Filial Piety in Chinese Culture and the Myth of Collectivism (Part I)

It has often been argued that “Asians tend to value the community and Westerners value the individual“; that “Asians appreciate order and harmony, Westerners appreciate personal freedom” (note). One of the most influential advocates of this culturalist view on society is former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. For those who don’t know him, Lee Kuan Yew is considered a giant in Asian and world politics. He led the city-state of Singapore, an ex British colony, from “third to first world”, with a per capita income now surpassing that of its former colonial master.

Mr Lee and all those who support the idea that the West is individualistic while Asia is collectivist, argue that Asian cultures, shaped by a thousand-year-long Confucian tradition, value the group over the individual, stress duties over rights, emphasize harmony and compromise rather than confrontation and self-assertion. Therefore, individuals don’t behave like isolated beings, but harmonize their interests with those of the communities in which they are embedded, be it family, clan or nation (Brems 2011, pp. 41-42).

Lee Kuan Yew’s successor in office, Goh Chok Tong, warned his countrymen in a speech made in 1994 that Singapore should not make the same mistakes as the West, which, in Goh’s words, has “seen a sharp rise in broken families, teenage mothers, illegitimate children, juvenile delinquency, vandalism and violent crime” (Sheridan 1999, p. 72).

We […] intend to reinforce the strength of the family,” he further stated. “The government will channel rights and benefits and privileges through the head of the family so that he can enforce the obligations and responsibilities of family members.

Criticizing an advertisement in the Strais Times, which showed a boy talking to his father in a non-deferential way, Mr Goh said that Singaporeans “must not unthinkingly drift into attitudes and manners which undermine the traditional politeness and deference Asian children have for their parents and elders. It will destroy the way our children have grown up, respectful and polite to their elders” (ibid., pp. 73-74).

This understanding of Asian culture is, for sure, a powerful ideological tool, especially when it is used to maintain hierarchical structures, defend vested interests or define identities. But, like all ideologies, it selectively highlights only a few sides of complex cultural phenomena. It depicts collectivist principles in a positive way, as though they were moral values that demand no further justification. However, it is not that simple.

Individualism vs. Collectivism: The Collectivist Paradox

In a book entitled Negotiating with the Chinese, Malaysian lawyer Goh Bee Chen gives an interesting summary of the collectivist theory that is behind the “Asian values” debate of recent decades.

According to Mr Goh, collectivism 

emphasizes the social unit – be it family, society, community or country – as the central functionary. The individual is merely a part of it, and is subservient to, the larger whole. The actions and reactions of an individual are tied to the immediate social unit. The individual is not encouraged to act or feel publicly as an individual, but to do so out of a sense of socially-obligated conformity […].

Historically the Chinese have always been concerned with the issue of making the individual act according to social customs and rules of conduct, while it discouraged him from rising above them. “The Chinese way of life is, by and large, one such example of collectivism. The Chinese child learns to see the world in terms of a network of relationships. He not only has to submit to his parents, but he also has little choice in his wider social relationships and what he individually would like to do about them (Goh 1996, pp. 25-26).

Mr Goh further explains that

[t]he traditional Chinese way of life has been much shaped by Confucian precepts. Confucianism stresses the five cardinal relationships: that between emperor and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. These relationships are viewed in a hierarchical order. Each actor assumes the role in relation to the other. The observance of one’s place within this set of hierarchical order gives rise to the attainment of social harmony.

In a collectivist system, the aim of human association is the preservation of social harmony […]. Collectivists internalize the norm of being of service to others, ‘without doing any sort of utilitarian calculation. It is not a case of “What’s in this for me?” As a consequence, what is valued is collaborative action. This necessarily precludes the individual’s self-assertions, for one’s assertiveness would run counter social harmony. The dictates of social harmony place value on compromises, and a preoccupation with the interests, not the rights of the members within a particular unit (ibid. p. 26).

We shall see that this concept of harmony and alleged anti-utilitarianism is but a simplification of a much more complex reality. 

Goh’s arguments become highly problematic when he moves from the topic of collectivism, with which he is apparently very familiar, to the definition of Western individualism. Goh mistakenly assumes that the word individualism is synonymous with egocentrism:
Individualism, or egocentrism, is imbibed with self-centredness. The concept of individualism emphasizes the self above all else. It is the individual person, not the community in which the individual belongs, that has significance and meaning. Therefore, unlike collectivism, an egocentric person’s reference point is not one’s group, but one’s own self. Heavy emphasis is placed on self-realization (ibid., p. 27).

We shall see that Asian individuals can be as self-centred and egocentric as Westerners, and that collectivism as such is not based on moral values, but on hierarchical structures and power relations. 

To name only one example: one can argue that an army is by its very nature a collectivist group, in which, as Goh says, “relationships are viewed in a hierarchical order. Each actor assumes the role in relation to the other. The observance of one’s place within this set of hierarchical order gives rise to the attainment of social harmony.

However, harmony is not the right word to describe the result of collectivism. Harmony suggests altruism. The hierarchical order Goh depicts rather results in compliance with rigid group norms and expectations, no matter if good or bad. In an army, one is just a part of a whole; but it would be too simplistic to justify the perfect collective functioning of an army as a proof of its ‘harmony’, without analyzing the purpose the army pursues, and the subjective destiny and feelings of its members. This is what I would call the collectivist paradox. Hierarchical orders do not eliminate selfishness; they simply assume that individuals must play unequal roles in the society and must respect given rules and power structures.

It would be erroneous to think that the West does not have a tradition of collectivism. Christian feudal societies, for example, were permeated by a collectivist religious ideology in which individual self-assertion was very restricted (Lukes 2008, p. 52). Movements such as nationalism, as well as totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism were, too, collectivist by definition. 

What Is Individualism?

There are different definitions of individualism; some have a positive, some a negative connotation. Individualism can, indeed, be interpreted as egocentrism, as many defenders of the Asian values concept do. However, simply equalling individualism with egocentrism would be very one-sided.

There is, in fact, a long tradition of Western individualism that is grounded in the principle of the supreme and intrinsic value of every human being. This concept means that individuals should recognize the dignity, worth and autonomy of every other person. In this sense, individualism is the opposite of utilitarianism; utilitarianism being the attitude of using other people to one’s own advantage.

As the German philosopher Immanuel Kant put it: “man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will: he must in all his actions, whether they are directed to himself or to other rational beings, always be viewed at the same time as an end” (ibid. p. 53).

According to this principle, individualism is a set of universal values: equality, freedom, respect of other people’s dignity.

Of course, this positive definition of individualism doesn’t mean that Western always act according to it. However, it is important to understand this positive meaning of the word, and not only its negative interpretation. First of all, because it is the foundation of the Western concept of universal human rights. Second, because it is one of the causes of the destruction of the hierarchic family in the West.

Asian Confucian families are based on inequality. Parents have a higher status than children; men have a higher status than women; parents-in-law have a higher status than daughters-in-law etc. This concept contradicts Western individualism, but not because Western are selfish and Asians are selfless per se; but because the hierarchic family contradicts the very notion that all men are equal, free, and have the same dignity. For instance, in old Chinese families, the inferiority of children, daughters-in-law etc. belonged to the system. From the point of view of positive individualism, this hierarchic structure is unacceptable.

This is not meant to suggest that the West is morally superior to the East. The point is that we cannot idealize either cultures. What I would like to challenge is the idea that the order of Asian societies is morally motivated and is a positive, self-justifying ideal. 

In order to explain this point, in one of my next posts I shall examine three characteristics of the traditional Asian family: concubinage, foot-binding, and family rituals.


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