Illogical or Tactical? Lies in Chinese Culture

Illogical or Tactical? Lies in Chinese Culture
Sep 15, 2011 By Mark Turner ,

Lying is probably the biggest bugbear for ex-pats in China. It's not to say that foreign people don't lie. Look at a newspaper, magazine, flip on the TV or just chat to a foreigner for a while: the odd mistruth will no doubt pop up in some manifestation and with just the most cursory of digging. From imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraqi factories, to lying on resumes or cheating on spouses; to saying that someone's rear does not look big in a certain little dress. Lies come in all sizes and tones – from whopping in size and black hole-deep-black in tone, to innocent, small and ‘white’. 

Illogical or Tactical? Lies in Chinese Culture

What bewilders foreigners about China is how lying seems to take on the appearance of the country’s national sport, rather like a kind of verbal ping-pong. A simple game of ping pong, however, can sometimes transform from resembling a friendly game in the park to becoming more like a mental running of the medieval gauntlet, barbs and swinging blades lying in wait to skewer them financially or emotionally.

Lies that lack logic

No lie is too big or small to be told. In fact, the minuscule lies are sometimes the most bewildering; as the reasons for their existence are often the most elusive.

It seems that in China 'truth' is a different kind of beast, bending the laws of an inter-subjective reality, sometimes making up completely new ones as it goes along. One such rule is the 'if I say that x is y enough times and with enough conviction, then x really is y' rule. 

I doubt there is any foreigner that has lived in China for an extended period that has not encountered an instance of this rule being brought into play. The effect is that they enter an argument knowing that they have seen sufficient evidence or that they recollect with enough clarity that they are able to vouch for a fact's complete truth; they're willing to swear on their mom's life or the bible – whatever they hold most dearly.

The dispute could be about something innocuous as the ownership of a hat, or as significant as tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding payments.

The upshot is that after seemingly aeons of steadfast, stony faced denial, spurious claims, non sequiturs, straw man arguments, ad hominems and headshaking from the other party, their previous convictions have been eroded to the point of being nonexistent, they give up and retreat, accepting this new contractual term, loss of money or change in a relationship’s power dynamic. They’re left feeling completely unsure of what they had before considered gospel.

This scenario is most fittingly summed up by popular internet message board quip '神马都是夫云’— literally 'all things are but clouds’, meaning that, in reality it is not actually possible to grasp anything concrete. Things slip through our fingers.

The bright side of lies

The original idea of this article was to write about when it is OK to lie. But really, personal scruples and matters of legality aside, it really is OK to lie in any given situation in China; in some circumstances it is even encouraged or seen as artful.

Sometimes lying is used to gain face or gain an advantage over someone. At other times it is used as a means for offering a wounded party a chance to recoup face, a thoughtful, kind and gentle flipside of the unpleasant face of lying in China which many detractors of contemporary Chinese culture often omit from their critiques. This kinder face of lying in China is much more subtle and commonly overlooked by people of other cultures because they are so tuned into the practice of being incensed at a perceived slight that they can completely fail to realize the benevolence of its intent.

One of the most common lies someone will come across in China is about relationships. It is not so much of a lie as a ‘bending’ of a truth or the use of Venn diagram like semantics to maintain a sense of mystery or gain an advantage. When quizzed about their relationship status, young Chinese people will say that they don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend or partner, sometimes disguising the reality by calling him/her a ‘friend’ .This happens both in Chinese language and English language conversations and is not restricted to interactions with foreigners. The truth is that the relationship game is fiercely competitive in China, everyone wanting to find the best possible match. So, of course, a few little lies are likely to be told whilst dating – stinking, huge, beastly, heart tearing ones too, probably. Be warned if you are looking for a serious relationship with a Chinese person.

Telling ‘pork pies’ (check a cockney rhyming slang dictionary) about personal matters is just one event in the track and field games of mistruths told in China. Much more costly – financially speaking – are lies in business. China is a notoriously difficult country to do business in, hence the phrase ‘shanghai-ed’. It is no surprise that the name of a Chinese port has been appropriated as another colloquialism for being screwed over. This does not bode well for businesses wanting to export from China. One complaint of such businesses is that products supplied by cost cutting Chinese manufacturers are not up to scratch or meeting the criteria agreed upon. In a message board thread about lying in China, one commenter on the noted that failure to oversee and document the production processes of a factory is an open invitation for being supplied with subpar products. Manufacturers should just be expected to lie.

Undoubtedly, the best advice for people involved in business or work in China is to look at things from every imaginable angle and make sure that they make things as airtight as possible before committing to any kind of agreement. Loop holes and room for ‘interpretation’ in contract clauses are legion and standard issue in most contracts in the Middle Kingdom. As the same internet commenter suggests, it is best to ask a question repeatedly in several different phrasings so as to check for discrepancies in responses. Hidden fees, penalties and costs are common practices in any kind of interactions involving money; these are also often wheeled out under the most flimsy of premises.

The matter of whether lying is an integral facet of China’s thousand years of culture is unclear. What is clear, however, is that it is advisable to deal with it by taking virtually every piece of news – good or bad – with a pinch of salt, and countering outrageous lies with your own equally outrageous ones. Life is a game, as lying is a sport in China. Take up thy ping pong paddle, prepare for a few volleys and remember to smile no matter the results.  

Related links
When Face Meets Chivalry: Negating Cross-Cultural Communication Clashes
Cross Cultural Communication: Yes, No and Maybe
Not So Nice to Meet You – Things Chinese People Don’t Say

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Keywords: lying in China lies in Chinese culture good and bad sides of lying in China


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Yes. Lies and money, money, money. Seems to be my main experience when in China.

Nov 01, 2012 01:31 Report Abuse



Interesting observation.
I think, as a point of comparison, it is enlightening to look at the Chinese perception of Western directness, namely, the perceived disregard for face. They see Westerners as aggressive and individualistic in there apparent disregard for maintaining social harmony, a social harmony that bares testament caring feelings towards the group. This is only half right though- something I wish Chinese could understand more deeply.

It is funny that when Westerners display a tendency to articulate their position through thorough arguments and discussion, this is perceived as opinionated in China. Chinese see themselves as intuitive and Westerners as logical (overly rational). I think in an individualistic world, individuals need clarity for their sense of security- because communal nets such ‘guanxi’ are not going to be there when we fall. We want to control everything.

Westerners also have face- it is their sense of agency. Sense of efficiency.

I was brought up enjoying debate and difference of opinions. Heated discussions and emotion are fun- they show a trust between friends. A bit like the ‘讨价还价’ (hangling) culture amongst the Chinese …except with opinions. 矛盾and contradiction are a wonderful part of life. Controversial and upsetting topics do not destroy social harmony if tackled delicately.

Personally I do not buy that Westerners do not appreciate social harmony. Maybe we just prefer to take the ‘热闹’ element out the restaurant and into the social sphere. A person who shares their inner world of opinions and idiosyncrasies has character (in my mind)- I don’t think they are being confrontational. But maybe I am being ethnocentric!

My mission is to understand both parties without judgement. There is a lot to like in China.

If you want your proverbial boat to catch better winds it is advisable to nurture your cultural networks

Aug 07, 2012 13:37 Report Abuse



I agree they see "Westerners as logical (overly rational)." But this is a contradiction...when choosing a boyfriend/gf/husbad wife, they are very very logical/rational. What is his salary? how tall is he? Does he have a house and car? "Yes, I like that girl, but she has a mole, maybe in the future she will get cancer?"

So I don't think their arguments that Westerners are too rational make sense at all.

About the disregard for face, as you said they only half understand. I don't think any westerner wants to embarrass anybody...unless they deserve it.

For example, if there were a group of friends and people started asking what everyone's salary was. If a westerner knew one guy just worked in a factory and had a low salary, of course they don't want him to lose face, and would not want to others to ask him.

On the other hand, if some factory boss has lied to you and cheated you, why is it up to you to "save face" for him? That is ridiculous, since he only has himself to blame.

Aug 24, 2012 21:56 Report Abuse


Juerg Wyss

Why do you call it "lies"? You can also call it stratagem. There are 36 in China.
Didn't Sun Tzu (孙武) write in his "Art of War":
"Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near."
Aren't we teaching Sun Tzu's principles at our best universities?
Isnt' military strategy, politics not about tactics, lying?
Isnt' business a war?

Rather tha complaining about Chinese lies we should study their history, their way of thinking and learn how to handle it.

Jan 14, 2012 23:31 Report Abuse



Yes, yes, yes they are such liars. It's a sport, a game but really a way to make money and that's what's China is all about for most Chinese.

btw I have a Chinese wife and she says about my daily spam text messages (which are trying to sell me something) - they are liars

These guys think ethics is a county in England

it's short term thinking, a quick buck and rabbit eat rabbit

there are some exceptions thank goodness

Sep 26, 2011 05:13 Report Abuse


Dr. Warren

The writing here is lazy. It lacks examples. It's wordy. Weak, thinly connected comparisons are used. And the only support comes in the form of other comments from the Web. Thanks for wasting my time.

Sep 19, 2011 11:50 Report Abuse



Love it! What about generally avoiding the topic by either not saying anything at all or delaying a process until it is too late in order to avoid conflict? I've come across this several times.

One example, we had another foreigner coming to our school from abroad. He wanted to view the schools policies and proceedures manual for foreigner conduct. Well, the school didn't have one. The school leaders said, "Never tell a foreigner the truth about any details." So, they delayed, delayed, delayed. The foreigner was frustrated and almost declined the offer to come to China because of the lack of communication. Chinese people are afraid to commit to a position. So they make up excuses, or delay, or don't say anything at all. In the business world, this is problematic.

I now work in another industry, but the company suffers a tremendous amount because of a lack of efficiency and communication. When a manager is telling the employee to do something, the instructions need to be clear and precise. Well, ambiguity and uncertainty is synonymous with Chinese culture. It is why many foreign companies are weary of doing business in China. It’s too risky because of the misleading, inaccurate, ambiguous nature of the Chinese. They’re afraid to dedicate themselves to a position or opinion in fear that they could be held accountable later. They would rather, allow you to fall on your OWN knife, so that if something goes wrong later, they can say it was not their fault. A business person from the West has the attitude of “who cares who’s at fault, let’s just fix the problem and move on. Just tell me the truth so I can fix the problem. Don’t give me anymore excuses.”

I negotiated my salary at the new firm by bringing my boss a printed counter offer with evidence to support why I was asking for more money. He made the comment that Chinese people are not that direct with their approach and that he admired my western way of getting right to the point without any B.S.

Sep 17, 2011 20:12 Report Abuse



One of my more insightful Chinese friends, who also speaks English well enough to discuss such issues articulately, swears the "lying problem" became much worse during the Mao years because it was impossible to know whom to trust. At one point Mao announced a campaign of allowing everyone to speak openly and publicly criticize what they saw fit to criticize.( "Let 100 Flowers Bloom") It didn't take long for Mao and his cohorts to realize "mistakes were made" and the very same people who'd been encouraged to speak their minds suddenly found themselves either in jail or out in the sticks working the fields. This was NOT all that long ago and many people who lived through it are still alive. You can bet the advice they passed along to anyone listening was, "Be careful with the truth." It not only won't "set you free," as many in the West believe, it could also do quite the opposite.

Sep 17, 2011 16:38 Report Abuse



One thousand examples will not help eradicate lies in China.Lies are part of the DNA here.It has to do with education.China is not a religious society,and this damaged the moral foundation of the country long ago.Take for a example,the case of a foreigner having a Chinese girlfriend,who suddenly comes up with lies to the effect that her mother wants her to go back to their hometown and pick up a job there.In reality,she moves to a different part of the city.She starts dating a colleague and as expected thing lead to no way.Just after 2 months ,she calls the foreigner,begging and crying that she can't stand the life in her hometown,that she will come back to the city.The day she "returns" the foreigner goes over,and after a careful look at the environment,he discovers she never went home.He confronts her,and she breaks down crying asking for forgiveness.She gives all kinds of excuses.They carry on their relationship,but after 2 months,the foreigner discovers pictures of her cafefully hidden in a file she thought no one could discover on her computer.The pictures cover the timespan she broke up with the laowai.She went on an amorous adventure with her chinese colleague,who himself had a girlfriend.After pounding her for two months,he moved on to his real girlfriend and left her heartbroken.In fact this is not an isolated story.This is almost the norm in China nowadays.

Sep 16, 2011 18:47 Report Abuse



The problem is in sparing the rod. The Chinese have been allowed to think hacking into foreign defense departments is merely "white lies'..They are not..Lies have very severe consequences...They are stealing and cheating and taking advantage of others on any level..for personal gains...It is like a mouse begining a small hole in the pantry wall....It leads to a larger breach if not detected. Same with those lies that damage a person's career potential. Don't kid yourself, they are INTENTIONAL MALICE to another..They are aggressions and they deserve punishment...It is simple as that. That is why the West continually is compelled to go to war with the East...The Chinese seem to believe progress is weighed in having more pleasures instead of having less desperations.That is the difference between the thinkings.

Sep 16, 2011 06:35 Report Abuse



Any lie is a lie, all liars..........Shanghai ed came from America. Shanghai ed means when you woke up you found out you are going to Shanghai, China. Thus.... Shanghai ed. If all liars are going to hell, China will be the first to go.Out of 1.3 billion hell will have to enlarge it's self. After visiting China for 8 months My impression of China is........What a bunch of liars. Never have I seen such liars. They are steeped in lies. Please Why? Was that a teaching of Budha? Tao? Great people if you can get past all the lying.

Examles of lying. I am in bed with a Chinese girl, her father calls at 2 am in the morning and ask where are you. She answers I am at work.
I ask her please give me back my translator device. She answers.... My friend got married and I gave it to her for a wedding gift. Right. Lying does not save face, it makes you a liar.

Sep 16, 2011 05:34 Report Abuse



I had to laugh when reading this article, because the only lies I have come across in China are the white lies, the face-saving type, whether it is saving my face or the other party's face. That type of lie is common in other Asian countries too,and is often nothing more than politeness. The thing I found really funny was the reader's comment about the meaning of being 'shanghaied'. (incidentaly, it is a word, not a phrase, and it is not hypenated.). It is nothing to do with lying. It originally meant the process of concripting men as sailors against their will, while they were drugged or drunk, or through force or trickery. These days, it just means getting involved in something that you did not really want to do.But that is where there might be a lie. It is often used as an excuse by some one, for how he/she got involved in something.
Example: Sorry I can't take you out on Saturday. I got shanghaied into playing rugby.
I am surprised that some of those who write that they have lived in China for several years, can't tell the difference between polite white lies and deliberate deceit. Maybe they should be more careful with whom they associate.

Sep 16, 2011 04:16 Report Abuse


Irish Dave

The worst lies I've heard involve job references; for example, a chinese school manager offered a foreign teacher a raise, etc to renew his contract and stay in the school. The teacher said, "I'm sorry. This is a nice school but I want to try living in a different city." He was moving to another school in the same franchise, but he almost lost the job because that manager sent a hideous letter about him to the other school.

I've had this happen to me once, but it only served to confuse my new employer since I'd worked with the woman previously.

To wake up with a headache and a bruise on the back of your head, on a ship bound for Shanghai and no way to get off except work for passage there and back again - to be Shanghai-ed

Sep 16, 2011 04:42 Report Abuse



I had a similar experience at Luoyang Number One High School. They wrote me a fantastic and glowing reference for the good work I had done, then wrote an almost hysterical and damning attack on me to the school I was going to. Behind my back of course. It again emphasises the lack of ethics, credibility or common sense that abounds in the education system.

Oct 09, 2011 06:32 Report Abuse



I was raised by parents who hated lies, and imbebed in me to always speak truth no matter what consecuences. Even if lies are told here in China and abroad, it hes been my experience that while abroad lies are told with a purpose in mind, here in China are used with no real purpose, as a way of life, for whatever reason.
But to me lies are not my worse impression of China, nose picking in public, and examining in detail the results afterwards, or spitting on side walks is a lot more repulsive.
But I do also feel I am a guest in China, and if I do enjoy being here, I must also try hard to ignore their possible defects in my eyes, and concentrate on the many positives I see and face around me each day. Somehow, that has helped me to make many good friends.

Sep 16, 2011 03:14 Report Abuse


Irish Dave

I think there needs to be a differentiation here between things that are lies and things that are cultural nuances. Chinese lying in business and to save face is widespread and rampant as there are few reprecussions. Sometimes these are money-making schemes, but often they are also to save face. This is where cultural understanding comes into play. You will never shame an apology from a chinese peer, they will deny a mistake to their deathbed, especially in public. However, if they know you've caught them out on lie but put it aside to save their face, you gain guanxi which is essential for dealing business in China.

On chinese girls referring to a boyfriend as a 'friend', that also comes down to cultural understanding in that you learn to ask further questions. When pressed, they will usually confess (unless they are the type of girl you don't want to be with, but this isn't far removed from some western girls I've met).

Sep 16, 2011 01:43 Report Abuse



I have not encountered that much lying while in china. 'White lies' yes, but that is only human nature. The funny thing is that in my culture we have the habit of telling very tall stories as a way of entertainment.

Knowing the difference of culture, I have avoided to do so with one exception. So once I did tell one such to a female friend of mine on the bus, and she went all confused rather, she did poke at one hard to believe part of the story. Which I explained and she appeared to accept it.
So in short, she did accept this made up story, later on I had to tell the truth. Anyhow, she Chinese as she is, did not appear to spot the lie I told. With that experience, I am a little bit hesitant to accept this text as any truth that lies are this common. Perhaps it is a lie in itself - haha! :)

Sep 16, 2011 00:37 Report Abuse


In China

This article is quite true. Chinese take almost every instance to lie and if they are caught they rarely feel any shame or guilt at all. It's just the way they do things and it isn't to be taken personal.

In my personal opinion, it is just a bunch of non-sense and personifies the Chinese character. This is why, after over 5 years in China, I will attest that I do not like Chinese business management at all. It is the most horrible I have seen. And they wonder why they can't keep all the talent in China....

Sep 15, 2011 22:38 Report Abuse



Vivid example:

When a Chinese person opens their mouth - especially when they say something like "no problem", "of course", "that costs XXXXrmb", or "It will be done tomorrow".

Sep 15, 2011 22:29 Report Abuse



To me this article is useless and has no value cuz the writer failed to give vivid examples of lies being told in China.
we need practical examples and how to correct them not just saying lies are everywhere in China.
They're everywhere not only in China even in heaven for satan deceived a quarter of the angels in heaven with a lie to join him.
Give practical examples of lies beeing told and how to eradicate it
thank you

Sep 15, 2011 22:00 Report Abuse


Mr Mau

U want to correct them?? Are u sure? More than 1.3 billion .... If u don't like this game, u should change to other playground.

Sep 23, 2011 17:00 Report Abuse



"Trust no one"
Fox Mulder

Sep 15, 2011 16:37 Report Abuse



“When the unreal is taken for the real,
The unreal becomes the real…”
Cao Xueqin – The Dream of the Red Chamber
One of China's "4 Great Novels"

Sep 15, 2011 14:00 Report Abuse