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Chinese Cultural Studies:
Understanding "Culture"


The Brooklyn College Core 9 course looks at the "culture" rather than just the history, or art, or literature of the various world societies we cover.

So what is culture?

High Culture

One meaning of "culture" is "high culture", by which we often mean the artistic tastes of a society's educated elite - for instance in New York, going to the Opera, or to the Museum of Modern Art might be considered "cultural" activities. This meaning of the word is important, especially in China which has a long tradition of high regard for education, but there is a wider meaning of "culture" that we will use in Core 9.

A Wider Meaning of "Culture"

Anthropologists have let us understand that the culture of a people can be understood as the system of shared ideas and meanings, explicit and implicit, which a people use to interpret the world and which serve to pattern their behavior. This concept of culture includes an understanding of the art, literature, and history of a society, but also less tangible aspects such as attitudes, prejudices, folklore and so forth. In other words unconscious, or even conscious, mental habits are just as important as art and history in understanding what a culture is.

New York City "Culture"

Let us take an example from a place we all know - New York City. New York is, officially at least, part of the United States and its inhabitants participate in (and in fact create much of ) the general American culture. Many Americans outside the city regard it as dirty, dangerous, and rude. And many New Yorkers agree with them. Yet the strange thing is that, unless they are specifically trying to be rude, New Yorkers are extraordinarily polite to one another: for instance, it is very common for people to address each other as "sir" or even "Madame", and an unknown woman is almost always referred to as "that lady". I suggest that to understand New York, one has to become conscious that along with the general American culture, and along with all the myriad ethnic sub-cultures of the city, there is a set of shared knowledge, assumptions, and mental habits that constitute a "New York Culture".
This culture includes:

You may have a different view of New York, but you should get the point. What makes New York culture is almost as much what is NOT talked about as what IS talked about. To people from other parts of the world, until they get "Newyorked", the way New Yorkers behave can seem weird, but once the "culture" is grasped, the city makes more sense. The famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz put it like this:

"understanding a people's culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity...It renders them accessible: setting them in the frame of their own banalities, it dissolves their opacity"
[The Interpretation of Cultures, p.14, (New York: 1973)].

What Makes Up a Culture?,

Historian Patricia Ebrey suggests that if we really want to understand a culture the following features of a society are worth looking at (some may overlap):-

Values - What people say one ought to do or not do. What is considered good and bad.
- For instance, the importance of honesty, or chastity.

Laws - What political authorities have decided people should do, and what the sanctions are.
- For instance - laws about murder and robbery.

Rules - What a society has decided its members should do, and the sanctions imposed.
- For instance social rules about marriage ages, childrearing.

Social Categories- Ways of thinking about people as types.
- For instance "kings", "friends", "Criminals", "lovers", "nobles", "clergy". [Note that not all these categories exist in all societies.]

Tacit Models - Implicit standards and patterns of behavior that a person does not think about.
- For instance, knowing how to address police officer rather than friends. Knowing how to dress for a job interview as opposed to a dance.

Assumptions - Implicit, not usually articulated ideas and beliefs.
- For instance, a belief that hard work will be repaid, or the belief that things will get better (for a long time this was a defining aspect of American culture.)

Fundamental - Categories and ways of thinking that people take for granted and may not recognized even when pointed out.
- For instance, thinking in dualities good/bad, male/female, beastly/godly.
- Classifying insects but not plants as living beings. Seeing history as circular or as straight line towards a definite goal.

[Note: For a more extended discussion of this approach, see Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook, (New York: Free Press, 1981), xxvii-xxxiii]

Rounding Out Our Idea of Culture with History and Arts

Since I am a historian, not an anthropologist, I have one big reservation about the basically anthropological approach to culture outlined here. It does not take enough account of the importance of the history and "high" culture of a people. To get a rounded picture, it is also necessary, I am sure, to look at more formal aspects of society such as:-

- The structure of government (monarchy, aristocracy, bureaucracy). Central and local government.

Economic Life
- How wealth is owned and transferred (through family ties, money), the type of production (farming, industry, services).

Social Structure
- The class system, gender roles,

- Religious organization, belief systems, clergies

- Types of literature (oral, written), extent of literacy

- Place of art in society, methods, purposes

Document Information:

Sep 1 1995: This document was prepared by Paul Halsall for the "Core 9: Studies in Latin American, African and Asian Societies" course at Brooklyn College.