Field of Science

Does Chinese culture reflect a lack of monotheism?

By now, most people will have heard the tragic case of Yueyue, the two-year old Chinese girl who was knocked down by two different drivers, lying for 7 minutes before any of the passers-by stopped to help. The case has caused a lot of soul-searching, in China and elsewhere. The best commentary I've read on it is this one by Lijia Zhang (who is, apparently, a rocket-factory worker turned freelance journalist!).

Zhang points out, as many other commentators have, that recent legal cases have resulted in punishments for good Samaritans. Unlike other commentators, Zhang doesn't just blame this on the communist past or on the recent transition to a market economy. In fact, it seems to have deep-seated historical precedents. Here, for example, is an account by John Barrow, a member of the first British embassy to Beijing in 1792:

In the course of our journey down the grand canal we had occasion to witness a scene, which was considered as a remarkable example of a want of fellow-feeling. Of the number of persons who had crowded down to the banks of the canal several had posted themselves upon the high projecting stern of an old vessel which, unfortunately, breaking down with the weight, the whole groupe tumbled with the wreck into the canal, just at the moment when the yachts of the embassy were passing. Although numbers of boats were sailing about the place, none were perceived to go to the assistance of those that were struggling in the water. They even seemed not to know that such an accident had happened, nor could the shrieks of the boys, floating on pieces of the wreck, attract their attention. One fellow was observed very busily employed in picking up, with his boat-hook, the hat of a drowning man (p283 of Travels in China).

Barrow gives a few other examples, and explains that this behaviour is entrenched in legal customs: under Chinese law of the time, good Samaritans were held legally responsible for anyone who died in their care:

...if a wounded man be taken into the protection and charge of any person with a view to effect his recovery, and he should happen to die under his hands, the person into whose care he was last taken is liable to be punished with death, unless he can produce undeniable evidence to prove how the wound was made, or that he survived it forty days.

So it's clearly not simply a modern malaise. Zhang blames a state of mind that is common in China, shaoguanxianshi, which is loosely translated as "don't get involved if it's not your business".  As she explains:

In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

Now this is something relevant to this blog, because what she's talking about here is our old friend altruism - specifically the peculiar form of altruism where people will help complete strangers even in anonymous situations. It's tough (but not impossible) to explain that in evolutionary terms, which has lead some people to propose that religion holds the key.

Basically, the idea is that the invention of monotheism allowed civilisation to step up a grade, by improving co-operation among unrelated individuals (see Did world religions help bring about complex societies?). Having a moralising, universal god encourages you to be nice to strangers, even when your evolutionarily-inspired instincts push you towards selfishness.

I've always been sceptical of the idea. Pure altruism can in fact be explained as a biological, rather than cultural, trait. But more importantly to me the suggestion seemed to smack of Western narrow-mindedness. Most psychology is done in the West, and so people who study the psychology of religion typically take our peculiar brand of religion to be 'normal'.

China, however, is a strong counterpoint to the claim that moralising, universal gods are needed for the establishment of co-operative mega-societies. Religion in China simply doe snot play the same role as it doe sin the West. Most religion is composed of a blend of philosophical life stances with localised folk myths.

And yet China is by anyone's standards an enormously successful mega-society, really without parallel in the World. As an example of large-scale co-operation among unrelated individuals, it really is a paragon of orderliness and stability.

And yet, the case of Yueye has got me thinking. I'm certainly no expert on Chinese psychology and culture. But if, as Zhang implies, there really is this profound cultural difference between China and other cultures, then maybe the type of religion really does have a meaningful effect on altruism.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever done a comparative study of pure altruism in China and the West.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I am not very knowledgeable in chinese culture, but I doubt if this specific behavior is related to a lack of mono-theism. I am an Indian and I have not observed any lack of empathy in situations simialr to the ones discussed in the post. Neither do India have anti-good samaritan laws as far as I know.
    So, while this social behavior might have something to do with relgion, I am pretty certain its relation to a mono-theist religion is at best tenuous

  2. I'm British but I've lived in Thailand for the better part of a decade. Thailand, like China, doesn't have any significant history of monotheism but I can't say I've noticed a lack of altruism. In fact, and this is an entirely unscientific observation, altruism seems to be more, not less prevalent.

  3. I suspect you could find cases like this anywhere in the world. Before trying to explain alleged variations in altruism between one country and another, it would be best to determine scientifically whether such differences really exist.

  4. eh, Barrow's story mentions that there were plenty of boats nearby, presumably with many people who were in a position to readily help.

    This brings to mind the story of Kitty Genovese.
    Dilution of responsibility & the resulting bystander effect seem to be alive and well in other cultures. Likely those who went overboard would have stood a much better chance of getting help if the water was dangerous and there was only the one boat that could plausibly save them.
    With no others to hide behind, others to rely on to step forward, people are more likely to lend a helping hand.

  5. Interesting stuff to chew on. One thought I had is that perhaps it is not so much that Western monotheism inspires an unnatural extension of altruism, but perhaps that some idiosyncratic aspect of Chinese culture causes an unnatural refocusing of it.

    The fact that a more limited altruism is more straightforwardly useful from an evolutionary standpoint does not necessarily imply evolutionary vs. cultural origins. I would take non-procreative sex as a counter-example to that idea. Obviously from an evolutionary perspective, sex is "for" procreation. But it seems that in our natural state would like to have a hell of a lot more sex than is necessary for procreation -- and as the numerous political sex scandals have shown, this is true even when it is obviously to our own personal detriment. It is only culture, usually religion in particular, which has given some people the (IMO rather tragic) idea that sex should only ever be reserved for procreation.

    By the same token, it is possible (this is not evidence of, it is simply evidence that it's not impossible) that while altruism is "for" your relatives and possibly community members from an evolutionary perspective, it is only the focusing effects of culture that allow it to be so directed. Natural selection encodes for a "be nice" gene (so to speak), and some culture tells you to reserve that emotion only for those who are in your inner circle?

    Just a thought.

  6. Sorry, my point, a little longer (but not detailed enough—I fear) is outlined here.

  7. Yes, Benjamin and others - it's not at all clear if this is real, and if it is real whether it's linked in any meaningful way to religion. But it is something unusual to ponder about. Unfortunately the only cross-cultural study I know of (the one I referenced in the post) didn't include any countries outside the judaeo-christian orbit.

  8. James, yes but non-procreative sex arguably is either a by-product (i.e. a failure of evolution to cut out wastful energy expenditure) or has a indirect benefit (e.g. strengthening pair bonds). Different culture could reinforce either, but not necessarily with equal success. Not saying that is the case, but just illustrating the complexity of cultural evolution.

    Anyway, yes, I'm sure that culture can direct altruism to different targets. And that's really the argument of those who say that these 'universal' religions paved the way for mega-societies. Because what they set up is an extended kinship - people regard themselves as siblings, even if they are not related.

  9. I believe Chinese culture in these instances is more concerned with legal liability than with monotheism.
    When a Chinese citizen is injured, that citizen's health care expenses are paid by the individual who caused the injury. If the citizen requires care for the rest of his or her life, the person responsible for the injury is liable to support the citizen for life.
    Hence the vehicle that ran over the child to begin with backed up and ran over her again. Facing a charge of, say, manslaughter is far less a burden than is caring for a small child for the rest of its life.
    Callous? Yes. Heartless and craven? Of course.
    But it has NOTHING to do with monotheism or polytheism or any such thing. Earning a decent living is foremost in the minds of Chinese citizens - religion is, at best, a secondary concern.

  10. but the real issue is not so much the behaviour of the hit-and-run drivers. The greater puzzle is the behaviour of the innocent passers by who failed to stop. True, you could argue that this was also influenced by the legal framework, but laws don't come out of nowhere - they reflect societal morals.

  11. Whenever I read a group level selectionist or cultural evolutionist study purporting to show that moralizing gods promote altruism, cooperation, and social complexity, I think about China, which stands as one giant counterfactual to the whole line of argument. China is routinely ignored in these kinds of studies.

  12. nescient to strangers?

    doe sin -> does in

    injured -> scathed

  13. What I was asserting with my analogy to non-procreative sex is this: That different cultures vary in the expression of out-group altruism is not at all evidence against out-group altruism being an evolutionary byproduct, like non-procreative sex is.

    (On a side note, I almost mentioned the pair-bonding theories, but please... The fact that sex is enjoyable is obviously a byproduct of making it so people do as much procreative sex as possible, and it just seems absurd to me to suggest that non-procreative sex is not at least predominantly a byproduct. Natural selection being the greedy bastard it is, it is of course completely plausible that this byproduct has been co-opted for other uses, but it is first and foremost a byproduct. This much seems so painfully obvious to me, it blows my mind that some people insist on rejecting it.)

    That we have the capacity for outgroup altruism is undoubtedly an evolutionary byproduct as well; I simply can't see a coherent way to argue otherwise. Whether that capacity is expressed by default (i.e. whether we are naturally restrictive with our altruism and need "universal" religions to broaden it vs. that we are naturally universal about our altruism and "need" certain cultural influence to restrict it), I think that is another matter. The rarity of cultures where examples of outgroup altruism are difficult to find suggests to me that this byproduct is expressed naturally, i.e. "universal" religions are not needed for it. But that's just an inkling; we don't have data on that.

  14. When I worked in the Middle East about twenty years ago, it was widely thought amongst the expats that rendering assistance in the case of an accident would make you responsible for the victim's fate.

    I hadn't really thought about it till now (fortunately I never had to put this to the test), but perhaps someone knows whether this is part of Islamic law (Islam is strictly momotheist).

  15. The author of the article is perhaps unaware of the fact that China does not possess a single culture. Even within the Han Chinese majority, Hakka, Cantonese, Fujian, and the general mainland northern cultures are all distinct from one another, with the southern Chinese having preserved more of Chinese folk religious thought and practices as well as Confucianism. The current problems in mainland China that you describe reflect a lack of civil refinement as a result of the Proletariat Revolution after the advent of the Communist Party (and their numerous self-destructive acts towards Chinese culture that were carried out last century: a government implemented systematic ridding of Chinese culture and taking on of Marxist societal tenets). Moreover, the Chinese were in actuality originally monotheists before the advent of Taoism and import of Buddhism from India. Traces of this monotheism survives to this day.


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