To Own Your Grandfather’S Spirit: the Nature of Possessions and Their Meaning in China

ABSTRACT - Using semi-structured group interviewing triangulated with participant observation, the nature of possessions and important possession meaning is investigated for both urban and rural participants from Guangdong Province in southern China. Possessions are shown to be multi-leveled, ranging from intangible to tangible objects. Consistent with the interdependent self found in China as well as the malleable nature of the Chinese self, possession meaning is found to be almost wholly related to representing, maintaining and enhancing relationships with important others. These results support the suggestion in the literature that consumption in China is valued for its contribution to traditional role relationships.



Citation:

Giana M. Eckhardt and Michael J. Houston (2001) ,"To Own Your Grandfather’S Spirit: the Nature of Possessions and Their Meaning in China", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 251-257.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 251-257

TO OWN YOUR GRANDFATHER’S SPIRIT: THE NATURE OF POSSESSIONS AND THEIR MEANING IN CHINA

Giana M. Eckhardt, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.

Michael J. Houston, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.

ABSTRACT -

Using semi-structured group interviewing triangulated with participant observation, the nature of possessions and important possession meaning is investigated for both urban and rural participants from Guangdong Province in southern China. Possessions are shown to be multi-leveled, ranging from intangible to tangible objects. Consistent with the interdependent self found in China as well as the malleable nature of the Chinese self, possession meaning is found to be almost wholly related to representing, maintaining and enhancing relationships with important others. These results support the suggestion in the literature that consumption in China is valued for its contribution to traditional role relationships.

Although China and numerous other developing nations are rapidly entering the global free market economy, it is debatable whether these countries markets and consumers will beave similarly to those in today’s developed economies, and whether much of the knowledge gained by researchers over the past half-century in North America and Western Europe will apply to markets and consumers with vastly different cultural orientations. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that some markets and consumers in other countries follow their own traditional cultural patterns and do not become more like those in the West (Arnould, 1989; Chan & Lin, 1992; Eckhardt & Houston, 1998).

Our purpose here is to examine how Chinese consumers ascribe meaning to possessions. The interdependent self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) found in China, as well as the malleable and holistic nature of the Chinese self (Morris, 1994), suggest that the nature of possession meaning is quite different from anything reported in the literature relating to Western consumers (e.g., Richins, 1994), who characteristically have an independent self-construal which is quite stable (Geertz, 1975).

THE NATURE OF THE SELF IN CHINA

Markus and Kitayama (1991) introduce the idea that in Western European/North American societies people develop an independent self construal because of the individualistic society of which they are a part, and in many other parts of the world people develop an interdependent self construal as a result of the collectivist society of which they are a part. The independent view of the self is the one most marketing scholars are familiar with, the one that serves as the basis for the psychological and economic bodies of knowledge we have today: the self is, "a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background" (Geertz, 1975, p. 48). People think of themselves and others as having internal, personal attributes such as beliefs, attitudes, and talents that characterize themselves regardless of the social context (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus & Nisbett, 1998). People freely express their unique attributes, and being independent from others is valued (Shweder & Bourne, 1984).

An interdependent view of the self, in contrast, implies that one will behave and have thoughts, feelings and actions only in relation to the context one is in. The interdependent person is a relational being connected to others and belonging to groups, constituted as a member of society by virtue of this participation in a web of relationships and roles that people devote their lives to creating, sustaining and enhancing (Fiske et. al., 1998). "From this perspective, an assertive, autonomous, self-centered person is immature and uncultivated" (Fiske et al., 1998, p. 23). People do not behave as a consequence of internal attributes such as attitudes or values, but rather in response to social roles and norms (Geertz, 1975). People also do not think of themselves as distinct from others and do not necessarily think of themselves as even possessing unique internal attributes such as abilities, traits and motives.

One of the hallmarks of the interdependent self is that one’s ingroup will be of central importance to one’s sense of self, and that the needs and feelings of the ingroup as a whole become of the utmost importance, not those of the individual. Or rather, those of the individual are those of the group (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The Chinese have been characterized as having extremely interdependent self-construals (Bond, 1986), and thus exhibit almost all of the characteristics of this general interdependent archetype. The interdependent nature of the Chinese self has also been shown to have an important effect on consumption (e.g., Eckhardt & Houston, 1998).

In addition to exhibiting an interdependent self-construal, the Chinese have also been characterized as malleable and holistic. For intance, Morris (1994) points out that the self is thought to be like the universe (which consists of yin and yang polarities), and consequently to embody all of the dualisms of the universe. If the self is like the universe, with all its capacity to adapt to current circumstances, then the self, too, is thought to be adaptable and mutable in the same way the universe is. "The Chinese conception of the personis essentially basedon an individual’s transactions with his or her fellow human beings. Theself then can thus be seen as a configuration of role relations with significant others, and there is a suggestion that the self has little meaning outside these rigidly defined social contexts" (Morris, 1994, p. 115). Tu (1985) defines the Chinese self as a center of relationships and a dynamic process of spiritual development. Involving others in one’s self-cultivation is required for self-development. Through significant others, one deepens and broadens one’s selfhood (Tu, 1985).

Bockover (1997), in discussing the self from a Confucian point of view, asserts that people are inherently social beings who are not defined by abstract intrapersonal characteristics. Instead, people "are defined by actual relationships that vary from person to person and, for the same person, change over time" (p.54). The self also must be directed toward someone or something else. This then implies the malleability of the self: it must constantly change as situations and relationships change. "The roles that make us what we are cannot be abstracted from who we are. What defines the 'self’ is precisely what defines us as personsBnamely, the various roles and relationships that link us to others" (p.56).

THE SELF AS IT RELATES TO POSSESSION MEANING

Possessions can be used to self-present various aspects of the self to others, to define the self and create a sense of identity, to communicate with others, to uphold cultural values, and to represent interpersonal ties (Belk, 1988). People learn, define and remind themselves of who they are by their possessions. Dittmar (1992) argues that, "possessions symbolize not only the personal qualities of individuals, but also the groups they belong to and their social standing generally. This means that people express their personal and their social characteristics through material possessions, both to themselves and to others. It also means that we make inferences about the identity of others on the basis of their possessions" (p. 11). If we look at product usage from this perspective, it becomes evident that if a person has an interdependent self-construal, possession meaning will take on substantially different properties than for people with an independent self-construal.

What does possession meaning look like for the Chinese, then? If possessions are in fact an extension of the self, and from the characterization of the Chinese self presented above, it is proposed that possession meaning in China is almost wholly social in nature, then possessions will be prized due to their ability to express and maintain the (interdependent) self and maintain and enhance valued social ties. As product meaning should be related to the maintenance and enhancement of the interdependent self, which occurs through maintaining harmonious relationships with important others, products will be important due to their ability to facilitate this, as suggested in the literature by Tse (1996). These expectations come not only from the literature but also from fieldwork conducted by the lead investigator in China in 1997.

The main objective for this study is to chart product meaning for important possessions, as important possessions are the products for which people can most readily articulate their thoughts and feelings (Richins, 1994). Just as a sense of self that is not attached to others is almost unthinkable in China, so will meaning, value ad importance also be inexorably linked to others, and thus social (as opposed to individual) meaning will dominate possession meaning. It will not be status related, however;[Wallendorf and Arnould (1988) discovered that possession meaning is largely social for the Zinderois people in Africa (presumably with an interdependent sense of self), but the nature of the social meaning was related to social status. As the Chinese self is more focused on harmony with others rather than status in relation to others (Bockover, 1997), this is not expected to be the case in China.] rather the meaning will come from harmony with others as opposed to status in relation to others.

THE STUDY

The study took the form of semi-structured group interviewing relating to important possession meaning triangulated with participant observation data [The participant observation methodology of data collection is a long established one in anthropology, and is characterized by the researcher immersing herself in the daily life of the culture under investigation to get a first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the society (Geertz, 1973). For this study, participant observation was engaged in for one month in the same two locales as where the interviews took place, and the data took the form of extensive observational notes, informal conversations and interviews, and photographic records of the phenomenon of interest.] all of which occurred in Summer 1998. The interviews were conducted in Guangzhou and Yangshuo, a city and village, respectively, both located in Guangdong Province in southeastern China (two weeks spent in each locale). These locations were chosen because Guangzhou is one of fastest growing, progressive cities in China, and represents one of the most forward-thinking segments of the Chinese population (Tu, 1998). Yangshuo and the surrounding villages, while still being in the same province and thus similar culturally and linguistically, represent traditional agrarian China. Using these two locations presented an opportunity to see whether the traditional Chinese self as presented above manifested itself in relation to consumption more in a rural or urban setting, and how the opening up of China (evident in Guangzhou) is affecting the Chinese self, if at all.

A total of 52 people were participants in the group interviews: 36 university students in Guangzhou, 12 mall patrons in Guangzhou, and 4 rice farmers in Yangshuo. The interviews in Yangshuo were much more in-depth than those in Guangzhou, which is why there are only four. Following the strategies taken by Dittmar (1992), Richins (1994) and Wallendorf & Arnould (1988) when they investigated possession meaning, very important, or the most important, possession(s) that people own were focused on. Respondents were asked (via interpreter) to think about a possession they have owned that was important to them and to describe that possession. Then, they were asked to describe how and when they acquired the possession and explain why it was important to them (Richins, 1994). Although this methodology was developed for U.S. respondents, it is unstructured enough to accommodate cultural differences and was hence deemed appropriate for this investigation. Moreover, a similar methodology (unstructured interviewing) was used by Wallendorf and Arnould (1988) as they investigated possession meaning in an African context.

To overcome language barriers, an interpreter was used to conduct the interviews. The interpreter in Guangzhou was a graduate business student at a prominent university, and was fully versed in the objectives of the study. Consequently, the interpreter and lead investigator could decide together the correct translations for the concepts of interest. The university students used as respondents were colleagues and acquaintances of the interpreter (members of one of her ingroups), which was imperative for getting them to elaborate on their responses. The mall patrons were eating in the food court, and were not known to the interpreter, which is why there are fewer of those respondents than the students (mall patrons were used to provide variety in terms of age). The interpreter and lead investigator approached respondents in naturally formed in-groups. Examples would be a group of five people sitting together in the library, or a group of four people talking together in a dorm room. Interviews typically lasted about 20 minutes each. In Yangshuo, the interpreter was a student at a local post-secondary school where he was an English student. The respondents were people he knew very well (family members and neighbors), which is how the lead investigator was able to spend so much in-depth time with them. Interviews typically lasted four hours, spread out over a few days.

The analysis of the data took the form of an iterative hermeneutical analysis of the interview transcripts in conjunction with the participant-observation data to discover common themes/meanings (Thompson, 197). This is a process by which parts of the data are analyzed in conjunction with the emerging understanding of the whole of the data. In this part-to-whole analysis, referred to as the hermeneutical circle, interpretations of parts of the data change as a deepened understanding of the whole emerges and vice-versa (Thompson, Pollio, and Locander, 1994). Specific techniques used included iterative coding of the data, developing conceptual themes based on the data as well as the lead interpreter’s understanding of Chinese culture, and negative case analysis to challenge emerging themes and illuminate paradoxes in the data. The major findings of the study as well as their implications for theory and practice within consumer behavior are discussed below. A summary of the responses is given in Table 1.

TABLE 1

MOST IMPORTANT POSSESSIONS AND THEIR PRIMARY MEANINGS FROM RESPONDENTS IN GUANGDONG PROVINCE, PRC, 1998

RESULTS

Possessions as social ties.

The meaning of almost all the important possessions related to building, maintaining and enhancing social ties. Some of the possessions were tangible objects and some were intangible ideas. First, the tangible possessions will be discussed. One of the respondents (male) said that his pager is the most important possession to him. When asked about what made it so special to him, part of his response included, "I can communicate with my family easier. No matter where I am, they can get a hold of me and I can talk to them or go to see them right away." The meaning of the pager for him derives from its ability to allow him to be connected with his ingroup even when he has to be out on his own during his daily activities.

A female respondent said that a necklace given to her by her best friend was her most important possession, but that she did not like the necklace at all and never wore it, not even once. She related that it was not her taste and she would have never bought it herself and in fact never wears it now, but yet it is her most valued possession. She was not disappointed at all that her best friend did not know her personal tastes, but cherished it simply because it was from her friend. The respondent (male) who said that the picture of his parents is his most important possession narrated (amidst tears) that his parents had passed away, but they were still the most important relationship he had, and although it was but a small remembrance, the picture was a reminder of this. The respondent (male) who most valued the pen that his parents gave him before an important exam now uses it for every exam he takes because it makes him feel as if his parents are with him during those stressful times.

One of the strongest examples of the social nature of meaning to emerge was the response from the student who said his bike was his most important possession. After describing his bicycle in minute detail and explaining that he had purchased it in his hometown, and it thus provided him a connection with home while he had to be away at University, and it was this that gave it such importance to him, he casually mentioned at the end of the interview that it had been stolen the year before. In China, absolutely everyone has a bicycleBit is the primary mode of transportation, especially for students. "So, do you have another bike now?" he was asked. "No," he replied. "I have not replaced it because the new bike would not be from my hometown and would not be special to me. I can never replace my bike." He walks everywhere he needs to go and endures transportation hardships even though he can afford another bike rather than have a daily reminder that he is disconnected from his family and neighbors, two of the most important ingroups in contemporary China.

One of the rice farmers from Fuli village (a neighboring village to Yangshuo) said that rice was the most important possession he owned. From a utilitarian standpoint, it was easy to imagine why he would say this; after all, it provided his entire income nd livelihood. When explaining why he loved his rice so much, though, he did not mention this, but rather he described how the entire family worked together in the fields, and how most of the rice they harvested was used to feed themselvesBonly a small portion went towards taxes to the government or was sold at the market. He talked about the whole extended family (there were 11 people in his household: his grandmother, mother, 2 brothers, himself, and their wives and one child per couple) sharing the rice together every day; for him, the meaning stemmed from the rice’s ability to enhance their connection to each other.

Although the large majority of responses referred to social ties with others, there are some responses such as computers and, interestingly, money that do not seem to relate to social ties. The meanings that people have for these objects are still social (as opposed to individual), it could be argued, but do not overtly connect them to others. In the case of money, for instance, the respondents who said it was their most important possession said they valued money because they could buy anything with it, and they could purchase anything a family member might need in a time of emergency, which again does relate to maintaining social ties. Most of the respondents mentioning computers were computer science majors at the University, and hence saw the computer as their ticket to success in the future and making their parents proud, which relates the meaning to important relationships even though the primary meaning is practical.

Even when respondents said money was their most important possession, which appears to be the most overtly utilitarian response one can make, they were not relating the importance or meaning to individual values, such as is extensively reported in Richins (1994). Richins reports American respondents saying they valued possessions for the personal enjoyment the possession could provide as well as allowing the respondent to be self-expressive of personal traits. One of Richins’ (1994) respondents said his car was the most important possession he owned because it was distinctive and stands out in his town. Another said his watch because it looked expensive and impressed others. This type of reasoning was not used at all by the Chinese respondents, even for items such as computers or money.

Social ties as possessions.

Many people said an intangible object was their most important possession, such as friendship or love of family. This was not due to translation problemsBmany variations of the word possession were used in translating the question, and the same responses were given no matter how the question was asked. The respondents simply could not think of a tangible object that had any important meaning to them. As described earlier, the Chinese think very holistically, not seeing a definite line between the abstract and concrete as people with an independent self construal usually do, and hence see it as quite acceptable to respond to this sort of question with an intangible object. When the interviewing was first beginning, the lead investigator was desperately trying to get them to name a concrete object, but quickly realized that it was much more insightful to get their ideas of an important possession rather than a preconceived notion of what this should be. The respondents who said that their prized possession was family, friendship, or love from/to family or friends, literally (as opposed to symbolically, as above) embody social ties. Both the object and the meaning are related to important relationships. Responses such as 'grandfather’s spirit’ are somewhat harder to interpret, as it is even more abstract, but nonetheless it still refers to ties with a significant other, again reflecting an interdependent self.

Triangulating evidence.

An example of this dominant theme of possession meaning stemming from social ties that did not come from the structured interviews but rather from the fieldwork dta serves to triangulate this theme. In Guangzhou, almost no one has a car. Everyone has a bicycle as the primary form of transportation, and if you are very successful, you have a motorcycle. Motorcycles are seen as a high prestige product by virtually everyone talked to. Motorcycles are almost worshipped, at least by the under-40 generation. Almost everyone talked to had a story about knowing someone who had a motorcycle, and they would talk about him/her (mostly him) in almost mythical terms. One of the key informants, a 22 year old University student, related how he had one friend who had a motorcycle. This friend was a DJ in a disco in Guangzhou, and the student’s parents, who were very traditional, did not like the friend, and suspected he did drugs because he had a motorcycle. They would get extremely upset whenever this friend would come to pick up the student on his motorcycle.

This theme of motorcycles symbolizing wealth, and more importantly, separation from traditional values, was reiterated by many respondents. People who have/ride motorcycles are seen as very cosmopolitan and a symbol of China’s openness to the outer world, and a threat to traditional values by the older generation. Yet through observations and other discussions about motorcycles (i.e., how they are kept when not in use), it was discovered they actually do embody Chinese traditional values, and specifically to this discussion, that of enhancing social ties among people in one’s neighborhood (an important ingroup).

As living space is extremely tight in China, and especially in the large cities such as Guangzhou, there is not room for people to keep their motorcycles in their homes, and garages do not exist for the most part. Within each neighborhood, there are designated sidewalks that are used for motorcycle parking. In one of the neighborhoods studied, two women ran this operation on the designated sidewalk. They had a large chain that they would lock around all the motorcycles. When a new person came to park his (and it was almost always a male) motorcycle, they would unlock the chain to include the new cycle. All the cycles were then locked together. The cycle owners paid these women on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis, so there were no strangers arriving to park their cycles for the day.

As people parked or picked up their motorcycles, there was much discussion and socializing between the cycle owners and the women running the operation. In fact, motorcycle owners who were not parking their cycles but had a contract with these women would stop by just to chat. The motorcycle owners had personal gear, such as rain slickers, stored behind the motorcycles. In cultures that foster an independent self construal, people typically use their own locks and go about locking up and unlocking their bike on their ownBit does not involve social interaction and community building as it does in China. The care and parking of the motorcycles, a very valued possession, is trusted to the women in the neighborhood, and the social interactions that occur serve to strengthen the bonds with members of one’s ingroup (in this case, the ingroup is members of one’s neighborhood). The group connectedness is enhanced by not paying every time but by having long term contracts, so no strangers come in, and long-term bonds among community members are reinforced. The socializing that goes on also serves to reinforce the bonds among the community members.

Although this meaning for motorcycles is not consciousBno one verbally related that social connectedness was a valued meaning to them in reference to motorcycles like they did for their prized possessions; in fact they would almost say the opposite by claiming motorcycles embodied modern valuesBthe behavior exhibited clearly showed this meaning to be quite prevalent, at least among the motorcycle owners. And while this method of locking motorcycles may not be evident all around China and is due in part to space constraints, it nonetheless is a potent example of how interpersonal relationships shape consumer behavior to such a large degree in China.

Other finings.

Additional findings emerged that are consistent with the characterization of the interdependent, holistic, malleable Chinese self presented earlier. First, the participants exhibited an all-encompassing view of possessions. As mentioned earlier, many people said an intangible object was their most important possession, such as friendship or love of family. While this represents a literal social tie to important others, as discussed above, it also represents a broader and more holistic idea of just what a possession is. People with individualistic self-construals and more categorical thought patterns typically do not think of owning something like the feelings they have for their parents. The fact that Chinese people would equate owning these intangible relationships along with a computer demonstrate less compartmentalized thought patterns, and more harmonization between ideas (Bond, 1986). This is also similar to the conceptualization of ownership found by Ross (1991) with Tibetan Buddhists.

Second, the definition of possession also included desired objects. Respondents did not discern between possessions owned in the past, currently owned or those they wished to own. For instance, a few of the males who said a computer was the most important thing they owned proceeded to describe their computer, and go into detail about what they used it for and why it was so important to them. Only at the end of the interview did they sum up with, "and we hope to own one someday." This unconcern with the element of time also was not a translation problem. When the next respondents said a computer was their most important possession, and they were explicitly queried as to whether they owned one now or wanted to own one, they responded that they hoped to own one, and when it was explained that the question referred to something they owned now or had owned in the past, they still said a computer. When it comes to choosing a valuable possession and attaching meaning to it, past, current or future ownership seems to make no difference. Again, this reflects the holistic, harmonious nature of Chinese thought, as well as their long-term orientation (Hofstede, 1991).

Third, respondents exhibited a low level of materialism. For instance, many respondents had a hard time answering the questions related to important possessions at all. This trend was also noticed by Wallendorf & Arnould (1988) with their Zinderois respondents. This was not a translation problem, but, as some of the respondents explained, they simply do not value material possessions very highly, and nothing immediately comes to mind when asked about important possessions. This could be due to the cramped quarters that most people in China live inBthere simply is no room to have objects cluttered around, and hence one learns not to become too attached to anythingBor due to the level of economic development in China: the society simply has not become a materialistic one like the West yet. Looking at the issue culturally, though, the Chinese culture does not place as much value on 'things’ as the culture in North American or Western Europe, and these questions were quite difficult for them to answer. The general lack of enthusiasm people had in answering questions about possessions suggests that materialism is not an important value within China, which is in line with the Chinese values reported by the Chinese Cultural Connection (1987). Wallendorf & Arnould (1988) note that materialism is not a universal cultural value, and they in fact suggest that the meaning of materialism should not be abstracted across cultures, one of the reasons it was ultimately decided to accept answers such as 'friendship’ as a most important possession in this study. Moreover, this finding is in line with the reasoning presented by Ross (1991), in which he proposes that the concept of possession be expanded to include non-material objects such as identity, personality, beliefs and ideologies to encompass the results he obtained with Tibetan Buddhists in his study.

Finally, respondents also demonstrated difficulty in providing reasoning with reference to important possessions. For exampl, after identifying their most important possession, describing it, and telling any related stories, most of the respondents were usually dumbfounded when they were asked why it was important to them. They assumed this was self-evident, and often answered with responses such as, "Because it’s the most important thing," or "Nothing is more important than that." If their most important possession was family or love of family, this definitely did not need an explanation (according to them), and they rarely supplied one. The meaning and importance of these things is so widely shared by society, and more importantly their ingroup, it really seemed quite silly to most of the respondents to have to explain themselves. This relates to the interdependent self in that because meanings and thoughts and feelings are shared and in fact jointly developed, people are not used to explaining individual feelings, preferences and reasonings.

DISCUSSION

With the nature of the self in China being radically different from that in many Western countries where the majority of consumer behavior research has originated to date, the issue of whether we can translate past consumer behavior findings into China remains an unanswered question. As we have seen here, the nature of what a possession is as well as the nature of important possession meanings are substantially different for the Chinese from what has been reported with reference to U.S. subjects. The major findings from this study are that possessions are a multilevel concept embodying both tangible and intangible objects, and that the importance of possessions stems almost wholly from their relationship to social ties. For respondents who listed a tangible object as their most important possession, the meanings of these possessions were overwhelmingly related to the social ties and relationships that these objects represented or sustained. Many respondents took this theme one step further by having the relationship itselfBan intangible objectBas their most important possession (i.e., love of family). This theme of important possession meaning relating almost wholly to social ties was triangulated with observational data from ongoing fieldwork. The notable exceptions to this trend were people who listed computers or money as their most important possession, and the meaning of these seemed to be more utilitarian than for other possessions.

Other findings included respondents having a holistic view of possessions that included desired as well as currently owned or previously owned objects. A low level of materialism was also demonstrated, which is consistent with traditional Confucian and Taoist teachings (Wilhelm, 1977/1950). Finally, a difficulty in coming up with rational reasoning as to why something is one’s most important possession was exhibited. This is in line with the interdependent selfBbecause meanings, thoughts and feelings are widely shared, people are neither used to nor comfortable with expressing individual preferences and reasonings. This was partially overcome by using group interviewing instead of individual interviewing (so people could consult with the group before answering, which most respondents did), but was still a large barrier. This is also in line with Chinese thought patterns being less logical (Wilhelm, 1977/1950), and thus an explanation does not need to exist for every thought, feeling or action.

While Richins (1994) found that important possession meaning could come from multiple sources (e.g., utilitarian value, enjoyment, self-expression, appearance-related aspects of the object), the sources of meaning were found to be much more limited in China. Richins (1994) alludes to the cultural nature of her findings (many of the responses and themes very overtly relate to aspects of an independent self), and recommends further research be conducted on the interaction between the self and the meaning of objects. As shown here, with an interdependent self-construal, many of the themes and responses se found simply were not evident.

In the wake of modernization in China, the question remains as to whether Chinese consumers will become more like those in the West or will continue to reflect traditional values and ways of life in the age of the internet and MTV (Music Television). The majority of the respondents in this study reflect the segment of the population that is most open and exposed to Western ideology and productsBthe University students in Guangzhou are part of the less than 1% of the population that attends college, they live in a very cosmopolitan city due to its proximity to Hong Kong, and they are young. The mall patrons in Guangzou, by virtue of being able to shop in a mall (shopping in a mall is out of the price range of most Chinese) in a city like Guangzhou (there are Western stores and brands in the mall), also represent the most 'Westernized’ of Chinese people. Not only did these respondents vary little from the peasants in Yangshuo, they exhibited the traditional holistic, interdependent Chinese self found discussed in antiquity. At least with respect to possession meaning, an understanding of traditional Chinese thought and practices is necessary to understand consumption.

To wit, the results reported here support the suggestion in the literature (Tse, 1996) that consumption is valued for its contribution to traditional Chinese role relationships. Tse (1996) hypothesizes that consumption is valued when it is in congruence with social goals, not private goals. Also, he argues that consumption is valued when it allows the consumer to harmonize with his/her social environment. Tse’s (1996) propositions have never been empirically verified, so the results reported here seem to substantiate his claims. This in turn suggests that even though China is transitioning into a free market economy, the market will look quite different from what is seen in the WestBobjects will not be valued for personal enjoyment, hedonic pleasure, or self-expression of personal traits but rather for harmonization with in-group members, and will be less 'rational’ than is typical in the West. The results also support the notion that the nature of what a possession is, materialism, possession meaning and overall object value are culturally relative, and can reflect innate cultural differences such as self-construal.

Much investigation remains into this important area of possession meaning. This study was designed to be theory building rather than theory testing. It is hoped this study will stimulate further research into this area and that a unified theory of what makes possessions important to people around the world can someday be developed.

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Authors

Giana M. Eckhardt, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.
Michael J. Houston, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.



Volume

AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001



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