Why is the concept of money so ingrained in Chinese culture?

Jun 26, 2020

Shao Yifei still remembers the first time she introduced her fiancé to her parents.

Almost immediately, they asked three questions: “What does he do for a living, how much does he make, and how much property does he own?”

From anecdotes about Chinese immigrant parents’ thriftiness to reports of Chinese tourists buying out luxury stores in Europe, the stereotype of Chinese people loving money is pervasive. It was the main punchline of a Netflix comedy special by Daily Show comedian Ronny Chieng.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

From my @netflix comedy special Asian Comedian Destroys America.

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While talking about money can be taboo in the West, many Chinese people discuss money with candor.

David Palmer, an anthropology professor at the University of Hong Kong, recalls being asked how much money he made during one of his first bus rides in Chengdu, in 1993.

“When I sat on the bus and people started to chat with me, the first question was, ‘So where are you from?’,” he says. “And the second question was, ‘What do you do?’ And the third question was, ‘How much do you make a month?’”

“Everybody asked me the same three questions, in that order, whether I was in a bus, a train, or a restaurant,” he notes.

Why do Chinese people seem to prioritize wealth above all else? 

Today’s China rose from poverty in just one generation

In the 1960s, China’s leader Mao Zedong sought to rid the country of capitalist influences.

What followed was a chaotic decade called the Cultural Revolution, when people were encouraged to turn in anyone they suspected of harboring capitalist or so-called anti-revolutionary ideas.

The Cultural Revolution left the Chinese economy in ruins, and by 1976, one third of the rural population was living below the poverty line.

Deng Xiaoping, a senior Communist official, rose to power after Mao’s death and sought to pull the country out of poverty. He enacted reforms that opened up China’s market and encouraged private enterprise.

Deng Xiaoping in 1979
Deng Xiaoping in 1979

In just a few decades, China became home to the world’s second-highest millionaire population. The children of China’s nouveau riche, called 富二代 fuerdai, and their extravagant lifestyles became the embodiment of the country’s newfound wealth.

The country’s booming private wealth helped remove social taboos around openly discussing money.

“The average age of millionaires in mainland China is 37 years old,” says Sara Jane Ho, who runs Institute Sarita, an etiquette school for rich ladies in China, “They grew up in extreme poverty. They just want to spoil everybody around them and make sure that their children never have to suffer in that way.” 

But even before China’s recent economic rise, Chinese people have long been obsessed with fortune.

China has religious traditions that associate money with circumstance

Even though 90% of Chinese people identify as irreligious, many still subscribe to religious practices and ancient superstitions that purportedly bring benefits in the material world. 

“Some places have very strong religious cultures where, you know, being interested in material things is really considered to be bad,” says Professor Palmer. “There’s something in Chinese religion which is actually the opposite.” 

In China, the religious traditions of Taoism and Buddhism have a deep influence on culture, even though most people don’t identify themselves as a follower of a particular religion.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of karma. Being born into a rich family means that you were a good person in your previous life.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of karma. Being born into a rich family means that you were a good person in your previous life.

In Taoism, there is the God of Wealth, Caishenye, that people pray to for wealth to come to them.

Some subscribe to the ideas of feng shui, which personal wealth can come by making adjustments to one’s environment, such as putting a fish tank in a living room.

China’s long history of trade

China has had a highly commercialized society for thousands of years. Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, established a monetary system, when he took power in 221 BC.

Later during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), foreign trade began in China with the creation of the Silk Road. The capital, Chang’an, became a cosmopolitan city, with traders and merchants coming from all parts of the world.

"In China, it's not been a few generations. It's literally been a thousand years."

As trade continued to flourish and China became the center of the world’s economy, money played a crucial role. When metal coins became too heavy to carry around, merchants left them behind with trusted agents who would record the deposits on paper, resulting in the invention of paper currency China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

“People talk about how consumer culture has influenced people under capitalism over a few generations. In China, it's not been a few generations. It's literally been a thousand years.” says Professor Palmer.

 

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Producer: Jessica Novia

Editor: Ray Ngan

Animation: Ray Ngan and Cyan Cheung

Mastering: Victor Peña