Ethnographic Interview: Chinese Culture

Different cultures have unique practices that distinguish them from the rest of the world. Usually, these practices determine how individuals, families, and society operate and co-exist[1]. The Chinese are renowned for their historical traditions that date back to the Chinese dynasties. Besides the transformative changes that have occurred in Chinese society, many cultural practices remain intact. To complete this task, I interviewed a Chinese student who has spent most of her life in Hangzhou and only came to the United States for her higher education. The student provided great insights into Chinese culture.

In Chinese communities, family (Jia) is considered the central component of their culture. Although many places in China, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, among others, have observed a decline in their traditional extended family due to modernization, family importance in individual’s lives remain integral in many aspects of Chinese culture[2]. As the interviewee informed, ensuring that the family relationship remains warm and close is an essential life goal, and it surpasses many personal feelings. Moreover, the rules that bind families to apply are extended beyond the familial context. In Chinese culture, the family is deemed as society’s foundation. It is in the family that one self-actualizes their socialization needs, and is able to give and receive comfort and support, learns to relate with others, acquire a relational identity, and express oneself.

Friends who create a close relationship with the family are also considered members of the family. Kinship forms of addressing, such as brother, sister, uncle, and aunt, are important in reinforcing social relationships, and they dictate the communication style embraced in different relational contexts[3]. For this reason, social practices within a family setting act as the guiding principle for public socialization, and they outline behaviors considered appropriate or inappropriate in society. Consequently, individuals have to become aware of their obligations to the family at an early stage. Children are taught their essential role in families, and that their actions, whether good or bad, can uphold or taint the image of the family[4]. Hence, in Chinese culture, the socialization process originates from the family.

The interdependence and affinity associated with self and family in Chinese society present various limitations, especially when relating to the rest of the world. First, the culture places a high emphasis on one-to-one and family relationships, but it fails to address the wider social needs essential to human relationships. The Chinese culture nurtures a sense of family and self, leaving the obligation to society at bay. In most instances, Chinese people embrace one-to-one and family relationships, and they forego groups or society. As a result, in-groups, which are family-centered, remain strong and stable. Such relationships affect their charity patterns since they are more inclined to kinship lines as opposed to the public.

The society is viewed as the larger entity formed by individual families. Notably, the Chinese are a collective society that is usually inclined to group affiliation, be it, family, workgroup, school, or country. Chinese people ensure they often maintain decorum in their actions and speech to avoid embarrassing other people in public. Furthermore, individuals often sacrifice their own feelings to meet the happiness of the people, which is usually evident in their communication process characterized by silence during structured meetings. China promotes high power distance, which is attributed to the class system in society. As the interviewee informed, wealth and power are used to distinguish between the rich and the poor, and society willingly accepts the status as a cultural heritage.

In a culture where ancestral family lineage is central for the perpetuation of a family’s legacy, marriage is an essential institution intertwined with various intricate customs. The Chinese culture believes in monogamous marriages involving a husband and a wife. Upon marriage, a woman is viewed as a ‘property’ of the husband’s family, and no longer a part of her own family[5]. Traditionally, parents used to match their sons and daughters with a person that met certain criteria, including social standing, financial situation, reputation, and social relationship between the two families. Although the matchmaking tradition has slowly faded to give room individuals to make their autonomous choices, marriage is viewed as a crucial process since it connects two families. Marriage comes with responsibilities, and the husband is considered the breadwinner, who should cater to the financial needs of the family. On the other hand, a wife, though working, is expected to diligently play the role of a loving mother and a good wife.

Nonetheless, marriage traditions have contributed to significant cases of violence in Chinese culture. Traditional civic and cultural values indicate that as a country is guided by its laws, a family should have rules[6]. These values are nurtured by Confucian ethics widely embraced in China and are essential in regulating marriages and families. For instance, punishment is deemed appropriate and is applied to a member of the family who breaks the set rules. As a result, physical abuse is accepted and is considered a family issue as opposed to a public matter[7]. ictims of family violence tend to withhold from reporting such cases due to the wide acceptance. Furthermore, Chinese people believe that revealing family issues to the public are defaming. For this reason, the public also shuns from intervening in the event of violence, since they hold on the belief that advising a fighting couple is inappropriate since they easily solve their issue and dine together. While some of these concepts have changed with modernization and implementation of new laws, the interviewee believes that the marriage customs play an integral role in differentiating the Chinese culture from the rest of the world, but they also need challenging to eliminate some of the negative customs that persist to modern society.

In connection with the concept of violence in marriages and families, the Chinese traditions place the privilege of divorce and remarriage on men. Notably, the feudal system of ethics and law guide these practices. As explained by the interviewee, Chinese history believes that man and wife are synonymous with sky and land, respectively, and that the land has no power to leave the sky whatsoever. Embracing this notion implies that even when the husband is bad, the wife has no mandate to initiate a divorce[8]. Such moral principles embraced in the Chinese culture seem to differ with the western culture, as in the case of the United States, where both husband and wife can file a divorce when subjected to an abusive or cheating spouse. However, the Chinese custom also ensures long-lasting relationships, characterized by minimal divorces, unlike in the United States, where a huge percentage of marriages end up with a divorce.

In any culture, communication is essential in establishing and sustaining relationships. In Chinese culture, communication is not an isolated phenomenon, but an integral cultural element in the social context. Chinese people believe that communication is centered on three core dimensions: feeling (gan qing), human feeling (ren qing), and reciprocity (bao)[9]. The relational principles of these dimensions have a strong impact on effective communication. Chinese people believe that understanding one’s feelings and those of others helps one in being an effective communicator who avoids conflicts at all costs. To become an effective communicator, Chinese culture holds that implicit communication, politeness, listening centeredness, and focus on insiders help to validate effective communication[10]. For this reason, both verbal and non-verbal communications are highly upheld. In some cases, non-verbal communication is revered than verbal communication.

Since Chinese culture is highly influenced by Confucius philosophy, they remain more reserved, and their gestures do not express much. Nonetheless, non-verbal communication, ranging from facial expression, tonal voice, and body posture, helps in conveying the intended message[11]. For instance, a frown is considered a form of disagreement. For this reason, a communicator has to maintain an impassive expression when speaking. Furthermore, staring at a person in the eyes is considered disrespectful. As a result, Chinese people shun from making eye contact, even in public. Additionally, the Chinese embrace polite nods as a form of greeting. Unlike in the United States where shaking hands is frequent, Chinese people avoid these forms of greetings.

Compared to other cultures, the Chinese place high importance on non-verbal communication, which might be conflicting issues when communicating with non-Chinese people. Furthermore, the impassive nature of their communication may often lead to misinterpretation or failure to receive a message with the intended importance. From the interviewee’s perspective, the Chinese view communication as a common avenue to understanding others. Therefore, it is important to understand and interpret even the slightest cues since they matter a lot.




Bodley, John. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019.

Gao, Ge and Stella Ting-Toomey. Communicating Effectively with the Chinese. Sage Publications, 2018.

Hiew, Danika, Kim Halford, Fons Van de Vijver and Shuang Liu. Communication and Relationship Satisfaction in Chinese, Western, and Intercultural Chinese–Western Couples. Journal of Family Psychology (2015): 1-12.

Sheng, Xuewen. “Chinese Families,” In Handbook of World Families, eds. Bert N. Adams, Jan Trost, Jan E. Trost. Sage Publications Inc., 2005.




Interview Questions

  1. What is the meaning of a family and how does culture affect familial relationships?
  2. What is the impact of family on human socialization in your culture?
  3. What elements of the Chinese society differentiate its culture from the rest of the world?
  4. What is the cultural perception of marriage among Chinese people?
  5. From a traditional and contemporary perspective, what makes Chinese marriages unique?
  6. How does your culture view domestic violence in marriages?
  7. Are divorce and remarriage acceptable in your community? If yes, which party can initiate these processes?
  8. What communication elements are crucial to effective communication in your community?
  9. Does your culture place the same importance on verbal and nonverbal communication? Why do you believe so?

[1] John Bodley. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019), 7.

[2] Gao, Ge and Stella Ting-Toomey. Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (Sage Publications, 2018), 13.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Danika Hiew, Kim Halford, Fons Van de Vijver and Shuang Liu. Communication and Relationship Satisfaction, 2.

[6] Xuewen Sheng. “Chinese Families,” In Handbook of World Families, eds. Bert N. Adams, Jan Trost, Jan E. Trost (Sage Publications Inc., 2005), 108.

[7] Ibid., 112

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ge Gao and Stella Ting-Toomey. Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (Sage Publications, 2018), 19-20.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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