Assimilation into Chinese Culture
a. Thesis Statement
Culture and tradition are two powerful instruments capable of transforming one’s identity adapting in the course of a given society. Foreigners from western and non-western lands have testified their assimilation to Chinese culture during the period of their anthropological explorations within Chinese society. Regardless of China’s historical era, significant figures, such as Marco Polo and An Shigao, and modern foreigners have undergone Chinese cultural assimilation after living within their society.
Cultural assimilation has always become the hallmark of Chinese social and anthropological expansion. The famed Confucian thinker, Mencius, has commented on social China’s capacity to assimilate “bian” (barbarians; outsiders) regardless of their cultural heritage (Poo, 2005 p.21). According to Rona-Tas (1999), Chinese assimilation of foreigners has always followed a one-way process always resulting in foreign assimilation and not vise-versa (p.375). The process of foreign assimilation by Chinese culture has been acknowledged as an essential trademark of Chinese culture enabling its strong foundations despite of various ethnic (e.g. Turkish, Mongols, Indian, etc.) and religious (e.g. Roman Catholicism, Islam, etc.) influences encountered since the dynasty eras (Cohen, 2001 p.8-9). The following discussion covers various historical events and modern day interviews illustrating foreigners’ assimilation to Chinese culture.
a. Chinese Cultural Assimilation: From Dynasties to Modern Times
Mencius had commented on China’s capacity to withhold or block other foreign societies from influencing Chinese cultural heritage. In fact, Confucian thinkers had linked the capacity of China to maintain its cultural tradition by preventing symbiotic process assimilation, while imposing a discrete linear cultural assimilation (Poo, 2005 p.21). The hallmark of Chinese assimilation was its capacity to maintain its spontaneous and consistent cultural stand, while channeling wide-scale foreign assimilation through social, political and militaristic campaigns (e.g. Zhou dynasty’s long-term eastward expansion, Turkish assimilation during Ming dynasty around A.D. 1300s, etc) (Rona-Tas, 1999 p.375). According to Cohen (2001), Chinese dynastical expansion was due to China’s strong attachment to its own cultural heritage proven by many historical scenarios, such as Zhou dynasty’s eastward expansion led by the feudal lord, Indo-European assimilations during 1000 B.C mandated by Zhou courts (p.8). Poo (2005) added that Guan Zhong’s and Zhou dynasty itself were significant illustrations of the powerful assimilative Chinese society leading to China’s established cultural identity (p.122). Foreigners’ assimilation to Chinese culture became significant to the rise of China’s overreaching dynastical powers. In fact, according to the Chinese historian, Li Xueqin, the disequilibrium of China’s dynastical politics was associated with the rapid rise of “semi-barbarians” (translated as assimilated foreigners), especially within the major power of Yang-Tze River valley –the State of Chu (Cohen, 2001 p.9).
Aside from the historical proceedings of foreigners’ assimilation to Chinese culture, modern day assimilation has also become present due to the similar strong and consistent Chinese cultural patriotism. In fact, even the historical organization of Kuomintang (KMT) has included the principle of assimilation in advancing their political campaigns throughout China. Back in the early twentieth century, KMT carried out a policy of Hanhua (Hanification or Sinification) mandating the assimilation of every ethnic minority and frontier territories under Chinese rule in order to form a Chinese nation-state (Zhao, 2004 p.172). The very aim of assimilation is to purify and preserve China’s cultural heritage. According to Benton and Liu (2004), Chinese society has long acknowledged their cultural heritage as superior than any other forms of culture; hence, foreigners’ cultural assimilation has already become a part of their initial response whenever they encounter foreign predisposing influences (p.235). According to Jordan, Morris and Moskowitz (2004), Chinese culture uses its assimilation devices, such as social propaganda (e.g. Chunichi Dragons – China’s version of Los Angeles Dodgers), economic campaigns (e.g. Shengmaige – San Miguel Beer, Baiwei – Budweiser, etc.) in order to push the strong influence of their culture (p.188). Despite the many modern day influences on styles, clothing and other material customs, Chinese society has always kept a minimal support among foreign changes and innovations in order to preserve their secular faiths (Benton and Liu, 2004 p.235). Cultural assimilation has helped Chinese society in preserving their traditional way of life despite the external or foreign influences brought by Western and Indo-European countries.
b. Historical Figures
i. Venetian Traveler: Marco Polo
Around A.D. 900, China had fallen under Mongolian dominion of Kublai Khan who was first Mongol to rule the Dynasty with Beijing as the principal capital (Buffington, 2007 p.106). Initially, Marco’s father, Niccolo Polo, and his uncle, Maffeo Polo, were the ones engaged at west-east trade between Europe and China. Around 1971, China, under the rule of Kublai Khan, had requested Pope Gregory X to provide them with a hundred Christian scholars and technicians; however, this request was not granted accordingly (Morton and Lewis, 2005 p.120). Instead, Niccolo and Maffeo brought with them Marco Polo, who was at that time 17-years old, together with two Dominican monks named – Niccolo de Vivence and Guillaume de Tripoli (Grandbois and Boivin, 1979 p.34). From 1275 to 1292, Marco polo spent his seventeen years of Chinese explorations and travels under the favor of China’s emperor Kublai Khan (Morton and Lewis, 2005 p.120).
As soon as Marco arrived at China, Marco Polo had already engaged himself to various Chinese customs and traditions, which gradually assimilated him to Chinese social backgrounds. In 1280 A.D., Marco Polo was able to visit the Eastern province of China seas, Hangchow of Hangzhou, arriving from the Eastern Indies. Based on his historical notes, Marco Polo was immediately in awe of the lively markets filled with various shellfishes, mollusks and fishes (Kiple, 2007 p.94). During Marco Polo’s observation of Chinese dry markets, he clearly noted his appreciations on Mandarin oranges, apricots, grapes and other fruits, while adoring as well the different variety of meats, such as beef, horse, donkey and rabbit (Kiple, 2007 p.94). Marco enjoyed the natural environments of China, most especially the provincial settings of China (Morton and Lewis, 2005 p.120). According to Dallmyr (1996), Marco initially studied the native tongue of China to better adapt to the Chinese locals until he entered intro public service and from there gained access to administrative positions (p.20). Kublai Khan had always been interested in Christianity since the time of Niccolo and Maffeo’s stay in Chinese courts. Prior to the arrival of Marco in A.D 1254, Louis IX of France and the Christian papacy had already informed Khan of the global crusade of converting conquered nations to Christianity (Pak, 1974 p.50). However, since no friar was sent despite the request of Khan, Marco became the access of Christian influence among the Chinese society (Morton and Lewis, 2005 p.120). Kublai Khan had no complains in the Judeo-Christian nature of Christianity being introduced by Marco Polo; however, the Chinese locals were the ones strongly adhering to their polytheistic religions, such as Buddhism and some with animism (Pak, 1974 p.50). In order for Marco to break such cultural barrier, he had to deepen his understanding on Chinese traditions, which further assimilated him to the practices and beliefs of Chinese culture (Dallmyr, 1996 p.20). Eventually, Marco had shifted his focus from propagating Christianity to learning the cultural stands of Chinese practices. Meanwhile, Kublai Khan, in the absence of Christian parishes, switched his beliefs to Buddhism; although, Khan’s will to propagate Christianity did no wither (Rubies, 2002 p.81). Until Marco’s return to Venice in 1291, his travels and stories had been mostly composed of Chinese culture.
ii. The Muslim Trader: Ibn Battuta
Another culturally assimilated foreigner who visited China during the reign of Kublai Khan was a Muslim trader named Ibn Battuta (b. February 24, 1304 – d. 1368 or 1377) (Bernstein, 2008 p.94). During the early 1340s, Battuta was acknowledged by the Delhi sultanate due to his dedication in serving Islamic religion. Battuta was considered as the Islamic version of Marco Polo who tried to propagate Islamic religion in the nation of China; although, most of Battuta’s Chinese travel accounts were inaccurate and full of discrepancies (Haw, 2006 p.67). Meanwhile, according to Bernstein (2008), Ibn Battuta was sent to China as the official ambassador of an Indian sultanate Jamal al-Din to conduct the official trade between the two nations (p.95). Battuta was able to arrive at the coast of China in 1345 despite of the many obstacles encountered on his sea travels (Dunn, 2005 p.258). Unlike Marco Polo, Battuta was not entirely fascinated by the maritime or trade potentials of Chinese market; rather, as a traveling Qadi or Islamic judge, his concern was to propagate the Islamic religion among the countries he explored (Bernstein, 2008 p.95). Nonetheless, Battuta gradually gained significant attractions in the cultures of China during his short stay in the country. According to Dunn (2005), Battuta praised China due to its vast and bounteous goods potential for trading, such as silk, porcelain, huge chicken, plums, watermelons and most of all, China’s paper money system (p.258). Despite the short travels of Battuta in China, his aim of propagating Islamic religion had been overshadowed again by the culture and tradition assimilated to him by his experiences in China.
c. Foreigner Interviews
The following section comprises the interview of modern assimilated foreigners who have lived in China for more than 10 years now. The chosen individuals, Dr. J. R. Reichter and M. E. Evans, are professionals from different country of origins but currently practicing within Chinese society. The purpose of the following interviews is to determine the extent of cultural assimilation, elements influencing such process and perceptions of the assimilated foreigners.
i. Dr. Jim R. Reichter, M.D.
Background: Dr. J.R. Reichter is an American ophthalmologist owning his successful eye clinics in Beijing, China, Sydney, Australia and Texas, United States. Dr. J.R. Reichter has been officially living in China for over 14 years now since his main clinic reside in its very capital. Every holiday season, he traditionally goes home to his hometown Texas to celebrate the occasion.
What is your experience in the China environment compared to your home country?
“Comparing my childhood memories in Texas and my experiences in living in Beijing, I can say the culture, norms and traditions between the two countries are greatly different. At first, I had a hard time adjusting to the Chinese environment due to the conservative lifestyles, patriotic activities and nationalistic trends of most Chinese people at my age. I’ve experienced both the communist China and the current government, but in my opinion, Chinese environment has always been traditionalist compared to my liberalist yet practical hometown, Texas”
What types of cultural differences are there from your country to China?
“The most observable cultural differences between people living in China and Texas are their way of life, consumerism and professionalism. Based on my observations, a regular Chinese workingman in Beijing will come in his work professionally attired, on time and strictly devoted for local customers. Meanwhile, in Texas, working class men had this notion of continuing their careers in the other states of America, such as New York, California, etc. The value differences between Chinese and Texans in relation to the three components I’ve mentioned are (1) nationalism vs. liberal mindset, (2) Chinese people tend to patronize their own products and services, while Texans are likely to view their community inferior to other American states and (3) Chinese people prefers to devote their professional practice nationally while Texans are likely to do the opposite.”
How long have you lived in China?
“I’ve been living in China for 14 years now. At first, I had to live in China since my business and wife reside in that country. However, with the length of my stay in China, I’d say I prefer to formally retire in China since I’ve already adapted most of their cultural practices and traditions.”
What was your first reaction when you arrived to China?
“At first, I had a hard time adapting to most of the Chinese practices, food choices, lifestyle and most especially the feng shui traditions of the elders. At first, I had to adjust from eating huge burgers, classic spaghetti and pancakes to bite-sized Chinese dimsums, such as sio’mai, spring rolls, and other native Chinese cuisines like fish cakes, bagongshan tofu, and famed noodles and fried rice. Second, I had to adjust my Texas nightlife to Beijing strict curfew hours, especially during the reign of communism. Unfortunately, I already got used to it. Lastly, I was culture shocked with the huge factor of Feng Shui in setting up a business. I’ve even experienced one of my patients conducting a free Feng Shui examination in most of my clinic interiors.”
What were your initial idea/expectations before you arrived to China?
“Before I arrived to Beijing, I already made some initial surveys and studies especially with my friends who had gone to visit the country. Most of them mentioned that they didn’t had severe troubles adjusting to the Chinese environment, especially in Beijing since the community was not entirely far from Texas’. I was expecting some adjustments in my diet, especially switching from American-sized serving to Chinese, interaction with Chinese people, especially with the elders, and most of all, establishing my own clinic in a Chinese setting. To my surprise, the cultures between the two countries were greatly different meaning I had to adjust more of my practices than my initial expectations.”
Have you accepted/assimilated with the local culture?
“If I will base my answer in my current situation and life in China, I would say that I have indeed assimilated with the local culture of China. Well, I am currently planning to celebrate my holidays in Texas with the classic Beijing Pecking duck instead of the traditional stuffed turkey, and bite-size dimsums instead of cheese sticks. Most I’ve already been drawn to most Chinese ornaments and products associated with their official belief on good karma. However, there are certain things I still cannot adapt to myself, such as the playing the customary games of Mah Jong and designing my house based on the classic Chinese architecture.”
ii. Sir Marco E. Evans, Hotel’s Public Relation Executive in Shanghai
Sir M.E. Evans is a Latin-American currently working in one of Shanghai’s prestige hotels. M.E. Evans has been residing in his private house in Shanghai, China for 11 years now. From his homeland in Queens, New York, he eventually had to migrate to China in 1997 because of a work opportunity. M.E. Evans seldom visits United States since his hotel career is in Shanghai.
· What is your experience in the China environment compared to your home country?
“Well, my life back in Queens, New York most of the time sets in to me making me want to visit my hometown again. The environment here in Shanghai is almost similar to New York, especially the Nanjing Road comparable to Beverly Hills. Well, I miss Queens because it’s my homeland. I think it’s understandable that living here in Shanghai for more than 10 years will make me miss my hometown. Anyway, living here in Shanghai is almost the same as living in New York. There are lots of immigrants from different countries, especially U.S.A, living in the high streets of The Bund, Lujiazui and Hongqiao. The amazing part in Shanghai comparable to the New York is the high-end skyscrapers and sleepless streets of major business districts, such as Lujiazui and The Bund.”
· What types of cultural differences are there from your country to China?
“Well, in terms of environment and social advancement, I think Shanghai and New York is almost the same except for the classy, detailed and pronounced structures and architectures in New York. Cultural differences of Shanghai and New York are most of the time observable among the native Chinese people and their lifestyles. For example, immigrants, like me, tend to look for American food stands than Chinese noodle or dimsum stalls. Another thing is when I go to the usual department stores and buy my stuffs. Most Chinese are very concerned with the brand makers of their product. Chinese customers are likely to buy things made from their country or first-world countries that imported goods from second- or third-world countries, like Philippines, Bangkok and others.”
· How long have you lived in China?
“Counting from 1997, it’s my 11th year living in China. Ever since I got here, I still haven’t traveled most highlights of this country. The fact is I still haven’t gone to any Chinese provinces.”
· What was your first reaction when you arrived to China?
“Upon arriving to China, I know on the spot that I will be headed to the hotel that’s hiring me. However, as soon as I get out of the airport, I was somehow fascinated by the real time infrastructures and modernity of Shanghai’s many business districts. I knew on the spot that I would not miss my regular social life in New York especially with the many establishments strategically located within the perimeter of my work environment. Some of the memorable things that struck in my observations were the transport systems in Shanghai, cultural theaters and cinema, and their outstanding Shanghai museums. I have always been fascinated by the easy and affordable transportation available at shanghai. Most transport systems was facilitated through trains, such as the recent Shanghai Maglev Transportation (SMT) running from Longyang Road station to Pudong and Shanghai South Railway Station. Aside from trains, taxis are always handy and cheap compared to Queens. Shanghai’s museums, cinemas and theaters are also part of their major cultural attractions, especially the famed Shanghai Art Museum in Shanghai People’s Square and Shanghai Natural History Museum.”
· What were your initial idea/expectations before you arrived to China?
“Despite the many wonderful things Shanghai can offer me, I still want to have my own time visiting Queens and the folks I’ve known since I was a kid. I remember the time when I was just planning to work in Shanghai; I never had Chinese food nor visited any Chinatown since these were not part of my wish lists. The position offered to me at Shanghai made want to travel and try-out living in the city streets, while working in one of Shanghai’s best hotels. However, after my first two months of stay in Shanghai, I started experiencing this “Chinese syndrome” where I only craved for fried dumplings and saucy, classic noodles. After that, I realized that my stay here in Shanghai isn’t that bad after all.”
· Have you accepted/assimilated with the local culture?
“Well, thank you for asking me that, come to think about it, I think I’ve been discretely assimilated to Chinese culture without forcing myself or anything. Chinese culture is just wonderful and full of wonderful surprises.”
In conclusion, assimilation of foreigners into Chinese culture has always been occurring ever since the early Chinese dynasties. Based on the historical analysis, cultural assimilation has been used by the China to overreach, expand to enhance the scope of their culture. Cultural assimilation has become markedly evident during the Zhou dynasties in their political, social and military campaigns.
Many historians had noted historical assimilations of foreigners. In fact, cultural assimilation was historically viewed as a powerful instrument to preserve Chinese tradition, while nullifying the foreigners’ predisposing influences. Prominent historical figures in Chinese history were foreigners assimilated into the cultural practices of China. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta were undoubtedly assimilated into the cultures and traditions of China. With Marco Polo, his original aims of influencing Kublai Khan with the expanding European Christianity were gradually redirected to explorations and historical documentations of various Chinese cultural practices. Meanwhile, Ibn Battuta had also experienced the strong assimilative power of Chinese culture after his redirected campaigns of Islamic propagation.
Occurrence of cultural assimilations of foreigners into Chinese culture has also been present in our modern times. Based on the two interviews conducted, assimilations of these foreigners have occurred discretely through the process of fascination, adjustments and prolonged stay in the country. Indeed, cultural assimilation is a powerful tool to influence foreigners, which at the same time prevent them from influencing Chinese locals.
Benton, G., & Liu, H. (2004). Diasporic Chinese Ventures: The Life and Work of Wang Gungwu. New York, London: Routledge.
Bernstein, W. J. (2008). A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. New York, London: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Buffington, J. (2007). An Easy Out: Corporate America’s Addiction to Outsourcing. New York, U.S.A: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Cohen, W. I. (2001). East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. New York, U.S.A: Columbia University Press.
Dallmayr, F. (1996). Beyond Orientalism: Essays on Cross-cultural Encounter. New York, U.S.A: SUNY Press.
Dunn, R. E. (2005). The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. California, U.S.A: University of California Press.
Grandbois, A., & Boivin, A. (1979). Les voyages de Marco Polo. Michigan, U.S.A: Fides Press.
Haw, S. G. (2006). Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. New York, London: Routledge.
Jordan, D. K., Morris, A. D., & Moskowitz, M. L. (2004). The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan. New York, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Morton, W., & Lewis, C. M. (2005). China: Its History and Culture. New York, U.S.A: McGraw-Hill Professional.
Pak, H. (1974). China and the West: Myths and Realities in History. London, Sydney: Brill Archive.
Poo, M. (2005). Enemies of Civilization: Attitudes Toward Foreigners in Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. New York, U.S.A: SUNY Press.
Rubiés, J. (2002). Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India Through European Eyes, 1250-1625. New York, London: Cambridge University Press.
Róna-Tas, A. I. (1999). Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: An Introduction to Early Hungarian History. New York, London: Central European University Press.
Zhao, S. (2004). A Nation-state by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism. New York, U.S.A: Stanford University Press.
Zhao, S. (2007). A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization. New York, London: Cambridge University Press.