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Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology

Bond, M. H. (1991), Hong Kong: Oxford University Press

 

Book review by Christopher Deal

 

Michael Harris Bond’s Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology presents a broad summary of the findings of the field of psychology regarding Chinese culture. Viewed through the lens of the individualism and collectivism (I/C) construct, Bond’s findings provide an example of how collectivism manifests itself in daily life. From childrearing to taking care of parents in their old age, the psychology of the Chinese people presents an engaging case study. From his broad overview, comparisons can be made that will hopefully enable us to see other cultures with greater clarity.

 

Bond begins the preface by establishing his credibility, saying that he has lived in Hong Kong for fifteen years. He also exhibits humility by admitting that there are many things which he still does not understand about Chinese culture. On the first page, he quotes Edward T. Hall as having said “All cross-cultural exploration begins with the experience of being lost.” This introduction should be met with approval by many of his readers who think of themselves as being a part of the field of intercultural communication. Bond identifies himself with psychology, but more often than not uses the assumptions and terminology of intercultural communication. He acknowledges in the afterword that the work of Triandis and Hofstede, among others, have helped to focus his thought.

 

In the first chapter, Bond identifies his assumptions regarding the value of generalizations and states that his science (psychology) is a creative enterprise. He also acknowledges different frames of reference by pointing out that comparisons between cultures must be understood within the context of the culture and that such comparisons may involve concepts which are not of equal importance to both groups. The examples he provides are that many American psychologists are concerned with attraction, fairness, and the concept of the “self,” whereas Chinese psychologists are interested in modernization, leadership, and the early identification of learning ability.

 

In “Socializing the Chinese Child,” Bond identifies a number of factors that contribute to the mutual interdependence seen in Chinese society. Small children are indulged with food and constant attention, but also restrained physically so they cannot move freely. From an early age, children learn to be dependent and obedient. When a child enters school, he or she is treated with great strictness and very little freedom. Discipline is harsh and pressure to do well is high, while both aggression and sexuality are repressed (from the Western perspective). Bond explains Chinese peoples’ connection to others in the following way: “the sense of mutuality, of being connected through affection, obligation, and responsibility to specific other people. . . circular tables, shared bedrooms, late-night outings with their parents, supervision of homework by elder brothers. . . all of these weave the warp and woof of this Chinese interdependence” (p. 19).

 

Chinese peoples’ way of thinking is influenced by a number of factors. Bond puts much emphasis on the fact that learning an ideographic script encourages visual/spatial abilities as well as persistence. He also demonstrates the ways that views of how respect should be shown as well as one’s place in school or society influence ways of thinking. Holistic perception is dominant, while creativity and experimentation are not valued. Chinese excel at rote learning and memorization, which is emphasized by the learning system.

 

The Chinese sense of self is very different from the Western one. In fact, in Chinese culture, there really is no self apart from others. Bond uses the words “collective consciousness.” In terms of interpersonal behavior, more attention is paid to the historical and social context of the interaction. More attention is paid to the interaction process—“getting into synch” with others. “So, interactions would take longer, especially greetings and farewells; verbal exchanges would be less explicit and important; careful note would be made to the pauses and stillnesses during the exchange. Direct confrontation is avoided and indirect communication is valued.

 

Bond notes that in organizations, one of the impacts of a collectivist mindset and Confucian tradition is that a paternalistic hierarchy is maintained. Leadership is conceptualized in a very different way from individualist societies. The leader is respected because of his or her position and power and authority come from the office, not the behavior or skills of the official.

 

Critical review: The scope of the book is quite broad, covering many aspects of the Chinese psyche. However, this breadth necessitates only a partial treatment of each topic. In this way, the book is merely a starting point. More in-depth understanding requires taking context, including history into account. It also requires referring to more specific examples than those provided here, which could best be obtained via experience observing and interacting with Chinese people. The book unfortunately does not serve as a complete, comprehensive picture of Chinese culture, since is leaves out important references to Chinese concepts such as guanxi, face, and suibian.

 

One of the strong points of this book is its accessibility to those without extensive knowledge of cross-cultural psychology. The book was written specifically with the “lay person” in mind, and was actually a refined version of a much larger book called The Psychology of the Chinese People, which was more detailed and in-depth, but which contained a considerable amount of jargon from psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

 

From the perspective of intercultural communication, the book contains excellent examples of ways of conceptualizing culture, values, ways of thinking and their effect on interaction. In this way, it can be used as a model or reference point with which to compare other cultures. In addition, the book provides an understanding of some of the ways in which individualism and collectivism manifest themselves in the socialization of children, of how people think, and how they interact with others.

 

© 2001 Christopher Deal.