Demystifying the chameleonic nature of Chinese leadership.

Author:Lin, Canchu

This article provides a survey of the scholarly literature on Chinese culture and leadership. Chinese culture has mainly been conceptualized as Confucianism, collectivism, and communist ideology in the literature. The influences and implications of each of the three value systems have been examined in the context of leadership practices. Future directions in this area of research have been discussed.

Keywords: Chinese culture; leadership; Confucianism; collectivism; communist ideology


Leadership has attracted a significant amount of scholarly attention from across disciplines. Yet, most research and theory contributions are to a great extent limited to accounting for leadership practice in the West (Littrell, 2002). This outcome is certainly undesirable to leadership scholars. International trade and globalization have accelerated the process of mutual penetration and interdependence for most nations in the world and hereby should promote mutual understanding. From this perspective, it is important to study leadership in non-Western cultures. As a non-Western nation benefited by international trade and globalization, China has had a remarkable economic performance in recent decades. Studying Chinese leadership helps to gain insight into its role in China's economic takeoff. Moreover, with a massive influx of foreign capital and investment, Western management ideas and practices have also flowed into the Chinese territory, influencing Chinese leadership behaviors (Tsui, Wang, Xin, Zhang, & Fu, 2004). These Western leadership ideas could collaborate or clash with traditional Chinese leadership philosophy. Such interactions would spark new leadership ideas and give rise to new leadership practices. Thus, investigating Chinese leadership not only helps to advance our knowledge of leadership in the Chinese context but also informs the study of global leadership with implications for global organizations.

More important, accompanying its economic growth are political, social, and cultural transformations in China. It has been predicted that Chinese culture will achieve world supremacy in the middle of the 21st century (Fokkema, 2003). The study of the changing Chinese culture and its impact on Chinese leadership is a gold mine for leadership researchers (Pittinsky & Zhu, 2005). Yet, before exploring how the changing Chinese culture shapes future leadership, it is imperative to examine how Chinese culture has impacted past and current Chinese leadership. Any study of the future should be grounded in a solid understanding of Chinese cultural attributes and their effects on current and past Chinese leadership.

Thus, the purpose of this article is to review the research literature on Chinese culture and leadership and document the major findings in this area. This review centers around three research questions:

Research Question 1: What aspects of Chinese culture have been examined in the leadership literature?

Research Question 2: What leadership attributes have been found in the Chinese cultural context?

Research Question 3: What is the role of Chinese culture in leadership?

This review will focus on leadership in the workplace on the micro level, excluding public leadership in China (for a detailed review, see Pittinsky & Zhu, 2005). It is also confined to studies on Chinese leadership published in the West, including those by Chinese scholars. As leadership is researched in the fields of management, psychology, communication, and others, this review will examine the research literature on Chinese leadership in all these fields. While reviewing the literature, this study hopes to achieve the following objectives: (a) surveying the topical areas of Chinese culture and leadership, (b) addressing theoretical and managerial implications, and (c) identifying new research opportunities and directions in this area. The article is structured to accomplish these three objectives.

Three Systems of Chinese Culture

In its long history, China was a nurturing birthplace for a diversity of intellectual, philosophical, and ideological traditions and a huge field for importing, testing, and assimilating foreign cultures. Thus, Chinese culture has now evolved into a supersystem, consisting of some distinct yet interconnected philosophical traditions and value systems. Such a massive scale and complexity of Chinese culture translates into great difficulty in conceptualizing it as an entirety in the research literature. An extensive review of the literature shows that researchers have shown strong interest in exploring Chinese culture's impact on leadership. Depending on the purpose in their investigations of Chinese culture's influence on leadership, many studies (e.g., Earley, 1989; G. M. Chen& Chung, 1994; Javidan, Dorfman, Sully de Luque, & House, 2006; La, 1982)just focused on one single system while some others (e.g., Tsui et al., 2004) attempted to treat Chinese culture as a blend of distinct value systems. Although some studies referenced to some minor value systems such as Daoism and Buddhism (see Cheung & Chan, 2005) and imported Western values (see Fu & Tsui, 2003; Tsui et al., 2004), the mainstream in the scholarship on Chinese leadership has mainly captured the following three value systems of Chinese culture: Confucianism, collectivism, and Chinese communism.

Admittedly, these three value systems do not make an exhaustive list of Chinese culture components. Furthermore, collectivism both overlaps Confucianism and Chinese communist ideology. However, these three value systems represent three approaches to conceptualizing Chinese culture in the research literature. Although Confucianism alone cannot be conflated with traditional Chinese culture, which includes other value systems such as Daoism and Buddhism, it is probably the most influential. Both Chinese and Western scholars agree that Confucianism has been the predominant cultural heritage for the Chinese people (Bond & Hwang, 1986; Fairbank & Reischauer, 1973; Pye, 1988; Tu, 1985). Thus, it is not surprising that Confucianism has been examined as an important cultural factor shaping Chinese leadership.

Unlike Confucianism, collectivism is not indigenous to China. Yet, it represents an etic approach, an endeavor from Western scholars to get an entry point to study Chinese culture, and of course, a Western conceptualization of Chinese culture. Such a conceptualization is fruitful in that it has captured a significant view of Chinese leadership in comparison with leadership in other cultures. Surely, research results produced from this tradition cannot be ignored.

Finally, China is under communist rule. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a major source of power controlling Chinese organizations (e.g., Chamberlain, 1987; Chan, 2004; Manion, 1985; Walder, 1989). Its ideology, namely, Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the theory of Three Represents, is a major source of influence in Chinese organizations, shaping management and organizational practices, including leadership in China (e.g., Boisot, 1996; Laaksonen, 1984; Shenkar, 1996; Snell & Tseng, 2002; Zhou, 1993). The literature on Chinese culture and leadership deals with how each of these three value systems shapes Chinese leadership behaviors. Thus, in the following section of the article, the major findings and themes regarding Chinese culture and leadership (summarized in Table 1) are organized around these three systems of Chinese culture.


The assumption that Confucian values are deeply embedded in Chinese leadership practices has triggered a lot of research initiatives on studying leadership in Chinese organizations. Early in the analysis of the literature, five areas of research were identified in the scholarship of Confucianism and leadership: (a) examining the pervasive influence of Confucian values on leadership in Chinese organizations, (b) defining qualities of Confucian leadership, (c) addressing implications of hierarchical relationships for leadership practices, (d) exploring face and face-saving practices by Chinese leaders, and (e) investigating the impact of Confucianism on leadership practices in other contexts.

Pervasive Influence of Confucian Values on Chinese Leadership

Confucian values remain a major cultural force underlying leadership practices in Chinese as well as other East Asian societies (Cang, 1987; Cheung & Chan, 2005; DiCicco, 2003; Fernandez, 2004; Fu & Tsui, 2003; Javidan et al., 2006; K. C. Wong, 2001; Tsui et al., 2003). Chao (1990) found that major Confucian values contributed to leadership success of Chinese work organizations in Taiwan. Likewise, Cheung and Chan (2005) found that some eminent Chinese business leaders in Hong Kong highly endorse the following Confucian values as attributes of leadership: benevolence as manifested in paternalism, sympathy, forgiveness, friendliness, trust and need fulfillment, harmony, learning, loyalty, righteousness, and humility. Similarly, Fu and Tsui (2003) found that the Chinese government is still reinforcing such Confucian values as Wu Lun (Five Code of Ethics), obedience, doctrine of the mean, and benevolence and righteousness. More recently, Tsui et al. (2004) found that Chinese CEOs have manifested attributes of leadership ingrained in the Confucian values. Furthermore, Cang (1987) found that because of their same cultural roots in Confucianism, Japanese executives' leadership behavior is similar to that of Chinese executives. Li, Xin, Tsui, and Hambrick (1999) noted that both guanxi and in-group/out-group relationships that are both derivatives of the Confucian ideology have constituted a barrier between Chinese members and Western peers in joint venture leadership teams in China.

Qualities of Confucian Leadership

Besides showing the pervasiveness of the influence of Confucian values, researchers have attempted to show how qualities of a Confucian leader should be cultivated...

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