith contents that one believes to be true, instead of them right acting (moral questions stand in the foreground);
  2. Not the transcendental reality is the "holy one" but the ordinary (worldly) and natural (secular) one;
  3. The different schools try not to oust each other (displacement relationship), but supplement each other (tolerance, inclusion).

Finally the history of ideas of the Occident can be understood as history of emancipation of the individual from religious and national patronizing; this leads to the idea of an abstract individualism ruled by law. But in China human beings stood and stand always in the context of relations (family ...) and in the context of the cosmos.


Social Structures


The Chinese society is a society which is based on hierarchical conditions. We say also: The Chinese culture is a 'status culture' (in contrast to our culture that in principle can be called 'equality culture'). The background is the Confucian family thinking, that's why in China hierarchical structures are usually regarded as natural, as naturally given. As child you are namely born into a natural hierarchy. Parents have the saying, and they keep it towards their children, even though these grow up.

The term 'authority' has in this respect a different rank. It is not, as with us, associated with something negative (after 1968 in Germany 'authority' became even an 'Unwort' [with a negative smack]) but with positive qualities, such as care, kindness, responsibility, maturity. Elders / parents get more respect than we are in the meantime accustomed to.

The principle of seniority controls the life and working sphere of China (and generally in Eastern Asia). And since state and society are seen like a family, it is always and everywhere the respective status that matters (visiting-cards inform about it and let you accordingly adapt your behaviour).



The Chinese (generally - there are of course enough exceptions) assess the harmony and stability of the whole society more highly than anything else. They are usually ready to sacrifice for it much of self-interest (even political liberties). The feared opposite is "chaos" (culture revolution). So far one can call the Chinese culture also 'consent culture'. Compared with it our culture is far more a 'controversy culture' (the term is in the meantime also positively understood). In a certain sense controversy and conflict are the basis and condition for the functioning of our democracy. This is probably the principal reason why for the Chinese the Western democracy is still an alien element; for it is bound to a functioning controversy culture.

What is the background of the consent orientation? On the one hand the Confucian emphasis on measure and centre (extremes are to be avoided, are something bad), on the other hand the Yin Yang thinking.

Controversy is therefore something bad in principle, instead of it it is necessary to look for reconciliation, to be compatible, and to be able to admit also the other reality. Not: either A or B, you or I, the others or we, but: as well A as B....



The Chinese society is a system of mutual relationships and obligations. The background is again the Confucian family system, with all its possible relations. The relation system goes however beyond that, it covers all lasting acquaintances and friendships, and functions according to the principle of mutuality - one hand washes the other (of course, this is also not unknown with us). But in China it is more important than here in Germany (as "back door"), for you cannot take it as a matter of course to get the things you're looking for. Good relations can therefore make some things possible for you.

But you must not see relations merely from the aspect of usefulness, they are rather part of an interpersonal warmth (renquing wei), that the Chinese regard as the most important characteristic of their environment (it corresponds to some extent to our "homeland").



Another aspect of the topic relations is important. For it concerns also the foundations of the Chinese legal understanding. As you know, Western businessmen complain most of all about the juridical insecurity in China (compared with our standards). Thereby we forget that our legal order is a special part of our Western culture. It is by no means a matter of course that in the whole world the same legal conditions prevail.

There are countries / cultures in which relations are more important than laws:

  • Laws have something abstract, equalizing, principled;
  • wheras relations (relationship, friends) are concrete and special.

The Chinese understanding of law has its origin also in Confucius: The Prefect of She conversed with Confucius. He said. "Here people are truly sincere. The own son reports his father to the police when he has stolen a sheep." To this the master observed, "That is different with us. Here the father covers the son, and the son covers the father; therein is sincerity" ("Discussions").

What now are ethical values such as justice / sincerity?

  • That I am faithful to laws which equalize?
  • Or that I am faithful toward special persons?

Due to the preference of special relations before universal laws one speaks with China of an "individualistic culture" (in contrast to the universalistic Western culture with its emphasis on principles, laws, equal treatment). This means for the Chinese legal culture: One prefers informal solutions (instead of regulating everything by law):

  • "One gets reliability not by contractual / legal connections but by loyalties / relations
  • With legal arguments one does not like to carry on a law-suit, but looks for a settlement with the help of an older person held in commanding respect.

As a beginner on the Chinese parquet one should:

  • Not insist on legal regulations;
  • or on contractual signatures;
  • "but work on building up mutually fruitful relations




We often find Chinese excessively polite and see that as something negative. Add to it that politeness over here has no longer a definitely positive rank (in particular not in today's youth culture). But in China politeness has an ethical component. It is about the overcoming of self-relatedness, about upgrading the other person and not oneself. Certainly, it is to a large extent made a ritual (which can also be helpful); anyhow, in China you need not fear to be regarded as being too polite.



The expression "to save / lose one's face" is with us already a metaphor. What is the background?

  • 'Face' is important for the keeping of harmony in relations: The appearance has to be retained (e.g. one should not correct the mistakes of others).
  • "Chinese are uneasy about what others think of them; to have to be ashamed due to the loss of one's 'face' is feared most.

One speaks therefore also of a 'shame culture'. For the Chinese conception of 'face' it is also important that the ability to save only one's own face is nothing positive. It is rather important to be able to give others 'face', i.e. to protect them from losing their 'face', or to give them room to present themselves. This is a central, social competence.

The 'face' is endangered with awkwardness. It is therefore needed to divert embarrassing situations by laughter (the more embarrassing, the more heartily may be laughed). It is usually also embarrassing, when you have to say "no" (the cultural ABC of China reads: "yes" means in Chinese always also "approximately" or "perhaps". "Perhaps" however means usually "no", but "no" does not exist at all. When you use it, it shows only that you have not complete command of the rules.).



"Learning" is the first word in the most important Confucian classical work, "To learn and occasionally to practise the learned things is that not a joy too?" But it differs from the learning estimated by us today. It is first of all about moral learning; secondly about imitating and perfecting learning ("Kungfu" means to let the learned things become one's 'second nature' by constant practicing). In contrast to it we give emphasis to independence and creativity with learning. But one could also speak of a Chinese learning culture in comparison to a Western instruction culture (in former time Christian, today political missionaries).


Problems and Chances of Today's China

China has to overcome some handicaps in its further economic development.

  • still increasing population, problems with food supply
  • difference in the development between coast and inland
  • reorganization of the unprofitable state enterprises, which is accompanied by mass unemployment, mass migration, corruption
  • avoidance of further serious environmental damages
  • transport and energy are bottlenecks

With the solution of those problems one proceeds on the one hand in the tradition of a Chinese pragmatism, as Deng Xiaoping said once, "We are about to cross a river, and we must proceed in such a way that we at each step firmly feel the stones under our feet and look at each step how to go on."

On the other hand one tries here an interim solution of free-market economy and national control, called "socialist free-market economy". Actually this term is a contradiction in itself. But perhaps China is, in spite of all scepticism in view of the problems mentioned able - due to the just mentioned ability (namely to bring together apparently opposite things), able to create favourable conditions for this experiment, for this splits between Marx and market, between Confucius and Coca Cola, between localization and globalization.


{*} Professor Dr. Karl-Heinz Pohl, professor for Sinology at the University of Trier

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