Page 6 of 7
4. Culture Has Many Evolving Features-Some More Coherent and Some Not
I almost feel I know all Chinese people, regardless if they are from the Mainland, Taiwan, or Singapore. Men look calm and quiet. Women always smile and are busy. Have we all studied the same poems and read the same novels and cried for the same stories when we were 15? Have our parents all compared us with other children for schools and grades? Have all of us had grandmas who waited and waited for us all to come to the Chinese New Year dinners? Have we all married the same type of spouse? Have we had all the same concerns: Children, school, family, etc.? What identifies us as Chinese?
The things we could identify with each other are the elements in a culture that stretch through thousands of years: overly evolved concepts of family, education; a very special philosophy evolved in wars, disasters, famines; a very simple understanding of life and death.
I am reluctant to distinguish the Chinese culture by saying that it is one that emphasizes values on family and education. Which cultures do not value these basic social instruments? Still, it feels different.
For thousands of years, families provide connections and financial means for their children. Even now, most Chinese pay for their children's education through college and graduate school. Most people in the rural areas financially support their children until they get married. Families provide care and support for their elders. The traditional order in the family was that the Son listens to father and the wife listens to the husband and everybody listens to the oldest man in the family. Parents arranged marriages. This order was reinforced by laws and regulations and by endless teachings through folk drama, music and storytelling. Even though family ties became much weaker along with the economic reform, the family pressure is everywhere. In rural areas, most elders live with their children and grandchildren. Marriage and divorce is everybody's matter. I have a friend who married an American professor. He told me the other day that he realized he married her whole family.
Importance of education derives from the Chinese civil examination system dated back about 1500 years. There were three levels of examination: County, District and Central government. Emperors filled the important government positions with people who passed these examinations. Even for people who did not get those positions, they enjoyed tremendous privileges in society. For example, the local government could not punish them with normal procedures. This system opened to the entire society, regardless of your background, wealth, family connections, etc. Chinese history is full of important government officials from humble backgrounds who excelled through school and the civil examination system and later made great contributions to the society. Their stories are told through generations.
When we put family and education together, we see a typical Chinese picture: Children's schooling is the entire family's business. A B+ could make your mother cry for a whole month. On any given day of examinations, you would see layers of layers of aged people surrounding that poor building. They are grandmas and grandpas and parents. Whose work is most important? Not father's and not mother's. It is the children's homework. We start to teach our children Chinese characters when they are still babies. We give them extra homework everyday and send them to all after school programs we could afford. We do not expect them to support our old age but we continue to force them to study and to excel.