Finding virtue among spamburgers and dim sum: Hofstede’s misplaced trust in Hong Kong culture as a Chinese cultural foundation

Hong Kong: 2010. My wife and I are walking under the colossal towers, moving between street and cloud as we escalate the Skyway, our eyes carefully scanning the perimeter of sidewalks and into glass-bound buildings for any kind of restaurant that would serve, well, Chinese food. After two hours of walking past spamburger joints and dim sum parlors, we give up and go into McDonalds. For an international city, Hong Kong is pretty barren of traditional Chinese restaurants. At the end of the week based on an internet recommendation, we head to Hong Kong’s premiere Chinese restaurant, the gaudy Jumbo Kingdom’s “Dragon Court”, but we barely start eating before we realize the food is cold and there isn’t a soul in the banquet hall except for us. Meanwhile, the cheers and hoopla from the upstairs “Topdeck” restaurant are in full furor, and for the next hour I had the sneaking suspicion that perhaps I should learn to eat spam if I wanted to appreciate to true beauty of Hong Kong’s culture.

You can’t judge a culture from the warped struggle of trying to find a style of restaurant. My wife is from northern China, but she has a love for the spicy Sichuan pepper but has no taste for the sweet southern style. Our experience in Hong Kong was a memory I will never forget, for the one reason that I felt more at home than she did; growing up in San Francisco, Hong Kong is the reflection of my home of San Francisco, or perhaps San Francisco is America’s reflection of Hong Kong.

Geert Hofstede, in his article entitled “The Confucius Connection,” (1988) makes a striking comparison between traditional Confucian philosophy and Chinese culture, going so far as to equate the former as not only having tremendous influence on the development of the latter but also incredible influence on the day-to-day operations of Chinese cultures. Hofstede uses the Hong-Kong based CVS (Chinese Values Survey) to determine the rank of 20 different countries in regards to the importance of traditional Chinese values, according to four key principles commonly ascribed to Confucius: unequal relationships between people, the family as prototype for organization, self-reflective human benevolence (not treating others as you would not want yourself to be treated), and perseverance towards virtue according to one’s station. Hofstede terms these four principles (and the accompany CVS differential values) as being “Confucian dynamism,” a uniquely eastern concept (dealing with the societal search for virtue) as opposed to the unique western concept of “uncertainty avoidance” (the search for truth, as obviously in the east they have no concept of the search for absolute truth).

Last week in my class, I spoke with a student about the concept of the generation gap. He was concerned because he felt that his parents and grandparents did not understand him at all, because they grew up in a different time. Specifically, his grandparents and parents lived through the reign of Mao Zedong, and suffered through one of China’s most intense periods of all time: the Cultural Revolution. More than a revolution, the Cultural Revolution was a period of time when friends became enemies, family members disappeared, and traditional culture was thrown into the bonfires of a country already suffering under a famine that killed 1 out of every 20 people (in addition to normal deaths). Schools were closed down. Neighbors whipped neighbor in public courts, and anything not necessary (chairs, even) were either given to the state or used as kindling. When I talk about a generation gap between myself and my parents, I am referring to the Free Love movement of the 60s and the hippie generation of the 70s; my concept of generational gap is nowhere near as extreme as my students.

Certain areas were spared of the tragedy of China: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan, four areas which hold the top four slots of the CVS. According to a research project by Shen Jianping writing in the Journal of Moral Education (1998), the values among early adolescents in Taiwan and the mainland are starkly different, with adolescents from Taiwan favoring people-orientation and inter-personal relationships (CVS values) while mainland adolescents favoring task-oriented values toward service to society and country, predominantly Maoist/socialist values. Even when speaking with my Chinese tutor and reviewing flashcards developed for spoken Chinese in Taiwan, she constantly wrinkles her brow when we discuss certain cards: “We never say it that way here! I have never heard it…” Even certain cultural axioms listed on the cards are alien to her, and while I wouldn’t call her a traditionalist, she is a woman who is highly educated and respectful of the ancient customs of China and aware of the existence of certain concepts.

Hofstede uses his four cultural dimensions to show the stark differences between the Chinese Values Survey and his own culture measurement, going so far as to actually score all of Chinese culture on four Asian “countries”: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore. Never mind that Hong Kong was ruled by the British for 100 years, that Taiwan was the bastion of the Confucian-based civil government chased off the mainland, that Japan isn’t even Chinese, and that Singapore is only 74% Chinese, with the rest coming from Malaysia (a Muslim culture) and India (a Hindi and Muslim culture). Hofstede makes his most blatant statement when he lumps the mainland into these other four cultures: “We can only infer that in spite of Maoism [emphasis mine], many Confucian values remain strong in the People’s Republic.” There is a danger in lumping together huge variations into a pool and then labeling them the same. When I first arrived in China I was convinced I would find people practicing taiqi on street corners and quoting Confucius in school for their finals. However, I discovered a far stranger situation: people practiced taiqi but only when the sky was dark, and people talked about Confucius only as a “silly old man.”

I admire Hofstede’s attempt for syngery. Hofstede quotes a worker of a U.S. corporation complaining of his East Asian regional manager (an expatriate American in Hong Kong who was not complying with certain company rules) to the president of the company, to which the president replied: “I fully agree. His behavior is stupid and against policy. I have only one question. From the time he worked in headquarters, I have known [him] to be an intelligent man. How can a man be so intelligent in Los Angeles and so stupid in Hong Kong?” Hofstede’s argument ends with a passionate interplay between Confucian dynamism (in his words, a uniquely eastern concept) and uncertainty avoidance (uniquely western). According to Hofstede, uncertainty avoidance is the search for absolute truth, where the polar opposite would be holding to a purely relativistic perspective, and Confucian dynamism is strictly a societal search for virtue.

Virtue, however, cannot be understood without truth, even if truth is written as subtext. Truth is the lifeblood of all philosophy, even truth that claims truth is changeable, because truth then would be self-defined (based on context). Virtue, then, becomes transformative in itself. Therefore virtue (according to Confucius) is also based on context, except in matters of the state which is absolute. Hofstede’s bias shows clearly by his claim that cultures which do not ascribe to his absolute truth must not ascribe to absolute truth at all, just as his claim that societies that do not seek virtue first cannot be found outside of Asia. While the United States may not hold to the specific cultural tenets of saving face and honoring your elders, societal virtue is just as important of a dream, regardless of whether American democracy is as valid to societal perfection as the Americans believe.

References

Hofstede, G. (1988). The Confucius connection: From cultural roots to economic growth. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4):5-21.

Shen, J.P. (1998). Moral values held by early adolescents in Taiwan and mainland China. Journal of Moral Education, 27(2):191-207.