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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Hi Sean, I have enjoyed reading your articles and explanations of the Chinese Culture, like you I believe it is vital to all peoples to learn and appreciate the tenets of other cultures. For me at 74 years of age it is an amazing journey to be learning so much about such an intelligent and creative country, it has helped me with my with my friendships with Chinese people. Narrow mindedness has always been the product of fear and change, it seems that Chinese people have found a way to bridge this gap. I suggest encouraging people to watch Chinese dramas, I have learnt so much from watching them during the COVID-19 isolation.
Here’s hoping more people will begin to learn about customs and values of other cultures so we can become a more united planet. Regards Liz
Thanks for the comment, Liz. I definitely agree that it’s helpful to watch Chinese dramas and even movies, as this can really force the viewer to see how Chinese people live and accept it as being “normal” for them. Many of the problems today with the perceptions of China and Chinese people come from frightening news reports where the viewer has no opportunities to view the Chinese and fellow human beings, and it is then all too easy to give in to fear.
The story of the frog in the well is most apt. And the lesson is to realise there are other ways to live. I have lived in China for several years and agree that people’s lives sail on no matter what the style of government. We are very much influenced by journalists who have limited perceptions and I too use the term ‘laughable’. I am only making the reinforcing comment that when we live in China we are broader-minded. We are not particularly aware of what style of government they have. People are the same everywhere: they pursue a life of having fun and of less hardship. As we assume, democracy is great….. as long as they vote for what I want. Why impose this lot of bigoted intellectualism on another country? There is a vote every few years and then another set of dictators impose themselves. The media tell us the government is important. The person in the street isn’t much bothered. We are told to be bothered by those who want intellectual status as if their life depends on it.
I definitely think people should be learning Mandarin to stay ahead, as you said:
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.
As always, well done!
Thanks for commenting.
Previously Westerners could easily get jobs in China and were the easy choice for top management positions. Ｎｏｗ the job market is shifting more in favor of Chinese talent, and I think this is an apt metaphor for a Westerner’s need to learn the Chinese language.
I new Chinese term I have recently learned at work is 危机感, or translated into English, a sense of crisis. To me it basically means not relying on what you have now, because others will always be trying to surpass you, so you have to keep struggling onwards. This is related to another Chinese idiom I introduced in a past article, 争先恐后, or to strive to be ahead and fear to be left behind. The full article can be view here: https://chinaculturecorner.com/2013/09/06/struggle-to-get-ahead-fear-to-be-behind/.
Thank you very much Sean, I am so touched by your efforts to bridge the differences. =) 由衷感激！
Fangqi, thanks very much for your comment. I hope through my writing more Westerners and Chinese can come together to not only attain mutual understanding but become friends as well.
I have lived in China for some time now, and in my experience from talking to various expats and former expats, it is people who have never been to China who tend to hold a more positive view of China. The amount of western expats, that I know of, who view China and the Chinese in a negative light, far, far outnumber those who view China in a positive light.
John, thanks for commenting. I can certainly understand that actually being in China makes one more aware of certain problems such as pollution, negative results of social change, and corruption. However I think it’s important to separate these social and development factors from those purely resulting from Chinese culture. On could say that pollution, corruption, and a disorderly society over time though culture will stay the same. I think by improving upon Westerners understanding of Chinese culture we can effect the most change.
In respond to one of your questions in the end, I’ve found this proverb interesting:- The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.