We are all being told how we are supposed to behave.

First our parents (and teachers and peers) tell and show us what sort of behavior is normal and acceptable; later, advertising and various public and educational campaigns try to push us towards their preferred ways of acting.

Laws and rules and regulations also play their role, of course.

In intercultural interactions, one of the typical problems is that we may not just be ignorant of specific laws in another country (which tend to be rather similar and which one tends to get pointed to, anyways), but unawares of the conventions that shape social interactions.

In China, some of the rules can be quite hidden and complicated, particularly in the difference made between different social contexts, e.g. the private versus the public or the up-down/bottom-up in social hierarchies.

To the great amusement of many a foreign visitor, however, some of the rules are made very apparent – and not just in the ways they are directly stated, but also in their conventional flaunting.

Do not spit.
Do not rush the subway’s doors; line up and wait for exiting passengers.
Do not go out in pajama-like clothing.


Chinese Urinal Advisory

Take a little step forward, take a big step for civilization“, other of those admonishments say…

Create a civilized/cultured city, and China.

One constantly happens upon such admonitions, while dodging the crush of traffic in which having a car seems to equal the right to run over pedestrians, as people cram themselves into subways and buses or “line up” as if the waiting queue were an imperialist British invention to rise up against.

What is particularly interesting about this approach, however, is not how laughable it feels to the foreigner disappointed with (Or enamored of? Sometimes it’s hard to tell) the ‘crazily different’ behavior of his/her Chinese ‘other,’ it is the cultural and historical background to it.

For one, it could be interpreted as a sign through which one can spot the Confucian-paternalist role of the Chinese state.

State control of personal lives has become much less strong – e.g. marriage and divorce used to be mediated by neighborhood committees, local representatives/agents of the government, and heads of danwei (working units), but it is no longer.

Even as laws often seem “more of a guideline”… except when they aren’t, admonitions of proper behavior akin to those handed out by a concerned parent have continued to be popular.

Sometimes, they are similar to the reminders to let people exit the bus or subway before entering or the familiar reminders to not step on the grass in a park.

Sometimes they are related to laws and policy (and perhaps a bit of wishful thinking wrapped up with them), as in the case of the banners that praise single-child families and the value of a daughter.

At times, they are rather more interesting and ‘other’, as when a civilized city is being called for or the example of Lei Feng is yet again paraded in front of people who are seen as too-egotistical (while swimming in a sea of advertisements peddling individual wish-fulfillment).

Learn from Lei Feng - to be a hipster

As on this sign’s redesign, the “learn(ing) from Lei Feng” may now be how to be a hipster…

Whatever the specific statement and the context behind it, a sense of paternalism is clear from them.

The “civilization-building” campaigns are perhaps even more telling when they address one kind of periphery to the Chinese state or another – and here, one finds historical precedents.

Haikou Wugong Ci

Haikou Wugong Ci

One historical example I chanced upon came on Hainan Island, in the area of Haikou’s Five Officials’ Temple (Temple of the Five Lords, Wugong Ci, 五公祠). The Sugong Hall there commemorates Su Shi (Su Dongpo), one of China’s great literati and all-around greats, who had still rubbed some people the wrong way and been exiled to Hainan.

Su Shi (Su Dongpo)Statue in Sugong Temple

Su Shi (Su Dongpo)Statue in Sugong Temple

That this nowaday tropical paradise was an erstwhile backwaters and almost a penal colony is well-known, but what gets less attention except in that temple – and fits with our topic here only too well – is the notion that the exiles brought civilization to this forlorn and backwards place.

Su Dongpo is depicted here as almost a Promethean figure who brought (better) agriculture and learning and all the other accoutrements of civilization to the hitherto uncivilized inhabitants.

Food for Learning

Food for Learning

Su Dongpo teaching agriculture

Su Dongpo teaching agriculture

To someone from the German-speaking cultural area (if I may use that quaint and itself suspicious concept), the way this is presented is an uncomfortable bit too reminiscent of “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (the German character/way of being shall heal the world), and it is not particularly fitting as Chinese civilization/civilizedness has quite a few things to speak for it, but there is a certain colonial attitude inherent to the notion, too.

The idea does seem to be that China is a civilization more than a state/country, as various people have argued, but also that this implies that the best way others could lift themselves up into a civilized state would be by emulating Chinese ways (and giving up on their own).

If that sounds more than a little imperialist / colonialist / evolutionist (take your pick), that’s because it is.

We: Developed. You: Not (Yet).

That same attitude can still be found, if implicitly and not usually so explicitly, let alone directed at people of “one’s own”, in “developed” countries.

In fact, it’s the very talk of “developed” versus “underdeveloped” countries in official discourse, and the more private thoughts of “them” who need to integrate and learn how to behave and “join the 21st century” that just barely conceals the traces of such kinds of thinking everywhere…

This problem of difference and supposed hierarchies on a scale of development is one of those peculiarly difficult issues in intercultural interaction: On the one hand, you’ll want to accept the ‘other’ as it is – but at the same time, on the other hand, you’ll have a hard time accepting some things.

In fact, you might not even want to accept them, but you might not even be able to really put a finger on what is disturbing you and why. It may well be – it tends to be – that your sense of what is simply right (civilized behavior?) is being disturbed by an ‘other’ way of doing things.

Add a bit of national(ist) pride and zero-sum approaches to international relations to that mix when it occurs in politics and diplomacy, and things can quickly turn rather un-diplomatic… and that attitude is a problematic one whether it’s the old European notion of “our” civilization and civilizedness compared to all the others, the US-American attitude of being the City on the Hill, no questions asked, no proof required, or the Chinese 5000 years of civilization with dubious end results…

Let’s finish with admonishing-yet-hopeful words from G.K. Chesterton (in “What I Saw in America,” 1922):

Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travelers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed.

I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese.

Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously. They base on it their serious ideas of international instruction.

It was said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; and the pleasure of despising foreigners is one which he takes most sadly of all. He comes to scoff and does not remain to pray, but rather to excommunicate.

Hence in international relations there is far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences.

That, there, may easily be the most fundamental necessity for successful intercultural interaction: To take the differences, and take them lightly, with less judgment.

In fact, that may be necessary whether the differences are “intercultural” in terms of differences between social groups within what we would see as a single culture (just think of how Democrats and Republicans in the USA see and act towards each other) or between widely different cultures, nations, and/or religions.

It is also one of those things that seem simple, but are tremendously difficult to accomplish: To laugh about our differences, together.