Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Cultural Supremacy

Written by: on April 4, 2018

“In recent years, cheating has got so out of control that, three years ago, in a small Chinese town in Hubei province, a group of gaokao (University entrance exam) invigilators found themselves under siege as enraged parents and students trapped them in their office and threw rocks at the windows, shouting, “We want fairness! Let us cheat!…”1 What at one time would have been shock and disbelief in which I would have judged this society to be depraved and lacking in understanding of ethics, I now see it as simply an overlaying of my own western morality on a culture that was more complex than I first believed. “Understanding that morality differs around the world…is the first step toward understanding your [own]righteous mind. The next step is to understand where these many moralities came from.”2 Knowing what it means to be righteous in the society we live in, helps us to not only get along with other people but also to understand what motivates and drives people from certain cultures.

Parents in India “helping” student take tests

As a westerner, I naturally love things that makes sense and are orderly. What is seen as moral is associated with fairness, right and wrong, good and evil as it relates toward an individuals rights. There are clear cut lines that are drawn. When I’m encountering a world view that deviates from that accepted practice, then I want to stand up and cry foul. Many westerners have trouble with many asian concepts. I have repeatedly heard people from the States say, “Can’t they just stand in line?” or “Why are they pushing?” Chinese for example have long memories and their culture is reflective of that. There was a time in there recent history that food and jobs were scarce. If a land owner came to a village seeking workers, only those that got on the wagon worked that day (as well as ate). When rations were passed out during famine, only the first few hundred received supplies. This has created a mentality (and morality) that only those that I care about are worth helping. If I can get in front of another, we can eat, work or even succeed as a family.


So what is right and wrong is seen in different light in different cultures. Let’s return to the education system. Gaokao, literally means “high test” and is the academic qualification test for almost all high school graduates that hope to attend a University. Students must do well to get into the better universities, where graduation offers a bright future with status, wealth and even power. For most Chinese, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, a high score on the gaokao is their only means to significantly alter their future. In one particular high school that was known for having a significant percentage of the students do well, “students have been given IV drips as they study, believing that it will help them with concentration and focus. Girls are given contraceptive pills to delay their periods until after the exam.” 3 “Because of the importance of the gaokao, some families are willing to go to unseemly lengths to ensure their children ace it. Some parents hire companies to surreptitiously transmit answers to their children on exam day. Others bribe local officials to get a peek at the test before it is administered.”4

Most Chinese parents tell their kids from a very early age that their goal in life is to get into a good school. That’s it, not learn the right skills or to find inspiration in school to seek meaningful work. Just “get into a good school”. Children quickly learn what is required of them, the behaviors that will illicit the right responses from parents, teachers and authorities. “Kids figure [morality] out for themselves…given the right kinds of experiences.…we can’t say that it is innate, and we can’t say that kids learn it directly from adults. It is, rather, self-constructed as kids play with other kids. ”5 Not only do kids observe their surroundings but certain thoughts and practices are then reinforced to be culturally acceptable. Haidt says, “The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours.”6 They are seeking what will bring the approval of their own way or the approval of the communal ethic. “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”7

Many societies choose to place the needs of groups and institutions first, while others place the individuals at the center and thus makes the society a servant of the individual. For Chinese, communal righteousness supersedes the individual. “The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. …duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism.”8 These types of societies have diametrically different ways of thinking from the west and misunderstanding between cultures abound.

Stepping outside your church, neighborhood or country, you’ll discover that your way of thinking is not typical. “Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online..[and]…he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation….Many may not like all of the contours of the portrait he paints, but that might just be the point.”9 Being challenged to think and interact in ways that are counter to ones culture can be extremely difficult.

Knowing what is considered acceptable within a culture helps us understand the filter in which an individual hears and responds to the Gospel message; as well as how they respond to leadership development. Even this last week, I had a discussion with a young man that was giving up what he wanted in order to follow the path he had promised his parents he would follow. Whether I feel his responses are rational or not, how I respond to him reflects how I value what is important in this culture. Developing leaders in China is challenging and potentially damaging to the kingdom of God if I impose my own values, moralities or expectations imparted upon me as an American. Morality for many Christians is straight forward and seemingly has nothing to do with culture. Morality, ethics and culture affect our choices, judgements and our witness; especially as we attempt to interpret morality through our own cultural lenses and impart it on those we are wanting to share Christ with. The difficulty for me is being patient when sharing Christ and allowing him to deal with the areas of their life that He thinks need to be altered.

2Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) 4

5Haidt, 6

6Haidt, 367

7Haidt, 89

8Haidt, 100

9Keefer, Matthew Wilks. “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.” Journal of Moral Education 42, no. 1 (2013): 134-36.

About the Author


Greg has a wife and 3 children. He has lived and work in Asia for over 12 years. He is currently the Asia Director of Imanna Laboratories, which tests and inspects marine products seeking US Coast Guard certification. His company Is also involved in teaching and leadership development.

12 responses to “Cultural Supremacy”

  1. M Webb says:

    Great Post and enlightening introduction into the righteous mind of the culture where you live, work, and m. I love the “Gaokao” lesson. I saw a less intense system in Botswana for children hoping to get into High School. University was only for the privileged and for the families who could afford it. Most children in Botswana, and many African countries obtain only a K-8 equivalent education before going into the workforce.
    Greg, I really identify with the m mindset you paint your mosaic of Haidt’s book. I think your last sentence is a dual-edged principle. You said, “being patient when sharing C and allowing him to deal with the areas of their life that He thinks need to be altered.” For me, when I was a m, the people I was there to m to had to “be patient, allowing C to deal with the areas of “MY” life that He thinks need to be altered.”
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Greg says:

      Thanks Mike. We do see in all the cultures we have worked with a desire for kids to improve themselves. Families desire to move out of poverty and will do what ever they feel is right to accomplish their goals.

  2. Great post Greg! I feel like you are slowly getting me ready to visit Hong Kong and mainland China with each post…very enlightening and insightful. What struck me the most was your statement…”Developing leaders in China is challenging and potentially damaging to the kingdom of God if I impose my own values, moralities or expectations imparted upon me as an American.” I feel like I have to be careful of this every day in my work with clients. It is unethical for me to impose my values and morals on my clients and I am required to honor their self-determination even if it is unhealthy or goes against what I think is good and right (this is often very difficult). It was good to hear you state the importance of not imposing us on them and allowing God to do His work in His timing. Can’t wait to hang with you and your wife!

  3. Jennifer Williamson says:

    This: “sharing Christ and allowing him to deal with the areas of their life that He thinks need to be altered.” So True.

    Every culture has some aspects that reflect the Kingdom and some aspects that are in direct conflict with the Kingdom. Christ can sort those out! In fact, I find that in my own culture I was blind to aspects that were in conflict with the Gospel (seeking safety & prosperity, for example). It took getting out to be able to see in. Then there are aspects of French culture that better reflect the Kingdom (appreciation of beauty and care for the earth) than did the US culture. I always hear both sides of this in your post. What helps you to appreciate the many postive aspects of Chinese culture?

    • Greg says:

      It is so easy to point out the areas of another culture that we might consider “wrong” but difficult or it is even offensive when we begin to turn that mirror around on ourselves. As you know the longer I am here the more I have had to wrestle with what is American and what is authentic Gospel.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    That is a powerful and insightful post. It must be incredibly difficult to try to develop leadership in that context without imposing your own cultural presuppositions. It must also be incredibly challenging for Chinese to come to any form of faith that does not have significant repercussions for their families and future opportunities. It is so easy for those in the US to choose faith, yet there must be so many more considerations in your context. I would love to hear about them sometime.

    • Greg says:

      We will sit down over tea (or Caramels as Dave said) when we get to HK and “talk story”. Family is one of the toughest obstacles of the Gospel in Asia.

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    I really enjoyed the peek inside your world. Wow, what a difference a few thousand miles makes huh? I know that because the societal pressures are different it must be very hard to follow Christ and what he has for you if by doing so you are turning your back on what your family expects. I cannot imagine the pressure that would bring. How does it play out effectively in helping Chinese Christians walk a different path?


    • Greg says:

      All families love their kids and we see that expression played out in pressure given to better the family (community). I don’t have a great answer for your question other than we have dealt with each person individually and their circumstance uniquely. Some have walked away from following the path we thought God had for them while others have negotiated with parents. Still others have broken off relationships in a radical way of following Jesus (this one is rare and we don’t usually support it). It is messy- Like following God.

  6. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Greg,

    Once again, I had no idea of the complexity that you face every day in presenting the Good News. My brother was an English teacher in China (if you know what I mean). He talked often about the same challenges you discuss. Even then, I am awestruck at your willingness to find a way to show His love, a half a world away…

  7. Shawn Hart says:

    Greg, that was a very well written post with great transitions between your own experiences and the author’s words. I was intrigued by the education process. I have often heard of the pressure on children regarding education, but that helped put it even more in perspective.

    Now a question though. You wrote, “Developing leaders in China is challenging and potentially damaging to the kingdom of God if I impose my own values, moralities or expectations imparted upon me as an American.” I have often wondered where the line between aggressiveness in ministry has to be drawn…though I am sure it varies by location. Christ was pretty aggressive with the Pharisees and yet Paul walks into Athens, a city full of pagan worship, and speaks diplomatically and kind. Do you feel that relationship changes the boundaries for aggressiveness, or are the Chinese just not open to that approach?

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