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Home  /  Inside China  /  The Triviality of Emotions in the Chinese Culture – A Source of Self Suppression or Emotional Freedom?
The Triviality of Emotions in the Chinese Culture – A Source of Self Suppression or Emotional Freedom? print version
Though they are too general at times, Sulamith Potter's conclusions regarding the difference between the importance of emotions in western and Chinese cultures emphasize not only the non-productive value of emotions in China, but also the freedom in their expression.

In the chapter The Cultural Construction of Emotion in Rural Chinese Social Life from her 1988 book, China's Peasants: The Anthropology of a Revolution, Sulamith Potter tackles the importance of emotions in Chinese social life, through her anthropologist experience in rural Chinese villages in Dongguan (东莞) county, Guangdong. She states that unlike the US culture, in China, expression of emotions is not constructive of the social order and interpersonal ties. Deeds, work and a behavior which carries symbolic moral significance are much more meaningful than emotions in China's cultural sphere.

According to Potter, individuality and personal characteristics in China are not derived from the way one deals with emotions, but rather from his or her social status, family members and meaningful deeds. The linking line between one's self and his or her social role doesn't involve the expression of emotions. Moreover, in the Chinese society, discussing emotions is often considered irrelevant and meaningless.

Some of Potter's assumptions have been suggested by fellow anthropologists earlier on, particularly concerning the way emotions are disregarded in China. However, while some scholars suggest that Chinese see the free and unrestrained expression of emotions as problematic and as a possible threat to the existing social order (based on traditional Chinese values, such as the attitude of traditional Chinese medicine towards excessive expression of emotions or the concept of shame, ‘losing face' (丢脸 diulian), which is induced by an impulsive and emotional behavior), Potter actually observed that in rural China there is no such negative attitude toward emotional expressiveness. She claims that while emotions are trivial, their expression is also regarded as such; it is socially understood that people sometime express emotions and such expression isn't considered problematic in any sense.

Thus, Chinese, according to Potter, aren't afraid or shamed by expression of emotions, even in an extrovert manner. Emotions are ok, as long as no special importance is given to them, as long as they have no concrete effect on personal ties, social order or the political sphere. Potter states that the Communist Party doesn't object the expression of anger toward its policies by civilians, as long as such anger remains a ‘feeling' and isn't translated into opinions and ‘rational' judgment or criticism. 

If Potter's conclusions are accurate, then some common assumptions about the importance of emotion suppression by Chinese could be contradicted to some extent. Perhaps the fact that one's emotions cannot become constructive or the root of his or her 'meaningful' actions (if this is possible at all) necessarily involves some self repression, but on the other hand, the dichotomy which exists between the inner self and the social sphere (even between the self and a spouse, family members, one's own children, etc) means that Chinese perhaps shouldn't take his or her emotions too seriously.

There is no visible link between emotions and behaviors, therefore one doesn't need to feel shameful or worried, even when he or she experiences extreme and irrational emotions. Because one isn't used to talk about his or her emotions seriously with close friends or family members, then he or she might learn to take such emotions in porportions. Therefore, perhaps less guilt is produced by emotions in Chinese people compared to members of other cultures, and even extreme emotions are more easily self-contained by the Chinese individual(Potter even considers whether the Oedipus Conflict is less significant in China due to this difference).

Potter's article can raise an infinite number of discussions and elaborations (as well as criticism, skepticism and calls for new investigation in-line with 2010 China), but is mainly providing an interesting view on how the triviality of emotions could sometimes actually promote their containing by the society and the individual.

Source: Potter, Sulamith H.; Potter, Jack M. China's peasants: the anthropology of a revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


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