The Chinese idiom titled, “the frog at the bottom of the well,” tells the story of a small frog that lived deep underground in an old well. The frog had been born in the well, and lived its entire life there. In fact, all the frog knew of the outside world was the faint light far above it which it mistakenly took to be the sun. One day, a bird flew down into the well and came across the frog. The bird said to the frog, “come up to the outside world where it is bright and warm.” Upon hearing this, the frog laughed at the bird, thinking that the well was in fact the entire world.
This Idiom in Chinese: 井底之蛙，Jǐng Dǐ Zhī Wā
The moral of this story warns against discounting things that lay outside one’s own experience. This is important to consider with regard to the misunderstandings that can arise between China and Western countries, many stemming from significant cultural and social disparities. Many Westerners, especially those who have never traveled to or lived in China, may hold a negative view of the country with regard to Chinese behavior, social attitudes, and business practices. In the following article, the author will discuss several current points of contention between China and Western countries and present the argument that, while it may be simple to dismiss the Chinese point of view, it is not necessarily advisable to do so.
Differing Standards for Communication
One of the more noteworthy differences between China and the West is with regard to communication styles. Westerners who have the occasion to speak and interact with Chinese natives often find their vague and indirect communication confusing, while others go so far as to deride the Chinese as dishonest or disingenuous. While this author agrees that the way in which the Chinese communicate can be confusing, it is incorrect to broadly label Chinese communication styles as purposefully deceitful.
The methods by which the Chinese communicate are deeply rooted in their history and culture. While it may not be easy for Westerners to accept these communication styles, it is important to remember that the Chinese, after all, understand each other perfectly. This author feels that the Chinese should not be called on to change the way they speak simply for the convenience of Westerners. Many Chinese have already made an effort to learn some English and Western communication styles. Perhaps Westerners have a responsibility in this increasingly globalized world to respond in kind.
Contrasting Social Attitudes and Behaviors
Chinese society is much more conservative than that of Western countries, and retains many traditional attitudes and behaviors. While these may be an important part of Chinese society and culture, Westerners may disagree with them or find them difficult to understand. Chinese society possesses strong collective elements, a holdover from both the Imperial and Communist Eras. Oftentimes, the rights and freedoms of individuals are sacrificed for what may be deemed to be the greater good. Chinese society also places a lot of importance on hierarchy and proper etiquette.
For example, children are expected to respect and defer the wishes of their elders with regard to education, careers, marriage and family life. At work, employees may be forced to keep their opinions to themselves, and carry out a daily ritual of currying favor with superiors. In general, people may be forced to “tip toe” around sensitive issues to avoid risking important professional relationships. From the Westerner’s point of view, these behavioral concepts sound strange, and run contrary to Westerners’ views on independence and freedom of expression. Many Westerners might consider such behavior wrong or immoral and could not dream of engaging in it. But that is really the point; it is not Westerners that engage in it but the Chinese, who do not find it strange at all.
It is true that more Chinese young people are starting to embrace what might be described as Western ideals. However, the majority of Chinese still adhere to more traditional values. Instead of criticizing Chinese society, perhaps Westerns should try to understand it first. No country’s society is perfect and we all have different ways of doing things. That’s simply the way the world works.
Many Chinese are Content With One Party Rule
With regard to governance, Western pro-democracy advocates have long attacked China’s central government for “so-called” oppressive rule and the suppression of democracy. This viewpoint has been supported by several prominent Chinese pro-democracy advocates, one of the more famous and recent of which being Ai Weiwei.
However, in this author’s experience most Chinese people simply do not have strong feelings about democracy or about becoming involved in their country’s political process. Most Chinese people simply want to live a happy and prosperous life and are content to let the Chinese government take care of things. Many of the protests seen on TV, or on the Internet, are simply local issues and have nothing to do with national governance. These protesters simply want local or central government officials to fix a specific problem, after which most will happily return to their daily lives. Westerners have grown up with democracy their whole lives, and it is therefore difficult to understand how a lack of democratic rule could be the result of anything less than ill intent.
However, thousands of years of recorded Chinese history has been based in an authoritative one party rule, an emperor who ruled through “the will of heaven.” Democracy may come to China at some point in the future, but not now, chiefly because the Chinese people overall do not seem to want it. For Westerners trying to bridge the gap between China and the West, democracy may not be the best place to start.
When the Western Media Gets it Wrong
Lastly, there is often a misrepresentation of China by Western media and journalists that prevents Westerners from understanding what China is really like. Sometimes this simply results from the Western media reporting only on negative stories such as pollution, protests, poverty, corruption, or product recalls. Other times, the Western media simply gets a story so wrong it’s laughable. Any country will possess a plethora of negative news stories and can easily be made to look bad through a slanted focus on negative issues.
Although many of these negative issues are true in China’s case, and a result of its efforts to transform its economy and build its reputation on the world stage, they are not representative of the entire picture. Every day, there are other stories that are not reported to Western audiences, including stories about success through adversity, lifestyle improvements, happy families and others. An overt focus by Western media, as well as Western audiences on negative issues, may increase Westerners’ tendency to see China as not only an economic threat, but also an ideological one. In the opinion of this author, rivalry between Western and Chinese governments is likely inevitable for a host of economic and geopolitical reasons, however, mistrust between the Western and Chinese people is not.
If Westerns are able to accept two things, that the Chinese people do not have ill intent towards the world at large, and that there exist many positive stories which go unreported in the news, cross-cultural reconciliation and the development of mutual respect will be a positive outcome beneficial for all.
The World is Bigger than the West
Although all the issues, conflicts, and points of disagreement discussed above may make sense to many Westerners, the problem is that they represent a wholly one-sided viewpoint, or in other words a Western judgment, often without understanding the root causes behind such behaviors and attitudes. The author’s personal experiences suggest that many Westerners have been lax in their attempts to understand other cultures, especially those of Asia and China. This may be especially true of Americans, as for much of their history they have been geographically isolated from the rest of the world, and have practiced isolationism.
In fact, for many years it made sense to place a greater degree of importance on the West. Starting with the rise of England (17-18th century A.D.) and followed by America in the 20th century, the world has largely been dominated by a Western and English speaking economic system and mentality. Every country that wanted to succeed and be part of the global economic stage needed to learn the Western ways and the Western languages (primarily English). However, it is important to remember that the greater influence of Western countries was primarily supported by their economies and continuing status as economic superpowers. Today this is less and less the case.
Despite the many criticisms of China, it is hard to argue with the the country is set to become one of the key world powers during this century. Currently, China is easily ranked at number two, and many people throughout the world believe China to be more powerful than the USA economically. China indeed has been keen on making its influence felt in areas such as politics, international waters, and space travel.
The question for readers is this: if other countries (e.g. China, India, Japan, the Middle East) were forced to learn English and Western ways to fit in and succeed when Western countries were in power, can Western countries afford to ignore China now that is may be set to take over the reins? If Westerners refuse to learn Chinese or refuse to accept Chinese behavior or cultural norms, will the opportunities for Westerners in the coming years also decrease? From this author’s point of view, this possibility seems increasingly likely and represents something all Westerners will need to ponder deeply, even if they never intend to leave their home countries.
In closing, the author would like to point out that in advocating the study and acceptance of other cultural mindsets, especially those of China, he does not unilaterally endorse attitudes, behaviors, or business practices that stem from them. While Westerners may not always agree with the Chinese, it is important to understand that much of what they do is a result of their social and cultural backgrounds and can be viewed as completely rational from their own point of view. To move forward in developing a bilateral relationship with the Chinese people, it will be important to accept that as a country and a people they have an unalienable right to their own beliefs and traditions. For the West to have an effective relationship with them in the future, this author firmly believe it is necessary to accept that and move forward with the understanding and acceptance that there are other ways beside “our way,” or the “Western Way.”
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any additional questions about the cultural and social differences between China and the West? Do you have any personal experiences that could shed more light on this issue? Do you know of any other Chinese idioms that relate to the problems discussed above? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Categories: Chinese Idioms