“People are worth less in China” is a provocative way to say that, in Chinese culture, there is less inherent value ascribed to the individual. The individual, in and of itself, is worth less, and this allows for routine public behaviour that appalls hyper-individualistic Western foreigners.
It’s not that the Western world is populated with millions of Mother Teresas or that the average Canadian naturally gushes altruism. Western cultures have their ugly sides. Besides, the Good Samaritan as most Westerners understand it is a watered down, less-obligated, mere shadow of the revolutionary and counter-cultural original.
Still, encountering Good-Samaritanless behaviour on the streets of the Middle Kingdom unavoidably tempts foreigners to indulge feelings of cultural and moral superiority whether such feelings are warranted or not. But regardless of which culture you belong to or how you think they compare, how we respond to other human beings is a moral issue. And knowing how to best act in situations in a culture that’s foreign to you requires some cultural understanding.
If you’re a foreigner in China, I hope Part 2 will help you better understand some of the shockingly calloused behaviour you’re occasionally witnessing; writing this is part of my own culture learning process. If you’ve never been to China, this article explores cultural factors behind the kind of behaviour described in Part 1 by surveying a handful of culture readings. (To discuss how we might intentionally respond to this particular aspect of Chinese culture, see Part 3).
I. Placing Blame
Why, when a man is bleeding from the head in the middle of the road in Tianjin, are the foreigners the only ones who rush to help, even though they’ve been advised by their Chinese friends to just walk on by? How can the supposedly “communal” Chinese not care about strangers?
The idea that Chinese don’t show even nominal concern for strangers isn’t new. Chinese social commentators bemoaned this aspect of Chinese society well before Liberation (1949). What or who gets the blame for this? As you may have guessed, Confucius — in whom Mainland Chinese both officially and in popular imagination currently locate the essence and source of “Chineseness” — takes a lot of flak.
…Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger, and great and catastrophic was the omission. Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged. Theoretically, it was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity”… But this relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships, and not so clearly defined. … In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot [p.177].
Culture scholars Gao and Ting-Toomey convey similar observations (Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, 1998):
Cheng (1990) points out that the Confucian “five cardinal relationships” (wǔ lún; 五伦) put too much emphasis on family and one-to-one relationships (e.g., brother to brother and father to son); hence, they fail to address the broader aspect of human relationship, such as that between a person and the community at large. Liáng Qǐ Chāo 梁启超 (1936), a prominent thinker in modern Chinese history, attributed a Chinese person’s lack of “civic morality” (gōng dé; 公德) and sense of obligation to society to the Confucian ethic [p.14].
II. Suffocating Cynicism
The Mainland’s disturbing apparent lack of compassion for the stranger is enabled by the wilting cynicism directed at any would-be Good Samaritans. Why, if someone does dare to help, are they automatically viewed with suspicion and often assumed guilty? Why are altruistic motives the least likely of all possibilities? Here’s the most quotable explanation I’ve come across so far, once again from 林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng):
To Chinese, social work always looks like “meddling with other people’s business.” A man enthusiastic for social reform or in fact for any kind of public work always looks a little bit ridiculous. We discount his sincerity. We cannot understand him. What does he mean by going out of his way to do all this work? Is he courting publicity? Why is he not loyal to his family and why does he not get an official promotion and help his family first? We decide he is young, or else he is a deviation from the normal human type.
There were always deviations from type, the … “chivalrous men,” but they were invariably of the bandit or vagabond class, unmarried, bachelors with good vagabond souls, willing to jump into the water to save an unknown drowning child. (Married men in China do not do that.) Or else they were married men who died penniless and made their wives and children suffer. We admire them, we love them, but we do not like to have them in the family [pp.171-172].
…in theory at least, Confucius did not mean family consciousness to degenerate into a form of magnified selfishness at the cost of social integrity … He meant the moral training in the family as the basis for general moral training [from which] a society should emerge which would live happily and harmoniously together.
The consequences are fairly satisfactory for the family, but disastrous for the state [175-177].
My own initial impression — and it’s just an impression — after living and studying in China for two years, is that Mainlanders are surprisingly quick to suspect one another’s motives, as if attributing negative, selfish, or less-than-noble motives to any seemingly unselfish gesture is automatic; it’s a given that altruism isn’t a real possibility. Potential Good Samaritans know this, and are therefore hesitant or afraid to act (see Example 5 in Part 1).
Here’s a perfect example, right from The People’s Daily:
…pedestrians in Fuzhou wanted to help when they found the old man lying on the ground last Wednesday. Two women tried to help the old man up. But one of the onlookers said: “Better not touch him. It will be hard for you to put it clearly later on.”
The two women hesitated and finally stood up. Using their cell phone, they called the police and first-aid center. But by the time the ambulance arrived, the old man had died.
The case is not exceptional. A similar tragedy happened just 13 days earlier, in Shenzhen. A 78-year-old man was found on the rain-soaked ground, face down in a residential compound, none of the onlookers took any action except to call the police. Despite the efforts of first-aid personnel to save his life, the man died. Had anybody turned him over and lifted his head up, the old man wouldn’t have died. When questioned by the man’s son, one of the community’s guards said: “We dared not touch the old man because we would not be able to put it clearly should anything untoward occur.”
The phrase “hard to put it clearly” may sound odd to foreigners, but everybody in China nowadays knows its meaning. When you try to help someone who falls to the ground injured or in coma, that person may allege that you caused the fall. You will then find it difficult to clear yourself of suspicion if the case is taken to court.
The same article describes a case where a bystander actually did help a woman who had fallen and broken her leg. The woman’s family took him to court, and the court ruled in favour of the family, saying it was most likely that the man was guilty (even though there was no evidence to support this) because “His behavior [of being a Good Samaritan] obviously went against common sense.”
It doesn’t help that playing for public sympathy is apparently something of an art form in China, and would-be victims can incur a similar level cynicism and distrust from witnesses. In this example translated from the Chinese internet, a crowd of onlookers sides with the out-of-town driver of an expensive car rather than the poor local pedestrian who was seemingly run down. In the crowd’s view, the pedestrian deliberately got “hit” by an expensive out-of-province car in an attempt to bully rich outsiders for compensation money — an allegedly common practice.
III. Prescribed Obligations
At this point, people with Chinese friends (or relatives) might be objecting, calling “unfair!” and at least wanting to balance out the picture. I’m among them, actually. After all, Chinese can be some of the most self-sacrificing individuals, certainly more so than the average American (see Example 2 in Part 1). The obligations to friends and family and the demonstrated willingness to meet them, for example, are greater than in the States. And where did that stereotype of the quiet, polite, accommodating Chinese come from anyway?
The [Americans] interact with Asians socially as well as at work and find them to be among the kindest, most considerate, and polite people they have ever met. Then, they meet other Asians in a public situation (on a bus, driving in traffic, in the market) and see them as rude, impolite, and inconsiderate. They wonder how people from the same culture can behave so differently [Gao, p.48].
Anyone who’s spent time among Chinese people knows that the Chinese can be some of the most generous and accommodating hosts on the planet. How is it that the same people who display warm, inviting, and consistent hospitality and graciousness in one situation (each linked word goes to a personal example of how we’ve experienced open-armed and often red-carpet treatment from our Chinese friends, neighbours, and employers) but display unapologetic heartlessness in another?
In Chinese society, how you stand in relationship to someone else defines how you should and shouldn’t relate to them, including your degree of obligation to them. In China, these different relationship categories (sometimes identified as family & close friends, guests, important connections, and strangers) make a huge difference in people’s behaviour.
Zì jǐ rén (自己人； “insider”) and wài rén (外人； “outsider”) are two of the most frequently used concepts in Chinese conversation. Chinese make clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders. A person with an insider status often enjoys privileges and special treatment beyond an outsider’s comprehension. Moreover, Chinese are less likely to initiate interactions or be involved in social relationships with outsiders. Thus, understanding the distinction between an insider and an outsider is an essential task in the Chinese self’s relational development. Chinese need to recognize not only where they are in relation to others but also, more important, whether their relationships with others are situated in an in-group or out-group context. The notions of insiders and outsiders are an integral part of the Chinese self-conception [Gao, p.49].
There is no affective response toward such people, for they are outside one’s established groups. The law of the jungle tends to prevail, with people seeking their own personal advantage, totally indifferent to the needs and ‘rights’ of others. A careless pushiness, released by the absence of authority, is the order of the day. What Westerners would call rudeness and callousness are endemic to such encounters and result in some testy exchanges across cultural lines! They were certainly the inspiration for this remark by Ralph Townsend (an American consular officer posted to Shanghai in the 1920’s) in Ways that are Dark: ‘What we see among them (the Chinese) is complete indifference to supreme distress in any one not of their immediate family or associations, even where the most trifling effort would assist the afflicted person.’
The Chinese response is always based on the nature of a pre-existing, specific relationship. Strangers have no place in this social logic and are not mentioned in any of the Five Cardinal Relations [Confucian values]. In this vacuum there are no constraints beyond self-interest to bind people together. And it was surely to this area of public behaviour that Sun Yat-sen was referring when he described the Chinese as ‘a pile of loose sand’. Similarly, Sun Long-ji has written:
We may say that from birth, a Chinese person is enclosed by a network of interpersonal relationships which defines and organizes his existence, which controls his Heart-and-Mind. When a Chinese individual is not under the control of the Heart-and-Mind of others, he will become the most selfish of men and bring chaos both to himself and to those around him.
The only principle that might guide behaviour towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society [pp.56-57].
Sometimes foreigners in China mistake this calloused, seemingly selfish behaviour for “individualism.” I think it’s clear that this is a mistake. It’s the Chinese communal emphasis on family and long-term associates and the failure to perceive much inherent value in the individual that allows for the dehumanization and disregard of strangers, not a greater sense or growing value of individualism. Individualism may or may not be significantly rising in China, but public unconcern for strangers isn’t reflecting it.
IV. “A pile of loose sand” and the lack of civic consciousness
In the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen famously referred to the Chinese as “a pile of loose sand” and apparently saw nationalism as the solution:
For the most part the four hundred million Chinese can be spoken of as completely Han Chinese with common customs and habits. We are completely of one race. But in the world today, what position do we occupy? Compared to the other peoples of the world we have the greatest population and our civilization is four thousand years old; we should therefore be advancing in rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.
That was almost a century ago. Today, China suffers from nationalism overload, yet the same lack of civic consciousness still plagues domestic China. Consider these comments from award-winning journalist Ian Johnson describing late-90’s China:
A friend of mine liked to argue . . . [that] the crackdown showed that Chinese actually didn’t care much about each other or the discrepancy in what they saw and what the [people in charge] did. There was no solidarity with the persecuted, unless they were family members or personal friends. It was like the traffic accidents that one sees in big Chinese cities — crowds gather only to stare; almost no one stops to help. No wonder [the people in charge] could hold on to power so easily, he said. It doesn’t have to divide and conquer its enemies; they are divided of their own accord. I had to agree with him, because I rarely encountered a person who got really angry about the way [the people in charge] treated [the persecuted] adherents. While some far-thinking people saw the campaign as unjustified and cruel, most simply shrugged and wondered why people bothered to stand up for something they believed in. Concerned with their daily struggles, they couldn’t understand why [the persecuted] believers insisted on exercising publicly. “Why not just exercise in the living room?” was the most common response I got when I asked about the repression… [pp. 288-289, my paperback 2005 edition].
While people routinely blame contemporary China’s alleged “moral and ethical vacuum” and low civic consciousness, here’s one recent commentator who offers a countering theory, arguing that this seemingly callous behaviour is not due to a general lack of compassion for strangers or low civic consciousness:
…it is misguided to simply attribute China’s many social ills to people’s supposed lack of suzhi or ethics. In fact, the issue often does not lie with the values of individuals, but with their expectations for people’s behavior in social interactions that carry multiple potential outcomes. Without favorable social expectations that induce citizens to act in the interests of strangers, even compassionate people will often walk right by — a behavior that characterizes many negative social phenomena in contemporary China.
The worst-case scenario is this: First, the fall is serious. Second, society does not expect passersby to help regardless of their responsibility for the fall. Third, if someone does help, society believes that they were most likely responsible for the fall in the first place. In the end, almost nobody helps the senior citizen, and they, in turn, sue anyone who offers assistance [because they assume a high probability that the helper is culpable].
Did I leave out any other major contributing cultural factors? Don’t be shy; let me know! I realize I’ve focused here on cultural heritage to the exclusion of other major contributing factors shaping Mainland Chinese relationships and society today, which at least deserve a mention: prescribed atheistic materialism in education and multiple consecutive generations experiencing severe trauma and brutality (decades of foreign invasion and civil war, the mass famine and political brutality of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution).
What should you do when you feel morally compelled to intervene in a public situation, but you know that everyone from the victim to the surrounding crowd will probably misunderstand your actions and discount your motives? When intervening means breaking social norms in a way that might result in an ugly public confrontation or you getting officially blamed for the very situation in which you’re trying to assist, and maybe even fined for it, should you still intervene? How, and under what circumstances? In other words, how to be a Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics?
These are the questions I want to explore in The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.3). The best answers, of course, will come from Chinese people who have the necessary insight into their own culture, not foreigners. The idea, in the end, is to be better prepared the next time I find myself instinctively wanting to play the Good Samaritan where he isn’t necessarily welcome.