“Filling all the way to the brim
Is not as good as halting in time.
Pounding an edge to sharpness
Will not make it last.”
– Lao Tzu
In the past few decades, following China’s rise in the global economy, there has been an increasing awareness of the “Chinese way” of thinking. While numerous factors and scholars have contributed to the collective mentality in modern China, the two most prominent philosophers in Chinese history, Lao Tzu and Confucius, remain very influential. Understanding their teachings can help you and your school better understand your international students from China. In this article, we will examine how the practice of moderation, as dictated by Lao Tzu and Confucius, can be used to better understand Chinese students.
The practice of moderation in all aspects of one’s life can be summed up in “Doctrine of the Mean,” one of the four books teaching the core values of Confucianism. As recently as the Qing dynasty, which ended in 1912, the doctrine played a primary role in the education of the nation’s leaders and its teachings are inseparable from the collective Chinese identity.
Emphasizing that harmony can only be achieved by avoiding excess, the doctrine covers all aspects of a person’s life, including ambition, emotions, political beliefs and relationships. One of the ways it manifests itself in Chinese society is in less emphasis being on the individual and more on the collective. In turn, your Chinese international students will likely hesitate to speak out or draw attention to themselves. They may also rely more on their parents and advisors to make decisions for them. To do otherwise would be excessively focused on the self.
A key tenant of moderation is avoiding extremes, especially emotional extremes. As the above Lao Tzu poem illustrates, leaning too far towards anger, sadness or joy will not achieve lasting results. Chinese individuals might avoid strong expressions of emotions with acquaintances or strangers – a practice that can baffle Americans, who rely on a different set of facial cues during social interactions.
In Chinese culture, withholding emotion demonstrates strength of character and steadiness in the face of adversity. Consequently, your Chinese international students might be hesitant at first to show or express outright joy, anxiety or fear at school or with their host family. Rather than taking their seemingly placid exterior at face value, take the time to check in with them frequently and listen carefully, especially in the first few months they are in the United States. Minor anxieties may reveal more deep-seated problems.
The spread of dishes of a typical Chinese banquet is a faithful representation of how moderation affects Chinese cuisine. Rich, greasy meat dishes are balanced out with lightly flavored vegetable dishes. Either dish by themselves would be too heavy or too light, but paired together you achieve the optimal dietary balance.
The practice of moderation extends even beyond basic flavor balancing and into the complex realm of ancient Chinese food therapy. According to celebrated texts, food items are divided into “hot” and “cold” categories. Hot dishes, aka red meats, fried foods and alcohol, must be balanced with cool dishes such as green vegetables.
The careful attention paid to maintaining balance is deeply embedded in the collective Chinese mentality, and your international Chinese students might struggle with the rich, carb and dairy-heavy American diet. With this in mind, you can provide them with simple and easy Chinese recipes, such as Congee or Sour Spicy Shredded Potatoes to supplement their new diet.
Above are just a few ways in which Lao Tzu and Confucius’ teachings on moderation manifests themselves in Chinese behavior. There can be hundreds of subtle ways in which the “moderate way” factors into a person’s life. When you are confronted with them behaving in an unexpected way, keep in mind the complex array of factors that could be governing your international students’ choices.