The stereotype of the hard working Chinese has been around for a long time in the West. As early as 1894, Arthur Smith, a missionary who spent 54 years in China, wrote books introducing the hard-working Chinese people to Americans. In his book Chinese Characteristics, Smith wrote about the diligence of not just a single group of Chinese, but of all Chinese: young and old, rich and poor, farmers and scholars.
Smith is not the only foreign guest to note that the Chinese are an extremely hardworking people. In 1895, an American missionary in Beijing noted that Chinese people often worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, tirelessly. Later, in the early 20th century, British and American government officials serving in China also commented that Chinese people were thrifty, careful, and without rest. Carl Crow, an American newspaper man and businessman who opened up the first Western advertising agency in Shanghai in the 1940s, said in his book The Chinese Are Like That: "If it is true that the devil can only find work for idle hands, then China must be a place of very limited satanic activities."
Chinese literature and folklore have many moral tales about industrious farmers and peasants. The willingness to work hard and make maximum use of time has been highly valued in China since ancient times. Stories abound about farmers who go to their fields even during holidays, or of peasants who think not only of themselves and their families, but also of their community and future descendants.
This Chinese trait of being unselfish and hardworking continues. Today, unselfish thinking, combined with the willingness to work hard, has given the Chinese a global reputation of having a stable and industrious work force. Western employers note that the values and beliefs of the Chinese work force are compelling: The Chinese value education, the virtue of hard work, and they always seek to better themselves. Whether working in the fields or in the factories, Chinese accept work as a necessity. They are willing to do more, go beyond the minimum, because they assume that their work will benefit them and their families. Because of this extended benefit, Chinese do not complain about working hard.
This work ethic is not exclusive to adults. All over China you will find children and young students attending extra-curricular classes. Students go to prep schools, often until late at night, and/or during the weekends. Part of these activities may be related to the intense competition that Chinese students face, but part of it is based upon the desire to excel academically.
Hard work brings rewards. If you ask a simple Chinese farmer about his goals and dreams, he will tell you that he desires to retire, with plentiful cash and content family members. No one really wants to do back-breaking work all his life. But the question remains: Why do Chinese people work so hard, regardless of age or occupation?
One answer rests in socialization. Chinese people are socialized differently than Westerners. They grow up with different values, including a different estimation about the importance of working hard. Hard work is affirmed as a virtue by Chinese culture, as opposed to a necessity by American culture. For youth, Chinese textbooks and social activities (plays, movies) emphasize this as well.
Hard work is also part of the national ethic. The Chinese leadership is committed to building the country into a strong, successful, global nation and the country urges its citizens to participate in this process. Diligence is part of political consciousness. Moreover, this political awareness fits into the economic ethic of Chinese entrepreneurship.
In China, an entrepreneur is not just a small time capitalist businessman. He is someone who is willing to invest his resources (land, labor, capital) and look toward a long-term goal. The Chinese entrepreneur seeks to improve his life and also the material well-being of a group around him—his family, his community, and his nation. True, Chinese entrepreneurs want security. They tend to be conservative and frugal, in opposition to Western risk takers. They also tend to seek to benefit the group rather than themselves alone. This Chinese entrepreneurial ethic is found not just among businessmen, but also in every occupation, gender and age. It encompasses agriculture, industry, studying for exams and keeping a shop. The quest for material gain, a financially secure family, and a peaceful, prosperous nation has been the goals of Chinese people for ages.
Today, Chinese culture also has strategies that allow for economic mobility. By diversifying investments, extended study, or key partnerships, many Chinese have become not only secure but also very wealthy. Could the Western world learn something from Chinese diligence? Certainly China's current economy reflects cultural values that benefit all people.
The author is an American living in China