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Do China, Hong Kong and Taiwan Have A Common Chinese Culture?

A while ago I had a debate with two guys from South America I met in Hong Kong. They argued that Hong Kong had lost its Chinese culture and identity, complained about the fact that the city had the same kind of buildings and shops, like McDonald's and Starbucks, one can find anywhere in the world, that people behave like Westerners.

I disagreed, telling them that behind the surface of modernity, Hong Kong remained culturally Chinese. One of those guys obviously didn't like to discuss with people who had a different opinion than himself - he got upset and stormed out of the room.

Talking about Chinese culture is not only in itself a very complex subject, but it is also politically sensitive, because some people mistakenly assume that "Chinese" means Communist Party and People's Republic of China (PRC). So, if you tell someone that Taiwan is culturally Chinese, they might get angry and tell you that China is not Taiwan.

I don't see Chinese culture from a political perspective. To me, "Chinese" is the same as "European" or "North American". There are characteristics that are common to societies that do not necessarily belong to the same state. For instance, Austria and Germany, or Canada and the US. In some cases, there are parts of the same state that are more different than parts of two different states: for example, southern Bavaria is more similar to neighbouring Austria than to faraway Berlin. Or, Fujian Province in mainland China is more similar to Taiwan than to Xinjiang. 

But, can we talk about "Chinese culture" in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan? And what does it mean?

First of all, let me say that culture is not static. Mainland China today is not what it was 100 years ago, or even 40 years ago. Hong Kong was a British colony for 150 years, while Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years. These factors have to be taken into account because they make these three societies quite different. 

However, I will argue that the societies of mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have some common denominators that derive from traditional features of Chinese culture, namely:

1) Confucian family ideology

2) the concept of 'face'

3) religious pluralism

Let's examine them briefly. 

1 - Confucian family ideology revolves around the principle of filial piety (孝), which is based on the notion that children, owing their lives to their parents, must repay them by supporting them in their old age and by making them proud. 

Read more about filial piety

Confucian family ideology is a much comprehensive and all-encompassing than the Western maxim of "honouring thy father and thy mother". In fact, traditional Chinese society was based on family ideology. The state was seen as a large family, in which the emperor was like a father. The life of the individual revolved around the family, which was structured in a strictly hierarchical way.

Confucians regarded filial piety as the "the root of all virtue". The son owed obedience and devotion to the father, the young to the elder, the subject to the emperor. According to Confucian thought, society is based on five human relationships: ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, brother-younger brother, and friends (Olga Lang, Chinese Family and Society, 1946, p. 10). 

Therefore, Chinese society valued not so much the individual, but rather the social role he or she had to play. A man was a son, a father and a subject. A woman was a daughter, a mother and a daughter-in-law. Every relationship entailed specific duties that everyone was supposed to fulfil. 

Chinese societies are still deeply influenced by filial piety and social roles. People in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong will as a matter of course talk about their duties towards family, their need to get married and to support their parents, etc. Men will accept that they have to marry in order to give their parents grandchildren, and in order to do so they will need to earn money to support their wives, children and parents. Children also submit to the fact that their parents will influence their choice of a partner, as well as their career. 

If one looks closely at the behaviour of a vast number of people in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, one will find out that filial piety is one of the major driving forces behind people's mindset, actions and choices in life. 

Of course, these are general observations that are not applicable to every single case. There are many people who reject those concepts, just like in any society, but it is fair to say that Confucian family ideology  remains a mainstream social value. 

2 - 'Face' is one of the most important concepts in Chinese society. It can be described as a person's image of his/herself in relation to others. There is no exact English term that renders the Chinese notion of face, but 'image', 'reputation' and 'social capital' may give an idea if its meaning. 

Read more about face in Chinese society

'Giving/losing face' is one of the main motivations behind people's behaviour in Chinese societies. For instance, a woman/man may get married because she/he is afraid of losing face if she/he remains single. Parents push their children to be successful so that they will earn society's praise. An unsuccessful son/daughter, by contrast, will make parents lose face. 

People in Chinese societies are in constant need of praise and validation, because they are taught from childhood to measure their own worthiness on the basis of what others, especially their parents, think about them. 

3 - Religious pluralism

Another characteristic of Chinese societies is the lack of a dominant religion. Traditionally, Buddhism, Daoism and local folk beliefs have been the most important religions in the Chinese-speaking world. However, they are not followed dogmatically, and local temples often include deities from all three. 

Islam and Christianity also play an important part in Chinese societies. 

Islam began to enter China via commercial routes in the 7th century. Muslim merchants and soldiers married Chinese wives, giving rise to a Chinese-speaking Muslim population called Hui. Other Muslim communities are the Uighurs, a Turkic population inhabiting Xinjiang, the Tajiks in the far west, the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, the Uzbeks and the Dongxiang in Gansu. There are about 23 million Muslims in mainland China. According to the 2010 census, the two largest groups were the Hui (10.6 million) and the Uighurs (10.1 million).  

As of 2011, Taiwan had about 200,000 Muslims, 50,000 of whom were citizens, while the rest were mostly workers from Indonesia. The major mosque in Taiwan is the Taipei Grand Mosque, founded in 1960. 

Hong Kong had 300,000 Muslims, 40,000 of whom are classified by the government as 'Chinese', while the rest are from Indonesia and Pakistan. The most important mosques in Hong Kong are the Kowloon Mosque in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the Jamia Mosque in the Mid-Levels.  

Christianity appears to have entered China as early as the 7th century AD. In the 1620s, workers dug up near Xi'an a marble stele with Chinese characters and Syriac letters carved on it. The stele was allegedly written by a Christian monk named Jingjing in the year 781. He described the history of Nestorian Christianity in China since 635 AD.

The Nestorians, a Christian sect mainly active in the Middle East, remained China's prevalent Christian community for centuries. Indeed, some Mongol tribes were Nestorian, and when Khubilai Khan defeated the Song Dynasty in 1271, established the Yuan Dynasty and moved the capital to Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing), he brought with him Nestorian Mongols. Although Catholic missionaries reached China during the Yuan Dynasty, their influence was limited (Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 2012, pp. 12-15). 

In the 16th century Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries made attempts to settle in China. In 1582-83, the Italian Michele Ruggieri was allowed to reside in Guangdong province. Later he was joined by another missionary, Matteo Ricci (ibid., p. 21).

The number of missionaries in China was small. There were only from 5 to 15 missionaries in China until about the 1630s, and 140 in 1701.

In 1692 emperor Kangxi issued an Edict of Toleration which protected Christians. Around that time the number of Christians in the country is estimated at around 150,000.(ibid., pp. 22-23).

Ricci and his successors had tolerated Confucian traditions, and allowed their converts to continue to practice various rituals associated with it. However, in the 17th century the Catholic church in Europe launched an attack on Confucianism and ordered its missionaries in China to reject its teachings and rites, and not to use traditional Confucian vocabulary to translate Christian concepts. In 1704 the Pope prohibited all Confucian rites (the ban was lifted only in 1939).

In 1706, Kangxi decreed that all missionaries would have take an examination and accept 'the policies of Matteo Ricci' in order to receive a certificate. Those who refused would be deported.

In 1724 Kangxi's successor, Yongzheng, decreed Christianity an "evil cult" and rescinded its status as a legitimate religion (ibid., pp. 28-30). 

The "rites controversy" shows a peculiar aspect of Chinese religious culture. Religions are tolerated unless they threaten the state. The idea of a state monopolized by one faith is not part of Chinese tradition. 

Christianity returned to China after 1840, when the Qing Empire faced Western domination. In the 1850s a group of Christian converts launched a rebellion against the Qing and founded the Taiping Kingdom

The influence of Christianity grew massively throughout the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. In 1889 there were 17,000 Chinese students in mission schools. By 1915 there were 170,000. The number of missionaries increased from 3,500 in 1905, to 8,000 in the 1920s. Chinese protestants grew from about 100,000 in 1900 to about half a million in the 1920s (ibid., p.94). 

Some of China's most prominent leaders of the period were Christians, most notably the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, and his successor Chiang Kai-shek

After a period of religious repression under Mao Zedong, since the 1970s Christianity has experienced a boom in mainland China. The actual number of Christians is not known. Estimates range from around 70 million (according to a 2010 Pew Research Center study) to over 100 million. 

According to a 2005 estimate, Christians comprise 3.9% of Taiwan's population, while Buddhists and Daoists make up 35.3% and 33.2%, respectively. 

In 2016, Hong Kong had 884,000 Christians, 1 million Buddhists and 1 million Daoists. 

Generally speaking, Chinese societies are less religiously dogmatic than Western societies, where for centuries Christianity had the status of state religion.   


I believe that Confucian family ideology, the concept of 'face' and religious pluralism are the main characteristics of Chinese societies that set it apart from other societies. Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan share to a large extent these cultural features.  

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