When a Chinese person asks you for your impressions of their culture, they already have an image in their mind of what their culture is, and they are not expecting to update or expand it. They would like you to confirm their existing beliefs, and nothing else. They need to be reassured that Chinese food is indeed the best food, and that Chinese history is the longest and Chinese wisdom the most “profound”.
Herein I shall explore China’s strangely insular self-perception and the difficulties Chinese people face in adjusting to alternate points of view, and to being perceived.
Chinese Cultural Analysis
One of my students recently gave me a book titled Unravelling the Mystery Chinese Faces – A collection of articles “analysing” Chinese society and behaviour and explaining the “misconceptions” foreigners have about this ancient and deep culture.
The book labours at length to convince the reader that foreigners who perceive anything deficient in Chinese people’s behaviour are simply not aware of the profundity of Chinese thought and action - the subtle excellence in everything Chinese people do.
Could the book be described as self-serving? Most definitely. And enlightening? Certainly, though not in the way the author intended. What the series of essays unwittingly reveals is how Chinese people wish to be perceived, the deep insecurities that underlie their self-appraisal and national myths, and the lengths to which they will go to avoid engaging with reality. Unravelling the Mystery Chinese Faces is an excellent work of self-parody*, self-deception and deep (if unintentional) satire.
*Britain and Australia – both countries with proud histories of self-parody – would be delighted to welcome China to their literary circle. If only Chinese writers knew what they were writing.
Chinese Faces, P.13: In McDonalds in America, customers can get their own condiments, whereas in China, the condiments are kept behind the counter and handed out to customers. Could it be that in China, if you put free stuff in public, it will all disappear instantly? No. Apparently, keeping the condiments behind the counter is a matter of politeness. Chinese customer service staff just love serving their guests, and want to hand out condiments because of their cultural disposition towards courtesy. That kind of attentiveness is what makes Chinese customer service staff the best in the world.
Chinese Faces, P.26: Apparently, Chinese people have many strange and subtle ways of showing gratitude. Like having one’s entire family rescued from a river, then driving away while your rescuer drowns. Wait, ignore that. I meant falling off your bike, then suing the person who runs across the road to help you, because actually they pushed you over. Perhaps that wasn’t a very good example either. I can’t, at this time, think of an instance of a Chinese person showing appreciation for a random act of kindness, but when I do, it will totally vindicate this excellent book and its profound truthfulness.
Chinese Faces, P.59: Guangdong Dim-sum is compared with KFC to demonstrate (with no hint of irony) that Chinese food is superior to Western food – by which they mean superior to all Western food* – in sophistication, taste and convenience. If all Western food was KFC (an assumption that I guess we are meant to overlook), the conclusion would undoubtedly be true. The book does not go on to compare French Patisserie and Instant Noodles.
*See what they did there? Those clever Chinese with their “subtle” manipulation of language and logic.
Chinese Faces, P.32: Foreigners can never truly understand the Chinese language, and Chinese ideas can never be accurately translated into English, because… the Chinese language is more profound (I’m not kidding). Of course, there are a lot of things which Chinese people cannot comprehend in the English language (irony, understatement, sarcasm, satire, implication*); but why would they want to, when their first language is obviously superior? In truth, only a Chinese person could “know” that their language is superior without reaching the same proficiency in another.
*Actually, they usually don’t get past verb tenses.
The Western Rationalist Tradition (beginning with Socrates) has resulted in science, democracy, free thought, abundant streams of modern philosophy, human rights and constitutional law. Perhaps it’s time China stopped praising what great thinkers they are, and instead look around themselves and wonder “What has been the result of all these profound ideas?”
Not one article in the book explains why this group of cultured, polite, humble, courteous, sophisticated, considerate people – profound of thought and noble of gesture – spit, defecate and screech at each other in public places; nor why they point and laugh at anyone different, despise anyone less fortunate, take photos of people in distress, or extort those who come to their aid.
While liberal in its praise of the modesty and deference exhibited daily by the Chinese, it does not explain why Chinese people push in front of others just to be served first or enter a doorway, or why they run traffic lights and kill poor people with their Audis, then laugh at the victim’s family because they (the driver) have more money. Perhaps the modesty and deference being exhibited in these scenarios is too subtle or nuanced for an oafish Westerner to perceive.
Chinese National Myths
Having, over the past few months, sat through several evenings (and a few entire days) of “Chinese Dream” speeches, I have heard about as much jingoism – “All of China will have a glorious future!” – as I can stomach. What is most apparent is that Chinese people have more faith in national slogans than in their own observations or (god forbid) research. Their perceptions about the Chinese Nation are based on phrases often heard but rarely considered. Two often repeated examples are as follows:
Student: “China is a peaceful country.”
Me: “Why does it send warships to threaten its neighbours?”
Student: “We are defending our territory.”
Me: “But China keeps claiming to own more territory. How is this different from imperialism?”
Student: “But China is peaceful!”
Student: “China is becoming more democratic.”
Me: “What does democratic mean?”
Student: “I don’t know.”
And then there’s a frequently repeated slogan about the length of China’s history. Don’t ask what actually happened in China 5000 years ago, because that question can’t be answered. To most people of the world, history means actual history – you know: historical records and so forth – but to China it isn’t so much a matter of evidence as one of national pride, and that’s off limits to inquiry.
Suggesting that Western Europe achieved more during the Renaissance than China did in its entire “5000 years of history” will meet with a blank stare. After all, it’s not about what China achieved during that time – It’s about the length. We’d better consult Freud on that one.
Suggesting that Egypt’s history is longer, or Iran’s civilizations older – or that due to geographical isolation, Aboriginal Australian culture existed unchanged for tens of thousands of years – will meet with a similarly vacant expression or a subtle but perceptible drop in friendliness and receptivity.
“Facts” in China are accepted through wishful thinking or sheer repetition; not through discussion, and definitely not through a process of reason.
Chinese Methods of Denial
Having fragile egos and a sense of national pride based on rather shaky facts, Chinese people have perfected a few simple, effective and somewhat infuriating methods of defence, with which they can stand their ground in argument, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or reason.
1. The Trademark Chinese Blank Stare
Lacking the desire to update or expand their points of view, Chinese people have become adept at erecting mental “anti-logic” barriers.
If an observation (no matter how self-evident) or argument (no matter how rational) doesn’t mesh with their current understanding of reality, it will meet with an uncomprehending and impervious stare. The words you just uttered will glance off your conversation partner’s impassive and expressionless face, and drift harmlessly off into the aether. Then he or she will snap back into reality, unaware of anything that transpired during the last 10 seconds. The technique was invented by a Taoist monk, after he spent one year contemplating a blank scroll.*
*This fact has been neither substantiated nor researched.
*Some would call the act of contemplating a blank scroll “profound”, though if one were to be honest, one would admit that the monk probably didn’t learn much during that time.
2. “No I’m not: You are!”
When confronted with unavoidable guilt, Chinese people (sometimes) and the Chinese state (every time) will seek to deflect blame by pointing out something bad that someone else did – then wonder why everyone is still looking at them.
Whereas in Western countries, we would associate this defensive emotional reaction with 12-year-old girls, in China it has become a mainstay of international politics. Instead of acknowledging (or god-forbid apologising for) whatever it has done wrong, China will always respond with accusations that other people (Americans) are doing worse things, elsewhere.
When I hear a foreigner criticize Australia, I am very interested. Foreigners who visit Australia are aware of prejudices, political forces and social phenomena that white Australian citizens aren’t. Their view of Australia is largely objective, and not based on wishful thinking or national myths. I would like my understanding of Australia to be accurate, not comforting.
Typically a person’s “world view” becomes more nuanced by exposure to doubt and conflicting ideas. We acknowledge alternate points of view and continuously update our own. Any criticism of the Chinese nation, on the other hand, can only have one explanation: Bias. I often encounter unexpected hostility for mentioning a story I read – typically one published on SCMP or translated from a Chinese Source.
Colleague: “Where do you get your stories from? America I suppose!”
Me: “Hong Kong.”
Colleague: (Looks uncertain about whether to continue with her nationalistic and entirely automatic reaction. Then, unable to restrain herself…) “Obviously they are biased!”
Reminding her that independent media is generally more objective than party-controlled media would only comfirm her suspicion that I am an agent of American Cultural Imperialism.
A Word to the Infinitely Wise
“To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.”
To Chinese Nationals I would say this: Chinese history, culture and identity are complex and interesting things. Do them justice in your appraisal. Embrace the good and the bad. Not everything about your history and culture is praiseworthy, but not only praiseworthy things are worth talking about. The everyday problems you face, and their root causes, merit more attention than self-aggrandising and oft-repeated myths.
We would love you to talk openly about your experiences and observations. When we inquire about something we have observed in your country, it isn’t a personal insult, and it isn’t a call to retreat into denial or nationalism. Avoid conflating personal pride with national pride. You can be a modest, dignified and well-behaved person in spite of your society.
Don’t assume, because you are Chinese, that Chinese wisdom is the most profound. If you believe it, then be profound of thought. Nobody is interested in claims of wisdom, social sophistication or cultural superiority. We are interested in seeing those things manifest.
Tags:Language & Culture
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Really wonderful article and very accurate though I have never discussed much with the chinese about their country but I can totally relate to each and every word of it. I'm wondering how did they approve this article to be posted. I thought the chinese were kind of into 'damage-control' stuff. Anyway I'm glad this article was posted at all. :)
Feb 14, 2014 18:39 Report Abuse
I don't know what to say.... I wish Chinese could read this, but it would become gibberish if I ran it through a text translator. You put into words so many of the things that I've seen in Chinese attitudes over the years. China isn't so much a sophisticated culture, as it is an ethnicity, or a windowdressed religion. I believe that they tried to make Chinese views more enlightened during the cultural revolution, but overwhelmed by the task, the 'nationalist' elite just chickened out and bred fear, conformity, pettiness, superstition and other weaknesses into the people, to make them more manageable. Still, do not question their proud cultural revolution, or the 'important people (who struck fear) in their hearts' (Mao). It's seen by Chinese as equivalent to the Western industrial revolution, so obviously a point of personal pride. If they just copy the technological achievements of the intellectually empty West, then China wins in the end, right? They have their cultural superiority. Religions do much the same thing, rigging their flock to explode if their beliefs are shattered.
Nov 22, 2013 17:18 Report Abuse
There is a Chinese guy here. Thanks for the author for the well written article and I was deeply impressed by some of the conclusions. I'd like to talk about some points from my perspective and hope it can be considered as a communication towards understanding. For the "Chinese Methods of Denial" part, from my side the listed items can be mostly interpreted as "Culture differences". In eastern culture cycle, it is generally rude to point out sb wrong, even if he is really wrong. That is the "Mianzi" issue. Mianzi is not only about wearing good clothes, living in high level standard, but also well respected and showing certain social position. Being denied directly would be considered disrespectful. This concept is not only owned by Chinese: Japanese can even put more emphasis on it. "The Trademark Chinese Blank Stare", the "No I'm not, You are!" and the "Bias" are all resulted from this. Chinese guys generally seldom encounter this kind of direct challenges and if encountered it is not wierd irrational responses may happen. If two Chinese have disagreement, the final result would mostly be "Yeah I agree some of your point but my points of view has something of value" even one has given up his own opinion completely. "给个台阶下"(Give a ladder to the rival so that he can leave the stage gracefully) is talking about this. Another point I'd like to talk about is rationality. Science, based on experimentation methodologies, started from ancient Greece has deep impact on western cultures and people tend to think in the "what" "how" "why" series. Ancient China, on the contrary, generated a culture that may be refered as "sensitivity". Even the current education system in China has already fully adopted western science and technologies, people still use traditional ways to deal with stuff between one and another. Unlikey doing research or experiments, the truth itself is considered less important than points of view of people. When Chinese asks your impression about China, truly they have an expcectation because they hope your points of view can align with them. Otherwise they will feel disappointed. It's not lacking of confidence. It's a bad experience of lacking communications and having disagreements. "Disagreement is a bad thing" Chinese would think like that, since it violates the feeling of either side. The last I'd like to talk about is nationlism. This has profound root causes coming from the culture guidance of the CCP and the Chinese culture. We are educated that China is a big country which long history and rich cultures. we are also told that China once suffered from invasion and poverty. Confidence and inferiority both exist in the heart. From this point I'd like to compare current China to Gasby, who eagers to seek recognition in the world. It is a bit sad for this.
Jan 27, 2014 16:32 Report Abuse
Back in my home country, i was working a job where i had to tell people they couldn't do certain things. a black guy was in a big argument with me about this, and was going through every fallacious argument he could think of to get what he wanted. i stood my ground, and eventually he said something like: "I've learned in life that you need to be vocal and persistent, or people will boss you around all the time." i replied: "in other words, you argue and shout until people back down." "that's a very negative way of putting it." he said. I think he was right: e were describing exactly the same thing, only from positive and negative perspectives. I mention this because it strikes me that you are approaching mianzi from a positive perspective, and in this light it looks very reasonable and civilized. Expats like myself will often see things in a negative perspective, because for us the detrimental sides are more apparent. I agree with Samsara that your perspective holds merit. But the downside is all to apparent for us: Chinese have fragile egos, because they have never needed to face the humiliation of being wrong, or simply hearing a straight No for an answer.
Feb 14, 2014 18:40 Report Abuse
This is a fantastic article. These are the things that drive me crazy everyday living here, the complete illogical responses you get to any criticism or observation. A piece of Chinese logic I enjoyed a month ago, why do westerners drink cold water? Because the eat too much beef and it makes their bodies hot, as a response they drink cold water to keep the temperature down and the balance in check. Profound thinking indeed. One thing not pointed out (unless I missed it) is the unrivalled hypocrisy that goes on here. But of course, the only answer to this is mei ban fa or the 'so are you'. The Chinese way very much brings a foreigners frustrations to the brim, many boil over and need a place to vent their frustration in (in writing).. Of course many others treat it all as a big laugh and this is what makes living here so entertaining. I'm sure we've all enjoyed a day out watching the chaos that ensues. For some bonus reading check up on the science of neoteny. Make of it as you will but an Interesting read it is.
Jun 03, 2013 21:27 Report Abuse
Agreed, this is a useful essay on self-perception and indicative of a nation emerging from a series of turbulent and destructive times; however it lacks a historic perspective on how Master Narratives, the glue through which people hold together a nation, become distorted through the prism of national destruction. So to what did the Chinese people owe these turbulent and destructive times to which I refer? What terrible crimes did they commit to bring down war upon themselves, forced treaties, occupying forces of Europe, America and Japan? What could they have possibly done to deserve this, was it genocide, expansionism, perhaps they harbored Weapons of Mass Destruction? No, it was none of these. The Chinese were actually guilty of the “heinous crime” of isolationism; of wishing to be left alone, with what they had. Now that might have been respected in any other age (except perhaps the Mongol era), however this isolationist "wishful thinking" happened to coincide with a number of disadvantageous events. Firstly the "Age of Sail" which was basically the technology that enabled enormous wealth to be stolen from the New Worlds and transferred to Europeans… the "Rise of Capital", that is the rise of powerful merchants now flush with gold, triumphant over the Kings and Queens of Europe... and to top it all off, the Industrial Revolution, steel ships, artillery, electricity... communications. In any analysis of why China is they way it is, we should not forsake other nation's role in their history... the part where some of our ancestors repressed millions of Chinese and grabbed large portions of China for no other reason than they could. So what is stopping this from happening again? China has a very different leadership to the type that oversaw its disintegration some century and a half ago. Today this leadership understands the value of technology and information and is aware of the very tenuous nature of this collective imagining that we call a “nation” and most of all they are also aware of how easily it can be undermined. So we should not hope like children and expect too much honesty, for we are all still in an undeveloped state, deficient particularly from where we have yet to achieve concord with our fellow man. For there are still plenty of powerful, greedy men out there who will take something for no other reason than they can. History and human nature has demonstrated time and again that if a country does not expand its influence …it will eventually lose its influence. It is my hope that China as a nation becomes more enlightened than we were.
Jun 02, 2013 20:24 Report Abuse
Zen911 - This is an interesting response, and you should write an article about it. I think that the crippling ideological restrictions and enforced ignorance brought about by Communism play a much greater role in Chinese perceptions than the older history of colonial exploitation. Your assumption about "national destruction" doesn't explain why Hong Kong has amongst the brightest and most independent people in the world. Hong Kong has a long history of foreign occupation and exploitation, and yet Hong Kong people are switched on and self-aware. They despise national myths and value independent thought. The reason is their political autonomy – A signed document granting them constitutional law and freedom from the CCP’s ideological control. Chinese people cannot come to terms with their history or present situation because they have not been allowed to engage in a process of honest discussion, rationalisation and realisation. That said, I am looking forward to reading your article, so get to it.
Jun 06, 2013 17:16 Report Abuse
Well done. It has been my experience as well 110%. This article, which is from the popular China expat site echinacities.com is one of the best, quick, simple, accurate discussions of the Chineses volksgeist, or worldview. In the article, the author reviews a book, Unraveling the Mystery Chinese Faces. It is a work written by the Chinese to help foreigners understand how ‘excellent’ Chinese culture is. Modern China is faced with a choice, a bizarre almost schizophrenic choice. The legacy of Mao, one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century is still praised by the CCP. His face is plastered on money, his picture is still on display in Beijing, and his various slogans, though not as popular, are still spoken of with reverence. Of course, this makes any meaningful discussion of the Cultural Revolution difficult, and the topic is off limits for most teachers and academics. So China, who suffered enormous cultural damage, is not even allowed to assess the damage in any meaningful way, in psychological terms China is repressing painful memories. So instead of meaningful self-reflection or criticism, the insulted psyche comes up with grand delusions, praising themselves, and ignoring any reality that contradicts with the world view, or vision of greatness. In the individual, this is a personal problem, perhaps needing therapy, but for a nation, the harm is tangible, both to the society, and to those who most interact with that society. One practical example has been the recent outrage over a Chinese tourist, who defaced an Egyptian monument. The fact that Chinese people were outraged was not the problem. The problem was that the Chinese government controlled media immediately switched to footage of portions of the Great Wall that had been defaced with graffiti, graffiti in English. The intent was to drive home the idea that “bad foreigners write on Chinese things too!” Chinese people are very sensitive to their perception abroad, and thus were understandably upset, but since the CCP maintains the moral perfection of the Chinese people, all self-criticism is damaging. God forbid Chinese people should behave themselves abroad! A farther claim by the author is “Facts” in China are accepted through wishful thinking or sheer repetition; not through discussion, and definitely not through a process of reason. This is due to the strong Confucian tradition, coupled with the madness of Maoism. China has repeatedly embarrassed itself, and has become known as a nation of “copycats”. The lack of creativity, ingenuity, and inventiveness is both recognized, and decried by the Chinese people, yet they stand around reverse-engineering anything they can get, only to fail time and time again. How can one discuss a ‘fact’ if any ‘fact’ the Party sees as harmful never happened? Mao made ‘mistakes’, a teacher told me. A mistake is forgetting to close the window before a thunderstorm. Killing a few million is fairly deliberate. What does all this mean for the future? With the elevation of Xi Jin Ping (not election) we have seen a call for a ‘Chinese Dream’. At first this sounds like merely another slogan, much like another 5th year plan, or Great Leap Forward. What is special is that Ping is clearly a conservative. Already there are accounts of increased reactionary programs at universities in China, and this trend will only continue. China’s increasing xenophobia, insecurity, and paranoia, coupled with rising wealth and military power, spells great danger for the world.
Jun 01, 2013 07:51 Report Abuse
It has been argued that World War II was started as much by the deep emotional injuries suffered by the Germans after Versailles, as much as the economic problems of the 20's. So to argue that I'm wrong, is quite foolish, considering European history is full of examples where a fragile ego led to violent conflict. Why should China be any different?
Jun 08, 2013 07:00 Report Abuse
Tanman: Firstly – Nothing about rasklnik's writing suggests indignation to me. Indignation is emotional and uncritical. Some people are conditioned to respond with “outrage” to certain topics or suggestions (like what you are doing now). That is indignation. Rasklnik’s writing is unapologetically critical. Secondly – Suggesting there is something wrong with the Chinese psyche is not the same as condoning the West’s history of invasion and genocide. I really wish people would stop doing this kind of thing in argument. You then go on to suggest he is somehow sympathising with Mao ZeDong. I really can’t see it. “Is this the same vision of greatness the Europeans had when they wiped out entire nations of native American Indians?” Be assured, China will use its victim status and “past humiliations” as justification for ANY atrocities. When the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute flared up, I heard female university students talking about going over to Japan and stamping on everyone’s heads until they were dead. They were completely sure of their justification in doing so. China’s psychological condition is something that needs immediate and critical attention.
Jun 08, 2013 11:45 Report Abuse
Well written article and so true. You have captured the Chinese psyche almost to a tee. I wonder whether it is this self 'deception' that stops them from moving forward in social development? It's certainly frustrating for those of us trying to understand.
Jun 01, 2013 03:57 Report Abuse
This is a well thought out and written article. E-china cities should do a blog contest every month since many of these posts are better that what I have read recently. One of the things Asian countries suffer from is this "we are better than everyone else because we are superior attitude"- Japan, Korea, and China etc. Kind of an inverted "White Man's Burden" I call "A Yellow Man's Concern" to believe you are self sufficient in all things- until you see a modern war fleet off your coast. Mark Twain said,"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." Ming Dynasty China was a great explorer and trader and were the strongest country on earth; enter the Qing and China went into more of an isolationist mode. I hope more Chinese get the chance to travel and see that other people have ideas and concepts that- gasp!- might actually work better.
May 31, 2013 19:42 Report Abuse