When entering a market or country abroad to operate business there, it is important to understand the respective local culture. Hence, for business success in China it is vital to gain at least a partial understanding of Chinese culture.In this article three different perspectives on Chinese culture are presented.

The first position, which is still quite prominent in contemporary business ethics and management studies, labels China a “Confucian culture”. Here, attitudes and behaviour are all seen in the light of Confucianism. A number of related articles dealing with cross-cultural comparisons are summarised in this part. They have been published amongst others by William E. Shafer (2007) and Christopher J. Robertson (2008) in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The second position, presented by Ning Huang (2008), is merely descriptive. She states obvious differences between the Chinese and German culture, but without categorising Chinese culture as typically Confucian.

The last position outlined here is generally sceptical about an overall characterisation of Chinese culture as Confucian. This part of the article includes critical perspectives by Kun Young Chung et al. (2008), Hans van Ess (2009) and Carsten Herrmann-Pillath (2009) regarding the categorisation of Chinese culture as primarily Confucian.

Pro-Confucian” Perspective

Many cross-cultural comparisons on China are based on Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, due to their psychological nature.

In his study, Hofstede ascertains “how values in the workplace are influenced by culture”.1 At first Hofstede’s cultural taxonomy included four categories (Goodall et al. 2007, p.59): power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism and masculinity vs. femininity. The Power Distance Index (PDI) measures to what extent people are willing to accept an unequal distribution of power within their society. The level of society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity is reflected by the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI). Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV) shows whether a society is more group-structured or individual-structured, but without implying a political sense concerning the term “collectivism”. Finally the fourth dimension masculinity vs. femininity (MAS) indicates how roles are distributed between the two genders. Whereas Masculinity refers to masculine values, such as assertiveness and competitiveness, feminine values are associated with modesty and a caring attitude.2

After having conducted another international study Hofstede added a fifth dimension called “Confucian Dynamism” or Long-Term Orientation (LTO). This dimension was developed in 1988 together with Michael Harris Bond as well as Chinese employees and managers. It includes the values generally associated with long-term orientation, such as persistence and thrift. By contrast values associated with short-term orientation are “respect for tradition”, “fulfilling social obligations” and “protecting one’s ‘face’” (Vittel et al. 2008, p.198). The values mentioned above are also ascribed to Confucianism. However, the Long-Term Orientation dimension has been used as well for international surveys.

Besides this “Confucian categorisation” by Hofstede there are more orientations associated with Confucianism, such as collectivism, which ostensibly derived from “an emphasis on respect for brotherhood, social harmony, and protection of the interests of one’s in-group” (Shafer et al. 2007, p.267 and Robertson et al. 2008, p.420). Further such elements are benevolence, temperance together with a striving for harmony, additionally adaption and patience referring to persistence, which are considered as fundamental Confucian values by Goodall et al. (2007, p.60). There is also a perceived emphasis on hierarchical relationship, derived from Confucian filial piety, which induces respect for authority and humility.

Practically this “Confucian categorisation” means, that results of cross-cultural comparisons are all seen in the light of China´s Confucian heritage, since this orientation is considered as “very much alive until the present-day” (Chan 2008, p.348).

However, it is questionable whether Chinese people are that very “Confucian” as suggested in these cross-cultural comparisons. Furthermore inconsistencies have already been observed concerning the suggested Confucian impact. Since Confucian values can have both positive and negative effects on behaviour, it appears to be a double-edged sword when trying to measure behaviour as such.3

In addition, Yunyan et al. (2009) claim that a Confucian impact is not only observable in China alone, but in all countries with Confucian Heritage (p.288). Countries like Japan, Korea and China are all together considered as Confucian-Heritage-culture (CHC) societies, which then includes an overall assumption of these countries as being conformist and collectivistic.

Yet this generalising view ignores the fact that “values are mediated by historical social experience” (Chung et al. 2008, p.121). Since the development of all these countries varied regarding economy and business, it does not seem very appropriate to generalise a Confucian impact.

Neutral-descriptive” Perspective

A rather neutral perspective on Chinese attitudes and behaviour is presented by Ning Huang (2008), a cultural scientist at Future-Institute in Berlin, Germany. In her book “Wie Chinesen denken4 she describes five Chinese religions and philosophies, such as Confucianism, Daoism (formerly Taoism), Buddhism, Legalism, military doctrine and also popular religion.

Huang states differences between Chinese and Europeans, referring mainly to Germans, in two relevant categories. On the one hand the two cultures differ in abstract categories, such as the idea of god, nature and universe. On the other hand differences are revealed in an area with rather social aspects, like the idea of the human being and its relations to others (Huang 2008, pp.88).

Regarding the imagination of god and the universe, the pursuit of unity with the universe or cosmos is most important for the Chinese. This presents a rather integrated perspective, while the occidental hemisphere believes in a transcendental and infinite god, who appears to be separated from its creation, the human being.

Concerning the relation to the world and its nature, Christianity provides a tripartite perspective: human beings are considered as superior to nature, but subordinated to God. In contrast Chinese belief focuses on unity. Both nature and human beings are equal parts of the cosmos or universe, therefore a hierarchy does not exist.

In conclusion the idea of unity in Chinese belief reflects a holistic perspective, which also includes a synchronistic polarity, whereas the occidental belief is characterised by a dualistic perspective, which becomes manifest in a subject-object-relation.

When it comes to the social part Chinese and Germans differ completely. Chinese social life is characterised by role-based behaviour. Every human being has to fulfil given roles, depending on his or her position in family and society, e.g. as mother and as wife. Performing given roles as good as possible is the underlying aim, which includes the idea of constant self-cultivation. In comparison the Germans do not focus on roles, but on the “self”, based on their philosophical background. Unlike in China the word “role” is even negatively connoted. A “role” cannot represent the “self” as such, because it is seen as something which rather conceals the true self.

As a result of this fundamental difference, the Germans strive to discover their identity by trying to find their “self”, while the Chinese discover their identity by defining and living up to their roles. Hence Germans focus on self-fulfilment or self-realisation, contrary to constant

self-cultivation pursued by the Chinese. In the occidental sphere morality is strongly connected with self-realisation. A further developed “self” yields more moral capability5.

The differences mentioned above lead to different perceptions, attitudes and ways of behaviour.

In individualistic societies, such as Germany, personal relationships are considered as individual and voluntary relations. In China role and duty come together with birth. Family is considered as the main stage for performing roles and duties. Since harmony is important for communities to survive, mechanisms such as conformance and enduring hardship developed to uphold community.

The emphasis on community in China influences attitudes regarding the perception of justice and the way of communicating and acting. In Germany law and justice are characterised by achievements of Enlightenment, hence freedom and autonomy are emphasised and fostered. In China justice is linked to tradition and norm. Therefore conformity to tradition and norm is most important and will be rewarded. Non-conformity on the other hand will be punished with avoidance and rejection, which also means exclusion from community. Hence conceptions such as mianzi 面子6 (concept of face, respect towards “face” and cultivation of “face”)7 and guanxi 关系(relationship network)8 are quite vital and provide orientation.

Germans and Chinese have different ways of communication. The German way is considered as “low-context”, which means expressing things explicitly and exactly. Verbal communication is focused on objectivity with regards to content. Unlike the Germans, Chinese communicate in a rather metaphoric way. Harmony is also emphasised in the context of communication, therefore it is important to maintain harmony by the use of communication routines and avoidance rituals.

In China behaviour is also strongly influenced by the idea of roles and duties, which is linked to community. Fulfilling role norms and duties is on focus, which automatically leads to an adequate behaviour in the given context. In comparison Germans are considered as acting voluntarily and autonomously.

Confucian-critical” Perspective

In this part critical perspectives with regard to Confucianism are presented. The first perspective by Kun Young Chung et al. (2008) challenges the view of China as being a Confucian society today and the generalisation of countries with Confucian heritage (CHC societies). The second perspective is stated by Hans van Ess (2009), who also questions a distinct existence of Confucian values in Chinese society nowadays. The last contribution by Carsten Herrmann-Pillath (2009) questions the whole western categorisation of China´s culture, since it raises various inconsistencies.

In their article “Ethical Perceptions of Business Students: Differences Between East Asia and the USA and Among “Confucian” cultures” Chun et al. (2008) state that all “cultural sets of values […] are mediated by historical social experience” (p.121), which practically means that even countries with a Confucian heritage like Japan, China and the Republic of Korea need not share exactly the same values today. Cultural sets of values vary over time and depend also on historic and economic development. To foreigners it can be misleading to describe these countries as Confucian, because it fosters an impression of homogeneity, based on an assumed background regarding shared values (Chun et al. 2008, p.122,123). Chun et al. (2008) therefore state “the need for caution in describing Confucian values and their effect on business” and caution with respect to “viewing Chinese history as static in the articulation of its dominant (Confucian) value system” (p.123).

Van Ess (2009) also emphasises caution regarding a definition of Confucianism. It is still an open question whether Confucianism is to be considered a religion or a doctrine with reference to organising social relationships (p.113). Like Chun et. al. (2008) he criticises an overall generalisation of Asian countries as Confucian (2009, p.114). In his opinion this simplification serves as explanation for facts which are otherwise not comprehensible in the Western Hemisphere. “Confucian” values, such as perseverance, supporting hierarchal structures, solving conflicts consensually, striving for harmony and humanity and controlling with charisma instead of force among others indeed represent a “Confucian image”, but in how far they really affect East-Asia in general depends on the situation.

Furthermore he criticises the individualism-collectivism approach. According to van Ess (2009) the western individualism is a phenomenon of the 20th century, hence not rooted in western culture as often suggested by intercultural models (p.118).

In conclusion he describes the term “Confucian” as ambivalent and therefore not applicable regarding a characterisation of Chinese or East Asian behavioural patterns. He admits that some of the mentioned Confucian characteristics appear to be observable in Chinese phenomena nowadays, but this does not allow an overall characterisation of the Chinese society as Confucian (van Ess 2009, p.119).

Carsten Herrmann-Pillath (2009) even goes beyond this criticism. In his article “Social capital, Chinese Style: individualism, relational collectivism and the cultural embeddedness of the institutions-performance link” he argues that the term “culture” refers “to an analytically diffuse notion of shared cognitive schemes” (2009, p.326). Furthermore he states that “culture is difficult to measure, and quantitative techniques require measurable variables” (ibid.). To support his statement, that culture as such is an insufficient parameter, he refers to the World Value Survey and reveals some interesting inconsistencies.

Most interesting is his emphasis on the notion of guanxi 关系 and its relation to collectivism. Shafer et al. (2007) also recognised inconsistencies regarding this relation, but could not give any explanation for these phenomena yet.

Herrmann-Pillath (2009) discovers “that guanxi is in fact an individualistic phenomenon, in the sense that creating and maintaining guanxi is driven not by collectivist ascriptions but by the individual decision to invest effort into the relation” (p.338). Furthermore he states that the “role of the individual […] is overlooked when China is commonly classified as a collective society” (ibid.). The classification of China as a collective society is ostensibly rooted in Confucian group-orientation and authoritarianism, but actually “the traditional Confucian conception of the human being is best described by the term relational individualism” (ibid.).

Therefore in order to solve the dilemma of a difficult term like “culture” and reduce inconsistencies, he suggests a “methodological triangulation across Chinese studies” (Herrmann-Pillath 2009, p.328), consisting in an interdisciplinary approach. It combines three disciplines: social psychology, anthropology and cognitive science.


This above portfolio of perspectives presents a more differentiated view on Chinese culture. Also the “Confucian-critical” perspective appears to be convincing. As long as culture is generally measured with western-biased criteria, it will be difficult to reveal the “real culture” behind. Therefore overall assumptions on western-distant cultures, such as Asian or oriental cultures for instance seem to be neither really useful nor appropriate.

For business in China it is important to know the differences in culture. Whether they emerged from Confucianism, Daoism or any other religion is firstly hard to reconstruct and secondly not of great importance to business. Since China is a quite heterogeneous country regarding religious and philosophical beliefs, it remains difficult to isolate particular influences.


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Chung, Kun Young, John W. Eichenseher, and Teruso Taniguchi. “Ethical Perceptions of Business Students: Differences Between East Asia and the USA and Among “Confucian” cultures.” Journal of Business Ethics 79 (2008): 121-32. Springer. Web. <www.ebscohost.com>.

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Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten. “Social Capital, Chinese Style: Individualism, Relational Collectivism and the Cultural Embeddedness of the Institutions-performance Link.” China Economic Journal 2.3 (2009): 325-50. Routledge, 1 Mar. 2010. Web. <www.informaworld.com>.

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Jia, Yunyan Andrea, Steve Rowlinson, Thomas Kvan, Helen Clare Lingard, and Brenda Yip. “Burnout among Hong Kong Chinese Architecture Students: the Paradoxical Effect of Confucian Conformity Values.” Construction Management and Economics 27 (2009): 287-98. Routledge. Web. <www.ebscohost.com>.

Robertson, Christopher J., Bradley J. Olson, K. Matthew Gilley and Yongjian Bao. “A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Ethical Orientations and Willingness to Sacrifice Ethical Standards: China Versus Peru.” Journal of Business Ethics 81 (2008): 413-425. Springer. Web. <www.ebscohost.com>.

Shafer, William E., Kyoko Fukukawa, and Grace Meina Lee. “Values and the Perceived Importance of Ethics and Social Responsibility: The U.S. versus China.” Journal of Business Ethics 70 (2007): 265-284. Springer. Web. <www.ebscohost.com>.

Vittel, Scott J., and Abhijit Patwardhan. “The role of moral intensity and moral philosophy in ethical decision making: a cross-cultural comparison of China and the European Union.” Business Ethics: A European Review 17.2 (2008):196-209. Web. <www.ebscohost.com>.



2 For more details please visit Geert Hofstede´s website: http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_china.shtml

For more details please see Shafer et al. 2007, p.267

There seems to be no English version available

5 E.g. Lawrence Kohlberg´s Moral Stages

6 There is a difference between lian 脸as the moral face and mianzi 面子seen as social reputation, see Herrmann-Pillath 2009, p.338

7 For more details please see Huang 2008, pp.69

8 For more details please see Huang 2008, pp.76