“How employees think and solve problems is completely different in China than in the West. One is linear and learned; the other creative and challenging. It goes back to the ancient philosophers – Confucius versus Socrates”.
Socrates encouraged debate and challenging questions with Plato and Aristotle hard on his heels, each championing logical problem-solving. Confucius demanded respect within the hierarchy and that is still a strong theme today throughout Chinese society leading to compliance and obedience to anyone in authority – in the home, at work or in public office. Indications are everywhere. For example, enormous signs on the motorway DRIVING WHEN FATIGUED IS FORBIDDEN; small signs over public water taps “Save Water For Our Children”. Confucius also encouraged learning through imitation. Schoolchildren in China learn to repeat the ‘right answers’ and develop excellent memories for detail. They rarely learn how to think creatively or challenge the existing wisdom. And if they do, even when adults, it often doesn’t get them very far – especially in the workplace! They are likely to be sidelined quietly, unless they work for a Western company – but that entails other challenges.
Because of the one child policy introduced in the 1960s, there is an enormous pressure of expectation placed on children to be successful. All the ambitions of their parents and grand-parents (6 big people) are focussed on one small child who has time, attention and money lavished on them in order to fulfil the dreams of others and provide an income for all in their old age. It is enormously stressful. These children rarely have the childhood that we enjoy. Their days start early, end late and every hour is filled with formal classroom rote-learning. Holidays are for catching up, cramming and getting ahead for next term, with the help of private tutors whenever these can be afforded. The big day of reckoning comes at the end of schooling when everyone eligible throughout the country sits the same set of examinations and depending on their results will be told which University they may apply for and which courses they will take. The top universities and courses hold the possibility of the great prize – a job in the government.
And what of the people? Our hosts and other people we met were charming, engaging and generous. People in the streets and shops are just like people everywhere – some cheerful and some surly; all were helpful to us when we were lost or confused and all pushed and shoved us on the Metro in the rush hour. I felt for the young men after I’d heard the same mantra from several sources: “first he must get an apartment, then he must buy a car, then he can get a wife”. It was always in that order. No wonder money is important! And from one career woman “It’s almost impossible to live alone in a big Chinese city, the housing prices are very high. You must choose a husband with an apartment.”
Nevertheless, as a Chinese commentator told me “they recognise that they are far better off than their parents were and strive for their children to be better off than themselves”. Sound familiar – it’s the classic description of “The American Dream”. Fading in its country of origin, it’s re-emerging across the world. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
I started writing this on the plane but am home now and downloading photos. One in particular brought back memories of a conversation…
We had just climbed hundreds of steps, before the heat of the day set in, and stood beneath an enormous bronze statue that stood on the hilltop overlooking a vast lake and the surrounding countryside. It wasn’t Confucius, but a Taoist philosopher who advised the Emperor in the 1st century. He is still revered and candles were burning for him. I quizzed my Chinese companion about the co-existence of ancient wisdom and modern communism. “China has always been authoritarian so we accept instructions from people in authority and are taught not to contradict” he explained. I suppose that makes it easier to accept whoever is ruling you. But it was not quite the reason. “Balance and harmony are important. It’s not logical. There is no right and wrong – that’s Western. China is complex and mysterious. The Taoist does nothing. He is the fisherman who just sits in the boat. Do nothing and the fish will come to you”. We both gazed over the lake in silence – I half imagined the fisherman would appear. Then he added “BUT in the last 20 years we have been invaded by outsiders – so don’t sit in the boat! There are crocodiles underneath!! Competition, Capitalism and Economy – these are all Western concepts. But we need growth, so we must have them”.
China is indeed complex and mysterious.
Part 3 of 3
Dr Jacquie Drake is Founder of cool-leadership.com and Editor of the cool-leadership newsletter.