Eating Bitterness

January 15, 2011

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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