By Dianne Hofner and Wei Wei
I recently had a very enjoyable lunch with a Taiwanese official. We were talking about the fact that Taiwan's largest trade partner is the Mainland China. Official Ministry of Economic Affairs, Bureau of Foreign Trade figures for 2005 show Taiwan exporting $52 billion USD worth of products to the mainland. China is the largest Taiwanese export market in the world.
Imports from Mainland China to Taiwan topped $20 billion USD for the same period (the mainland is Taiwan's third-largest source of imports, after Japan and the United States), for a total trade figure of $72 billion USD. According to my friend, that figure probably represents just one-third of total actual trade between the Taiwan straight. Meaning that actual annual trade between these two entities could easily be over $200 billion USD!
I remarked at how interesting it is that the two regions have such a tense political relationship*, while at the same time such a thriving relationship in trade. His answer? "Dianne, if there is money to be made, Chinese, wherever they live, will work hard to make it."
I heard two clear messages about Chinese culture in what my friend said. "Working hard to make money" illustrates a Chinese value on Prosperity (Rong hua fu gui). And "Chinese, wherever they live," the fact that they are trading so actively despite political tension, illustrates a value on Nationalism (Min zu zhu yi), a view of all Chinese as proud descendants of the Yellow and Yan Emperors (Yan huang zi sun).
One of the key strengths of the Chinese diaspora culture is the high value Chinese place on prosperity. Think about the Chinese restaurants that are so ubiquitous throughout the U.S. that they constitute an integral part of American life. Or think about Chinese-American students, who are often labeled the "model minority." Chinese are generally motivated to work hard and achieve success.
Chinese nationalism is a multifaceted concept. At different historical moments and under certain circumstances, it had different meanings and interacted with other competing motives and interests. For most overseas Chinese nowadays, nationalism means a strong sense of preserving their cultural roots. Even Chinese-Americans who have lived in the U.S. for decades, or their children who have been born in the U.S., identify strongly with their Chinese heritage.
Underlying this value on nationalism is that of filial piety, the foundation of Chinese morality as stated clearly by Confucius. In the Chinese ethical system, filial piety means not only loving and respecting one's living parents, it also means respecting and loving those ancestors who have already died. Respecting your ancestors and always remembering your origins runs deep in the heart of most every Chinese person, who identifies with Yan huang zi sun wherever she or he lives.
Reflecting on the conversation between my friend and me has helped us discover a bit about Chinese culture, but can we learn about American culture from that interaction? My initial remark noted an inconsistency or irony between Mainland China and Taiwan "official" political positions and the reality that they are lucrative trade partners. In the U.S., we tend to value consistency. We expect people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Such voluminous trade, much of it unofficial or unreported, particularly in the face of a tense political situation, was noteworthy to me.
Most Americans tend to value capitalism, and enjoy getting ahead and making or saving a dollar. This value on capitalism is quite similar in some ways to the Chinese value on prosperity. Both Chinese and American cultures are also quite practical or pragmatic; a common American saying is "where there is a will, there is a way."
If there is money to be made, they'll make it," my friend said. Members of both Chinese and American cultures approach success — be it prosperity or capitalism — in pragmatic, practical ways. They are commonalities we share.
While it can be enjoyable and productive to focus on commonalties, productive relationships demand that we also acknowledge our differences. In this case, we might realize that many Chinese pursue success by helping one another — relationships (Guan xi) and family (Jia ting), while Americans more typically reach for success through individualism and self-reliance. This can make Chinese more risk-averse, and Americans more risk tolerant — a major factor to consider before entering a joint venture, for example.
* For those who are unfamiliar with East Asian history, it is difficult to summarize the complexity of the Mainland China and Taiwan political relationship, which has changed in the early 2000s. During the Civil War in the 1940s, the Communists and the Nationalists warred for control of China. After Communist victory, two million Nationalists fled to Taiwan and established a government based on China's 1946 constitution. The mainland has long viewed Taiwan as a dissident province and pushed for reunification as "One China."