Home >> Culture Watch

On the Reasons for the “Showoff” Culture in China

chinadaily 2013-10-31

Qing Lianbin     Yan Rong

“Showoff” is not merely a matter of vanity and “face-saving”. It has profound social and psychological reasons and is closely related to one’s realistic concerns. In many cases, it’s believed as abnormal if one chooses not to show off when he is able to. Sometimes people think a low-profile person surely lacks the advantages and background which might otherwise enable him to “show off”. In a cultural tradition like this, “showoff” has become a normal culture.

Rather than a simple issue of vanity and “face-saving”, the culture of “showoff” in China has profound social and psychological reasons. Everyone in China is familiar with the culture of “showoff”. It’s generally held as a bad behavior. However, it’s so deeply entrenched and popular in China that we can see it almost everywhere. Developed from ancient times, “showoff” has become a cultural tradition.

What kind of cars should an official take? How grand should an inspection be? How long should a speech last? When he gets out of the car, a secretary should be there to open the door for him. When he needs tea, a subordinate has to pass over the cup.

We Chinese are going after luxury products like a flock of ducks. All these are typical examples of showing off.

In fact, there are many other ways of showing off. “Showoff” can be defined as any behavior that is meant to show or raise one’s status by publicly displaying one’s control of rare resources. “To show off”, one must first have something to show off. Then, he must have the intention to do it. The person showing off is often arrogantly and deliberately showing his possession of rare resources to those who have less or none. This is why it is abominable. Individuals, organizations, nations and countries can all “show off”. What are shown off are often rare resources, valuable things that ordinary people do not have in large quantities, such as money, power, reputation, social relations and knowledge. “Showoff” is more than the public display of wealth, though it is its most common form. In China, supreme position is given to power and officialdom, as a way of thinking it is entrenched in our national character. So from the ancient times to now, the most rampant form of “showoff” is the public display of power. In ancient times, the Ming emperor commanded eunuch Zheng He to take seven expeditions abroad, to show off national prestige and power. In current times, officials at various levels vie to build tall buildings and buy expensive cars, to show off their power.

From a sociological point of view, “showoff” is not merely a matter of vanity and “face-saving”. It has profound social and psychological reasons and is closely related to one’s realistic concerns. American sociologist Erving Goffman thinks that life is one performance after another, and society is a stage for the performances of many. For the sake of performances, people divide the stage into the foreground and the background. The foreground can be seen by the audience, so it is endowed with special significance. Performers there present what they hope can be accepted by others and the society. The background is relative to the foreground. It is a preparation area for the foreground, sometimes used to cover up things that cannot appear in the foreground. In performances, people tend to show their best in the foreground. Even unqualified performers have to pretend to be what they are not, in order to win the respect and admiration of others. When the performance in the foreground exceeds certain limits, it becomes “showoff”. In daily life, people’s behaviors in the foreground are often part of their normal lives. They are not “performed” acts. But “showoff” is a typical behavior of performance. Basically, “showoff” is a typical type of image management behavior. In the interaction with others and in social relations, everyone manages his or her image, to encourage and lead others to act or respond in a way that matches the expectation of the image manager. “Showoff” creates a more “worthy” “self in the mirror”.

In the several thousand years of Chinese civilization, the Chinese have been fond of “showoff”, mainly due to the following reasons.

First, the desire for security and the longing for others’ respect. People living in a society are bound to be influenced by others, both in thought and in action. Even one’s “self” is not formed out of isolated individual mental activities. A person’s understanding of himself is in fact the image of himself that he sees in the eyes of others. The so-called “self” is but “the self in the mirror”. A person’s behavior is largely determined by one’s knowledge about himself, which is formed mainly through his social interaction with others. Others’ comments and attitudes constitute a “mirror” for oneself, who understands and shapes himself through the “mirror”. “Showoff” is a process that changes others’ perception of oneself. It is also one in which a more powerful, more confident self is built. In this sense, “showoff” serves the purpose of creating a more “worthy” “self in the mirror”. In addition, winning respect from others is also an important social need. Physiological needs, safety, emotion and attachment to place are lower needs, while the need for respect is a higher, social one. In a society with social differences, one must have rare resources in order to win others’ respect. Resources here can be money, power, social prestige, knowledge, personal charm and so on. When his situation, identity or social status changes, one wants his old associates to look at him anew. Here “showoff” becomes an important means. After becoming the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang went back to his ancestral home, with pompous and magnificent ceremonies, to show off his new position and new authority as the emperor and to change people’s former image of him as a local braggart and ne’er do well. Now, some people start extravagant consumption immediately after they get rich. Their purpose is to convey to others the important message that he or she is now more “worthy”. Second, due to the scarcity of resources, people often have to adopt unusual means to obtain resources. “Show-off” is one of the unusual means. It helps win others’ respect and awe, through which one can gain greater practical interests. In order to beat one’s competitors and get maximum benefits, one must often display, to the greatest extent, his own strength. Those who are strong can gain extra points by displaying the fame and strength they already have. Those who are not so strong often have to “package” themselves so that they can present themselves as better than their true selves, to win others’ appreciation and recognition. Since information is always asymmetric, others’ initial evaluation can only be based on the most intuitive impressions. As a result, some people “show off” out of necessity. In this case, “showoff” becomes an important means to cut the costs of socialization. The most famous example is Zhuge Liang, who agreed to be the prime minister of Shu in the Three Kingdoms period only after Liu Bei, later the king of Shu, had visited him three times with the offer. If the ambitious Zhuge Liang had agreed to Liu Bei’s offer during Liu’s first visit, his great reputation as a “sleeping dragon” wouldn’t have been so honored. And he might not have been given such important status in the kingdom of Shu.

1 2 next
|  about us  |   contact us  |
Constructed by Chinadaily.com.cn   Registration Number: 10023870-7
Copyright © 2013 Ministry of Culture, P.R.China. All rights reserved