Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A cultural war between China and the West?

The Chinese word for coffee - 咖啡, pronounced kafei - is a good example for the way in which Western culture has slowly crept into Chinese society. While the idea of drinking tea ("cha") has developed through centuries of Chinese history, coffee came from outside the Middle Kingdom. In phonetic terms, it has always remained on the outskirts of Chinese culture.

But when you walk through any bigger city in Eastern China, you will see Western coffee chains and fast food restaurants invite young Chinese into what is essentially a space of Western culture. With English being the international lingua franca, many Chinese people working in the export industry come into contact with Western values, send their children abroad for college and start celebrating Christmas (albeit as a largely secular holiday). Consumerism, Western entertainment and Western dating mentality have long reached Eastern China. Without doubt, they are a powerful force tugging at the foundation of a family-based society with a high degree of discipline and sacrifice.

When Chinese president Hu Jintao now speaks of a Western desire to divide Chinese society through ideology and culture (see here and here), one could of course respond with a shrug. Western influence comes to China as a result of market exchange in a globalizing economy. One could say that China pays the price for its participation in the WTO and its export-led development with cultural influx from its trade partners (while truly Chinese products have simply not incited Western demand yet).

But then, the story is more complex than that. Globalization has a significant influence on the structure of the Chinese economy, an economy that has for some time devoted all its resources to the demands of the rest of the world while neglecting domestic demand. Globalization has led to enormous migratory flows from the Western plains into the Eastern metropoles which are connected to the global markets. To put it a little plain, China has in some regards neglected its own culture in the interest of export-led economic growth. 

It therefore appears legitimate to raise the question how a country can brace itself against cultural influence from other countries. France, for example, has established a law that requires its radios to play 40% French music titles. In my view, Hu Jintao is correct to worry about the erosion of Chinese culture through Western influence. But it does not appear very helpful to speak about "international hostile forces [that] are stepping up the implementation of China's Westernization" (Google Translated). A cultural war between China and the West would really not be a smart thing, but then I don't really see it happen either.

As a final remark, the concept "the West" which is often used in China (closely associated to the idea of a Westerner, or laowai), is by no means culturally homogeneous. The US and Europe show immense cultural differences, in the way in which they consume information, in the way in which they view leadership and in way in which they view the ideal state, to name but a few aspects. And to return to kafei mentioned above: While coffee might be considered a Western product in the Middle Kingdom, its production is crucially important to guarantee the livelihood of many smallholder farmers - in Africa and Latin America.

I have focused on the economic aspect of Westernization; maybe my Chinese friends would like to comment on the cultural aspect of Western influence?

1 comment:

  1. We all think the cultural war is not going to happen. Cultural infuence mostly come from the USA, not only in China, but also in Europe in Affica, in Middle East Asia, this influence from America are everywhere. For instance, in Germany the Nikolaus didn't wear red in Christams. But now in every corner of the world make up the Santa like that. And also there is no Halloween in Germany, but nowadays young people are in it. We are worried about the erosion, but it's glad to find that the traditions are still there. But I have to say it we've lost a lot.We have no traditional dress mehr,we have no Twenties ceremony for the men mehr. Ye