Intracultural Differences: a Typology of Subcultures Within the Chinese Society

ABSTRACT - China, which looks homogeneous from a distance, is actually a mosaic of differentiated cultures. The amazing thing is not that China has frequently been divided, but that it has so often and for so long achieved a high degree of unification and cultural continuity. This paper provides a descriptive typology of China's vast culture and examines intracultural variations within its society. This discussion contributes an interdisciplinary dimension to consumer behavior literature.


John K. Wong (1985) ,"Intracultural Differences: a Typology of Subcultures Within the Chinese Society", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 191-195.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 191-195


John K. Wong, Washington State University


China, which looks homogeneous from a distance, is actually a mosaic of differentiated cultures. The amazing thing is not that China has frequently been divided, but that it has so often and for so long achieved a high degree of unification and cultural continuity. This paper provides a descriptive typology of China's vast culture and examines intracultural variations within its society. This discussion contributes an interdisciplinary dimension to consumer behavior literature.


Every society exhibits variation within itself and China is no exception. China's cultural tradition is unparalleled in length and sophistication. The written record of this tradition is voluminous and extremely difficult to translate (Chang 1973). China's huge size, regional variegation, and ethnic diversity (with one billion population represented by 55 minority nationalities, scattered across 3.69 million square miles) have produced a multiplicity of local cultures, many of which appear to bear little relationship to much of the mainstream "high culture." For example, Northern Chinese and the Southern Cantonese speak mutually in intelligible dialects. Clan temples are more numerous south of the Yangtze River than north of it. Some northern Chinese are prone to speak of their southern compatriots as superficial and dishonest (Hsu, 1981). However, on a macro level, Confucianism has been the major ethical philosophy throughout the centuries in molding Chinese personality and family relationships. And written language is standardized throughout the country, which facilitates communication and the diffusion of knowledge. Also, in the past several decades, political ideology has affected the psychological development of the Chinese people and their social institutions (Starr 1973, Rozman 1982, Duncanson, 1982).

Successful business strategy requires multinational firms to recognize the cultures and intracultural differences within this vast and complex society. This paper discusses a typology of culture and intracultural variations within Chinese society. The foundation for such a typology is material of historical interest. Resources of the discussion will be drawn from the disciplines of cognitive anthropology, anthropology, Sinology, psychology, economics, political economics, history and sociology. The paper will assemble historical values, norms, ideology, rituals, mobility patterns, social customs, language, literature, and religion to examine the diversity of intracultural variations. The implications of these differences to social institutions, family, social interaction, behavior patterns and cognitive patterns are discussed.


Singer (1964) suggested that culture can be viewed from several different standpoints; culture is not only observed phenomena but also can be defined as process and pattern. While some historians, sociologists and anthropologists have studied Chinese culture as observed phenomena, cognitive anthropologists would argue that it is impossible to describe a vast culture properly simply by describing behavior, social, economic and ceremonial events as observed material phenomena (Berger and Luckmann 1967, Tyler 1969). Cognitive anthropologists generally emphasize the notion of intracultural variation in a society based on several sets of organizing principles rather than treating culture as unitary phenomena (Tyler 1969). Smith (1978) postulated treating Chinese culture holistically by introducing a total system approach.

He emphasized a cognitive approach to understanding the organizing principles and underlying behavior of the culture with respect to language, philosophy, religion, art, literature and social customs. The advantage of this holistic approach is to be able to discover and to describe principles of organization as they exist in the social group, rather than to impose a preexisting order on some putative reality (Berger & Luckmann 1967, Tyler 1969). The holistic approach is suitable for examining the cultural continuity of China. However, it may not explain the intracultural variations. Some Chinese subcultures do not readily resemble the sources of the high culture. The observed phenomena approach is useful to examine and compare the subcultural variations. Therefore, the ideas suggested by the cognitive anthropologists (Tyler 1969, Smith 1978) will be used to explain the continuity of the mainstream high culture. The intracultural variations will be treated as observed phenomena.


Cultural Continuity

Historically, Chinese culture was maintained and transmitted by a highly literate, extremely self-conscious intellectual elite class (gentry). This complex system, which rewarded literary skills and knowledge of Chinese classics, perpetuated China's high culture and established a strong link between its preimperial past and the early twentieth century. The gentry exerted its influence on the lower levels of society through moral examples. Thus, basic ideas, norms and values associated with Chinese high culture could penetrate and interact with local cultures. On the other hand, the examination system was a power lure to all sectors of Chinese society throughout the late imperial era. Belief in the active possibility of social mobility, through examination, has kept the different levels of cultural life coherent and congruent, because each level of life was an active model to be imitated by the one below it. Ch'ing (1644-1912), the last dynasty in Chinese history, had adopted a policy of systematic Sinicization. The alien Manchus became more Confucian than any previous dynasties to preserve and transmit Confucian orthodoxy. For some two thousand years, there was deep permeation and wide acceptance of standardized norms, mores, and values across various levels of the society.

This well preserved and widely accepted high culture has affected social institutions, social interactions, behavior and cognitive patterns of the Chinese into the 1980s. Intracultural variations, to a great extent, can be interpreted under the shadow of this high culture. This paper elaborates three important aspects of Chinese high culture language, religion and philosophy, and discusses their effect on intracuitural variations.


The key mode of transmission for Chinese high culture was language. Standardized in the Ch'in dynasty (221-206 B.C.), the classical language monopolized by the elite had transcended the hundreds of local spoken dialects scattered throughout China (Chu 1973). Since the written script remained relatively unchanged over some two thousand years, knowledge of classical Chinese gave an individual immediate access to virtually everything that had been written. The nature of the written language also affected the expression of philosophical ideas and provided a congenial medium for relational thinking (Bloom 1979). The monosyllabic, noninflecting and ideographic characters of Chinese language have been a distinctive quality of Chinese thought and culture (Chu 1973). The language structure focused attention on word relationships rather than on individual words. Emphasis on word relationships is probably correlated with the relational thinking that was manifested in many areas of Chinese aesthetics and culture. For example, Chinese calligraphy is a highly esteemed art form; ideas are often denoted by compound expressions of antonyms; Chinese art and architecture are characterized by a strong sense of balance; and there are more than a hundred Chinese characters to describe various family hierarchies and relationships, most of which have no counterpart in English. The unity of the country and the continuity of her high culture for more than two thousand years have been made possible by standardization of the written language.


China is a land of polytheism and eclecticism, and the focus of popular religious interest is practical function rather than theological identification (Yang 1967). Religion has been an integrative force for Chinese social institutions even though it is diffused and polytheistic in nature (Freedman 1974, Wolf 1974). Traditional institutional religion in China is represented by Buddhism, Taoism and other religious sectarian societies. However, although Buddhism and Taoism are separate faiths, in practice they intermingle freely in the religious lives of the people. Thus, a person might readily pray one day to the Buddha for begetting of a son and another day to the Taoist medicine god for the return of health; and on still another occasion might go to the classical diviner to have his/her fortune told. All of these are practiced without any thought of unfaithfulness to any single religion (Yang 1967). Very little cognitive dissonance seems to arise from this practice. In fact, other religions such as Islam, Nestorianism and Catholicism also can coexist in harmony with Buddhism and Taoism in China.

Ancestor worship is the most common diffused form of religion in China. In theological concept, ritualistic practice and in personal structure, it is an integral part of the family and the wider kinship system (Yang 1967). It provides comfort to the family in times of mourning, and ties past generations to the present through the device of sacrificial rites. The link between past and present, which is much more than merely symbolic, greatly enhances the tradition-mindedness and conservatism of the Chinese people at all social levels (Eberhard 1967). The ritual solidifies the family and social structure by serving as a vivid reminder of status roles and obligations. This feeling of biological continuity establishes the ancestors and the past as powerful reinforcements. They embody a past glory that family members should live up to, whose accumulated face or merits they must preserve and extend by commensurate achievement and proper behavior (Greenblatt et al. 1982).


Characteristic of the Chinese philosophers is their preference for suggestive and intuitive thinking (Smith 1978). Aside from the ethical teaching of Confucius, most important to an understanding of Chinese philosophy is an appreciation of Yin and Yang, the dualistic expression of harmony based on hierarchical difference. Early medieval philosophy developed around the doctrine of Yin/Yang and, since then, it has penetrated virtually every aspect of Chinese life. The relational thinking of Yin/Yang comes from the Book of Changes (I Ching). The book, and its philosophical inspiration, has been used to explain Chinese cosmogeny and cosmology, mathematics, physics, engineering, astronomy, meteorology, geomancy, seismology, alchemy and chemistry, architecture and medicine (Smith 1978). This philosophy has wide appeal and staying power because it mirrors and in turn reinforces the basic thought patterns and cultural concerns of traditional China. It emphasizes the bipolarity of nature, and yet stresses unity, balance and harmony. In fact, the Book of Changes serves both the Confucian and Taoist schools of thought, even though one emphasizes social responsibility and the other is oriented toward escapism and "merging with the cosmos."

Many social relationships are prescribed from this philosophy. In order to regulate the harmonious functioning of society, each person's role and status is carefully prescribed; for example, father and son, husband and wife, and country and family. Its influence can be observed in the hierarchical formation of the government; family kinship (Parish and Whyte 1978); ritual (rules of social usage); the value of filial piety (Bauxbaum 1957), loyalty ana faithfulness; and even in styles of food consumption (Chang 1977).


The interweaving of language, philosophy and religion has served as the principal organization of Chinese high culture for several thousand years. It preserves the unity of the country and the continuity of various cultures within China.

Intracultural Variations

Discussion of intracultural variations within China is almost impossible if one wants to show every observed phenomenon and behavior pattern in this giant country. Chang (1977) used more than five hundred pages to just discuss different diets and food consumption patterns in various regions of China. The following section discusses the characteristics of regionalism, the rural versus the urban and the values of social groups.


Skinner (1971) suggested that there are critical variations within the vast Chinese "hinterland." He observed that Chinese cities were formed into not a single integrated national system, but several regional systems, each only tenuously linked to its neighbors. He identified nine "macroregions"--I) Manchuria, 2) North China, 3) Northwest China, 4) Upper Yangtze, 5) Middle Yangtze, 6) Lower Yangtze, 7) Southeast Coast, 8) Linguan, and 9) Yan-Kwei. The physiographic barriers to movement formed natural regional boundaries and thus variations among the regions. Population and resources tended to concentrate in these core areas and to thin out toward the peripheries of a region. Different regions were differently endowed in geographic features and natural resources. They were also differentially affected by discrete natural and historical events, such as flood, famine, war, etc., for several thousand years. This cellular system of villages organized around regions and cities constituted the chief traditional creation and culture-bearing units of China. Thus, in addition to the mainstream culture, there are local ized variations in social customs, rituals, behavior patterns and languages. These intracultural variations indirectly affect social interactions, family kinship, consumption behavior, and economic development.

This geographical regionalism is produced in part by ethnic history and by ecological pressures which operate on the productive economics. Much of the regional character of Chinese subcultures can be attributed to different mixtures of aboriginal and "Han" Chinese elements that occur in different areas. For example, the "Han" Chinese distinguish themselves on behavioral grounds from those who are not "Han," such as the Manchus or Mongols of the north, the Chiang and Tibetans of the west, the Lolo, Miao or Yao of the southwest, or the Li or Yi of the southeast (Fried 1973). Crosscutting such regionalism are variations of language, diet, and subtle aspects of daily life and general orientation which produce well defined and discrete populations with distinct self-identification.

Members of the regional cultures tend to associate primarily among themselves. Not only are they largely endogamous, but their daily interactions take place almost exclusively among individuals of like subcultures. For example, Southeast China, a strip of land about 300 miles wide along the southeastern coast from Shanghai down to the Vietnamese border, is a clearcut region with a distinctive character. In fact, it comprises not a single homogeneous region, but a congeries of various subcultures associated with fairly sharply marked language differences (dialects). These dialects, numbering about two hundred, may be classified into four or five major groups: the Wu dialect of the Shanghai area, the Min of the Fukien Province (subdivided into Foochow and Amoy dialects), the Hakka', and the Cantonese dialect in the south. Also, the speech of the South Central provinces of Hunan and Kiangsi, respectively called Hsiang and Kan, is different enough from Mandarin to be considered separate dialects. There are nonChinese languages in China, the native tongues of minorities such as the Mongols, the Turkic people in Sinkiang, the Tibetans, and a large number of aboriginal groups in widely scattered pockets of south and southeast China.

Even within regions, people prefer to identify themselves with counties or villages. This kind of sharply defined regional difference fosters a widespread Chinese belief in what may be called a "fold-theory" of subcultural characteristics (Fried 1973). For example, the Chinese portray their Northerners as slow in speech and wit, uninventive and placid; contrasted with the Southerners, who are seen as quick, sharp, innovating and smart. Sometimes regional personality and characterization apply to even small areas. For example, residents of Tientsin are said to be ferocious traders and Shanghai people are thought to be naturally gifted in financial management.

Rural vs. Urban.

China's urban population is about 150 million (Whyte 1983). The level of urbanization varies markedly among regions, ranging from a high of nearly one-third in the northeast (Manchuria) to a low of less than one-tenth in the Upper Yangtze river area. Recent government policy has indirectly created an implicit social stratification system in modern China. The implementation of household registration acts as a means of identifying every citizen, registering all changes in status, controlling all changes in residence and providing the basis for the distribution of rationed food and goods. Every citizen is classified at birth as rural or urban personnel. This classification, inherited from the mother, can be changed only in exceptional cases and requires elaborate documentation from the government (Potter 1983). City people responsible for nonagricultural production, and the rural people are primarily responsible for producing the food supply. Economic opportunities for rural peasants are to serve in the armed forces, rise within the political party, or make great scholastic achievements. Economic rewards for peasants are tied closely to local production teams, which are paid in grain and work units (points). The workpoint system is carried out on a family basis: earnings are pooled and given to the family head rather than to the individual. Private plots are also allocated on a household basis. This has localized lineages among families and prevented mobility of peasants, even to a different village (Hsu 1967). Urban workers do not use the household as a level of production responsibility. They are assigned to state-controlled organizations such as manufacturing, construction, transportation or other Stateowned enterprises, and are paid according to a scale which ranges from grades one to eight. They also receive a grain ration from the state. Peasants are now encouraged to engage in sideline production and to trade their harvest and surplus in a free marketplace. This policy has created pockets of wealthy peasants with higher incomes than the fixed wage urban workers. These freemarket incentive enterprises are beginning to appear in urban areas under careful government monitoring. The surplus of discretionary income and a guided freemarket economy have changed the consumption values of the people. The new "big six"--color TVs, washing machines, refrigerators, electric fans, motorcycles and recorders--has supplanted bicycles and wrist watches as symbols of the new rich. Although Chinese per capita income is still relatively low, they seem to have a large potential buying power. One reason is the lack of consumer products for the past several decades. The market can always absorb what has been produced and more. It is not uncommon to see ostentatious consumption patterns in both the urban and rural areas in recent years. Getting rich is encouraged by the government as a glorious thing to do.

Values of Social Groups.

Bennett (1979) observed the formation of twelve ?,new social groups" in China since 1949. Most of these groups are new because the people who belong to them have a significantly altered status compared with those before 1949. He also identified an inventory of Chinese values which he broke down by three categories--traditional, modern and revolutionary. The new social groups adhere differently to these three value categories, which include 20 "traditional" values, 13 "modern" values, and ten "revolutionary" values.

The former landlord and rich peasant still observe the traditional values. Within these groups, old people are still venerated, relatively expensive wedding celebrations still occur, holiday feasting is still common, and significant expenditures are still made on funerals. The government has to rely on their skill and experience to operate the farms. Thus, even though they resent modern and revolutionary values, they can still survive under the revolutionary government. On the other hand, the middle peasants are also antagonistic to revolutionary and modern values. However, they are eager to get ahead, whether by modern or traditional means. Those who can succeed by production skill, higher education, party membership or joining the Army do so, while discarding the appropriate traditional values. Some of them seek greater prestige among their fellow villagers in traditional value terms through calculated selection of marriage partners, conspicuous consumption on ritual occasions, expansion of profitable household production, development of "guanxi" (connections) and collection of obligations. As a group, they are neither a force for diffusing modern values nor a barrier to their progress.

Unionized workers have strong attachments to modern rather than traditional values. Their commitment to revolutionary values is real, but only as far as it can preserve their relative position of privilege. It is the same for the women who participate in public affairs. Their self-interest is served by modern values that are individualistic, such as personal dignity, literacy, impartial law, and the merit system. Of all the groups, the elite-and scientific specialists are the most receptive to modern values because these values reward their talents, advance their careers and elevate their status. The traditional values they feel negative about are the ideas that age should be respected over youth, that established authority is preferred over innovation, that the study of Chinese tradition should prevail over the absorption of scholarship from abroad, and that official careers are the most respected of all.


In sum, it can be seen that China, which looks quite homogeneous, is actually a mosaic of differentiated cultures. It is amazing that China has so often and for so long achieved a high degree of unification. Various subcultures coexist in harmony and are represented by a high culture. A region may have its own personality, but when examined at the county level will show yet another personality, represented by different dialects, customs and mores. In addition, recent political ideology and traditional values are shared among various social groups.


Recent Chinese government policy has created a new global challenge for multinational firms (Gray and White 1982, Time 1984). Since 1978, numerous economic policy changes have occurred in China as part of the government's new strategy of adjustment and reform. Adjustment has meant changing the economic structure by increasing consumption at the expense of investment, and emphasizing agriculture and light (consumer) industry rather than heavy industry. The main thrust of reform has been to decentralize economic decision-making and to rely more on the market to provide incentives and to guide decisions. Reforms have been most far-reaching in agriculture and in industry. China has moved cautiously away from its traditional central planning system into an era of modernization. American companies such as AMC, Beatrice Foods, Coca-Cola, R.J. Reynolds, Foxboro, McDonnell Douglas, Otis Elevator, United Technologies, Nike, Gillette, 3M, IBM, and Boeing have invested in subsidiaries and manufacturing plants in China. China's markets have become a new frontier to be cultivated.

Although magazines such as The China Market, China Reconstruct, and China Now have recently started, little information on the Chinese market is available. Other research and scholarly publications, generated from anthropology or history, have no pragmatic value for the business community. For companies launching joint ventures or direct investment in China, it is important to have an understanding and appreciation of the various cultures within this vast country. Differences in regional characteristics, value systems, philosophical thinking and customs need to be analyzed. Consumer researchers need to integrate research from anthropology, Sinology, sociology and political science. Only then can we understand the underlying needs and wants of the Chinese.


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John K. Wong, Washington State University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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