Chinese American Psychology

One of my professors during grad school was Chinese American psychologist Ben Tong.  I took a few Asian American Studies courses from him, and one course that he taught was Chinese American Psychology.  Professor Tong’s course had a profound influence on me, and you will find much of this influence in my writings.

The following is a composite article of three of Professor Tong’s writings:

Chinese American Psychology

Sinologists are in general agreement that Confucian philosophy was exploited by the monarchy and scholar-official administrators as a device for social control of a numerically overwhelming peasant population in medieval China.

With a vigorous revival (later known as Neo-Confucianism) in the Tang dynasty, Confucian moral philosophy was exploited as a state ideology for (a) justifying centralized rule and (b) for the subjugation of aboriginal tribes, particularly those in south China.  Events during the late Tang and the early Sung dynasties caused the content of one of the Confucian norms (loyalty) to be radically altered.  

“From its earlier meaning as an obligation tethered by moral judgment, it was redefined,” observed sinologist Arthur Wright, “as an unquestioning allegiance to a superior.”  Thus filial piety became, to borrow a term from psychologist Donald Lim, unconditional obedience.

“Imperial Confucian tradition” was a modified (some would say “distorted” or “maligned”) variety of Confucianism instituted by the ruling elite in ancient China following the passing of the Great Sage, a brand of Confucianism that has been effective for purposes of social control for over 2,000 years .  According to the eminent Sinologist Etienne Balaz,

“The scholar-officials and their state found in Confucianist doctrine an ideology that suited them perfectly… In Han times, shortly after the formation of the empire, it became state doctrine.  The virtues preached by Confucianism were exactly suited to the new hierarchical state: respect, humility, docility, obedience, submission, and subordination to elders and betters.”

It is important to bear in mind that imperial Confucianism is not to be confused with classical Confucianism, what the Master taught in the original.  Authoritative translations in English are widely available to remind us that in addition to such themes as deference, demeanor, and kindness, Master Kung’s philosophy was equally emphatic about cultivation of a high level of individual autonomy and integrity, in stark contrast to the rigid conformity demanded by patriarchal imperial authority:

“Love your father, love your teacher, love your emperor, but love the truth even more.”

“The authentic person is not an implement.”

“The mature individual can see a question from all sides without bias.”

“The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side.”

“Good people can stand alone without fear and can leave society without distress.”

My Comments: Confucius brought about a revolutionary way of thinking at a time when China was in perpetual war.  Confucius lived from 551-479 BC, and by that time China already had a 1500+ year history of constant warfare amongst various kingdoms.  Many philosophers at the time were looking at developing a mass psychology to bring about peace and institute personal and governmental ethics and codes of conduct to ameliorate the chaos of war, feuding clans and rampant acts of vengeance.  Sun Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius, and he wrote the Art of War, which taught how to win wars with the minimal necessary force and loss of life.

One of the things Classical Confucianism emphasized was the mutual obligation between ruler and ruled.   But when Confucianism was endorsed as state ideology, the state rewrote Confucianism and eliminated the obligations government had to its people.  Imperial Confucianism was used as a means to pacify extremely large and diverse populations (China’s population had already numbered at 86 million by 2 A.D.). 

It’s interesting to note that Christianity, a religion that initially started as a subversive religion for the oppressed, was co-opted by monarchs as a way to exert social control over pagan European cultures.

Given the tenacious entrenchment of Confucian values, how might one account for the aggressive, individualistic and volatile sensibility of the Cantonese?  We can begin by looking at two important variables, namely incomplete acculturation and perpetual social instability.

Because the ancient Chinese of North China – the Han people – did not succeed in absorbing a previously conquered Kwangtung until the Tang period (7th-10th century A.D.), the natives of the region (the so-called Yueh aborigines) were long in possession of a highly independent and sharply defined Cantonese culture.

The majority of the estimated 450,000 Americans of Chinese descent* trace their ancestry back to the southeastern Chinese province of Canton (Kwantung), to a ferociously independent people who, even after their conquest by the Chinese Empire (Tang Dynasty, 7th century A.D.), continued to be what the Irish have always been to the British and what the Basque have been to the Spanish and French.

*Note: This article was written 1978, so I’m sure now there are way more than 450,000 Chinese Americans, and a significant number of them can trace their ancestry to places other than Guangdong. 

While the Cantonese are noted for a distinct warrior-like tendency toward independent, totally self-sufficient behavior, loyalty has always been just as important.  In an unstable, hostile, anarchist society, loyalty was always on people’s minds.  Autonomy by itself, without interpersonal connection, was individualized madness which left the person vulnerable to attack from every conceivable direction, while complete loyalty was pathos – one was then merely another man’s man and not a person in possession of his own life.

In these contexts, loyalty was given freely, voluntarily and on one’s own terms.  At the same time that very same loyalty could be withdrawn at any moment.

For the Cantonese, the only metaphor for life is war.  From their heterodox traditions, actual Cantonese social and political history and our understanding of the Cantonese sensibility as ferociously independent, aggressive and volatile, it is clear that everything a Cantonese does is tantamount to a warrior’s act.  To be sure, this is not as barbaric a phenomenon as it may sound to Western ears, because (1) it does not mean murderous violence in every instance; (2) it is not amoral, for the highest moral law – the only moral law – is that one must keep his/her word; and (3) it is not be equated with the narcissistic individualism of the West, because the individual is preoccupied with loyalty and does form frequent and spontaneous alliances.

One is born, and one dies in war.  One never wins the war, but that is life.  The only genuine source of dignity and self-respect – indeed, the only reliable means for survival – resides in the achievement of a warrior’s autonomy.

These themes have been aimed at the development of total autonomy and self-sufficiency in the individual child who, it is always assumed, must contend with an essentially indifferent and hostile world.  The central emphasis is to train the youngster to look after himself and, like the mythic Chinese warrior models of old, to rely on no one, to trust nothing that cannot be counted on, and above all, to keep one’s word.

This applies to every conceivable issue and circumstance in life, including emotional problems.  Powerful, untidy feelings are to be managed entirely on one’s own, without counsel or solace from other people.  Turning to family and friends is a final recourse but here we have a paradox: one can always call on significant others, yet they are in fact to be regarded as the absolute last resort.  An alliance or friendship carries with it the right to casually invade each other’s privacy, but this is not to be abused.  A sign of love, therefore, is never having to make demands.  One takes care of one’s own, beginning with oneself.

Naturally as might be expected, this rather severe style of child rearing and relating frequently resulted in the creation of arrogant, cocksure, untrusting and mildly neurotic individuals.  Those who do not come through psychologically intact very often exhibit symptoms that psychologist Stanley Sue (1971) found in yellow male college students: “blunted affect, dependency, inferiority feelings, ruminations, somatic complaints and lack of social skills,” all pointing at times to a variety of “pseudo-neurotic schizophrenia.”  These traits, however, are also grounded in the experience of institutional white racism, as well as the lingering but persistent influence of orthodox Confucian values.

In summary then, when the Chinese American refers to his heritage, he must reckon with the historical reality that his was a peasant or merchant lineage, a traditionally unsophisticated and oppressed segment of Chinese society.  The scholar-official class did not emigrate to California and other parts of the world beyond the Middle Kingdom in search of better livelihood, since they already had full access to all the resources of Chinese society, including the power to define culture, relationships and identity itself.  The peasant adjusted to powerlessness by restricting his concerns to simply “taking care of his own,” for to meddle in affairs beyond his immediate village or clan community entailed enormous risks.  To give others the impression that you are satisfied with your lot, even if it is meager, and that you wish only to mind your own business, meant those with power would leave you alone.  Such was the psychology of peasant survival.

There was a time when the Cantonese peasant-laborer did not believe he was timid and accommodating and ignorant as he had wanted his oppressors to think.  The meek-and-mild mentality, the proclivity to mind one’s own business and to limit interaction to immediate relationships, was originally a fa├žade, a conscious manufactured appearance – a survival mechanism to be activated or shelved at will, in requirements of the historical moment.  Assimilation of the southern Yueh peoples in the Chinese Empire had always been incomplete, largely because of geographical removal and the tradition of perpetual rebelliousness.  The Manchus, for example, conquered north China without a struggle but had to fight another 38 years to subdue the south.  When the Qing (Manchu) dynasty finally crumbled, it was southerners who initiated revolution.  South China, in short, had always been the most difficult region for dynastic regimes to conquer and reputedly the population to revolt with the greatest ferocity.

If Sue’s timid and docile Traditionalist-Marginal Man syndrome typifies the personality makeup of the average Chinese American – and there is ample reason to believe their “test profiles” and studies – the etiological answer is to be, I would argue, in the transformation of the survival mechanism into an actual identity.  Somewhere along the way, the Chinese American came to believe he really was the graciously passive, sometimes loveable but always non-threatening Chink.

Ignorance or denial of his rural Cantonese peasant-laborer lineage – and the 150 year experience of his predecessors on these shores – kept the Chinese American trapped behind constrictive, deadening variations of the Chink stereotype.  Imported to America and reactivated for its function and adaptive value, the survival psychology of “meek and mildness” solidified and, in its all-too-successful response to total repression by white racism, became embedded in the Chinese American psyche as a permanent identity.

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