The Three Teachings: From Cultural Foundation to… Frustration Cause?


In previous articles, we’ve analyzed the three most important cultural frameworks associated with China one by one: Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. We have tried to understand some of the differences as well as the many similarities between them and all in all, it should be quite obvious that the three thought currents complement one another rather nicely.

It is, however, worth noting that it took a while for the Three Teachings to coexist. For example, while Buddhism was strongly favored during the Tang dynasty, Buddhists were later persecuted by Confucians. However, as of the Ming Dynasty, it became generally accepted that the Three Teachings actually complement one another, with:

  1. Confucianism providing a societal framework which revolved around the acceptance of strict and well-articulated norms. From norms which pertain to the respect younger generations need to show toward their parents and elders to norms which pertain to the respect that needs to be shown to leaders/superiors, Confucianism represented a much-needed (even if imperfect) socio-political anchor
  2. Daoism promoting the idea of acceptance and embracing a natural, simpler way of life so as to gain clarity. This, to a significant extent, explains the relative lack of interest on behalf of the Chinese across not just decades or centuries but downright millennia when it comes to anything from cultural to economic relationships. On the one hand, it ensured the survival of the Chinese civilization despite aspects such as military shortcomings but on the other hand, it paved the way for sometimes humiliating losses such as those against the more technologically advanced European forces of the period following the First Industrial Revolution
  3. Buddhism revolving around a meaningful understanding of human suffering and responding to it through the Middle Way or, if you will, through lifestyle choices which revolve around moderation across all aspects of our existence. Once again, the moderation which characterized Chinese lifestyle choices for centuries upon centuries has its sources in Buddhism to a very meaningful degree and it is only very recently on China’s impressive timescale that disturbances started occurring

And, while we are on the topic of disturbances, many of China’s current problems have an explanation which revolves a deep understanding of the Three Teachings. These problems may seem peculiar at best and irrational at worst. After all, the life of the average Chinese citizen has improved dramatically over the past less than 50 years, so why would the population of China feel uneasy in any way? Shouldn’t each and every Chinese economic actor (from the poorest factory worker to wealthy entrepreneurs) be more than willing to bask in this relatively new-found prosperity?

Economically speaking, yes.

However, a good economic analyst needs to be able to see beneath the surface and this frequently requires the humility it takes to understand that there is more to life than… well, economics. And it’s precisely an area outside of economics which represents the key to understanding the current frustrations of the average Chinese citizen: the cultural dimension.

More specifically, the idea that dramatic economic growth (with 10%+ YOY growth rates being the norm prior to let’s say 2010) comes with socio-cultural consequences. In other words, today’s China is culturally bombarded on all fronts by concepts and constructs that are not exactly congruent with the Three Teachings. It only takes a relatively small dose of self-awareness to acknowledge the fact that here in the West, innovation is considered to be more important than strictly respecting existing norms (Confucianism), that acceptance (Daoism) is bad whereas limited ambition is desirable and that consumerist excess rather than moderation (Buddhism) represents the Western dream.

As such, China is put in a position which requires it to find a way to reconcile its deep cultural heritage (which in and of itself has been “around” longer than the average Western civilization) with today’s economic realities. Upon crunching the numbers, as we do so frequently here on, we cannot help but notice that from an economic perspective, almost everything China has done as of Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations” period has generated stellar, textbook-worthy results.

However, the same numbers do point out disturbing dichotomies every now and then:

  1. The gap between the picture of prosperity painted by the nominal GDP of China (the 2nd largest nominal GDP worldwide) corroborated with the less than stellar picture painted by the GDP Per Capita numbers (a GDP Per Capita roughly 6.5 times lower than that of the United States)
  2. Endogenous gaps such as the significant difference in terms of development between regions such as Beijing and Shanghai (with GDP Per Capita levels not yet in line with 1st world country standards, but still, firmly in 2nd world territory) compared to let’s say Western China (with GDP Per Capita levels more in line with those of 3rd world nations)
  3. The (in)famous gap between the massive success story represented by Chinese urbanization and the rural realities it left behind
  4. The impressive economic growth rates generated by China over the past few decades seen from the perspective of the frequently unsustainable expenses and debt they ended up coming with
  5. The emergence of a numerically impressive middle class corroborated with the lack of sophistication of that middle class when it comes to capital allocation

… the list could go on and on.

Among those extremes, the one brought to your attention today and illustrated by the major discrepancies between the Tree Teaching and the consumerist realities of today’s China deserves to be in the spotlight. At the end of the day, it remains to be seen how things develop from here. Will some kind of a middle ground be reached (after all, China was even able to find some middle ground between being run by the Communist Party of China and embracing free market elements) or are the culture-induced frustrations going to ultimately result in some kind of a sociological eruption (anything from political pressure to downright social unrest)?

As an observer of Chinese economic trends, you literally cannot afford to be deaf to this crucial conversation. While it is impossible to predict in which direction China will ultimately head, it is important to understand that without keeping your finger firmly on the pulse of China’s cultural realities as well, your ability to react will be greatly impaired… to put it mildly. As always, the team is here to help you ensure you have the right consultants on board to ensure it doesn’t happen.

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