A Prism of Isms

When I do orientation programs for new teachers in China, I usually include a presentation entitled “A Prism of Isms.”

I got the idea from a great book titled “The Whole World Guide to Culture Learning” by Daniel J. Hess. One of the culture learning activities that he suggests is identifying and comparing the various “isms” that influence the culture learner and the host culture.

In the class, we brainstorm all of the “isms” we can think of, then identify which ones have influenced our world views and which ones have influenced the world views of the students in Chinese university classrooms.

These are some of the primary “isms” which we identify:

Confucianism teaches that society will be harmonious when interpersonal relationships are harmonious. If everyone behaves according to the proper rituals, all will be right in the world. Humans, who are by nature good, can be perfected through education and training. This is one reason that education is so highly valued in Chinese culture.

Daoism is an indigenous Chinese religion that seeks a harmonious relationship between man and nature. One of the things Daoism emphasizes is the concept of “non-doing.” Problems in life don’t necessarily need to be tackled head on; they will usually sort themselves out. Be patient. Smoke a cigarette. This usually drives Americans crazy. (See my post “I’m off to Fix Something.”)

Buddhism teaches that humans are rewarded according to their deeds. Want a baby? Burn incense to the goddess Guanyin. Want to do well on an exam? Pay a visit to the temple. This is one reason that Buddhist temples tend to fill up around Chinese New Year. Participating in temple rituals increases the chances for good fortune in the coming year.

Given that Chinese culture is, for the most part, a collective culture, which places a higher value on the group as opposed to the individual, it might seem counter-intuitive to include individualism in this list. But this individualistic impulse is strong among China’s youth, and student essays are filled with the phrase “kao ziji kefu kunnan.”  I must rely on myself to overcome all difficulties.

Despite years of Marxist and atheistic indoctrination, traditional Chinese folk religious beliefs are alive and well the belief in the spirit world remains strong, even among so-called sophisticated city folks. A survey of university students on how many of them believe in ghosts would reveal surprising results. Or as a student said to me once, “during the daylight we are all atheists, but as soon as the lights go out in our dorms at night, we become animists.”

Collectivism puts the needs of the group ahead of the individual, and the individual is expected to make sacrifices for the good of the group. The individual’s identity is rooted in who a he/she is as a member of the group, not as an isolated unit. “Whose are you?” (what group do you belong to) is a more important question than “who are you?”

Pragmatism dismisses the notion of moral absolutes. Decisions are based on what works.

There are probably more true believers in Communism at the University of Wisconsin than at People’s University. That being said, Communism (which is really Marxism/Leninism/Maoism) still exerts a powerful influence on Chinese young people today. This is seen in the belief that the state should retain an immense amount of power, and in an ongoing envy of those who are rich.

What are the major “isms” that have influenced how you view the world?

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2 thoughts on “A Prism of Isms

  1. What about Capitalism and Materialism? I know you can’t publish a complete list in a short blog post, but Materialism is a leading factor related to many Isms you have included: Envy of the rich and or powerful with Communism; focus on self in Individualism; and perhaps lack of morals in Pragmatism?

    Not that all of these fit all Chinese people, but materialism is a key motivator consciously and unconsciously for a large number of people in today’s Chines society.

    • Yup. Capitalism and materialism could definitely be included. I just had to choose a few for the lecture. The list is actually much longer. Thanks for the comment, Steve.