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Beyond face and guānxi: foundational normative concepts and values of traditional Chinese ethics

Our discussion to this point has been on an elementary level—we might call it the “introductory course” in traditional Chinese ethics. Learning and applying the fundamentals of face and guanxi constitute only the most basic level of ethical fluency required to operate effectively in China. For many business executives, Chapters 2-4 may be as far as you want to go and perhaps as far as you need to go. However, if you are operating and thinking only at that level, you are still a stranger in a strange land, albeit one who can communicate and function with some effectiveness. For those who want to or need to function at a deeper level of understanding, this chapter is closer to an “intermediate course” in which we pull aside the curtain to reveal what is going on behind the Ethical Triad, Ethical Agility, face, and guanxi. In this chapter, we examine five normative concepts that distinguish ethical from unethical behavior within relationships: Xido (^)/ Piety or Hierarchy, Li (fja)/Propriety, Zhi (f=i')/Wisdom, Yi (^/Uprightness, and Ren (^/Humaneness. Because such issues are of concern to many Westerners, we give consideration to the intersection of these concepts with

Harmony hexie

Figure 5.1 Five normative concepts of relationships and three foundational values of Chinese ethics

gender as well as LGBTQ+ citizens within China. We then describe three foundational values—harmony, strategic competition, and collectivism over individualism—that undergird not just relationships, but Chinese ethics, etiquette, society, and culture more broadly. The general framework we outline in this chapter is illustrated in Figure 5.1.

As we dive more deeply into details of Chinese ethics we will come to appreciate two essential verities that are applicable to every attempt to compare and reconcile different systems of ethics. First, we will find that the traditional Chinese system of ethics is complete in itself and uniquely defines and governs relations among persons, families, and groups in a way that is elementally different in nature to the ethical and religious precepts predominating in the West. At the same time, whatever their respective metaphysical, epistemological, or religious origins might be, there is, at the end of the day, a certain unity of purpose for all systems of ethics that would govern human interaction and social construction. It would take us very far afield to speculate on the question of whether it is possible to discern commonalities or achieve a synthesis of every major ethical system into one “global ethics.” However, in this chapter we will, when possible, point out some of the more plausible points of connection between Chinese and Western approaches to ethics. Moreover, because of the great number of topics covered, instead of case studies at the end of the chapter, we will in each instance immediately describe ways the concepts can be put into practice, sometimes drawing on our discussions in previous chapters.

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