View from the Wall

Living Wisely in China


When Westerners come to China, how can they adapt to the Chinese culture? Many people immediately think of the language issue. Although language is crucial to interpersonal relationships and communication, it alone is not sufficient in dealing with Chinese people. Language is only the starting point for understanding the Chinese culture. Even a foreigner who has lived and worked in China may still have difficulty figuring it out. Following is an attempt to help one better understand the Chinese culture and how to relate to Chinese people.

Taiji: a conversation of hidden strength

Any morning, before the city is awakened by the business and noise of the day, look at the parks throughout China. You cannot miss the crowds of people working out—among them the most visible are the Taiji (Taichi) lovers. These people slowly, yet constantly and gracefully, change the positions of their arms and legs as they concentrate and breathe deeply. Some of their slow movements seem useless and one might wonder what purpose they serve. Yet, those who understand Chinese martial arts know of the strength hidden in Taiji whose principles are “apparent softness overtakes toughness” and “gentle but firm.”

To some extent, Taiji reflects the Chinese culture and its way of solving problems. No matter what changes the rest of the society has gone through during hundreds of years of history, Taiji remains exactly the same. Year after year Chinese practice Taiji in the morning. Some principles drawn from Taiji have been gradually made known to society. These principles, that go beyond the physical aspect, tell us that “the use of quietness overcomes motion,” “apparent softness overtakes toughness,” “apparent looseness outside, actual tightness inside,” “avoid tough hands but attack weak spots,” “surprise and win,” and “withheld strength may go unnoticed.”

Later, when people described these skills or ploys adapted by politicians, warlords, entrepreneurs or merchants to be the winners in their respective fields, they used the term Quanshu (clever stratagems for politics and business). Quanshu also has the meaning of hidden conflict as drawn from Taiji’s character of hidden strength. When two individuals are in an unannounced struggle, they are said to be “playing Taiji.” Chinese often rely on this nonverbal message to make themselves understood in the struggle to protect their interests. This way of dealing with others is not found in the West; nevertheless, it is at the core of Chinese culture. Not knowing about it may be costly to the Westerner.

China continues to be in a technological growth period; it now boasts millions of Internet subscribers. Fashionable young people may care nothing about Taiji but admire basketball players like Jordan and Johnson; however, Taiji culture is still prevalent. When a Chinese responds to you slowly, you need patience. Practicing Taiji requires “inner strength.” “Inner strength” refers to the resilience that can absorb a punch as well as hit back, but in a pleasant manner. A fast-acting person often finds himself having to change his mind; but one who restrains himself from making a quick response usually has well balanced ideas for decision-making. The individual using this type of thought process is referred to by the Chinese as a “master of calculation” and cunning. He will never strike up an argument with you nor clearly announce his intentions. He never forgets to smile—but his smile is a bit mysterious. He does not necessarily have evil purposes in mind and cannot simply be labeled as a “good” or “bad person”; however, for self-protection he feels that “beating around the bush” is his only option. You may find that this person is more likely to be middle-aged and fits into a Taiji lovers category. This mental practice of Taiji is a part of Chinese wisdom; it follows the Chinese wherever they go.

Eating and drinking: the passport to Chinese society

“Have you eaten yet?” used to be the most common greeting in China. This greeting has now faded from use. Eating, however, still enjoys unshakable status in Chinese culture. No other people of the world are more serious about eating, more focused on eating or more capable of getting the best out of eating. Over 2000 years ago Confucius said: “Never settle on an imperfect meal.” China gave birth to world famous cuisines including Sichuan, Cantonese, Shandong, and others. China also has McDonalds, KFC and pizza. Wherever you go in China you will be impressed by the number of restaurant signs—even in poor backwoods areas. Likewise, Chinese restaurants are found in distant places.

Chinese love eating. Why? Eating in China is not just a simple personal activity; rather, it fits together the unrelated pieces of life. Eating is a cultural and social activity. Many events in life require a large get-together meal that is in accord with tradition, fosters the accomplishment of other activities and allows people to express their emotions. These events include Spring Festival celebrations, family or class reunions, weddings, funerals, admission to the Communist Party, promotions to leadership, asking for help, thanking others for help, opening a business, settling in a new home, farewells, conflict resolutions, celebrating successes—and the list goes on. Anything can be an excuse to go out for dinner.

Reports say that several hundred billion Chinese yuan are spent on banquets in China each year. Restaurants have become a performing stage for people eager to achieve their ends. They display intimate feelings, cope with bosses, negotiate prices and resolve conflicts. Obviously, food is not the real issue for either the host or the guest. Refusing to “perform” on this stage means that many things one may want to see happen will not be accomplished. Not understanding the significance of eating in Chinese culture means you will miss a valuable shortcut to getting complicated things done in China.

Eating is also a means for friends to express friendship and gratitude. If you would like to expand your network of relationships rapidly, invite your friends to the neighborhood eateries for simple meals. Over time you will acquire a long list of people interacting with you. If you do not take initiatives or accept invitations, you may be misunderstood and thought difficult to relate to as a person. Remember, the most appropriate occasion to exchange information, improve communication, resolve conflicts and affirm friendships is always at the dinner table.

Mian Zi (face): the treasure that never wears out

No one wants to be diu ren (embarrassed in front of people, a “lost person”); every individual has a sense of self-esteem. This human characteristic is extremely pronounced in Chinese culture; it has been observed to an extent that is beyond a Westerner’s imagination. For example, a Chinese may wrong you and be fully aware of his wrongdoing, but if you point this out to him or criticize him with another person present, he will desperately defend himself denying any offense. However, if the conversation takes place between just the two of you, he will readily accept your criticism. The facts you point out are the same, but his reaction is different due to the changed situation. The reason: mian zi. This comes out in other situations as well. For example, if you ask someone for help, few people will give you a negative answer; most will say: “Sure, no problem.” Is it really “no problem?” In actuality, there may be many problems, but the individual will not admit it. When you follow up on the issue, the individual will say, “Oh, this needs to be delayed a little bit. Please be patient, because…” Eventually, you will find that from the very beginning this person was unable to help you. Another common example is seen when friends go out for dinner together. When dinner is over, since they have not talked about who will pay for it, everyone will be fighting to pay the entire bill. Each one is afraid of being thought of as a tightwad.

A story goes that many years ago in Shanghai a man lived in the slums. He would go out on the street only after putting on his one decent jacket, combing and slicking his hair back, shining his shoes and spreading pork lard on his lips to pretend to be a wealthy man who had just enjoyed a greasy meal. That’s what mian zi is. Today, similar incidents occur, only in more subtle ways. For example, unemployed people actually “work” for mian zi. They leave home as usual in the morning as if they were going to work, but they do not end up at their previous workplaces but stay with friends or go to parks or cinemas to kill time.

When you invite friends over or to join you for an outing, you need to first examine each person’s special needs. How free is this person? Has he or she eaten yet? If expenses are involved, who will pay for them? You need to think these through and not ask your friends for information. Even if you do, you will only get polite answers that do not reflect what is truly on their mind. Chinese deem it a virtue not to bother others with questions. Between friends and acquaintances it is harder to ask for a favor precisely because of the relationship.

Zhong Yong: the moderate way

Zhong Yong, or “being moderate,” is the most essential principle for living in China and the primary principle that the Chinese subscribe to. What does it mean to “be moderate” in the Chinese context? Put simply, it means never going to extremes, never confirming things absolutely (always leave some margin or wiggle room), never pushing ahead to be first—yet avoiding being left behind. People may say they see things in black and white, but in reality they favor gray. Gray seems less risky and allows flexibility.

Five thousand years of Chinese tradition defies anyone who tries to fully understand it. While one need not fully grasp the meaning of these traditions, these four seemingly simple principles discussed above should be taken seriously. It is wise to deal with the Chinese in the Chinese way. If you are not convinced, try it your way— and see what happens!

Image credit: Group Taichi by leniners, on Flickr

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio