What Makes the Chinese Chinese?


Is it possible to define what makes a culture distinct from other cultures?  Or is the question an impossible one to answer?

David Keightley, a renowned sinologist, attempted to answer this question in regards to China.  More specifically, he asked, what makes Chinese people distinctively Chinese?  How, if at all, are the Chinese different from the ancient Greeks, a civilization that serves as a (partial) foundation for Western culture today?  Keightly attempts to answer these questions by studying the ancient past.

I am greatly simplifying his answer for the sake of brevity, but here are a few of his conclusions.

  • The Chinese have a deeply ingrained hierarchical social order, in which everybody knows his or her proper role and acts accordingly. This hierarchy occurs not just in this life, but in the afterlife as well.   If you are at the top of the social ladder in this life, you will remain on the top in the afterlife.  Conversely, if you are low in social status in this life, you will remain low in the afterlife.
  • Whereas the West values the individual above all else, the Chinese focus on the needs of the group (such as the family or the state). Significant to this focus on the group is the emphasis on lineage and ancestor worship.
  •  An ethic of service, obligation, and emulation (as opposed to an ethic of individual achievement and distinction dominant in the West.) This ethic is so strong, Keightley argues, that soldiers and other servants of the king willingly die and are buried with him so that they can continue their service in the afterlife.
  •  Whereas the Greeks had a deep sense of tragedy and irony, Keightley argues that the Chinese do not share this world view. He suggests that this could be at least partly explained by their view that death does not mark a huge change for people: one remains with one’s family and in the same basic circumstances after death as before it.

Overall, Keightley suggests that a combative individualism reigns in the West, whereas a harmonious social humanism predominates in China.

I am taking an online Introduction to China course, and the two professors teaching the course disagree on the validity of Keightley’s argument as a way to explain Chinese culture.   One of them believes Keightley made a strong argument for the difference between Chinese and Greek civilization, at least as it manifested itself in ancient times.  The other, however, dismissed Keightley’s argument as a vast oversimplification that cannot explain the past few hundred years of China’s history.

What do you think?  For those of you who are Chinese or familiar with Chinese culture, do you see any validity to Keightley’s argument?  Do you think it is even possible to make generalizations about an entire civilization?


David N. Keightley, “Early Civilization in China: Reflections on How It Became Chinese” in Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization, edited by Paul S. Ropp. (c) 1990 by The Regents of the University of California. Published by University of California Press. pp. 15-54.