An Introduction to Malaysian Chinese Ethnoculture
Hugh M. Lewis
Copyright, 1996, Hugh M. Lewis
(Copies of this text may be printed for research or classroom use only)
This study shows a few Malaysian Chinese cultural patterns of religious ritual and symbolism, attitudes and beliefs, socialization, family values and community relations, and differences between men and women, based upon ethnographic fieldwork on Penang Island, Malaysia, during the calendar year of 1994. Many amazing changes have happened recently to Penang since my first stay there during 1987--more cars, more gas-stoves, more foreigners, more money, a higher cost of living, more and better books, hand phones, more high-rises, more MacDonald's--all pointing in the same direction toward rapid development. But other signs are also apparent--more congestion, traffic accidents, street-people, fewer trees, and fewer people having the time to talk.
This is an ethnocultural study focused upon a community of Hokkien-speaking Chinese who live in wooden houses on stilts over the inter-tidal zone of the side of the island facing the mainland. It was conducted mostly in Hokkien and a little in English, with the assistance of my wife who was born in the wider Hokkien community and who proved to be a skilled interpreter. Our time was spent mostly upon the Jetty itself, but also in the wider Georgetown area (the main city on Penang Island near the closest point of the island to the mainland) which is predominantly and archetypically a "Chinatown." We rode the bus everyday from where we resided on the north side of the island to the downtown area that we traversed by foot.
"Ethnos" is the life-way of a group of people--it comes from the Greek meaning nation, race or people. Ethnos names a basic operative principle in the definition of human identity and difference that is historically constituted in a social world. Ethnoculture is my designation for the distinctive, culturally-based identity of a corporate community of people existing in a common time and place, that is defined both socially in relation to other groupings, and historically in terms of its origin, development and direction, in terms that are emically salient for the people who are so defined.
It is important to note that ethnoculture, as opposed to upper case "Culture," emphasizes the study of ethnic cultural orientations in the contexts of interethnic relations and in the scholarship of the field.1 Ethnoculture outlines not only an attitude towards the importance of historical relations and events in influencing the patterning of culture, but also the intrinsic and unavoidable "historicity" of our interpretations of the evidence as "constructions" from the standpoint of both internal and external validity.
The study of ethnoculture has become particularly important in the post-colonial world where new asymmetrical nationalisms have encompassed diverse cultures and have served to highlight ethnic differences and identities in the struggle for resources and power in the world, even to the point of ethnic schismogenesis and ethnocide.
I have sought to empirically study Hokkien ethnoculture through the psycho-cultural patterning of the Jetty Chinese in terms of the symbolic articulation of reality their culture demonstrates within real world contexts (see Chapter Six). I further examine related notions of symbolic framing and cultural gestalt as principle mechanisms and expressions of ethnoculture (see Appendix D).
Cultural gestalt is the distinctive pattern of characteristics--including mental attitudes, affective dispositions, perceptions, language, systems of belief, value, knowledge, technology, customs, arts, styles of social interaction, sanctions, roles, behavior, habits of dress, tastes and eating habits, material and symbolic artifacts and relations with an environmental context--shared by an ethnoculture,2 that is defined both internally by shared cognitive structures of mind and externally in social relations and in reference with other people and groups.
Symbolic framing constitutes a general theory about human cultural phenomena. Ethnoculture from this standpoint is the gestalt of symbolic connections between external social-environmental relations and internalized mental representations of these relations, and the consequent behavioral, emotional and social patterning which represent ordered responses to these relations. Ethnoculture takes shape, has reference to and is always "situated" within a larger nexus of historical, social and environmental relations.
Ethnoculture comes to define itself socially through processes of interpersonal objectification (i.e., the social construction of reality, more specifically, the reification of a common stock of knowledge and implicitly embedded sanctions ordering behavior. Berger & Luckmann, 1967) at several levels (familially, locally, ethnically, regionally, nationally) in terms of a shared corporate sense of community that is larger than life. At the same time, ethnoculture comes to express itself psychologically in terms of individual identity through processes of subjectification involving internalization and identification with group values and norms, encompassing a distinctive profile of shared traits, range of behaviors and symbolic orientations, rationalizations, attitudes and motivations. The collective sharing of a suite of traits, and its sanctioning, reinforcement and reification as if natural and given, both socially and psychologically, constitutes the cultural foundation of our reality.
With respect to methodological debates, it will only be said that sometimes it is better to ask, sometimes it is better to see, sometimes it is best to do, and occasionally it is good just to be. The real methodological problem is knowing when it is better to see than to ask, to ask than to do, to do than to see. In approaching the study of any culture, but especially that of a complex society like contemporary Malaysia, it is important to recognize that there may be many relevant levels of description and analysis which can occur simultaneously in a study each of which may require alternative kinds of methods. The dilemma always remains to coordinate different methods upon several levels of analysis in a systematic and productive manner.3
I attempted to systematically coordinate the use of participant-observation both on the Jetty and in the larger Georgetown area with various interviewing techniques (surveys, semi-structured and informal interviews, life-history interviews), and with the use of a number of "symbolic framing" tasks (perception tasks, color tasks, dichotomous tasks, rank order tasks, inkblots, apperception tasks, grids, and drawing tasks), with the aim of eliciting shared patterning of response to these different kinds of tasks.4
What is culturally significant among any given sample of subjects will be that part of their common lives which is shared and negotiated, that is in some sense a common denominator of their lives. Vital meaning or its failure may be mostly based upon the relative sense of cultural coherence achieved in an individual's lifestyle or daily existence. It has been the intention of this study to capture some of this vital meaning for the sake of posterity and science.
This work was written in more voices than my own. In fact it is intended as a "chorus of voices." Voice is used here in a reflexive, "post modern" sense (Bakhtin 1981; Ong 1986:221) and I define it as the implicit narrative, expository style of the text. It is a stream of images and experiences, an outline of knowledge and understanding, and a holistic sense of pattern as represented by a string of words that resonate in the mind of the reader. Yet final authorship remains my own. The unity of the text, of how to arrange it, what to include and exclude, how to finally type it, has been my own.
The touchstone of this work has been an honest belief in the paramount importance of achieving a better understanding of human reality in our shared world beyond our constructions, and a firm faith in the superlative value of anthropology as both a science and humanity for doing this.
The Southeast Asian Context
People in Southeast Asia have probably been living over the intertidal zone for millennia. Such a mode of habitation may actually be one of the earliest community adaptations in the region, and is now a widely shared trait among different fishing communities throughout the region. Southeast Asia is culturally very old, diverse and heterogeneous, yet has long been regionally coherent. Regional integration probably proceeded long ago founded upon a common cultural adaptation to waterways.5
Emmerson (1980:142) notes the surfeit of research on maritime Southeast Asia, though the early seminal work on Southeast Asian trade by von Leur (1955:42-3) deserves recognition, as does the perspective of the "single ocean" by Wolters (1982:40) and the work on maritime trade and state in early Southeast Asia by Hall (1985). It is certain that early water-craft and boats were a shared feature of this early maritime Southeast Asian civilization, and that boats, their designs and constructions, were developed very early, to become diffused and adopted by different peoples. The peopling of Australian continent, like the peopling of the Pacific much later, must be taken as one of earliest maritime achievements (Bellwood 1980:176; 1991:92).6
Higham (1984, 1988:43-5) notes the long tradition of coastal archaeology in Vietnam--there are four groupings of such sites--known as Bau Tro, Hoa Loc, Ha Long and Cai Beo "cultures." He predicts that trends towards the establishment of food production may be found among the growing number of sedentary coastal groups who may have initiated settlement of the region above the confluence of the Red and Black rivers in Northern Vietnam. These sites are ascribed to the Phung Nguyen culture.
These sites are very similar to sites further north in China such as "Ch'eng-Tzu-Yai" that suggests the possibility of a "fishing-shellfish gathering culture" existing along the coastal regions and primarily dependent upon fishing for subsistence. Shellfish and harpoon heads suggest at least partial dependence upon the products of the rivers and seas. Fairservice (1959:139) notes in his "Stage 4B" (3,500-2,000 B. C.) the development of a coastal-riverine culture that depended upon fishing and its economy.7 These early shell-middens are associated with one of the earliest forms of cultural sedentarism.
Excavations by Higham and Bannanurag (1991) at Khok Phanom Di (2,000-1,500 BC) in the Gulf of Thailand reveal irrefutable evidence of a well developed, pre-bronze age coastal dwelling culture whose primary diet was from the muddy banks of the sea. Such a region would have been pristine for the cultivation of wet rice, the development of which may have been stimulated by the gradually changing coastline.
Carl Sauer's hypothesis of the origins of agriculture in the yam-taro-sago complex and the close association between fishing and farming lends credence to the early development of such a system along coastal lowlands (Sauer 1952:24-34; Buchanan 1963:63). Associated with this complex are also the domesticated dog, chicken, ducks and geese and pig, all of which are rather small animals (boat-worthy) of the "household" or "farmyard" that are known to have had an early presence in Southeast Asia and that are part of the culture complex later associated with the peopling of the Pacific (Blust 1976:19-43; Bellwood 1980:178; 1991:88-93).
By the late Bronze and early protohistoric periods, circa 1000 B.C., it is almost certain that there is a well established pattern of small riverine-delta city-states oriented around the local control of commerce--a pattern that would perpetuate itself in ever grander proportions well into the historic period (Higham 1988:30, 233; Hall 1985).
The basic type of Southeast Asian state might be labeled the "subsistence river delta kingdom." These early polities may have been characterized, as later ones, by the theme of the organization and interdependence of diversity (Kennedy 1977:35-6). They are referred to as a mosaic of cultures characterized by ties of interdependence, ties that were essentially ethnic and economic in character. These early littoral polities formed "a single hypothetical class of ancient exchange networks, one which involves the control of a drainage basin opening to the sea by a center located at or near the mouth of that basin's major river" (Bronson 1977:51-2).
The prehistoric map of regional Southeast Asia is considered to have evolved from a complicated network of small settlements into a patchwork of overlapping "spheres of power" (or "mandalas" or "spheres of kings") whose control, spiritually sanctioned, radiated out in concentric rings of lessening degrees of influence and prestige (Wolters 1982:16-17).
The shared maritime orientation of these early cultures and peoples inhabiting the coasts and river basins of Southeast Asia accounts for driving historical processes which formed the foundation for subsequent oceanic migration, regional integration and prehistoric development. These driving mechanisms have given rise to certain structural patterns that can be said to typify Southeast Asian ethos and civilization and which lend to the region a prototypical coherence (McCloud 1986).
Religious orientation; has always been an important factor in the Southeast Asian setting, especially to the extent that religion becomes implicated in the mediation of cultural and ethnic boundaries (Clammer 1980:45). Religion may provide a social framework for the "symbolic articulation" of diverse groupings of people, a necessary basis for "ritual communality, cross-cutting ethnic, linguistic and ecological boundaries" (Leach 1954:279). It provides a common "ritual language," facilitating growth and diversification of "that very large part of culture which is concerned with economic action" (Leach 1954:279).
According to the study by Ackerman (1988) of religious movements in modern Malaysia, animism was the only truly indigenous religion of Southeast Asia. Subsequent introduction of different religions created a competition among a number of alternatives.
There are several basic traits which can be expected with this animistic complex: 1) Belief in a supernatural spirit world which interpenetrates the natural order such that a pantheon of spirit beings, ghosts, local deities and spirit-familiars may inhabit local sites, 2) Use of a shaman who may go into trance or spirit possession, 3) Use of magic amulets, potions, and poisons to affect human beings in certain ways, 4) Belief in the supernatural power which suffuses the natural world and which may come to reside differentially in powerful human beings (Anderson 1972:7), 5) Use of ritual ceremonies in affecting cures, purification, fortune telling (Spiro 1967:270-1).
Spiro (1967) in his ethnographic analysis of Burmese supernaturalism, emphasizes the expressive, affective, instrumental and mechanical aspects of animistic beliefs, which he contrasts with the repressive and meditative aspects of Buddhism.
Symbolisms directly mediate the boundary between people and the social group, and their relationship with the natural world.8 They mediate the boundaries of identity between person, place, experience, the social world, and the supernatural cosmos. In Southeast Asia, symbolizations are commonly "spatial" in organization (Errington 1989:65), and time is conceived as circular (Geertz 1966:65-6). Power which symbols contain, and which pass through symbols, becomes centered in local places, and levels of power are concentric rings radiating from a center. Such centers exist in the thoughts, in the being and body of the individual, in the home, in the public realm, in the state and the nation, and in the world and universe.
Southeast Asian magic and animistic religious beliefs were originally held by Western observers to be chaotic. Subsequently scholars (Heinz-Geldern 1958:1) have taken notice of an underlying order of such symbol systems, the parallelism between "micro cosmos" and "macro cosmos." This parallelism between state and cosmos, also occurs between the macrocosm of the universe and microcosm of the person, as well as between the state and the person. Kesseler (1977:319) notes a similar parallelism between "the body personal and the body politic" which is evident in the ritual performances of the Malay bomoh.
Symbolisms mediate the relationships between spirit and matter, and their ritual manipulation as "receptacles of spirit" is a means of regulating these boundaries. The manipulation and management of symbols through religious ritual and magic is a supernatural play with power.
A common theme of Southeast Asian civilization is the belief that all beings are hierarchically ranked according to their relative proximity to the sacred. Status was legitimated by ones sacred power and rank. Higher status people were regarded as more efficacious channels in tapping spiritual and supernatural powers, which could be distributed to the followers. This belief therefore defined leadership and the expectations that surrounded it in traditional Southeast Asia. (Gesick 1983:1-2) This preoccupation with a certain symbolic style of leadership continues to animate modern Southeast Asian politics, statecraft and hierarchy, and can be thought of as the distinctive pattern of stylization and genius of traditional Southeast Asian civilization (Kroeber 1957, 1963).
The Overseas Chinese of the Nanyang
The presence of the petty, part-time trader and the full-time, long-distance merchant middleman has played a pivotal role in the economic integration of the region. The role of the early trader, pioneer and entrepreneur, as the early forerunner of the modern capitalist, and the relationship of the trader with the role of religion in the interregional integration of Southeast Asia, needs to be given the credit due.
Within this regional context of maritime Southeast Asia, we must understand the importance of the Chinese "Nanyang" or "Southern Sea" in the common cultural framework of the overseas Chinese, who with their distinctive communities can be found all over the world. Present in every Southeast Asian nation, their heritage in Southeast Asia is very old, and they have long been integral to the entire region's historical development and integration (Salmon 1981:260-275).
The Chinese presence in Southeast Asia, or what is known among the Chinese as the "Nanyang," may date back to before Christ. Long there as merchants, traders, miners, travelers, and ex-patriots seeking refuge, they are portrayed as the classic "sojourning entrepreneurs" (Omohundro 1977:113-4).
The Chinese have always figured in the .i."ulu" trade (commerce in natural tropical goods); and resource exploitation of .i.Borneo;, as well as in its mining and agricultural pioneering. An early kong si system (clan-based government and business organization, i.e., political economic organization) provided the organizational base for the mobilization of labor and resources in the development of trade and resource production in Borneo (Wang 1994). Chinese silks and porcelain, as well as native adoption of Chinese weights and money were found by the Spanish traveling with Magellan in Brunei in 1521. Rattan, gutta-percha, beeswax, birds' nests, resin, aloes, wood, incense, camphor, bezoar stones, rhino horn, and illipe nuts were brought down river on bamboo rafts to a thriving Borneo market (Chew 1990:223).
Though European domination in Southeast Asia subordinated the role of the Chinese, it opened up new and lucrative niches for economic development in expanding colonial markets, and stimulated new waves of economic migration to the Nanyang which the Europeans hardly controlled, and, in some cases, even promoted. The Chinese provided an important linkage in the articulation of the colonial system of resource exploitation--they became the inveterate merchant-middlemen/money-lenders. They became agricultural pioneers of the tropical frontiers, miners, small planters, and overseers. They came to occupy the middle positions of the colonial administrative apparatus. They were also a bottomless supply of cheap coolie labor, easily mobilizable, transportable, and extremely adaptable to adverse environments and difficult circumstances.
Among the Chinese, a veritable Nanyang empire developed--a vast network through which the movement of labor, finance, capital and commerce was facilitated by a wide range of interlinked exchange agencies and agents at every level and in every niche of the Southeast Asian setting. The relative mobility of "capital and labor increases Chinese responsiveness to market fluctuations, allowing them to bail out quickly from failures and capitalize fully on fleeting opportunities" (Omohundro 1977:117).
The Nanyang of this colonial period continued to prosper in the area of trade and finance to the point that it gained virtual monopolies over many sectors and areas of the Southeast Asian interregional economy--particularly rice and metal. Many of their practices were extremely exploitative, and their success under the European colonists was often strongly resented by indigenous peoples.
The Nanyang has become over the centuries the overseas Chinese ˘Imperio im Imperium" or "Empire within an Empire," which extended from the southern coastline of China, throughout Southeast Asia, stretching across the Polynesian Pacific to eventually encompass the New World, spreading its net even into the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.
The twentieth century, modernization, and especially World War II, brought a change in the position of the Nanyang in Southeast Asia, but not an end to its empire. New nationalisms throughout Southeast Asia supported structural policies of enforced assimilation, systematic discrimination, ethnization, and even political persecution, of the Chinese minorities of the Nanyang--in short, institutionalized policies of "competitive race relations" which have lead to a crises of identity of the overseas Chinese communities (Strauch 1980:11).
The principle characteristic and enduring feature of the Nanyang has been predominant economic orientation--an orientation that has come to ethnoculturally characterize (often negatively) the overseas Chinese. This stereotypical economic preoccupation of the Nanyang Chinese can be best understood in terms of their regional interpositionality as an entrepreneurial class of merchant-middlemen mediating the relations within the "dual economies" of the local native context and the larger regional/global market economy.
Their place in the regional development of the Southeast Asian context was pivotal--existing for purposes of social stability and for buffering of conflict-laden tensions between core and periphery, elite and masses (Wallerstein 1979). They are bought off from the top, and become the scapegoats for tension from the bottom. They are therefore caught in a dilemma of "double-identity" with their ethnicity defined by the very same structural processes and positions that threaten that identity.
Because the marketplace becomes the center of transaction and exchange between ethnic groups in a plural society, there is a "marketization" of inter-ethnic relations which become defined in terms of marketplace and market-exchange transactions. Trading specialists (i.e., Chinese merchant middlemen in Southeast Asian markets) become major foci of conflict relations. Such "exchange generated conflict" can be constrained by ritual or jural proscription, social distancing mechanisms or avoidance patterns which serve to define and delimit the range of possible interactions, or by displacement upon a third, neutral party. The interpositioning of ethnically defined middlemen minority groups has the effect of creating social distance--economic spheres are the only zones of ethnic interaction, while marriage and kinship relations, social networks and religious affiliation, are kept structurally separate (Foster 1978:14).
The social networking of the overseas Chinese provided screens of support as well as screens of opportunity and platforms for mobility. In these networks, five categories of relative ethnic distance and trust are distinguishable--kinship being the closest, atomistic category, and extending outwardly until a line of solidarity is passed. Each of these categories occupies a special place within the overall communal structure, and individuals occupy multiple positions in relation to others within all these categories (Landa 1983:85). This leads to a field of decreasing ethnic identity with increasing social distance, "there is a tendency for insider networks towards sub-ethnic homogeneity" (Barton 1983: 60).
Networking success among the Chinese has been found to be correlated to kinds and degree of network involvements in the course of an individual's career development, to the percentage of kin-related and personalistic ties, to use of more "inside" kinsmen as coworkers rather than as "outside" benefactors, and to the use of "fictive" kinsmen as "outside benefactors" (Omohundro 1983:67-8, 80).
Perhaps the greatest illusion that a Westerner could entertain with regard to the Chinese is that they are all basically the same. The very basis of ethnic Chinese identity; is its cross-cutting ˘nesting÷ of identities within a larger network of social distinctions on the basis of village, clan, kin-group, dialect, class, age, etc. (Brown 1976:97). Intraethnic Chinese distinctions have been referred to as sub-ethnic identities based upon local-linguistic-ethnic distinctions. It is highly ascriptive in character, being linked to the strong patrilineal reckoning of Chinese kinship. (Crissman 1967:185-204)
The Nanyang Chinese have been noted for their characteristic failure to achieve the "community closure" deemed prerequisite to their ethnic political-economic mobilization. This is only in part due to their intermediate status within a host society and their lack of political-geographic autonomy.
In fact, nowhere that the Chinese are not territorially in control, have they been able to effect any degree of pan-Chinese solidarity. They have long been involved in divisive, "sub-ethnic" identities and affiliations, crosscutting organizations that tend to undermine unity of action and purpose. Political parties or common interests groups have been always limited, internally divided and never "whole-hearted". The Chinese have been typically unable to assert authoritatively their "ethnic honor" (Siaw 1981:397).
The larger the Chinese minority, the more divisive and complex its internal organization became, and the more problematic its potential for unity of action. Subethnic distinctions between different Chinese communities undermined such possibilities and prevented the formation of a genuinely pan-ethnic "Chineseness"--a stereotype more apparent from the outside than the inside. "Indeed, the more they try to express their 'Chineseness,' the more divisive they become" (Siaw 1981:402).
Judith Strauch (1981:239) makes the point that the overseas Chinese social organization is based upon a form that incorporates ethnicity as a central principle--"the principle for segmentary opposition of subethnic categories." Identity becomes stratified at several oppositional levels, national, ethnic and subethnic. Distinctions also come to be made on the basis of lineage or clan identity. Though identity with ancestral homeland may have become quite attenuated, the Chinese never severed ties from the homeland or their identification with their ancestors' native place, but rather added more levels with each successive move (Strauch 1981:240).
Within the colonial framework of a plural society, immigrant Chinese communities were divided along subethnic lines in both cooperation and competition--subethnic identity delimited the field of opportunities and actions open to the immigrant. Although internal class distinctions existed, these were of far less significance in daily life than ethnic solidarity. (Strauch 1981:242-5)
The recently published study by Wang Tai Peng (1994) asserts the independent development of the Kong si system (Hokkien term usually denoting a clan-based firm partnership or business organization) among sea merchants and miners, as a distinctive form of Chinese democratic institution involved in both business and public administration and founded upon the principles of brotherhood and partnership. The Kong si system constituted an important cultural institution of the overseas Chinese.
Such a system depended upon establishment of trade and exchange relations and partnerships based upon a Chinese ethos of reciprocal trust and the notion of "dependability" (Barton 1983:53). Crosscutting ties of dialect, lineage, village association, tended to reinforce these bonds, but even more importantly, kinship ties were the best available means of cementing a dependable network.
One core characteristic of Chinese communities overseas has been the relative invisibility of a great deal of their socio-economic power. "One of the basic features of Chinese business enterprise is the extent to which success is kept hidden from outsiders" (Barton 1983:47-8). "The use of front-men, or ghost-partners, and obscure business fronts, are typical strategies of businessmen who wish to obscure their activities from local officials and operate beyond the reach of tax collectors" (Barton 1983:48).
A Russian study (Simoniya 1961) of the Nanyang social structure reveals a vast financial- credit-market system which extends throughout Southeast Asia, with Chinese merchant-middlemen, within a colonial and neo-colonial framework, serving as the key articulators of the entire regional political economy. Within this system there emerges a resolute class structure in which plantation laborers and coolies are at the bottom, small petty merchants and planters range somewhere in the middle, and urban based professionals and financiers are at the apex (Chin 1981:76-7; Yen 1986).
There are some interesting facets of the pyramid of Chinese social structure. Foremost, it is relatively open. It's openness is defined by lack of trade or craft specialization among any subgroups (although see evidence for trade specialization's by different dialect groups in Thomas Tan 1990), hence the ability for new entrepreneurs to readily enter, compete within and succeed in different fields, and by the lack of restrictions of interlineal or hypergamous marriage pattern.9
Though it is structurally open, overseas Chinese class structure is still very vertical in which asymmetrical social relations between the rich and the poor are continuously reinforced. Children of the rich tend to remain wealthy, and children of the poor tend to remain poor. Thus it becomes of paramount importance to adopt the prestige-markers and pretensions of the class one can afford or that one aspires to, as this is the only means of marking and maintaining the boundary between one's own success and other's failure. Rich and poor alike are acutely aware of these markers of their identity and of the asymmetrical social relations that they represent.10
The economic orientation of the overseas Chinese, which the non-Chinese often interpret as a negative stereotype, is the cultural expression of the positive primacy of the goal and achievement of socioeconomic success and status in life. The aspects that drive the Chinese social structure are the fierce competition from below, the face-to-face system of interpersonal relations upon which class boundaries become defined and negotiated, and the verticality of class asymmetries in which those who are more fortunate treat with uncharitable disdain those without, and those without are left pretty much unaided. But it is the very openness of this system which virtually guarantees that while the hard working children of the poor will become rich, improvident children of the rich can squander away their parent's wealth.
It is inadequate to merely discuss models of Chinese society without also discussing particular patterns associated with Chinese mobility within the system--these include an ethnocultural emphasis upon early socio-economic independence, familial interdependence, entrepreneurship, risk-taking, education and its practical payoffs, and the respect for authority.
There are unevenly available to most overseas Chinese certain mechanisms for achieving mobility within Chinese society. The first mechanism available to the most poor is geographical mobility, and it can be considered a risk-taking strategy in which the long-term prospects make such relocation worth the risks and the short-term costs of reentry into an alien social system.11
The second mechanism of social mobility, one that seems to be most evident among the first generation and the sons of the poor original immigrants, is the apprenticing to some other Chinese business man in order to acquire the skills, experience and knowledge to begin a business, working very hard and living frugally to save money in order to have enough overhead, and then starting ones own business, in however a modest a scale.12
The third mechanism of social mobility, one that occurs more among the middle class merchants, is what can be called "familial mobility" in which the children or brothers and wives of an extended household, along with other non-familial residents or workers, pool resources and labor to make a competitive go of a business, and to make it prosper and yield profit. This strategy frequently entails sacrifice of some members of the family in order that other members of the family may achieve greater mobility, and in turn, pay back something to the family venture.13
The pursuit of education as a legitimate means of achieving social mobility within society has long been respected by the overseas Chinese, and the overseas Chinese families and communities, almost without exception, promote high standards education and academic achievement in the world.
Yet another option of social mobility for Chinese is via marriage, and this is an option open and exercised by all classes, especially in terms of the prearrangement of marriage partners by parents. It is expected that this is particularly an option of choice available to the upper classes, when wealthy sons are sought for wealthy daughters, as the "field" has much better prospects than it does for the lower classes. It is most certain that marriages are still arranged for purposes of mutual advantage among the children of the wealthy, and represent as much socioeconomic interest, opportunity or business as it is a matter of arrangement in love.14
A sixth mechanism of social mobility must be mentioned as characteristic of and important to the understanding of the "structure" of Chinese society, and this is the systematic extension of a businessman's interests, either individually or familially or in partnership with other businessmen, and a diversification of business involvement into more than one or two concerns, such that the resource base and profit margin is thereby extended, the risk of total loss reduced, and the chances increased of gaining a larger profit margin in any one or two areas.15
The final mechanism which deserves mention, if only in passing, is the use of paralegal or illegal means of gaining advantage or profit from the trafficking in illegal merchandise, dealing in numbers, or involvement in other types of illicit activities. If wealth accrues through such means, it must entail social mobility, but its risks may also result in downward mobility.
The overall patterning of mobility is mixed, with individuals and families commonly pursuing, or failing to pursue, several different strategies at the same time. Geographic, familial, marital, individual entrepreneurship and resource diversification may be occurring, with varying degrees of success, at the same moment within a family.
But the stereotype of the pattern of upward and downward mobility within a generation belies a more stable class system operating within overseas Chinese society that can be characterized by several facets:
1) The appropriation and conspicuous consumption of status symbols and prestige by those who can afford them.
2) The cultivation of a haute value culture among the wealthy Chinese.
3) Attitudes of paternalism and condescension toward the poor by the wealthy.
4) The cultivation of connections in marriage and business between families of wealth that provide unusual screens of opportunity and support networks for offspring.
5) A system of giving or saving face that is socially asymmetrical according to perceived class differences based upon obvious or conspicuous markers of identity.16
It is important to also take into account certain social distancing mechanisms that serve to hinder such upward mobility and which serve, in effect, to keep the rich wealthy and the poor in poverty. Within the Chinese community certain negative stereotypes and patterns of social discrimination and avoidance accrete to those neighborhoods that are considered poor, though most families may have begun as poor. Such Chinese are considered by their wealthy counterparts as being rough and crude, with vulgar and impolite mannerisms. The attitude of the upper class Chinese toward the lower class Chinese is somewhat paternalistic and condescending in this regard. On the other hand, wealthy families aggressively capitalize on their strategic economic advantage within the system to extend outwardly as much as possible their socio-economic connections and to maximize their children's opportunities. They appropriate unto themselves the prestige markers that reinforce the boundary between rich and poor.
This situation presents something of a paradox because, unlike the poor, the wealthy Chinese are noticeably lacking in gregariousness, and may actually be socially isolated in their large extended family households. It is characteristic that wealthy extended family households are virtually shut off like little fortresses from the outside world, and that the only apparent relationships its denizens have with others in the world are those which are defined strictly by money--servants, employees, or in business transactions.17
But such patterns alone are not enough to sustain an extremely asymmetrical social system. It can be said that the quality and manner of the social networking and competence in networking and social skills acquired, along with the self-confidence and commanding sense of presence that is so cultivated and valued by the upper-class Chinese, are transformed and to a great extent missing among the lower-classes.
What makes the middle class Chinese interesting is that the primary mechanism of mobility which characterizes this class is that of familial mobility--such that the family works together to promote their socio-economic status and position within the social system. Familial mobility seems most salient among the middle classes, and among the shop houses one can find entire families self-enclosed within little shop-worlds, working six or seven days a week, pooling energies and resources under the direction of a single patriarch or matriarch.
It would seem thus that for a lower working class household to achieve mobility into a middle class position, the family must at some point organize itself into a successful working unit, and pool resources together. Hawking is a major avenue for such mobility, and sons acquiring skills which enable them to begin a business of their own or education in order to achieve a better job in the wider market becomes a means for that family to work its way up the social success ladder. It stands to reason that working class poor families that fail to rise must be for some set of reasons unable to organize themselves as familial production units, or, if they do, fail to extend themselves enough in order to access the opportunities or resources of a wider market economy. On the other end of the social spectrum, the subsequent generational downward mobility of families may be the product of the family, once organized for productivity, falling apart. Separation under one roof ends up in actual physical separation of the households of the sons and their families.
Important in understanding the pattern of failure to achieve upward mobility, or the occurrence of radical downward mobility, within a system in which one's social identity and status is so completely tied to one's socio-economic success, is the pattern of spoiling of children into adulthood by parents who, it seems, may be using their own children as dependency objects for their own psychological insecurities in life. Parents in a world defined by filial piety can come to depend upon and live vicariously through their children, but in a way that may become stifling and suffocating for the children. It is not uncommon to find middle-aged adults failing to realize socially or economically their own life because of the incessant demands of their mothers and fathers.
Francis Hsu refers to an "oral" pattern of socialization which distinguishes the indulgences and subsequent corruption of the children of the wealthy and the privations and frequent rising of the children of the poor. Wealthy parents unconsciously consider their children's leisure and gratification as indicative of their own prestige and prosperity. Children may be raised in very strict, paternalistic and authoritarian regimes, but be "free from restraint with regard to food" (Hsu 1967:279-80)."The children of the poor must tighten their belts not because of the disciplinary compunctions of their parents, but because of adverse circumstances--they are liable to grow up under food restrictions regardless of parental intentions" (Hsu 1967:278).
Hsu compares two alternative and clearly contraposed "status personality configurations" that are the result of these factors. Poor children grow up hard working, while the children of the rich grow up "to firmly believe that whatever they desire in life will be forthcoming to them simply for the asking or the taking" (Hsu 1967:270-80).
It may be a sociological blunder to tightly correlate these patterns of oral socialization and personality with wealthy and poor classes per se, as many poor exhibit the same negative patterns, and many wealthy do not. Rather, they may be patterns which may more accurately be associated with tendencies of mobility within the society, a society that is open and achievement oriented. All Chinese are, by cultural definition, subject to the same types of "oral dilemma." The consequences of this are perhaps more conspicuous when wealthy children become poor than when poor children remain poor.18
Children of poor parents who are locked into this pattern are allowed a great deal of license and social freedom. They are allowed to spend petty cash freely on a daily basis, to buy food, drinks, candy or little trinkets whenever they wish. For lazy parents, it is the most effective means they have of placating and controlling their children at least effort to themselves.
Thus, such children grow up incapable of building their own or adding to the kinds of fortunes their fathers may already have amassed. In this regard, we must highlight the basic psycho-social isomorphism between the patterns and personality of the wealthy and of the poor, and distinguish this against the patterns most apparent in the middle classes. The basic dilemmas and patterns keeping the poor and resulting in downward generational mobility for the wealthy may therefore be similar.
The patterns characteristic of the upwardly mobile are the strong familial orientation that defines familial relations largely in terms of socio-economic productivity. Frugality, thrift, stinginess, withdrawal of love, and conditionality of the parent's love to the correct behavior of the child, an early education in the work ethic of children, and a command of filial piety and respect which is extended outward socially to encompass a wider range of social relations. The key characteristics of the successful Chinese businessman are friendly, face-to-face interpersonal business relations, extreme thrift and frugality, willingness to work long hours at low returns, a flexibility and willingness to meet all demands, and a basic dependability to get the job done both in the correct way and on time. There appears to be a critical moment in which the entrepreneur strikes out on his own, so to speak, to achieve a kind of independence which is the precursor of success (Chan and Chian 1994).19
In short, the successful Chinese businessman is willing to exchange hard work for small profits, and will exchange short-term costs for long term gains. On the other hand, unsuccessful businesses are marked by the proclivity to opt for short-term gains in taking unfair advantage of immediate situations, but as often as not at the expense of long-term loss.20
Psychological status identity of the Chinese can thus be said to be "filial-centric" in orientation. Inherent in this familial model of the Chinese cultural universe is the relationship between the mother and the father, which is it self cooperative-competitive, and the cooperative-competitive relationship among siblings. Understanding the central importance of family and being filial in Chinese culture leads to a basic question about the cultural patterning of overseas Chinese religion which may result in a distinctive "Chinese-spirit" of capitalism.
Different studies link overseas Chinese economic success as a "trading minority," their Confucian cultural ethos of filial piety, their family orientation, religious orientation and identity (Berger, 1988; Jaman 1994), and overseas Chinese ethnocultural pattern can be best described by the central importance placed upon the family and familial relations. The cosmological universe of the Chinese pantheon of spirits and deities is the direct symbolic extension of the core and extended possibilities of familial relationship. The deities and their unique personalities represent symbolically different aspects or facets of possibility of the Chinese personality, and hence serve as role models, or rather as guides, in defining appropriate or inappropriate behavior within the familial context. By extension we may also say that the Chinese personality and sense of self is also symbolically represented within a familial context, as a microcosm of possible familial relations in the battle of yin and yang elements. The filial ethnoculture of the Chinese is marked by an ethos of filial piety, or of respect for parents which translates into a continuing sense of duty, obligation and attachment to the parents well into adulthood. This filial ethnoculture should in theory become extended to a respect for social authority in the larger society.
In relation to ones parents, and, by extension, to the Gods of heaven, ones social context is always defined by two basic elements: the conditionality and uncontrollability of love. In the family and in the universe, love and security are never unconditional, but always relative to the quality of ones own or ones family's behavior.
No one can be sure of the continued love and devotion of the spirits of Heaven, who are fundamentally fickle and unpredictable within the stereotypical molds set down for them, just as one can never be guaranteed whether there will be continued love or support of the parents. The primary indication of one's favor with ones parents will be found vis-α-vis ones status relation with other siblings. At some point the sibling relationship becomes no longer cooperative, but competitive--just as extended family households fission after the third generation, and just as wider community groupings organize themselves and split along the lines of surname, clan, etc.
Thus the Chinese may well face an inherent sense of existential ambiguity, one that is not only structurally defined within an alien, and therefore inherently conflictual context, but one that is also culturally instilled from a very early age. Chinese can never be absolutely sure of the love and rewards of their parent-gods, but can continuously manipulate their contexts in ways that will result in good fortune. They can continue to work as if they had the favor and good fortune of their ancestors, and success in this life vis-α-vis their competitors becomes the only sure sign of such success.
Chinese-style capitalism might be considered unique in history and distinctive to the overseas Chinese who developed a merchant-middleman culture and community. It is characterized by its familially-based organization, by the development of a democratically oriented kong si system, by the rise of a middle-class of merchant middlemen/sojourning entrepreneurs who, driven by poverty, were keen to make the most of where ever they went, by the pattern of credit, money-lending, investment and share-holding characteristics of Chinese businessmen, by labor intensive handicraft and cottage industry, and by the premiums paid to achievement and risk-taking in all areas of business, from primary production or resource exploitation, processing or manufacturing, distribution and wholesaling, and to retailing and repair.
Chinese style religion and religious practices and beliefs play an important role in the predominant pattern of overseas Chinese ethnoculture and in terms of the effects this patterning has upon its social structuration (Giddens 1979, 1984; Chan & Chiang 1994:11) and action. Chinese religion is indeed central to almost everything the Chinese does: it is styled as "ancestor worship" and a conflation of the three teachings, Confucian ethos of filial piety combined with the Buddhist call for nonattachment and self-abnegation of suffering, and with Taoist spiritism.
The overseas Chinese are extremely practical and worldly in orientation. Their religion shares in the extreme practicality of their basic cultural orientation, as patterns of worship and ritual propitiation are incorporated into daily patterns of living, and explained in such basic ways, as to seem integral with everything else the Chinese does. When Chinese pray for fortune--they are not praying for an abstract notion of fortune--but for economic success ("money coming in"). It is a matter of action rather than abstraction.21
Because of their opportunistic, classist and stingy qualities, Chinese have coined an especially fitting appellation for themselves. They refer to themselves as being "money-faced," which refers to an orientation to life in which one defines ones principle relations with others in the world primarily, or even almost exclusively, in terms of money to be made or lost. As one Chinese business man told me when talking about politics, for "the Chinese there is only the money party."
A "money-faced" orientation does point up an important facet of Chinese culture which is more visible from without than within--when Chinese become so preoccupied with making money as a focal part of their culture and when money becomes the principle medium and sign of their status and security in life, it nearly precludes every other possible relationship they might have with the world.
Thus the Chinese pursue the making of money as they might a religion, because, in a very practical and symbolic way, it is their religion. Chinese culture therefore strongly reinforces an orientation that is centered on the achievement of status, or what is called "action," principally by making of money.22
Action is achieved primarily through patterns of childhood socialization and secondarily through interpersonal social relations and social manipulation of status. It is apparent that culturally speaking, having money and those status-symbols of "action" which only money can buy, fancy jewelry, clothes, a nice car, a big, luxurious home, etc., more often than not serve as principle indicators of ones social identity and sure signs of good fortune from Heaven.