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A Conversation of Hidden Strength

In 2000, a Chinese writer named Huo Shui wrote an article for the ChinaSource Quarterly titled “Living Wisely in China.” In it he takes a look at four essential elements of Chinese culture that westerners must grapple with (and hopefully get) in order to be effective in China.

The first one is taiji (tai-chi), the slow-motion martial art that is popular among people of all ages in China. Taiji requires inner strength and patience, both of which are required in order to accomplish things in China.

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.

I don’t think that one has to master, or even practice taiji (I would fall flat on my face if I were to try), but understanding the thinking behind it and being willing to adjust accordingly is important for those wanting to serve effectively in China.

Image credit: Citizen of the People’s Republic of China, by Asian Development Bank, via Flickr.

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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