Chinese Culture

Opinion Articles:   by Lishan Zeng, student intern for Teaching Abroad 

A Few things to know about the Chinese higher education system:

      The majority of Chinese colleges and universities are owned by the state (government), and they are all monitored by the Ministry of Education. Students who attend colleges in China usually spend three years at school, and these who go to university usually spend four years.

      After the College Entrance Exam, something similar to the SAT, students will apply different colleges or universities and the applied colleges and universities will choose students according to their grades during the exam.

      Students declare their majors before they go to their colleges or universities, and students with the same majors will be assigned to different classes. During the time students at school, the students in the same class will have all the classes together, except the electives.

      In an American university, students might be asked to take major courses, general education class, and electives, while in a Chinese university, students only get to take the major courses and few electives. Here as a Organizational major at George Fox University, I take communication courses, and general education classes like natural science, social science, literature, history, economics. When I studied in China as an English major, I took all the English classes like writing, reading, speaking and listening.


What you can expect in a Chinese university:

      There are two semesters in a school year in a Chinese university. School usually begins around September, and ends at January, just few weeks before the Chinese New Year. A new semester will start around February, and end at around June. It is important to note that some universities might have a different time to start and end a semester.

      During a school year, there are several important festivals that most Chinese celebrate and schools will have few days off. The most important one is the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year. At that time, students will be on their winter break. Another one is the Laborer’s Day when most workers, include the teachers, will have a week off. The National Day is another important festival in the Chinese calendar, and it is on October 1st.

     Teachers in Chinese schools are respected, and there is a day dedicated to the teacher to thank their hard work- the Teacher’s Day. Unfortunately, the respect for teachers can sometimes come from fear of the teachers. Students are uncomfortable to asking questions.  They get used to being quiet in elementary and high school. they will remain silent when they go to university. To deal with this, professors in university always need to have patience, and keep asking their students whether they have questions. Some teachers find it easy to deal with, they just keeping lecturing to the students without asking the students’ feedbacks.

      University students are usually more disciplined, but at the same time they can be lazy because of the free time they get. Students work really hard to go through the College Entrance Examination, and once they get into a college or university, they find life is much easier. Professors don’t have homework for them and they only need to review the stuff taught at class a week before the final exam in order to pass it. Due to this, many university students become lost and can’t find a goal to motivate them and they soon lose their enthusiasm and passion in learning. As a professor in a Chinese University, one might face challenge to motivate the students and help them find their purpose in life. But something to keep in mind is that students always like teachers who are caring and kind. As long as you get to know your students and show them that you care for them, you will be easily accepted and be loved. You might be the motivation for the students to study hard!

      Most Chinese students, especially those who come from countryside and small cities, don’t get a chance to see a foreigner. So students at universities might be very interested to have class that is taught by a foreigner. They want to talk to the foreign teacher and to impress him/her. Take advantage of this curiosity, and you may build life-long relationships with them and you can become their motive to study English well in order to communicate with you.


Cultural Value of China

      When we interact with culturally different people, conflicts seem to be inevitable. Different cultures have different values, norms, goals, and purposes. Failure to recognize these differences will lead to struggle and frustrations. In an attempt to help people cope with different cultures settings, Geert Hofstede conducted a comprehensive study of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. By identifying the differences and similarities of the value patterns between cultural groups, Hofstede came up with four cultural dimensions, and they are individualism-collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and femininity-masculinity.

Identity: Individualism-Collectivism Value pattern

      According to Hofstede, individualism and collectivism is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. In an individualistic culture, ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him and his immediate family. On the contrary, people in a collectivist culture are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups.

      To illustrate this difference, let’s look at how people are introduced in Chinese culture, which is considered to be a collectivistic culture, and American culture, which is identified as an individualistic culture. In China, when you are introduced to others, people will start with your last name. Because in Chinese names, last name comes first, which is inherited from the father to represent the family. In America, normally you will just tell people your first name.

Power: Small-Large Power Distance Value Pattern

      The second dimension, which is the power distance, indicates the extent to which a society accepts that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally (17, Harris & Moran). People in small power distance cultures tend to value equal power distribution, equal rights and relations, and equitable rewards and punishments on the basis of performance. People in large power distance tend to accept unequal power distribution, hierarchical rights, asymmetrical role relations, and rewards and punishments based on age, rank, status, title, and seniority (63, Ting-Toomey & Chung).

      Chinese culture values large power distance. In a family setting, children are expected to obey their parents. The value of “respect” between unequal status members in the family is taught at a young age. Parents and grandparents assume the authority roles in the family decision-making process (70, Ting-Toomey). At school, teachers are highly respected and it is considered impolite to question the authority of the teachers. That is probably one reason why students in class seldom ask questions about the lecture of the teacher.    

Uncertainty: Weak-Strong Uncertainty Avoidance Value Pattern

      The third dimension is the uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which members of a culture learned to feel comfortable (or uncomfortable) in unstructured, unknown situations. In high uncertainty avoidance countries, children grow up surrounded by strict rules about what is allowed and what is not allowed. They learn at a very young age that uncertainty is a threat. At school and university in high uncertainty avoidance cultures, students like structured lessons, and clear assignments. Students get all stressed if they get assignments that they can interpret any way they want.  Students want to now the correct answers, and they are lectures are supposed to give those right answers (53, Nunez, Mahdi & Popma).  In a typical Chinese exam, the majority of the questions will be multiple questions where one best answer is needed.

Sex Role: Feminine-Masculine Value Patterns

      Hofstede uses the words masculinity and femininity to refer to the degree to which masculine or feminine traits are valued and revealed. Masculinity is the extent to which the dominant values in a society are male-oriented. Hofstede advances an excellent summary of these values when he notes: Masculine cultures use the biological existence of two sexes to define very different social roles for men and women. They expect men to be assertive, ambitious, and competitive, and to strive for material success, and to respect whatever is big, strong and fast. On the contrary, cultures that value femininity as a trait stresses nurturing behaviors. A feminine world-view maintains that men need not be assertive and that they can assume nurturing roles (205-206, Samovar, Porter, McDaniel).   

      Chinese culture values masculinity more than femininity. Male members in the family are supposed to go out and make money, and they are responsible for the general welfare of the family; female members in the family are generally responsible for taking care of the all the family members and nurturing. Males in the family are asked to carry out the dignity and heritage of the family, and that is one reason why some many Chinese families prefer boys than girls.

      When China becomes more open to the western civilization, females begin to gain more power and they seek more equality in the society. This trend shapes the Chinese culture a great deal. Nowadays, Chinese culture falls more equally between the masculine and feminine culture.



1. Geert Hofstede, Culture’s consequences, 2010, Sage Publication, Inc. CA..

2. Philip R. Harris, Robert T. & Sarah V. Moran, Managing Cultural Difference, 2004, 

          Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. MA..

3. Stella Ting-Toomey & Leeva C. Chung, Understanding Intercultural

          Communication, 2005, Oxford University Press, Inc. NY..

4. Stella Ting-Toomey, Communicating Across Cultures, 1999, The Guilford Press, NY.

5. Ir Carlos Nunez, Drs Raya Nunez Mahdi & Drs Laura Popma, Intercultural

           Sensitivity, 2007, Royal Van Gorcum. The Netherlands.

6. Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, Edwin R. McDaniel, Communication Between

           Cultures, 2010, Cengage Learning, MA.

7. Hofstede’s Cultural Value dimensions:


Shaping Who I Am In A Cultural Context

      Within a culture, there are norms, values, and traditions that were generated years and years ago. They are passed down from generation to generation. As human beings, we are all nurtured in a cultural setting. Different climate, different skin color, different continents do not necessarily make us different. What makes us different is the culture we are in. It is the culture we are in that makes you an American, me a Chinese and him a European.

      When I was in China, I took it for granted about who I am. Only after I came to the United States do I realize the cultural impact on me.  The respect for authority, saving face for all parties in a situation, and being introversive all help shape who I am and the way I communicate with people.

Respect for authority

      China was a feudal society for thousands of years, and people were taught from one generation to the next to respect and obey the authorities. Then it has become a shared value of Chinese culture to respect authority. Of course, authorities here do not just mean those who work in the government. In a school setting, teachers and administrators are also considered authorities. We can then conclude that in a particular setting, anyone who is in a higher position than us need to be respected as an authority. 

      In a family, for example, parents are considered authorities. Children need to listen to their parents and act accordingly to what their parents have told them. On the other hand, parents take care of all their children’s business until they could be dependent on themselves. It is sometimes very easy for the children to go against their parents and have bad relationship with them. Because in China parents are always involved in their children’s decisions and even make decisions for their children without even asking them for opinion. If they exercise their authority properly, parents will have a good relationship with their children as long as they know when to step into and when to step back from their children’s lives.

      A way to respect our parents is that we never call them by their names, we call them Dad and Mum instead. It is also true in a school setting. At school, we students never call our teachers or professors by their names. We call them teachers instead. That’s why even after I have been in George Fox University for one year; I still don’t feel comfortable to call my professors by their first names. Sometimes it can make an embarrassing situation. Whenever I meet a professor on campus, I will simply say hello to him/her without saying his/her name. I will then get the feeling that he/she might think that I already forget their names. I know that in Rome, do as the Romans, but it takes time for me to adjust myself.


      It is unlikely that a Chinese will directly say “No” to you. In China, people always avoid saying “No” to save face for each party. That is probably why some people hold the idea that Chinese people are always beating around the bush.

      When my friends ask me to hang out with them, I will always find some excuses to say I have something to finish if I do not want to go. I will never say to them that I don’t want to go in order to avoid hurting their feelings. What I will say is that it is not convenient now.

      Chinese people help save other people’s face by doing things indirectly, and they also help themselves gain face by attaching themselves to something or someone that is famous. For example, if you say to people around you that you are the cousin of the Mayor of the city, then people will look up to you and treat you more nicely. You are using your cousin’s reputation to help you gain face. We can then notice that gaining reputation in this way has something to do with respect for authority.

Introversive Personality

      Although it varies a lot within the cultural context, Chinese culture is more introversive compared to western cultures. Being introversive makes Chinese people more focused on doing things, but they are not good at expressing themselves.

      Love, for example, is an internal theme in Chinese culture. You could come across this term in every form of literature; no matter if it is a novel, poem, or fiction. The problem is people in China seldom use this word in their lives. They prefer to show love by acting nicely to people. In China, you could seldom hear people say “I love you” among friends and even among family members.

       My parents never said “I love you” to me and I never did the same thing, although we all know it deeply that we love each other so much. The first time when I heard my friend here say “I love you, Lishan” to me, I was amazed. I felt happy and warm immediately. Since then, I began to practice saying “I love you” to the ones I love. I know it myself that showing love is not enough; sometimes we need to say it out loud in order to make that love journey fulfilled. When I went back home this summer and said it to my parents, tears even came out from their eyes. After that, I encouraged every friend of mine to take the courage to “say” their love to the people who they love most.

      In my cross-cultural experience, Chinese culture shapes who I am as a Chinese, and I am also shaping myself to adapt to the American culture. For I know that there are always things we could learn from each other. By learning from each other and making improvements, I could make myself a better person, a better cross-cultural person, and a global citizen.

      Furthermore, my cross-cultural experience helps me see my culture as an insider and an outsider as well. An outsider may see a part of a culture and think it as the whole culture without doing further research on it. It then leads them to make a very superficial conclusion on a particular culture. On the other hand, being an insider can cause people to think less objectively as they always attach more feeling and affection to their own cultures. Being both an insider and an outsider shape my views in many perspectives and allow me think more clearly and objectively about my culture.