Historical Background and Cultural Differences
China is a large Asian country located in the Eastern Hemisphere, far apart, in many respects, from the Western world, which makes it a mysterious and surreal country to many Westerners.  Geographically, China is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to its west, the Himalayan Mountains to its south and southeast, and desserts as well as mountainous regions across its eastern and northern frontiers.  Due to its relative isolation, Chinese culture has developed in a semi-closed state over the millennia into an amalgamation of many peoples merged into a single society.  At 3.7 million square miles and 1.4 billion people, as many as 129 dialects are spoken in China among 56 different ethnicities.  Yet China remains united under a single writing system of over 400,000 characters, and the majority of the population is able to communicate with one another in Mandarin, the official language which is taught in the national school system.

China is also closely knit together by a shared culture, with its base solidly anchored in Confucianism.  While Confucianism has withstood many challenges over the centuries, it has remained relatively intact throughout the ages.  China has also been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and Idealism, among other cultures, but it has a remarkable ability to adopt and integrate many cultures and ethnicities into a common union.  One of the great contributions of Confucius, whose life spanned from 551 to 479 AD (under the Western calendar), was his recognition of all people as inherently good human beings who are deserving of inclusion and education, regardless of their ethnicity and cultural origin.  Consequently, China, from its beginning origins, has been able to absorb and accommodate many people under a single education system and form of governance.  Even after his death, successive governments, with few exceptions, have embraced Confucianism as the bedrock for Chinese orientation.

During his lifetime, Confucius was a philosopher, a teacher and a politician.  He believed that educating the people and developing them into wise and intelligent subjects was not only a matter of good governance, but also a means of maintaining peace, for an educated and loyal subject would not revolt against his master.  Confucius operated a private school, and he enjoyed a large following, even though other teachers and schools competed against him.  In the centuries following his death, many schools adopted his teachings as the basis for education.  These teachings were embodied by The Four Books and The Five Classics, all of which he wrote himself, with the exception of Mencius, which was written by one of his leading disciples.

The Four Books:                                       The Five Classics:

Ÿ Great Learning                                          Ÿ Book of Change

Ÿ Doctrine of the Mean                                Ÿ Collection of Ancient Text

Ÿ The Analects                                              ŸBook of Songs

Ÿ Mencius                                                      The Rites

Spring and Autumn Annals

From these tomes of work, The Three Cardinal Rules and The Five Constant Virtues evolved to become the guiding principles for Chinese society.  They were, in effect, the feudal ethical code for the political system that governed China for over two thousand years, until the turn of the twentieth century.

The Three Cardinal Rules:                        The Five Constant Virtues:

Ÿ Ruler guides subject                                Ÿ  Benevolence

Ÿ Father guides son                                     Ÿ Righteousness

Ÿ Husband guides wife                               Ÿ Propriety

Ÿ Knowledge

Ÿ Fidelity

The Three Cardinal Rules were a set of general guidelines for the people to follow.  They were to serve their feudal landlords as faithful and obedient subjects, and they were to become loyal and responsible family members too.  The rules, however, also provided a framework for local governance.  The Five Constant Virtues, on the other hand, were a set of values intended to guide feudal landlords.  These landlords were encouraged to become sage rulers who would lead their people in a just and humane manner, much like a father would care for his family.  The five virtues were based on the following principles:

  • Benevolence – goodness and compassion
  • Righteousness – justice and shamefulness of evil
  • Propriety – modesty and politeness
  • Knowledge – wisdom and learning
  • Fidelity – honesty, integrity and loyalty

Meanwhile, the Chinese government, in a succession of Dynasties, instituted the Imperial Civil Service Examination as a means to recruit people to work in government posts.  Based on the Confucian principle of equality, the examinations were open to all people, regardless of social status, including the privileged children of feudal landlords as well as serfs.  It was a means for the common people to improve their social condition.  But first, they were required to learn and become proficient in the teachings of Confucius in order to pass the examination.  Even though only the top one to two percent of the people who took the exam were offered government posts, the prospect of becoming a government official encouraged the masses to pursue an education.  Education, therefore, became a highly valued commodity in Chinese culture, which continues to persist in modern China as a means to advance oneself economically and socially.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, China began to question its political and education systems, and it underwent a period of renewal.   In 1905, it ended the Civil Service Examination and abandoned the feudal system of government.  But it was not until after 1949 that feudal education completely collapsed.  Confucianism was replaced with the study of humanities, and science and mathematics were also introduced into the school curriculum.  While The Three Cardinal Rules were no longer taught, they had long been replaced with filial piety, or family loyalty, which extended the notion of unity from family to community to nation-state.  The Five Constant Virtues also were no longer explicitly taught in school, but they continued to be deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, particularly the ideas of propriety—that is, modesty and politeness—as well as fidelity, the long tradition of honesty and integrity.  Then, in 1952, the National University Entrance Examination, a sort of resurrection of the antiquated Civil Service Examination, became a rite of passage to higher education and better jobs, retaining the high value placed on education throughout China, and the possibility of advancement for all people who apply themselves academically.

During his time, Confucius believed that students should be challenged, and he used the elicitation method of teaching.  “No vexation; no enlightenment; no anxiety, no illumination,” he said.  “If I have brought up one corner and [the student] does not return with the other three, I will not repeat.”  It may be anyone’s idea what he meant by this; he was, after all, a philosopher.  Philosophers are profound thinkers, and their message is deeply imbedded in their teachings.  It could mean that he asked questions in order to make students think and derive the correct answers in the pursuit of knowledge.  If they made no effort, he would not continue to aid them, as learning is a shared responsibility between the student and the teacher.  However, the book On Learning, an ancient educational doctrine, may provide a clue to Confucius’s intent.  “When a gentleman teaches,” it reveals, “he is good at giving instructions without forcing students to learn, so that his students understand the truth.  He enlightens them, yet he does not easily provide conclusions.”

The Confucian style of teaching and learning—which lies at the very heart of the Chinese value system—is a matter of cultural indoctrination that continues to exist in China today.  Though it is not explicitly taught, it is implicitly learned.  Consequently, the majority of Chinese people are modest and sincere in their personal behavior.  In addition, truthfulness and integrity are of utmost importance to them.  Hidden within this value system is the key to understanding them, although it is difficult to discern for Westerners, who are frank and direct in their communication.  And like Confucius, the Chinese are sensitive to other people’s feelings:  they are indirect in expressing advice or criticism—a measured approach to protecting people’s sensibilities.  It is a nuanced and polite way to allow another person to “save face” while preventing embarrassment from taking place.  Chinese people can be direct in their speech and state what they mean, but they are careful not to offend in any manner whatsoever, or to expose another person’s insecurity.

Moreover, as a matter of personal modesty, Chinese are unlikely to assert themselves as an authority on a topic, which can affect their writing style.  Unlike Westerners, Chinese often use an inductive style of writing, which uses more inference than drawing a direct conclusion.  This is easy for other Chinese to discern and understand, as it is a matter of cultural indoctrination, but it is difficult for Westerners who write deductively and reach clear conclusions.  Therefore, what may seem obvious to a person from China may be unclear to a Western reader.  Perhaps it is best explained by considering another set of Chinese values:  personal integrity and truthfulness.  To the Chinese person, who is culturally committed to honesty, a conclusion is the natural consequence—or the natural outgrowth—of the facts or the truth.  So it is less important to state the point explicitly as it is to explore the idea through a series of contemplations or reflections about the topic.

Chinese immigrants, therefore, have difficulty adjusting to Western-style academic writing.  Writing in the West follows a deductive pattern of reasoning, starting with the main point, or a topic sentence, followed by supporting reasons and the stated significance of the topic; that is, the writer a draws a conclusion for the reader’s benefit.  It is a writer-responsible form of writing, in which the writer has the responsibility for helping the reader understand the essay’s meaning.  The Chinese, on the other hand, are trained in inductive reasoning, in which the essay’s main point is not revealed at the start.  It is a reader-responsible form of writing.  It is the reader’s responsibility, then, to follow the writer’s reasoning and understand the argument.  In this style of writing, there is an artistic quality that lies in the delicacy and subtlety of the message, as opposed to its straightforwardness, much like the Confucius method of elicitation.  The reader, therefore, has the responsibility for interpreting the message and arriving at the conclusion.

This information is of vital importance to Western educators, who must help their Chinese students understand how to write academic essays in English.  It would be very helpful, then, for teachers to articulate the method for writing academic papers, starting with the introduction, followed by the body paragraphs and, finally, the conclusion.  As stated previously, academic essays use deductive reasoning to provide information and reach conclusions, starting with general information and narrowing to specific details.

For starters, the introduction should contain an opening statement or a “hook”, which could simply be a lead-in sentence or, for the creative spirit, a “catchy” statement to capture the reader’s attention.  Next, the student should provide background information that sets the stage for understanding the body of the essay, much like the opening scene of a play or a movie.  Finally, a thesis statement should round off the introduction with a general statement of intent that serves as a blueprint or a roadmap for the essay’s content; that is, the main point of the essay, including an assertion, opinion, claim or argument.

The body paragraphs should each begin with an opening statement or an assertion of their own, often referred to as a topic sentence.  The topic sentence serves the same purpose as a thesis statement, but at the paragraph level.  It introduces the main idea of the paragraph and provides an outline for what is to follow.  The body of the paragraph should contain supporting details, from general to specific, each sentence building upon the previous one and providing explanations, examples, reasons, and consequences.  Finally, a closing statement should sum up the body paragraph by describing the importance or the significance of the preceding information in a single sentence.  At times, for the more advanced writer, a transition sentence can follow the closing statement.  It helps to create connected paragraphs, but it is not a requirement.  A transition sentence can easily be constructed by selecting a key word from the present paragraph and a key word from the next paragraph, and writing a sentence connecting the two words, which will provide a transition from one idea to another.

The final paragraph of the essay is called a conclusion, and it serves the purpose of bringing the essay to a close.  The opening sentence restates the thesis, using different words than found in the original thesis statement.  The purpose of restating the thesis is to remind the reader of the main point, and to signal the approach of the essay’s conclusion.  Next, the writer can summarize—or, for the more adept writer, synthesize—the body paragraphs.  A sentence or two for each paragraph will suffice, covering the main points of the essay.  Again, this summary or synthesis of body paragraphs reminds the reader of the preceding points, and it directs both the writer’s and the reader’s thoughts toward the final conclusion.  And finally, a concluding sentence will bring the essay to a close.  The writer has a number of options to choose from.  The concluding sentence can focus attention on the significance or importance of the essay’s content, but the more skilled writer might end with a prediction, a recommendation, a challenge or a call to action.

In the end, it is the writer’s responsibility to convince the reader of his point of view, and it is the reader’s job to decide whether to agree or disagree with the author.  Specific instructions on the respective roles of the writer and the reader, and information about how to compose an academic essay, as described above, would be most helpful for a Chinese student of English who is undertaking academic writing.  Still, the teacher must also understand the Chinese student’s frame of mind and underlying culture in determining how to approach this topic and give the best possible advice that can lead to success.

For an outline of an academic essay, please scroll.  For more information about Chinese culture and history, please visit:


More Background
The first census of China since the communist takeover was compiled in 1953, in an effort to assess the human resources available for the first five years plan. At the time, the population was to be found 582,600. A second census, taken in 1964, showed an increase to 696,500,000; the third, in 1982, revealed a population of 1,008,180,00 making China the first nation ever to pass the billion mark. China’s population currently is over 1.3 billion, more than 20% of the world’s population.

Under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), education became a national priority and a function of the state. The CCP instituted universal public education, though the program’s effectiveness ceased with the launching of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.

The traditional Chinese school is typically staffed by men who have received a classical Confucian education and had taken the civil service examinations, but either failed or have passed but not taken up a government appointment, to which they are entitled. Children at the age of four should be practicing tracing and writing simple characters. At the age of eight, children begin school with primers that often imparted core Confucian doctrine in jingle form for easy memorization. At the age of fifteen students should have moved on to more advance studies, which would consist of memorizing texts from the Confucian canon and learning composition.

Written Language
Chinese characters are extremely difficult and thus learning the written language and producing it is tedious. Though this form of writing is fascinating, beautiful, logical, and one of the most scientifically constructed writing systems in the world, but until 1949, only 20% of the population was literate. The CCP pushed for literacy and by 2003, the national literacy rate had reached 86%, though a disparity still exists between the male literacy rate (93%) and female literacy (79%).

The earliest known examples of Chinese writing were found on carved tortoise shells and ox bones. The majority of these characters are pictographs. Chinese is the only major writing system of the world that has continued with its pictographs-based development. Chinese characters are classified into six different methods of character composition and use. These six categories are called the Liu Shu. The Liu Shu categories are: pictographs (hsiang hsing); ideographs (chi shih); compound ideographs (hui I); compounds with both phonetic and meaning elements (hsing sherg); characters which are assigned a new written form to better reflect a changed pronunciation (chuanchu); and characters used to represent a homophone or near homophone that are unrelated in meaning to the new world they represent (chiachieh).

Most Chinese did not consider themselves as “Daoist,” “Buddhist,” or “Confucian,”- each of these terms designate a trained specialist, such as a priest, a monk, or a bureaucrat who had passed the imperial examinations. A person who is engaged in a composite religion is simply said to be, ” worshipping the gods” or practicing the “religion of the gods.” This popular religion is referred to loosely as “Daoism,” but in fact it is reflective of the general concerns and ethical teachings of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The popular pantheon embraces figures and deities from all three traditions.

Ethnic Breakdown
In China’s population, 92% of the people are considered ethnic Hans, a reference to the great unity achieved during the Han dynasty of 206 BC to 220 AD. During this period, the people who lived in the north, central, and southern plains and basins of China united under the same written language and around the teachings of Confucius. Some of the minority nationalities, such as the Tibetans and Uighurs, can be readily defined by the virtue of their distinct homeland, culture and language. Other groups consist of Chinese Muslims (Hui) and Machus.

“China,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004. Retrieved March 7, 2004 from

Shaughnessy. E. L. (2000). China: Empire and Civilization. Oxford City: Oxford Press.

Though each Asian culture stands entirely distinct from one another, there are many shared values in Asian society that can be beneficial for second language teachers to be familiar with when working with students from these nationalities. For additional information about teaching Asian-American children, the Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative at the University of Illinois has an excellent article entitled Asian-American Children: What Teachers Should Know.

Academic Essays in English – Guidelines
-Opening statement or “hook”
-Background information
Ÿ-Thesis statement:  main point plus a claim or opinion

Body Paragraphs:
-Topic sentence:  assertion
-Supporting details
✓   Explanations
✓   Examples
✓   Reasons
✓   Consequences
-Closing statement:  significance or importance

-Restate the thesis
-Summarize or synthesize the body paragraphs
-Concluding sentence
✓   Importance or significance
✓   Recommendation
✓   Prediction
✓   Challenge
✓   Call to action

Chinese Websites Worth Surfing
Chinese Language:
Audio Tutorial of Survival Chinese:
This site offers sounds and basic sayings/words for greetings, dining, parenting, traveling, time, weather, and holidays in Chinese. The site also offers basic commands for teachers to be familiar with.

Chinese Culture:
China Online:
Here you can find information about Chinese culture, art, architecture, food, history, religion, and more.

Yutopian Online: 
Offers extensive information about the history of Christianity in China and a link that compares Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

Government Information Office: The Republic of China on Taiwan.
Provides information about the Republic of China (ROC) including its history, government, people, language, culture, as well as an overview of historical relations between China and Taiwan.
This site is a collection of links to resources of Chinese: culture, language, art, business, health, travel, and facts about China.

Websites for Teachers
Chinese Language Information Page:
This site provides a link to study the linguistics of Chinese, opportunities for teacher conferences, and ordering standardized tests in Chinese.

Chinese Historical and Cultural Project:
The CHCP is a community outreach group based out of Santa Clara County, California whose mission is to help preserve Chinese and Chinese-American culture through community outreach. Of particular interest to teachers on this site is the CHCP’s Golden Legacy curriculum, which was written to complement the state social science standards. The curriculum can be purchased on the site.

China: Dim Sum: A Connection to Chinese-American Culture
The Angier School in Newton, Massachusetts developed this thematic based website entitled Dim Sum, a Cantonese term meaning “a little bit of heart” which is a “cross curricula, integrated resource for elementary classrooms which enhances awareness and understanding of Chinese-American culture while building basic academic skills.” The site includes lessons for teachers to use in math, language arts, science, social studies, arts, celebrations, holidays, and customs.

Chinese Language Information Page:
This site provides a link to study the linguistics of Chinese, opportunities for teacher conferences, and ordering standardized tests in Chinese.

CHCP Golden Legacy Curriculum:
This site provi
des educators with an opportunity to buy a Chinese specific curriculum from the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project.

National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education:
This site offers resources for ESL/bilingual educators, links to Asian websites, additional cultural information about the Chinese, and an open forum to discuss ideas with other teachers.

Books for Students/Teachers
Fessler, L. W. (1983). Chinese in America: Stereotyped Past, Changing Present.New York: Vantage.

Fu, D. (1995). “My Trouble is My English” : Asian Students and the American Dream. New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook

Hong K. (1976). The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Vintage International

McCunn, R. (1979). An Illustrated History of the Chinese in America. San Francisco: Design Enterprises of San Francisco.

She, C. (1995). Teenage Refugees from China Speak Out. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

Wong, K. S. & Chan, S. (1998). Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities during the Exclusion Era. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Books for Parents:
Honig, B. (1985). A Handbook on California Education for Language Minority Parents, Chinese/English edition. Los Angeles: CA State Department of Education.


He, M.F. (2013). East-West epistemological convergence of humanism in language, identity, and education: Confucius-Makiguchi-Dewey. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 12, 61-70.

Ho, J. and Crookall, D. (1995). Breaking with Chinese cultural traditions: Learner autonomy in English language teaching. System, 23(2), 235-243.

Li, J. (2001). Expectations of Chinese immigrant parents for their children’s education: The interplay of Chinese tradition and the Canadian context. Canadian Journal of Education, 26(4), 477-494.

Mingyuan, G. (2014). Cultural Foundations of Chinese Education. Retrieved from

Mingyuan, G. (2006). An analysis of the impact of traditional Chinese culture on Chinese education. Frontiers of Education in China, 2, 169-190.

Moffat, D. (Producer). (2014, August 22). Inductive and inductive arguments. Videocast.  Retrieved from 

Physical maps of China

Proofreadingservice. (Producer). (2011, November 4). Writing in Chinese and English – Cultural differences.  Videocast.  Retrieved from

Proofreadingservice. (Producer). (2011, November 2). Chinese and English: Inductive and deductive logic. Videocast. Retrieved from

Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding.