Italy vs China – An Intercultural Comparison

7 Jun

Ever since I fell in love with an Italian, I’ve started building my case for this theory: that although Italy and China on the surface couldn’t appear more dissimilar, many cultural values each country holds dear are remarkably close. I actually love thinking about this topic, since I have a huge affinity for both cultures, and my interaction with both Chinese and Italian culture have irrevocably shaped my life’s path.

It’s important to note that culture is often compared to an iceberg.  What’s visible is merely a tiny fraction of the whole entity, and it’s what is below the waterline that is likely to cause a horrendous impact.

Historically, there is a great deal of common ground for my theory.  Both Italy and China are ancient civilizations, responsible for structures and inventions that still shape our modern societies.  And at least one historian, Gavin Menzies, claims that the Chinese “sparked the Italian Renaissance and that Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions were directly influenced by Chinese technical drawings.” And in more recent history, both cultures have experienced totalitarian regimes.

Certainly, what I would call the “external expressions” of Italian and Chinese culture appear radically different.  Consider the architecture, music, food, and certainly, personal expression. Consider the stereotypical gregarious and affectionate Italian, vs the calm and stoic Chinese. Even the commonly held myth that Marco Polo brought pasta from China and introduced it to Italy has been debunked, thanks to documents predating his trip (such as a will and testament that bequeath pasta to a fortunate relative).

Yet still, consider the importance of food to each culture.  In my life, I have only ever been scolded at a Chinese or Italian restaurant – these cultures take everything involving their food so seriously.  They know the way, after millennia, how their food must be prepared, so don’t bother asking for olive oil with your bread in Italy, or for pork-free ma-po dofu in China.  And food is the ultimate social tool – you take time to savor these meals, and to cherish them with the people who are closest to you.

Speaking of which, family and relationships are paramount.  In both cultures, whom you know means everything.  I’ve been told in Rome, it is simply not possible to get a job without an insider connection, and once you know the right person, you’ve got it.  In China, business is conducted on the strength of the relationships (guanxi) you possess.  On a darker note, both Italy and China have birthed feared organized crime syndicates – the Mafia (Sicily)/Camorra (Napoli), and Triads in China.  In both countries, the organizations were originally conceived as de facto resistance/rebel forces.

Hierarchy and position in both societies are taken very seriously, and it is expected in both cultures to use formal titles, unlike our “low-hierarchy” North American culture where first names, regardless of status, are far more common.  And cultivating “face,” one’s external presentation to the world is embraced in both cultures – where a great deal of emphasis is placed on well-known status symbols – such as the right watch, and the right car.  Interestingly, the Chinese are now one of the top consumers of luxury products in the world – many of which are Italian labels such as Lamborghini, Prada and Versace.

One other area where I see a striking similarity is in the Italian and Chinese approach to rules.  In North America we have a rather rigid approach to rules.  It’s simple – people who follow rules and laws are respected.  People who break or circumvent them are criminals and worthy of contempt.  Our attitude seems well and just, but consider the luxury that allows it to be so.  In culture, its important to avoid a stance of “this is what we do, therefore it’s right; and anything different is wrong.” In Canada and the US, what are our options when we feel that a rule/law is unjust?  We have many.  We can vote someone in or out of office, start a march, create an advocacy group, write letters to the editor, organize a protest, etc. etc. etc.  In Italy, the bureaucratic process to simply pay a bill is crushing (I was told by an acquaintance here that a TV cable company would only cancel his service if he produced a death certificate).  For centuries, Italians have found creative ways to get around the laws on the books, and all agree that not to do so would be impossible to live.  In China, there is a saying, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” and again, it is widely acknowledged that to survive one must understand how to circumvent rules.  In both countries, being a scoff law is not only tolerated, it is respected. This is a very challenging aspect for North Americans conducting business in China, but it can be helpful to be aware that this is an issue, and to understand the reason why.

So, what do you think of this theory?  Last week, I was gratified to meet a British woman who was transferred to Italy after working in Asia, as her employer felt that her time in Asia gave her the culture skill set to succeed in Italy.


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