The current trade war between the U.S. and China illustrates key cultural differences between the two countries.
Today, in observing the tense interactions between the United States and its allies, we can see globalization is taking root deeper in the world. Interacting with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds has become more common for most, especially for those in the U.S of America. Considering U.S. history and policies over the past 250 years, one can see a vacillation of how cultures often are met by this Western mindset.
In the challenges perceived between the U.S. and China, the current trade war is merely a symptom of a larger, yet not clearly understood, clash of cultural minds. Ever since the Spanish-American War in 1898, the U.S. has enjoyed — and many would say, taken for granted — a prestigious and popular role in global politics and economics.
However, U.S. history is comparatively short.
Over 2,100 years ago, the famous Chinese historian Sima Qian made an entry into the Chinese history annals for the Battle of Ban Quan, an event that took place around 2500 BCE — more than 4,000 years ago. Now consider the Hartford Courant. Established in 1764 and often recognized as the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S. (it’s only been in circulation for about 255 years). The battle of Ban Quan took place 4,260 years before the Hartford Courant‘s first edition.
With the rise of China, the writing is on the wall. Like the changing seasons, this country, with more than 4,000 years of recorded history, is cycling through a civilizational change to once again take its place as a global power.
Divergent Cultural Mindsets
China boasts a long history of thinkers and philosophers reaching back thousands of years. They have all, in some way, remained true to the three pillars of Chinese thought: Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Chinese culture is a fusion of these harmonious philosophies, based on the idea that the universe is a living, changing entity. As stated in The Dao (Tao), cir. 6th Century BCE: “Dao gives way to One, One gives way to Two [Yin-Yang].”
Yin-yang can be understood as duality, the balance between two nonaggressive but opposing energies that are in constant flux.
As a culture, the Chinese seek balance between yin and yang, which is considered appropriate in that worldview. U.S. culture, on the other hand, often views situations as more static — like black and white or right and wrong. Misunderstandings and friction are to be expected when these two polar-opposite cultural mindsets come together without proper mediation. When viewed with an American mindset, yin and yang often are misinterpreted or misconstrued as non-committal or uncertain. This is not an entirely incorrect interpretation, as the yin-yang mindset views both “certain” and “uncertain” as two expressions of the same thing. The yin-yang mindset, however, views the Western one as rigid and uncompromising.
Flexible Like Water
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu referred to water as the “intangible tangible” and the most benevolent of forces. Unlike rigid objects, such as rocks, water is flexible. When water encounters rigid objects, it simply embraces them or goes around them. Because of its flexibility and endurance, water slowly and methodically effects great change within its environment. Flexibility allows for more creative and strategic success in the face of challenges, which may be the difference between reacting and responding.
Like water, Chinese culture is characterized by its flexibility. The Chinese have learned to adjust to situations and embrace those they see as friends. They are also masters of change. Over thousands of years, the Chinese have become adept at altering and flexing in light of societal and political change. Flexibility and mastering change may well be one of the reasons why Chinese culture has remained intact for more than 4,000 years.
To the average North American, the idea of harmony may sound trite, but the yin-yang mindset seeks balance. Harmonious relationships are important in Chinese culture. Each individual in a relationship, respecting yin-yang to nurture and grow the connection, will practice flexibility to foster harmony. The Chinese often seek common interests to bolster relationships and support success in life and business. In China, harmonious relationships and friendships lead to “the giving of face,” which paves the way to better opportunities. However, inharmonious relationships lead to “the loss of face,” a cause for embattled and difficult interactions.
Most Chinese prefer harmonious dealings. The challenge for most coming from the U.S. is discerning who among the Chinese is sincere and who is not.
Scientia Potentia Est
“Scientia potentia est,” a Latin maxim commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, means “knowledge is power.” Sun Tzu said essentially the same thing: “Know self, know others.”
However, when those in the U.S. expect others to learn their country’s language and understand their ways of being, it comes off as arrogant and inadvertently puts them in a place of weakness. By failing to understand others in the way others have come to understand U.S. culture allows others to reach the core of U.S. culture and understand how its subjects think and react. Those in the U.S. should strive to learn about other cultures and becoming more insightful about the ways of other cultures, as well. By not doing so, individuals lose leverage, like a tiger squaring off against a rabbit. This is not an example of “knowledge is power;” rather, it’s an illustration of the opposite: “Ignorance is weakness.”
Confucius said, “Wisdom is knowing you know and knowing you don’t know.” Until the U.S. learns the value of understanding others’ cultures, we will continue to fight the same battles over and over again.