Beyond the Chinese Face

Writing from Hong Kong in 1991, Michael Harris Bond digested the available psychological insights into Chinese culture and people in Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology. He identified four, possibly five, “Golden Threads” – strands of difference that define the Chinese as distinct from others. Each thread “represents a basic theme that can be used to make sense of a variety of observations about Chinese behaviour” (118). Here they are:

  1. The belief that hierarchy is natural, necessary, and inevitable. “It is self-evident to the Chinese that all men are born unequal” and social order requires the ordering of people. The alternative is chaos and anarchy, which are worse that harsh authority.
  2. “The bases of this inequality are achievement, usually academic; wealth; and moral example,” which “is especially important for commanding political authority.”
  3. ‘Rule of law’ is inferior to the “judgement of wise and compassionate men.” Laws are too “rigid, artificial, and insensitive to the changing circumstances of life.”
  4. [People] exist in and through relationships with others.” Child-rearing focuses on training for lives of harmonious interdependence. Family is social security, and requires special commitment.
  5. The fifth is optional:

  6. The need to learn to write Chinese characters “reinforces an academic emphasis on memory, attention to detail, and lengthy homework. It also strengthens a predisposition towards perceiving stimuli as a whole rather than as a collection of parts, and high spatial intelligence.” This in large part accounts for why Chinese dominate in fields like engineering.

But does this make the Chinese unique? Bond says the answer is “an Oriental ‘yes and no.'” Each of these themes are found in other, non-Asian cultures. But the particular combination of these themes, especially in relation to other factors like “agricultural heritage, population density, historical longevity, and numerical strength as an identifiable group” make the Chinese “distinctive, special, and different” (119).

One caveat, which Bond himself repeats often in this book, is that psychological investigation of the Chinese is necessarily limited and much more research needs to be done. Writing these tentative conclusions in 1991, Bond says he fully expects his understanding of the Chinese to change in the future, just as these conclusions represented a change from his previous perspective. I’m curious to know how he would write this list today.