Eating Bitterness

Mainland Chinese are different. They are willing to eat more bitterness than others to learn.

The reason I’m writing this post is due to Amy Chua’s Essay in The Wall Street Journal and a response from Funny Little World where Nang Ngot wrote in a comment, “You can have a system like China that churns out smart but obedient drones. There, the collective behavior guides the intellect.”

Mainland Chinese are not obedient drones any more than all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus are obedient drones within their cultures.

Within every culture, each person is an individual. In China, the difference is how the individuals see themselves in relation to the whole. That does not make them drones.

There’s even an ancient Chinese saying that supports being disobedient, which explains why the central government in Beijing is having so much trouble with corruption at the local level. “The emperor lives behind high walls and is a long ways from our village.”

In simple language this means, “What the emperor doesn’t know won’t hurt us.”

Where Jews and Christians have the Bible and Islam has the Quran, the Chinese have a culture governed by a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism and in part by Buddhism.

The Chinese do not need a temple, church or mosque to tell them what to believe and how to act.

Although there is no Confucian bible, the basic guide that Confucius left behind is as significant as the Ten Commandments, the Bible and the Quran.

In Chinese culture, those guidelines were designed for living a moral life and the family teaches the children as the child grows into an adult.

The Chinese family has done this for thousands of years until it became part of the culture, as Christianity is to the West and Islam is to the Middle East. says, “A hallmark of Confucius’ thought is his emphasis on education and study.”

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing for the New York Times, says, “Perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement — along with remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call “chi ku,” or “eating bitterness”.

Kristof  is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College and then studied law at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, graduating with first class honors. He later studied Arabic in Cairo and Chinese in Taipei.

Kristof writes, “China used to be one of the most sexist societies in the world — with female infanticide, foot binding, and concubinage — but it turned a corner (in 1949 when Mao said women hold up half the sky) and now is remarkably good at giving opportunities to girls as well as boys….”

At China Education, I learned that many scholars believe the history of education in China started in the 16th century B.C., and Confucianism has had the largest impact on education for more than two thousand years of Chinese history.

In fact, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 219 AD) a form of public education was established. Not only for the elite but also for the common man so both would become better gentlemen.

In contrast, it wasn’t until 1918 that all states in the US had laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school. In 1900, only 6% of children graduated from high school. By 1996, 85% were graduating from high school.

Compared to China, the importance of earning an education in the United States is relatively new and doesn’t have as strong of a cultural component.

Discover more on this topic at Mean Chinese Supermoms are Right while Positive Self-Esteemism is Wrong


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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4 Responses to Eating Bitterness

  1. Nang Ngot says:

    We observe, we judge (right or wrong), and we change. The right to judge is inherent, unless it’s taken away. Is the Eastern culture beyond critique? Is it the model culture? Is it perfect and there’s no change? Didn’t Confucius encourage self reflection?

  2. Nang Ngot says:

    Of course not! Mainland Chinese or Asians are not drones in the literal sense. The word drone is used loosely, similar to how Amy Chua used “Chinese” loosely to include Indians, Koreans, Thais, etc. For individuals to be drones, their cerebrums would have to be removed and replaced with highly advanced smart phones.

    Drones, in that Asians are more drone-like than, say, Americans. There are individualism and collectivism in both, but there’s more collectivism in Asians due to the high focus on honor, respect, and obedience taught through Confucianism for thousands of years. The father teaches the son to be absolute obedient; And in time, the son becomes the teacher with the voice to teach his own son to be obedient; And, amongst his own peers, the son be obedient to a chosen one.

    Because of these ingrained values, the masses in such a system are more easily steered. The head and the heart are both important. But in the Asian culture, the heart usually wins out. Such systematic feature can lead to faults in the culture resulting in stagnation, manipulation, and extremes.

    That’s not to say that Confucianism or the East is bad, that the West is good, or that the middle East is worst. All cultures are beautiful. There are beauties in the human ingenuity and in the human spirit in triumph over oppression, endurance in hardship, sacrifice for close ones. The beauties of the human spirits are exhibited in all cultures, from East to West, from North to South. They’re told and re-told over a coffee table, a meal of rice, or a share of bread over the dessert sand. They’re recorded in history books, in songs, in poems; They’re showcased in pyramids, in rice paddies, and in the mediums that we exchange ideas.

    But there are weaknesses in the Eastern culture. And too, there are weaknesses in the Western culture. And too, there are weaknesses in other cultures. Sometime, the weakness itself is in the very virtues that we overly stress.

    Honor, respect, and obedience run deep. It’s a beauty, but can also an Achilles’ heel.

    China is changing, its culture is slowly changing. But is it changing for the good of all, or is it changing for the good that it sees.

    • Nang Ngot,

      True and very well said. Thank you. It would be nice to see China’s critics admit that their own cultures also have flaws. As you said, no cultue is perfect so what gives say a Western culture the right to judge an eastern culture?

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