Advertising veteran Tom Doctoroff explains in the China Observer his motives for writing his latest book “What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and the Modern Chinese Consumer.” On the timeless feature of a uniting Confucian conflict.
I think What Chinese Want is a broader book, perhaps a more ambitious one. I start with a fairly long chapter on the Chinese “worldview” (“Old Pipes, New Palace”) as a framing device for the entire book. I argue that Chinese society has always been and will continue to be characterized by a unifying “Confucian conflict” between ambition and regimentation, standing out and fitting in, projection of status and protection of economic interests. In this chapter I outline “timeless” characteristics of Chinese culture as well as enduring strengths and weaknesses. In subsequent chapters, I interpret these characteristics across four “domains” of contemporary culture that include business, consumerism, social structures and engagement with the world. At the same time, I hope to reconcile the most modern and dynamic elements in China, from digital behavior to luxury fixation to the PRC’s relationship with America, with enduring cultural imperatives. I believe Chinese society is becoming modern and internationalized but not Western. Much of What Chinese Want focuses on how Western influences – for example, Christmas and diamond engagement rings — are transformed into vessels of Chinese culture as status projectors in a society in which self-driven individualism remains a tempting but dangerous aspiration and individuals do not define themselves independent of their responsibilities and obligations to others.