Lost in Translation

Understanding Chinese Culture as an American

Image Caption: A person stands in the middle of a busy street with a pink t-shirt and short cropped hair. There are red lanterns hanging from strings behind them.

For Westerners, it is common to claim that divergent cultures have an otherness. When Westerners first began their interactions with East Asian cultures, they needed to devise terms to understand the new cultures they were interacting with. Westerners use separate terms for East Asian thought and culture to highlight cultural difference, but as these labels are made by outsiders, they do not always accurately model the cultures they are supposed to represent. Westerners have labeled Eastern culture as ‘collectivist,’ a term meant to describe intergroup dependence and group consciousness based on acknowledgement of collective harmony and stability. Asian researchers have claimed this term outdated and not truly characteristic of East Asian culture. There are also claims that the term is imperialistic and represents Western takeover of Eastern autonomy. This essay can only fully comment on the Western perspective of this debate; however, through this exploration, I have found that ‘collectivism’ is still a helpful term for Western audiences as long as the complexity and history of the phrase is fully understood.

The American Perception of Collectivism

If Westerners are to use the term ‘collectivism’ it is imperative that they fully understand the context of the word. Although some aspects of collectivism are stereotypes, these characteristics are inspired by observable norms. One of the defining characteristics of collectivism is the idea of group needs over individual needs. Individual purpose is subservient to the overarching collective, and as such social relationships are emphasized. For instance, “the villager’s need for attention and recognition is given up, to a certain degree, so that the village receives the necessary recognition. Here, the individual has a collective responsibility to ensure that the group develops and progresses” (Morrison, Carlos, Morrison). Western culture, and specifically America culture, is built on the foundations of individualism, and as such does not have the same type of inter-group connection as Eastern societies. Independence is valued and group consciousness is seen as a burden and potentially threatening. Unlike collectivist societies, American society encourages difference within groups. China’s culture values the collective good and group decisions, and as such individual difference is surrendered to the safety of group dependence. Cultures that value group dependence are more likely to value group decisions over individual, thus ensuring a collectivist mindset.

Another aspect of the term collectivist is interdependence of the members of its society. Collectivism’s definition assumes families and larger social circles are more closely connected in group-oriented communities. In fact, “group members share responsibilities, roles, and relationships with others within the community or family structure in order to accomplish a particular goal or task. Each member of the collective is defined by the relationship they have with other members of the group” (Morrison, Carlos, Morrison). This aspect is commonly seen in comparing Chinese society to American society. Family structure in China is based around a shared household with several generations of a family living under one roof. This tradition is influenced by the culture of filial piety, with grandparents sharing housing with their grandchildren. In comparison, American family structures are more influenced by individualism, with most children living separate from their parents, or even placing parents in separate housing facilities for care. There is not as much interdependence in the smallest group divisions, which reflects itself throughout American society. Group connection flows in even the smallest social divisions in Chinese society, so it is natural that every aspect of collectivist societies would be shared.

A final aspect of collectivism is group harmony and balance. Because members of a collectivist society have a group consciousness, they are more likely to facilitate group harmony and ease conflict. In fact, “Members of collectivities seek both balance and harmony as a result of their interdependent interactions with themselves and others” (Morrison, Carlos, Morrison). As collectivist societies tend to depend on group success, they must encourage good relations between group members. Moreover, in order for groups to be effective there must be a balance of individual’s influences within the collective. Collectivist societies have mastered these skills and as such are far more successful. Sameness is encouraged in collectivist societies, as difference and individuality can disrupt the harmony of the group. China further focuses on harmony by incorporating the idea of balance into their cultural philosophy, such as the Ying and Yang, or the precepts of Daoism. Collectivism describes cultural experiences, but it further explains a way of life that is lived by the people of China.

Image Caption: Times Square at night. There are crowds of people walking across a street crossing surrounded by bright neon street signs.

Going beyond the social aspects, science has also claimed that the way we connect has literally changed our genes. Scientists have found that closer knit cultures are more likely to have social support for those in their community. This in turn has shown that collectivist cultures are less likely to have members of their society feel social rejection and exclusion, resulting in less genetic predisposition to psychopathy. As studies have shown, “Psychologically, the more integrated social network characteristic of collectivistic cultures may have reduced the risk for psychopathology in these populations due to the high prevalence of sensitivity alleles” (Way, Baldwin, Lieberman 209). Members of collectivist cultures are more likely to have alleles correlating to intergroup sensitivity and dependence. Interestingly, individualistic cultures have less sensitivity alleles, correlating to less interdependence. Human beings need connection and, as shown through these studies, the more intertwined society is the less individuals feel mental distress related to loneliness. Furthermore, socialization also aids social sensitivity, allowing for individuals to give up personal desires for the greater good of the group.

Even if collectivist societies may not be inherently group oriented, sometimes their actions can cause scientific effects that reinforce their behaviors. For example, research has shown that collectivist societies are more likely to be resistant to disease through herd immunity. Some groups could have adapted group dependence based on a prevalence of disease in an area and protecting in-group interests through immunity passed down generationally. In contrast to collectivism, “the behaviors that define individualism may also enhance the likelihood of pathogen transmission, and thus may be functionally maladaptive under conditions in which pathogens are highly prevalent” (Fincher, Corey 1283). Although societies may flourish with individualistic characteristics, they are also more likely to have diseases and reduced herd immunity. It is advantageous for societies to be collectivist according to this research; however, as all of these studies are conducted through Western institutions, their viewpoint can be flawed. As with all the typecasts of Eastern, and Chinese, society, the social definitions of collectivism do not paint a full picture of a fully developed culture. If this is the case, some may wonder why those terms are used at all.

Despite the stereotypes, many culture have elements of both collectivism and individualism. No culture is monochromatic, but some societies make one or the other a more prominent part of their image or identity. These differences are important and should be acknowledged. China has a tradition of group dependence, but there are still aspects of individualism in their society. Likewise, nations cannot survive with a pure individualistic mentality, group work would be impossible. Instead, some cultures put more emphasis on group dependence than others, and then are dubbed ‘collectivist.’ In reality, “collectivism puts a priority on the interdependence of people, in contrast with individualism’s concern for each individual’s independence” (Collectivism). Unfortunately, collectivism has been defined as a contrast to another concept, not as a stand-alone definition. Because of this, collectivism inherently leaves out the complexity of Eastern culture, reduced to a Western overgeneralization. Descriptive terms, such as collectivism, are meant to help cultures connect and understand each other. The term should be redefined, not to stereotype, but to encourage cultural understanding.

Image Caption: A scene in traditional Chinese theatre. A person in bright makeup stands in a listening position with a bejeweled headdress and brightly colored qipao dress.

The Chinese Perspective of Collectivism

As collectivism is not a Chinese term, not many cultural experts tend to use it. However, when describing phenomena around them, their characterizations sound strikingly similar to those discussed in the stereotype of collectivism. For example, when explaining Chinese culture Lin Yutang discussed how Westerners and Chinese interacted with each other in completely different ways. One of the first aspects Lin explores is trust. For the Chinese, “the family system [is] the basis of all social and political life, with its tremendous emphasis on the husband-wife relationship as the foundation of all human relationships” (Lin 182). The foundation for Chinese relationships are group dynamics, modeling those in the home. All of Chinese society is codependent and relies on group harmony, similar to family dynamics. As American society is based in the ideal of independence, broad social trust is not as emphasized. Lin wanted to accentuate this uniqueness of Chinese society for outsiders as he felt it greatly affected Western understanding of China.

Lin also discussed the idea of forgiveness in Chinese culture. Because Chinese society is more interconnected than Western society, Lin noticed Chinese people approached forgiveness in a different way. He stated, “we can only conceive of reasonable husbands and wives who quarrel reasonably and then patch up reasonably. Only in a world of reasonable beings can we have peace and happiness” (Lin 423–424). Forgiveness is inherent because all members of the society have to live with each other. Inner family squabbles are not going to be as long lasting as the fight cannot aim to break up the family. Social bonds and obligations keep individuals from disrupting the harmony of the group. Children are dependent on their families, and as such have an obligation to keep the peace.

Another difference in Chinese society Lin notices is that Chinese life is more influenced by the ‘pagan’ lifestyle and the Dao than by Christian principles. A pagan lifestyle is one similar to the Western conception of secularism, with an added element of spiritualism connected to balance and world harmony. Religion is often attributed as a driving force for group harmony; however, Lin argues that a utilitarian approach is more effective for collective prosperity. He discusses how he realized he does not give charity out of a sense of obligation to religion, but just for the sake of doing a good deed. He stated, “[the pagan life] better justifies doing good by making it unnecessary for doing good to justify itself. It does not encourage men to do, for instance, a simple act of charity by dragging in a series of hypothetical postulates” (Lin 411). To Lin, charity was just a part of being in a community. Individuals give back to others because that is simply what is done. Similar to the concept of karma, one does good unto others as one wants to receive good on one’s self. Charity is meant to bring the entire group an overall good, not to simply make an individual feel better.

Image Caption: A person stands in front of the Heaven’s Gate Temple looking backwards over their shoulder. The person is in a white shirt, black jeans, and has a black backpack.

Integration of Chinese Perspective

As Westerners and Lin have noticed, there is a difference between Eastern societies such as China and Western societies such as America. To avoid stereotyping, researchers can build on the work of Chinese scholars and explore topics such as those discussed by Lin. This allows both perspectives to play a part in uncovering the uniqueness of Eastern culture, and further prevents Westerners like Americans from coming to generalized assumptions. For example, research has shown that collectivist countries have a different trust radius. Although Lin postulated trust levels were completely different, in truth, Chinese people and Westerners do not have a very distinguishable trust level. However, Chinese people tend to have a much smaller circle of intimacy. As explained, “individualism is associated with a broad radius of trust, whereas collectivism is associated with a narrow radius of trust” (van Hoorn 275). Because of the structure of trust, Chinese groups tend to have less people and closer-knit relationships. Rather than a wide group of loose friends, Chinese people prefer a smaller, devoted few who are dependable.

In contrast to some of the things assumed by Lin, another study showed levels of forgiveness are the same between Westerners and Chinese. The primary difference in forgiveness was the nature of the offense and the lasting anger about the event. Paz explained, “lasting resentment was higher among the Chinese than among the Western Europeans” and, “sensitivity to the circumstances of the offense would be higher among the Chinese participants than among the Western European participants” (154). Perhaps because arguments are done on a more personal level, Chinese people tended to be sensitive to the social circumstances surrounding the disagreements. They also were much more sensitive to lasting resentment, perhaps again effected by the intimate nature of disagreements.

In addition to these two topics, research surrounding religion and charity as discussed by Lin did support his claims to an extent. Instead of people being motivated to give to charity based on religion, charity is more influenced by collectivist attitudes and self-image. Americans were likely to donate to causes if they were more collectivist, or if they felt individually, they had a reason to give. In contrast, “horizontal individualism, HC, and vertical collectivism were significant predictors of attitude toward CRM [cause related marketing] in the Chinese sample” (Wang 40). Similar to Lin’s theory, Chinese participants were far more influenced by in-group factors and loyalties. Charity is seen as a way of maintaining balance and harmony in a society. With individualism, factors including religion became more influencing on donations.

As is apparent, when Western research is used in conjunction with Eastern scholarship, more thorough and accurate work can be written. Western studies can independently be done on collectivism; however, they are unable to capture the full picture. American scholars need an Eastern, and Chinese perspective to more fully understand their work. This process also prevents stereotyping and misinterpreting research to fit a narrow point of view. An outsider’s perspective can sometimes be helpful, but its application needs to be moderated.

Image Caption: A busy street in Asia, there are people riding motor scooters, driving, and sitting on the sidewalk.

Why “Collectivism” Matters

As previously stated, cultures are far more complex than a single definition. Moreover, many cultures show signs of both individualism and collectivism. What is important is recognizing the variety within the two terms and not limiting perceptions of cultures based on single characteristics. The Western view of collectivism does not even fully explain the complication within the term itself. For example, the definition of interpersonal relationships can be divided up into different distinctions based on variable criteria. In addition, personal relations are not always predictive of national dynamics or group interactions. As explained,

“important theoretical distinction to be made between relational collectivism and group collectivism, which helps to resolve anomalies in the existing collectivism research. [The] proposed schematic model[s] of individualism and collectivism makes further differentiations among self-representations, agency beliefs, and values as different manifestations of individualism, relational collectivism, and group collectivism” (Brewer, Marilynn, Chen 147).

As shown by this Eastern study, when the Western term collectivism is dissected it can become infinitely more complicated. It is foolish to assume the term is a comprehensive descriptor of entire civilizations. Despite this, there is still a need to make distinctions intellectually so that cultures can be studied imperially and socially in depth. Individualism and collectivism can be useful terms; however, it is important that those terms are used with an understanding of their complexities. They are descriptors and are not encompassing in their information. If Westerners want to use these terms to study the East, they then have to ensure they make proper distinction in the terms they use for research.

In discussions about collectivism it is important to remember that the idea of group dependence was developed by the West, not the East. It is vital to include the research of Asian scholars, who can provide a unique perspective on their home culture. Asian researchers also have the potential to develop completely new models to understand cultural difference if given the chance. Without Eastern scholars’ input, “nations tend to get seen as homogeneous entities, which may result in a form of methodological nationalism” (Herdin 604). All people are individuals, and in order to accurately represent that fact in studies there must be as much diversity in research as there is in cultures around the world. Although collectivism is still a useful term for Westerners, it is important to recognize the potential issues with such a term and to work with different groups to refine its idea.


As explained in this exploration, ‘collectivism’ does not fully encompass the intricacies of Eastern cultures. Eastern cultures are just as likely to contain elements of individualism as collectivism. Also addressed was the question of whether or not the terms collectivism and individualism should be used as terms at all. Research can be based on these ideas, but it is vital that Eastern perspectives are also included. In the end, terms are only words that people use as descriptors to more fully understand concepts around them. As such, the term ‘collectivism’ is still a helpful word for Westerners struggling to connect with Eastern culture. However, it is suggested that Westerners educate themselves on the intricacies of the term to avoid unintentional stereotyping and discrimination. Words can be used to either enlighten or degrade society, and it is up to the people who use them to exercise them wisely.

Works Cited

Benet-Martínez, Verónica, and Zahide Karakitapoglu-Aygün. “The Interplay Of Cultural Syndromes And Personality In Predicting Life Satisfaction: Comparing Asian Americans and European Americans.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 34, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 38–60. SAGE Journals.

Brewer, Marilynn B., and Ya-Ru Chen. “Where (Who) Are Collectives in Collectivism? Toward Conceptual Clarification of Individualism and Collectivism.” Psychological Review, vol. 114, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 133–51. 2006–23341–005, EBSCOhost.

Collectivism/Individualism | Encyclopedia of Identity — Credo Reference. Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

Fincher, Corey L., et al. “Pathogen Prevalence Predicts Human Cross-Cultural Variability in Individualism/Collectivism.” Proceedings: Biological Sciences, vol. 275, no. 1640, 2008, pp. 1279–85.

Herdin, Thomas. “Deconstructing Typologies: Overcoming the Limitations of the Binary Opposition Paradigm.” International Communication Gazette, vol. 74, no. 7, Nov. 2012, pp. 603–18. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/1748048512458557.

Lin, Yutang. (1937). The Importance of Living. NY: Quill.

Paz, Regina, et al. “Forgiveness: A China-Western Europe Comparison.” The Journal of Psychology; Provincetown, vol. 142, no. 2, Mar. 2008, pp. 147–57.

Starr, John Bryan. (2010, the 3rd Edition). Understanding China. NY: Hill & Wang.

Steele, Liza G., and Scott M. Lynch. “The Pursuit of Happiness in China: Individualism, Collectivism, and Subjective Well-Being During China’s Economic and Social Transformation.” Social Indicators Research; Dordrecht, vol. 114, no. 2, Nov. 2013, pp. 441–51. ProQuest.

Triandis, Harry C. “Individualism-Collectivism and Personality.” Journal of Personality, vol. 69, no. 6, Dec. 2001, pp. 907–24. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/1467–6494.696169.

van Hoorn, André. “Individualist–Collectivist Culture and Trust Radius: A Multilevel Approach.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 46, no. 2, Feb. 2015, pp. 269–76. SAGE Journals.

Wang, Ye. “Individualism/collectivism, Charitable Giving, and Cause-Related Marketing: A Comparison of Chinese and Americans.” International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, vol. 19, no. 1, Feb. 2014, pp. 40–51. Wiley Online Library.

Way, Baldwin M., and Matthew D. Lieberman. “Is There a Genetic Contribution to Cultural Differences? Collectivism, Individualism and Genetic Markers of Social Sensitivity.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 5, no. 2–3, 2010, pp. 203–11. PubMed Central.

They/Them Pronouns | 中文名字: 柯梅 | Intelligence Specialist & Diversity Advocate | hellomeike.com

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