Confucianism is invisible to most foreigners unless they know what to look for. It can be one of the biggest obstacles to living in Confucianist countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Korea or Japan. Unless a foreigner learns knows how the rules work, many of the things people in these countries do could make no sense, be frustration, or downright contradictory to western thoughts of common sense.
The five basic precepts for a “harmonious society” (read the PDF linked here) in a confucianist country are:
1. Ruler and subject
2. Father and son
3. Husband and wife
4. Oldest son and younger brothers
5. Elder and junior i[/i]
Essentially, those “lower” i[/i] in each rule and in order of rules from 1 to 5 are expected to concede, obey and give way to those who are “higher”. If one doesn’t, one is “disrupting the harmony” (or the “wa” as the Japanese would call it). The problem foreigners find, especially westerners, is that our meritocracy (respect is earned, not inherited) contradicts this; ability, education, knowledge, skill and other factors are less important in determining status in a confucianist country than are gender, position and age. The western concept that every person deserves the same respect, whether socially higher or lower, does not compute in the confucianist mind.
Taiwan and Japan are not as strict on adhering to these rules as are the other countries because Taiwan has heavily interacted with westerners for long periods of time (the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British) while Japan’s confucianism focuses on submitting to other people’s interests, rather than having them bend to one’s own will. It’s nowhere near as bad as living with the Koreans or mainland Chinese, but even so, westerners can experience problems when living and working here, so here’s a basic breakdown of what they mean:
1. Ruler and subject:
Those in authority expect total complicity and obedience from those below. Employers often expect employees to be on-call 24/7, to be available for things outside of work, to complete work on their own time and unpaid. As well, the concept of sharing information is seen as unnecessary; employers think it is perfectly acceptable to tell employees information at the last minute, or to change instructions or requirements without notice.
2. Father and son (or parent and child, if you don’t want to be sexist):
Children are expected to similarly obey and not talk back to their elders. However, this does not end when the child reaches adulthood. As long as there is an older generation, the “child” is expected to obey, even a 50 year old man with a 75 year old father. Often there can even be conflict within a family - a young generation is told one thing by the parents, then the grandparents may contradict it, and the child may lose no matter which person they obey because the other older person punishes him or her.
3. Husband and wife:
Taiwan is more egalitarian about gender than most Asian countries, but there is still some subtle sexism. Males are often valued more and given better treatment or more money and time spent on them. Count how many girls and how many boys there are in your school. In Korea, boys always outnumbered girls in classrooms; in all my own classes here in Taiwan, that is true as well. I would imagine it’s true for most who read this.
One big difference between Korea and Taiwan: men carry their own bags here, not expecting their wives to, and Taiwanese men on the MRT stand to let their wives/girlfriends sit down.
4. Oldest son and younger brothers:
Similar to rule 2, age makes a difference in how people relate. The younger child(ren) may be subjected to bullying or getting less and told to accept it. Again, Taiwan is more egalitarian so I rarely see it here.
5. Elder and junior (or, friend and friend):
The wording may suggest age is the main factor, but how “close” you are to a person plays a bigger role. Although generally all people will be met with friendliness by confucianists, if a choice has to be made about loyalty and defending others, those “closer” will be chosen, even if the choice conflicts with right and wrong or legality. A confucianist will defend someone within their family, their circle of friends, their workplace or their government, even if a crime is involved, because it is expected of them. This is one of the main reasons corruption is rampant in business and government - people “look the other way” when a “superior” is on the take.
It also applies when dealing with foreigners - they are not Taiwanese, so loyalty is always first to countrymen. This is not “racism” or xenophobia in the typical sense of disliking foreigners, merely people doing what is expected of them, following the rules.
What’s not said in the rules:
When the five rules are combined and personal knowledge is removed (i.e. the Taiwanese are interacting with total strangers) the effects become even more remarkable and noticeable. For example:
Drivers do not know each other, so whoever gets to a space first expects to go first. Some will even force their way in with their car, making the situation “give up or crash” to the other driver. This is also why drivers weave back and forth in lanes without concern for those behind them: the drivers behind are strangers, so the Taiwanese see no need to respect them.
People walking show no concern for those around them. This is why the Taiwanese will walk down the middle of a stairway, blocking the way for anyone else who may come along, or will walk five across and block a sidewalk, put their shopping cart in the middle of an escalator or block an aisle in a store. It even applies to standing and talking in doorways or to blocking the way in halls and on sidewalks: they don’t know those walking around them. You will even experience this on buses and the MRT - if you are facing a Taiwanese person, they will walk around you, but if your back is to them, they will bump into you from behind (even if there is sufficient room to go around you) because you are “not there”, your face is not visible.
Property is anonymous. This is why you will see spit on the floor inside buildings, cars dented in hit and run, litter dropped on the ground or put on people’s vehicles, or people sitting on the hoods of cars and seats of scooters and bicycles which are not their own, among other things. If the owner is not there, the confucianist sees no need to respect the property. There is no deliberate vandalism, it’s more carelessness and being unconcerned with the effects.
I want to make it clear: I am not inferring that this is deliberate arrogance or rudeness. Rather, I would characterize it as obliviousness, that confucianists only follow conventions on courtesy and politeness where it is expected by their own rules, and where they don’t have to show it, they don’t.
Westerners actually do the same thing, but in reverse: when we are with strangers or social “superiors”, we show more politeness than we would with close friends. When we are with people closest to us, we are most willing to drop formality and act with familiarity, and to the Taiwanese who you become friends with, speaking with familiarity and crudity as we do may be uncomfortable to them.
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Some people (usually wearing rose-tinted glasses or just off the boat) are not going to like what I’ve said, some are even going to call it racism. But do yourself a favour: be objective and watch what people do. With the exception of Taiwanese who have lived in western countries for significant lengths of time, these observations are generally true.