> topics > Sociology

Essentialism sheds light on Chinese cultural identity

WEI QINGWANG, SHI KAN | 2017-02-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Chinese New Year Parade was held on Jan. 28 in the Belgian capital of Brussels. The far-flung celebration of the lunar Chinese festival promotes Chinese culture, boosts cultural confidence, and facilitates cultural exchange in the diverse world.


Since modern times, any discussion of Chinese culture is always colored by the period of history when the nation fought back and survived against the invasion of Western powers, which even today results in a predominantly negative attitude and fierce criticism of the culture, accompanied by positive commentary based on various mentalities at all levels.

Previous studies on intellectual history in modern China conducted an in-depth analysis of the various schools of research in the early Republic of China and Western culture, summarizing it as a conflict between antiquity and modernity as well as China and the West. In the debate, some held that Chinese culture should make a complete changeover, drawing on Western experience, whereas others argued that the nature of Chinese culture is different from that of Western culture, and that they both had their advantages. No doubt the position that sought to learn from the West was courageous and complied with the reality of the times, but it threatened the Chinese people’s cultural identity. In contrast, the latter can easily be misinterpreted as sticking to old-fashioned rules. However, it not only represents a natural resistance against the negation of tradition but also stands to be beneficial to the continuation of Chinese cultural identity. 

The love-hate relationship Chinese people feel toward their own culture reflects a complex coping mechanism in the face of a cultural identity crisis. Hence, the dynamics should not be simplified as a positive or negative attitude in a single dimension.


Increase self-image
In modern times, China underwent a perennial identity crisis following its repeated defeats by Western powers, which can be fundamentally attributed to the fact that many found themselves in groups that are devalued compared to the West. According to social identification theories, people mainly act on four motives when they identify with a group: increased self-esteem, enhanced epistemic security, a greater sense of belonging and diminished existential terror. When one feels the group one identifies with is devalued, the foremost motive in group identity—increasing self-image—will be in jeopardy while other motives will also suffer collateral damage. Note that the others motives will not be hindered unless the goal of increasing self-image takes the first hit. 



When members in a devalued group look for improvement, their actions are shaped by their views on permeability. If an individual believes that he or she can still progress in society despite group membership—or in other words, group boundaries are permeable—he or she will adopt a personalized strategy and try to distance himself or herself from the group and be seen as an individual. If an individual believes that there is no chance of advancement because group boundaries are impermeable, they will begin to identify with the group and act collectively with fellow group members to improve the situation.

At this point, the devalued group may choose to compare with high-status groups in a different set of dimensions, redefine existing dimensions or select different groups for comparison.

Influenced by Western culture, the Chinese cultural identity crisis in the early 20th century put Chinese people’s self-esteem at risk. Thanks to subjective and objective conditions, China cultural groups had low social mobility into Western cultural groups. Therefore, many people adopted a social creativity strategy to increase self-image, which was manifested in a comparison with the West in dimensions other than science and democracy.

For example, some argued that though Chinese culture lags behind the West in science, it is clearly superior in terms of morality.

The comparison on different dimensions, as a whole, composes the dual narratives in the antiquity-modernity, China-West controversies. With an emphasis on the varied nature of Chinese and Western cultures, the Chinese find a way to ease the sense of inferiority instead of judging who is superior.

It is worth mentioning that people who adopted a perspective of cultural heterogeneity are not against transforming Chinese culture through engagement with the West. To understand the underlying psychological mechanisms, it is necessary to introduce the discussion on cultural essentialism.


Cultural essentialism
Essentialism refers to the belief among laypeople that many categories have essences. It is an implicit theory. People are typically branded essentialists when they claim that social categories have deeply rooted biological underpinnings that are historically invariant and culturally universal or that their boundaries are sharp and not susceptible to sociocultural shaping.

In a survey conducted by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology, 40 social categories were rated on nine elements of essentialism. These elements formed two independent dimensions, representing the degrees to which categories are understood as natural kinds and as coherent entities with inherent cores, respectively.

One dimension combines judged naturalness, necessary characteristics, immutability, discreteness and historical stability. The second dimension of essentialist beliefs combines the elements of informativeness, uniformity, inherence and exclusivity.

The study found that the more a social category is understood as a natural and coherent entity, the more likely people will hold essentialist beliefs toward it.

An individual’s essentialist views on a social category and his attitude toward the ingroup and outgroup are closely associated. In terms of group recognition, people with essentialist beliefs are more concerned with information consistent with stereotypes and often process superficial information, thus reinforcing the stereotype.

In the meantime, they are inclined to explain group differences, particularly categories that are understood as natural kinds, such as race, based on inherent biological factors. It somewhat provides an explanation for why minority groups remain marginalized under the status quo.

Also, stronger endorsement of essentialist beliefs was associated with more negative stereotypes toward outgroups and a lower interest in having contact with outgroup members. In this light, individuals might identify even more strongly with their ingroup and show biases against outgroup members.

In particular, for minority group members, essentialist beliefs will make them more rigidly attached to their ingroup.

However, taking social power dynamics into consideration, essentialist thought has a positive effect by serving as a powerful tool to protect cultural uniqueness. Presumably, for majority groups, essentializing group differences appears to fuel the motivation to exclude minority group members in order to preserve existing power structures and to prevent ingroup resources from being exploited by outgroups. For minority groups, on the other hand, essentialism seems to enhance group cohesiveness as well as strengthen the will to resist domination and to conserve their own traditions and cultural heritage. All in all, the theory of cultural essentialism is applicable to analyze the antiquity-modernity, China-West controversies in the early Republic of China.


In the contemporary era, as many scholars argued, globalization should not be a generalization of a specific culture or the dominance of one culture over another. Rather, it should be a process of restructuring and interaction among all cultural entities. Renowned Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong once said that Chinese culture is a product of multicultural integration and construction, with the early formative Han culture as the core, and a process of constant interaction with other ethnic cultures and cultures of other states that continues to this day.

Recently, a new perspective emerged in cultural studies called polyculturalism. Polyculturalism assumes that cultural traditions are not independent sui generis lineages but rather interacting systems. Individuals are influenced by multiple cultures and thereby become conduits through which cultures can affect each other. Likewise, the concept explains how cultures are changed by contact with other cultures, enabling richer psychological theories of intercultural influence.
Apparently, cultural essentialism and polyculturalism share that establishing a cultural identity is a dynamic process.

On the surface, cultural essentialism and polyculturalism appear to contradict each other. However, an intervention study on cultural essentialism by Michael Morris, an expert on cultural psychology from Columbia University, discovered that the theory that aims to raise awareness and to sensitize individuals to cultural differences does not lead to exclusion of other cultures. In reality, it is positively related to both open-mindedness and cognitive cultural intelligence over time.

To say the least, the combination of subject consciousness in culture and historical consciousness in social change can not only explain the antiquity-modernity, China-West controversies in the 20th century but also offer some suggestions to guide the Chinese cultural identity strategy in the 21st century. Only when Chinese culture builds upon the two perspectives can it achieve the rejuvenation of Chinese traditional culture in a universal sense.


Wei Qingwang and Shi Kan are from the Department of Psychology at Renmin University of China.