Chinese Culture: Tradition vs Law

solarz

Brigadier
There exists a word in Chinese, Li, that encompasses western concepts of Etiquette, Tradition, and even Morality. It spells out how a person should behave toward their parents, spouse, sibling, children, superiors, underlings, and peers. In Chinese psychology, to act against Li is the equivalent of being immoral.

To illustrate how central Li is to the Chinese culture, the Han ethnicity is not a genetic construct, it is a cultural construct. Before the Han Dynasty, the Chinese called themselves the "Huaxia". Even though the land that would later become China was split into several independent kingdoms, there was this clear demarcation between the "Huaxia" people, and the "Yi" (barbarians). The term "Huaxia" is composed of two words: "hua", denoting the beautiful clothes they wore, and "xia", denoting the etiquette that they followed. Those people who followed that etiquette were considered to be "Huaxia", and those who didn't, were considered to be "Yi".

Two thousand years later, Li is just as important as ever. The Cultural Revolution tried to suppress it, but ultimately failed. In feudal China, Li was far more important than law. Crimes against Li were punished more severely than other crimes. Theft, for example, was often punished by corporeal punishment or even mutilation, but to use items or wear clothes that were for those above ones station, the punishment was death.

We often say that China is not a law based society, but it's not China's laws that are the problem. China has comprehensive laws designed to protect its citizens. The problem is with the enforcement of those laws, and the biggest obstacle to that enforcement is the fact that Chinese culture considers Li to be above the Law.

This is why guanxi, or connections, are so important. When you cultivate a connection with someone, Li dictates that reciprocation is necessary. That the reciprocation may go against the Law is not even a part of the consideration. How do you properly enforce the Law when everyone thinks they can be an exception?

This is why I think that in order for China to become a law based society, it needs to reconcile the differences between its laws and Li. There needs to be provision specifically designed to deal with situations where the Law and Li comes into conflict. Chinese laws need to be designed with a way for people to follow both, because when they have to choose between the two, most Chinese will choose to follow Li over the law.
 
There exists a word in Chinese, Li, that encompasses western concepts of Etiquette, Tradition, and even Morality. It spells out how a person should behave toward their parents, spouse, sibling, children, superiors, underlings, and peers. In Chinese psychology, to act against Li is the equivalent of being immoral.

To illustrate how central Li is to the Chinese culture, the Han ethnicity is not a genetic construct, it is a cultural construct. Before the Han Dynasty, the Chinese called themselves the "Huaxia". Even though the land that would later become China was split into several independent kingdoms, there was this clear demarcation between the "Huaxia" people, and the "Yi" (barbarians). The term "Huaxia" is composed of two words: "hua", denoting the beautiful clothes they wore, and "xia", denoting the etiquette that they followed. Those people who followed that etiquette were considered to be "Huaxia", and those who didn't, were considered to be "Yi".

Two thousand years later, Li is just as important as ever. The Cultural Revolution tried to suppress it, but ultimately failed. In feudal China, Li was far more important than law. Crimes against Li were punished more severely than other crimes. Theft, for example, was often punished by corporeal punishment or even mutilation, but to use items or wear clothes that were for those above ones station, the punishment was death.

We often say that China is not a law based society, but it's not China's laws that are the problem. China has comprehensive laws designed to protect its citizens. The problem is with the enforcement of those laws, and the biggest obstacle to that enforcement is the fact that Chinese culture considers Li to be above the Law.

This is why guanxi, or connections, are so important. When you cultivate a connection with someone, Li dictates that reciprocation is necessary. That the reciprocation may go against the Law is not even a part of the consideration. How do you properly enforce the Law when everyone thinks they can be an exception?

This is why I think that in order for China to become a law based society, it needs to reconcile the differences between its laws and Li. There needs to be provision specifically designed to deal with situations where the Law and Li comes into conflict. Chinese laws need to be designed with a way for people to follow both, because when they have to choose between the two, most Chinese will choose to follow Li over the law.
Hmmm, I don't know about all that. If I'm thinking of the same word as you then "li" might be better translated as "reason". In its relationship with the law "li" can also mean the "spirit" of the law which is another way of saying the reasoning behind the law.

At the end of the day there are multiple concurrent sticky issues to continuously adjust and balance, including whether the legal system is sophisticated and transparent enough, whether the people are willing to submit themselves enough to the legal system, and whether the legal system is run and enforced capably enough.
 

solarz

Brigadier
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Hmmm, I don't know about all that. If I'm thinking of the same word as you then "li" might be better translated as "reason". In its relationship with the law "li" can also mean the "spirit" of the law which is another way of saying the reasoning behind the law.

At the end of the day there are multiple concurrent sticky issues to continuously adjust and balance, including whether the legal system is sophisticated and transparent enough, whether the people are willing to submit themselves enough to the legal system, and whether the legal system is run and enforced capably enough.
No, I'm referring to 礼, not 理.

To give an example, suppose a health inspector finds that a certain restaurant is not meeting standards, but the owner of that restaurant has helped the inspector's family (for example, paying for his mother's medical bills), the inspector would find it very difficult to take action against that restaurant, and would most likely let the owner of the restaurant off with a warning.

Whereas under Western morality, the right thing to do would be to report that restaurant for the good of the society, under Chinese culture, doing so would be a breach of Etiquette, and thus trigger a conflict of conscience. Under Chinese culture, the conscience would very likely be on the side of Etiquette, even if it was against the law.
 

taxiya

Major
Registered Member
Solarz, what you says are right to some extent. But there are also another part of the Chinese culture acts against that kind of practice.

The Chinese idea promoted by Confucius is (by that order) 仁Ren(Compassion),义Yi(Righteousness or Justice),礼Li(proper rite),智Zhi(knowledge and intelligence),信Xin(honesty)。I believe Righteousness or Justice is the base for law. Abiding it has precedent to Li, this is what Confucian promotes. Confucian does not make all the five independent from each other or against each other, but when in a difficult situation where abiding one of them is against another, the person should fulfill the more important one in that order.

A good example is the saying "忠孝不能两全" One can not always fulfill loyalty and filial piety at the same time. A story goes like this (I forget who and when), a person (a warlord I think) was on the run from his enemy (another warlord), he stayed at home of his old friend, the friend gave money and food for further journey, but his wife realized that there is a bounty on the head of the person and asked the friend to hand over the person, the friend killed his wife to save the person. Here he took a tough choice when loyalty (to his friend) is in conflict to his family interest. Loyalty is part of Righteousness, he took it before life of his wife.

I agree that Guanxi is a very common thing in China, but I do not agree it is caused by what you proposed as 礼Li. Note, similar practice to Guanxi is also common among other developing countries, it is in essence same as bribery. Individuals may ignore law or justice for personal gains, but I don't think that selfish act is the fault of Li, actually the selfish gain has nothing to do with Li, even it is related, there is Justice before it, aren't people stop doing wrong for Justice? People can always find excuses for their wrong conducts, blaming something like Li would be just a lame excuse, and blaming something innocent will be misleading in addressing the real problem.
 
No, I'm referring to 礼, not 理.

To give an example, suppose a health inspector finds that a certain restaurant is not meeting standards, but the owner of that restaurant has helped the inspector's family (for example, paying for his mother's medical bills), the inspector would find it very difficult to take action against that restaurant, and would most likely let the owner of the restaurant off with a warning.

Whereas under Western morality, the right thing to do would be to report that restaurant for the good of the society, under Chinese culture, doing so would be a breach of Etiquette, and thus trigger a conflict of conscience. Under Chinese culture, the conscience would very likely be on the side of Etiquette, even if it was against the law.
Oh OK, in that case I think this tradition vs law thinking is both incomplete and invalid.

Also "Western morality" is a very broad term for comparison while you are focusing on one specific aspect of Chinese tradition/philosophy/culture so that is not a valid comparison. Many aspects of culture, philosophy, religion, societal norms at the time, and personal interpretation of all of the above contribute to people's behavior.

In practice there are plenty of examples, can be the same example you cited, of personal reciprocity trumping the law in Western behavior even if we may not be familiar with Western traditional/philosophical/cultural justification for such behavior. Permissiveness with substance abuse and related bad behavior, the code of silence among the police regarding police misbehavior, and similar disdain for whistleblowers in general in Western societies are some other examples.
 

Brumby

Major
Hmmm, I don't know about all that. If I'm thinking of the same word as you then "li" might be better translated as "reason". In its relationship with the law "li" can also mean the "spirit" of the law which is another way of saying the reasoning behind the law.
I agree with Solarz's interpretation of "Li" and that traditionally had been the way it was practiced in Chinese culture. The notion of "Li' and "law' being possibly synonymous is because "Li' historically preceded and became a source and foundation in which laws were codified. If you trace Chinese history, Chinese tradition including "Li" was simply a set of rules that govern behaviour and interaction within Chinese society that eventually a lot of the practices were codified into law through the different dynasties.

To give an example, suppose a health inspector finds that a certain restaurant is not meeting standards, but the owner of that restaurant has helped the inspector's family (for example, paying for his mother's medical bills), the inspector would find it very difficult to take action against that restaurant, and would most likely let the owner of the restaurant off with a warning.

Whereas under Western morality, the right thing to do would be to report that restaurant for the good of the society, under Chinese culture, doing so would be a breach of Etiquette, and thus trigger a conflict of conscience. Under Chinese culture, the conscience would very likely be on the side of Etiquette, even if it was against the law.
This example doesn't explain or resolve the tension between "Li" and law. If the restaurant owner is not meeting health standards, then it is in breach of specific regulations. The source of judgement are the regulations and not the health inspector. In other words, the health inspector is simply an agent to enforce the regulations. If the health inspector on this occasion feels indebted not to prosecute, it is not because of a lack of authority but a question of conscience. In fact failure to prosecute would open up the prospect that the health inspector himself be subject to the consequences of dereliction of duties. It is a personal decision and each individual has the liberty to make choices but knowing that as always it comes with consequences.
 
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Zool

Junior Member
No, I'm referring to 礼, not 理.

To give an example, suppose a health inspector finds that a certain restaurant is not meeting standards, but the owner of that restaurant has helped the inspector's family (for example, paying for his mother's medical bills), the inspector would find it very difficult to take action against that restaurant, and would most likely let the owner of the restaurant off with a warning.

Whereas under Western morality, the right thing to do would be to report that restaurant for the good of the society, under Chinese culture, doing so would be a breach of Etiquette, and thus trigger a conflict of conscience. Under Chinese culture, the conscience would very likely be on the side of Etiquette, even if it was against the law.
I was just browsing this thread for opportunities to expand my insight into Chinese culture, but I thought I would follow Brumby in commenting on this particular example.

The same conflict happens in Western society. It's more an observation of people-people relationships and conflicts of obligation I would say. Western rules in government or the workplace make clear that personal interests should not obstruct professional duties and instances where they do are grounds for dismissal or prosecution (it's a wide spectrum based on the position and circumstance). But it comes down to individual choice and feeling, as to how far one can go in helping a friend without getting caught and without grossly endangering others in the process; basically the ability to justify as a minor breach of integrity.

Happens all the time in the Western world, in Business-Business transactions (Influencing Sales Negotiations), Financial Trading (Insider Tips) down to smaller examples like the one you provided. There are some mechanisms to deal with conflicts of interest though, like in the case of legal matters, voluntary recusal. But generally I would say, per your example anyway, its not something isolated to Chinese culture. Although Western society has law and oversight for just about everything, which helps to rein in some of those impulses to skirt the letter of the law.

Cheers
 
I agree with Solarz's interpretation of "Li" and that traditionally had been the way it was practiced in Chinese culture. The notion of "Li' and "law' being possibly synonymous is because "Li' historically preceded and became a source and foundation in which laws were codified. If you trace Chinese history, Chinese tradition including "Li" was simply a set of rules that govern behaviour and interaction within Chinese society that eventually a lot of the practices were codified into law through the different dynasties.
"Li" definitely is never synonymous with the law nor was it a basis for the law, "li" is synonymous with etiquette and the closest it gets to being any sort of rule is only in terms of superficial formalities.

This example doesn't explain or resolve the tension between "Li" and law. If the restaurant owner is not meeting health standards, then it is in breach of specific regulations. The source of judgement are the regulations and not the health inspector. In other words, the health inspector is simply an agent to enforce the regulations. If the health inspector on this occasion feels indebted not to prosecute, it is not because of a lack of authority but a question of conscience. In fact failure to prosecute would open up the prospect that the health inspector himself be subject to the consequences of dereliction of duties. It is a personal decision and each individual has the liberty to make choices but knowing that as always it comes with consequences.
I believe Solarz brought up this example as one where "li" and the law conflict. I do agree with your breakdown of the situation.
 

solarz

Brigadier
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Certainly, I am not suggesting that corruption is unique to Chinese culture. Every society has its own form of corruption, arising due to its own unique set of circumstances. I am merely suggesting an analysis of China's circumstances to identify ways that would work best for Chinese society to move forward.

Take a Western culture, for example Canada. It is understood implicitly that doing something illegal is, with only a few exceptions, almost always immoral, no matter the circumstances. This is not because the Canadian moral framework is somehow superior to the Chinese moral framework, but rather that Canadian laws closely match Canadian morality. (Yes, I'm talking about subjective morality here, but that's another issue.) I believe one of the obstacles China has toward becoming a law-based society is that it is using a legal framework based on Western morality while most Chinese tend to follow the moral framework based on Chinese Li.

The problem with Li is that it was created to support a despotic form of government. It offers benefits only to the nobility, while the common people receive only restrictions on their freedom. It is a poor basis for building an equal, modern society, but it is also deeply ingrained in the minds of the Chinese people.

A good comparison would be to Christianity in Western culture. Just like Li is to the Chinese, Christianity is deeply ingrained in Western culture, and just like Li, Christianity contains both beneficial and darker aspects. It is those darker aspects that drove the founders of modern democracy, in both France and in America, to separate the state from any form of religion. The purpose of that separation is not to prevent public office holders from having any religious beliefs, but rather to ensure that the more archaic values of religion (whatever they are) do not affect the principles of a just and equal society.

Does it work perfectly? Of course not. We can see that with all those states wanting to pass laws against gay marriage, or those politicians that are staunchly against abortion, but the fact that this separation of state and religion is a guiding principle of Western culture has tremendous influence on the way Western citizens, lawmakers, and law enforcement officers, view and interpret their duties.

Unfortunately, we do not see a similar principle of separation in China. It is not even on the radar, and it probably wouldn't even make sense to the Chinese how they can separate the moral framework based on Li from the legal framework. Chinese leaders operate under the same Li framework as the common citizens, though they pay lip service to Communist ideals.
 
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