It Began with a Band Trip: Snapshots of China’s Past and Present

The NMC Band traveled to China in 2001In 2001 when I was finishing up my final year of high school, my own China journey was about to begin, though I couldn’t know it at the time. Back then, I lived as an average American teenager: going to school, hanging out with friends, playing video games, and generally not paying much attention to the outside world.

But everything suddenly changed when my high school band, of which I was a member, was invited to travel to China and participate in a musical and cultural exchange. At that time, the band traveled with a group of around 200-300 people (students and chaperons), and visited four Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Shijiazhuang. A whole new world was opened to me, and while more of my interest in China developed when I studied abroad there several years later, my band trip to China was unquestionably the starting point.

At first I thought it would be interesting to share some of my experiences from that life-changing trip, and contrast them to China today, but then I had another idea. My trip to China in 2001 was unique in that not only did I get to go, but my entire family did as well (my brother as a band member and my parents as chaperons). Therefore, in order to provide some interesting insights on China then vs. now, I sat down and talked with my parents, Richard McLaughlin and Diana Upton. In the following interview, they share their impressions of China in 2001, and then discuss how they differ with their more recent experiences touring southern China, with me, in October of 2015.

I hope their experiences in both 2001 and 2015 will serve as an interesting lens for you, the reader, to learn more about China, its people and the rapid pace at which the country has developed.

The First Visit (2001): A Band Trip to China

China Culture Corner: What was your first reaction when you arrived in China?

Richard: Anticipation and excitement.

Diana: First, after flying for perhaps 14 hours we arrived in Beijing and had to go through customs when we were really tired. That whole process was very confusing. I think I was interested and curious about what we would see, and perhaps a bit anxious since we did not speak Chinese. I think the anticipation was made more exciting since we were traveling with friends who had children in the band. We felt proud that our children’s’ school had been chosen to represent the US in a cultural music exchange.

China Culture Corner: What preconceptions did you have before trip?

Richard: A  closed, very controlled society with limited freedom.

Diana: I think I still held the view that the Chinese were very controlled by the government. Even though it was more than 10 years after Tiananmen Square, that picture was still very much in my mind.

China Culture Corner: What did it feel like being in China the first time?

Beijing's Tiananmen Square
Taking a turn around Tiananmen Square.

Richard: Our movement was controlled to a high degree and it took several days before we were able to go out on our own.

Diana: I was exhausted when we arrived in Beijing after our long flight. One thing I remembered about our first few days was a lovely garden we toured in Shanghai; as a gardener, I love to see gardens and learn about plants. We then we came across a Starbucks. That familiar association brought me pleasure and a sense of the familiar which always helps one to feel comfortable. One disadvantage of the trip was that we were traveling with over 200 people, and it constrained what we could do. Of course since we were with a tour group, the itinerary was very set and determined by the band’s musical performances. We soon found that we had a tour guide that remained with us throughout the trip, Jason, and this was very comforting. He was very personable and explained a lot of history to us as well as giving us helpful tips about traveling in China.

Another thing that was very moving was the massive scale of the city spaces. In particular, I was fascinated by the size of Tiananmen Square. Another community space that impressed me was Xi’an’s city wall. The idea of a wall that surrounded the city was intriguing to me. Our relatively short history in the US has always been based on the freedom of movement and security of laws, so the idea of a city needing fortification was foreign to me. In addition, the sense of history could be felt and that was awe-inspiring.

Enjoing a meal in China
“Yes, we know how to use chopsticks.”

Another difference that was amazing to me was all the construction going on. I remember traveling on the bus through one city in particular, Shanghai I believe, and seeing bamboo being used as scaffolding everywhere. Again, I was amazed – I was worried that it would all collapse.  I do not remember ever seeing so much construction happening at once in the US.

China Culture Corner: What cultural differences stood out?

Richard: Everyone was spitting. People would make insulting remarks within your hearing and did not care if you heard or not. Traffic was heavy and not managed well.

Diana: I felt, in general, that the people did not seem friendly. Often, we found streets to be dirty. In the large cities traffic was unsafe and felt crazy – that was a surprise. I enjoyed the variety of cultural performances that we saw. I remember a Chinese acrobatic performance that we saw that was very impressive. I seem to remember hearing some Chinese singing somewhere on the trip, and it was not melodic or pleasing to me…it was strange and I could not see how people would appreciate it.

China Culture Corner: What was it like conversing with regular Chinese people?

Richard: Generally pleasant, though we needed the help of an interpreter as few people spoke English.

Diana: I did not feel that we got to converse with regular Chinese. This was a disadvantage of traveling in a large group. Aside from our tour guide, I felt that our encounters with the Chinese were either the street vendors who practically accosted us, and the staff of the Friendship Stores who had the impression that all Americans are rich.

China Culture Corner: What did you enjoy most about your trip?

Musical exchange with Chinese highschool students
Meeting with Chinese students.

Richard: A trip through a back alley in Beijing which looked like a 1930s movie set; the Terracotta warriors; the walled city of Xi’an.

Diana: I enjoyed the musical exchanges and seeing our kids perform. Aside from that, what I remember enjoying most was Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, Xi’an’s city wall, and the Terracotta Warriors. I loved these for the sense of history that they conveyed. As I said before, the US is a relatively young country and so experiencing a culture that is so old gives one a very different way to think about the world.

China Culture Corner: Can you describe an interesting experience?

Richard: Once, we left our hotel in one city and saw dozens of people stealing power by tapping into the 440 Volt three phase line which was hanging almost at eye level because of all the lines attached to it. No one seemed concerned about this.

Diana: As we drove from Beijing to another city, the freeway was cleared for us – it was totally empty. That was a mystery. Also, our experiences in the Friendship Stores were also interesting; the Chinese seemed to have the idea that Americans were rich.

China Culture Corner: What was the hardest part about adapting to China at the time?

Old bike in China
“Maybe I’ll go for a ride…”

Richard: Having a rigidly controlled itinerary, including only being able to shop at Friendship Stores.

Diana: I think the hardest thing was the pressure when shopping that I HAD to buy stuff. I am someone who takes time when shopping and chooses carefully. The idea that I was supposed to buy, buy, buy was uncomfortable for me.

China Culture Corner: How did your perception of china change during the trip?

Richard: There seemed to be more freedom than I expected, especially the number of small entrepreneurs that existed.

Diana: I don’t think my perception of China changed, but I would say I was intrigued to learn more. This is a benefit of travel. In fact, the trip, as well as my son studying China, led me to read extensively about China. In enjoyed reading Red Dust, Foreign Babes in Beijing, Three Swans, Mongolia, and Last Days of Old Beijing, among others.

The Second Visit (2015): Touring Southern China

China Culture Corner: During your most recent trip, what differences did you notice compared to 2001?

Richard: There were many more taxi cabs, much better driving, and the cities were much more crowded. There were no fat people at all, and there were many Western businesses, such as KFC, Pizza Hut, 7-11, as well as shopping malls.

Diana: Well, the obvious one is that we were traveling with three of us rather than more than 200. I don’t remember this when we traveled in 2001, but there were so many people with babies or young children on the backs of motorcycles or Vespas. I could not get over how casual they were about this. We have a lot of laws in the US that govern behavior and safety practices. Driving on motorcycles with young children would be unheard of here.

China Culture Corner: How did your experiences differ?

Making friends on Xi'an's city wall
Making friends in Xi’an.

Richard: We were not controlled and had freedom of movement. We also got to interact with regular Chinese citizens. However, the climate on this trip, in contrast to Beijing and the other cities we visited in 2001, was quite hot, humid and very uncomfortable.

Diana: I think that having freedom of movement allowed us to see more of the nitty-gritty of the cities we visited.

China Culture Corner: What experiences did you most enjoy with regard to Chinese people, cultural and society?

Richard: I enjoyed interacting with the tour group, how friendly they were, the freedom of movement, riding the bullet train to Guilin, and not drowning in the Li River [Editor’s note: Richard was worried about the seaworthiness of the tour boats].

Diana: Although most people spoke Chinese, I found them to be very friendly for the most part. When we traveled for several days with a small tour group, the Chinese were very deferential to us, perhaps because we were older or American, which was very sweet. One of my favorite experiences on this trip was talking with the two Chinese women who did speak English. They were very nice, and we thoroughly enjoyed talking with them.

China Culture Corner: How has your impression of China changed in the last fifteen years? How much has your time in China influenced these perceptions?

Richard: I’ve really been impressed by the sheer industriousness of the Chinese people and the apparent freedom of movement in day-to-day life without evidence of police control.

Diana: I think most of my impressions have come from the media, though I try to choose what I read carefully and keep an open mind. As I stated earlier, travel is a great way to broaden the way we think about the world. Because we have just been there for two short trips and seen different parts of China on each trip, I don’t think I can speak of my impressions changing. Instead I am getting a better and better picture of the country and the people each time I visit. But it would take a long time and many trips to get a full picture of the people and the culture.

China Culture Corner: What would you tell other Americans about the “real China?”

Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour
Enjoying the Hong Kong waterfront in 2015.

Richard: The Chinese are very hard-working, they are willing to sacrifice and save to a degree not seen in the US. They work harder than Americans, the save more, they are more active – everyone was walking. They impressed me as very hardworking, serious and hungry for the things Americans take for granted.

Diana: Well, I still feel I have so much to learn about “the real China”. After two weeks there, my curiosity was piqued and I wanted to stay and learn more. I certainly want to go back to visit, though not when the temperature is 30 degrees Celsius.

China Culture Corner: Do you think it’s worthwhile to study Chinese and learn about China?

Richard: I don’t think it’s worthwhile to learn Chinese unless you’re going to work or live there. It’s difficult and there is no place to practice the language skills. Learning about china on the other hand is important because they are a major geo-political competitor and our economies are closely intertwined.

Diana: I agree. China is a civilization thousands of years old that we can learn from, and having a knowledge and understanding of their culture, as part of the human experience, enriches ourselves.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about traveling in China and learning about the Chinese people? Would you like to know more about the two China trips mentioned in this interview? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Finding Work in China as a Western Graduate

Working in China has changed much over the years, especially for young university graduates. Once, all one needed was to look Western, speak English, and possess a basic degree. Now however, this reality has changed.  The market not only needs experienced talent, but also those with an understanding of, and a willingness to work in, a Chinese cultural environment. Also, not just anyone will suffice for established companies, as industry experience is also important.

In order to help young non-Chinese graduates better understand the Chinese job market (and what can happen after one moves to China for work), I sat down with Adam Horton, a recent university graduate from the UK, to talk about his experiences. In the following interview, he shares what brought him to China, what he had to do to find a job, and what he has learned from his experiences.

China Culture Corner: How did you first become interested in China?

Adam Horton: Back in the UK, where I am from, there are not very many opportunities to get involved in international work. There are plenty of people from overseas living in the UK, but most locals don’t really bother with trying to work overseas themselves. In recent years, two universities in Leicester in the UK have started to form relationships with universities in China. So, over the last ten years or so, there have been a lot of Chinese students coming over and, as a young person who had just started working, I had a lot of opportunities to meet them. Generally, the Chinese people are very keen on their own culture, and so after I asked asking some questions, they were willing to tell me quite a lot.

China Culture Corner: What impression did your initial experiences with Chinese students leave you with?

Adam Horton: I found my new friends to be very hospitable and encouraging, as well as excited that I wanted to know more about their country. Gradually, I realized that while everyone was talking more about China, few people knew much, and hardly anyone could speak the language. And, that began my mission to start learning Chinese and understand more about what I could do with my life there.

China Culture Corner: What inspired you to move to China for work after graduation?

Adam Horton: I decided to leave London in Jan 2015 and look for work in China. There were two main reasons I made these decisions. First, I wanted to have a better opportunity to work for a small, but ambitious and highly driven company that could enable me to advance my career. Second, I wanted to learn more of the language, culture, and the way Chinese people think.

China Culture Corner: What did you expect before you made the move? How were things different after you arrived?

Western grads can have difficulties finding jobs in ChinaAdam Horton: I’ve actually moved to Shenzhen two times. The first time was in 2010 for a few months and the second was in 2015 after I graduated from university.

In the beginning, I was just this guy from the UK who didn’t know anything about China. I was very naive and experienced a lot of culture shock. For example, I thought everyone would speak English, the country would be very foreigner-friendly, and that Shenzhen would like a big London. I don’t even think I knew what a developing country would be like. However, after I arrived, the environment was dirty, the air wasn’t very clean, and the people seemed a little rude. I felt frustrated that Chinese people couldn’t speak English and that I couldn’t communicate with them. And, I didn’t like the food. Pretty much it was a disaster the first week or two; I just felt like I wanted to escape.

Five years later, when I returned to Shenzhen it was a totally different experience. I’d been studying Chinese for five or six years at that point, I was much more confident, and I could communicate with the locals. I also could read basic Chinese, knew where the good online resources were, and knew how to use various Chinese apps such as Wechat, which is a very popular social networking app. So, it was much more familiar and comfortable this time.

China Culture Corner: What did you want in a job?

Adam Horton: When I returned to Shenzhen in 2015 I had two requirements for a job. I was not willing to teach English, or work in a role where I would only be there to speak English. It was not what I had studied in university and I didn’t feel it would give me enough job satisfaction over the long term. I wanted to work in a Chinese company, rather than an international company, as I felt it would enable me to integrate more easily into Chinese society and pick up the language quicker.

China Culture Corner: What resources did you use to aid your job search?

Adam Horton: Well, I focused mostly on foreign websites, ones for Shenzhen such as ShenzhenParty and ShenzhenStuff, which had quite a few different jobs on there. When I first came to Shenzhen in 2010, I mostly saw ads for English teaching jobs, but now there are ones for technical jobs, marketing jobs, everything really. However, these ads do tend to be for smaller companies and not larger ones. That was the main method I used. I also did try and network with people at events that were arranged through Internations, which was a good resource. At those events, you could meet a good variety of people, though they were generally all expats. So it was limited in terms of meeting locals. I went to some local English-Chinese language exchange events, and I met more local Chinese people there, and so I was able to get in contact with more companies, some that I may not have been able to contact if I didn’t know Chinese.

China Culture Corner: What were the advantages of networking with expats vs. local Chinese?

Adam Horton: Expats are very useful in some ways, though there are many different people with different levels of expertise. Some of them could help me get an English teaching job, though I wasn’t particularly interested in that. So while the expat community seemed a little smaller and more limited, it at least gave me options.

In contrast, the local Chinese have contacts in factories, tech start-ups, and a good variety of other things. Some of them also worked for big international companies, such as Alibaba, ZTE, etc. So there was a good mix of things. I felt that Chinese contacts were better, and I would have to use my language skills a bit more with them. And so, in the end, I got my job through a combination of networking and looking online.

China Culture Corner: What types of companies were you able to interview with?

China has many opportunities to learn and growAdam Horton: Well, first, some of these companies were not always specifically looking for a foreigner. When they were looking for a foreigner, the base requirements included a bachelor’s degree and two years of work experience. It was also common for them to want people who could speak a little Chinese and understand cultural differences. The types of companies that were out there were mainly tech companies because, as I found out, Shenzhen has lots of technology companies and small start-ups. For example, the company I work for now, while not a start-up per se, is a smaller tech company.

I succeeded in getting interviews, but found that some companies put too much focus on questions like “how much do you expect your salary to be” rather than “why are you interested in our company” or “what skills can you bring to the role”, which I found quite off-putting. I found that the vast majority of job offers I received were for teaching English; while the salary was fair and the work conditions reasonable, I felt they weren’t what I was looking for.

China Culture Corner: How did you end up landing your first job?

Adam Horton: I found my current job through a job advertisement on ShenzhenParty. The interview process was relatively informal. I met with my boss, and we spoke purely in Chinese – at the beginning I didn’t know if he could speak any English – so the pressure was on me to speak well enough. He first told me what the company was doing, took me to the factory to show me what they were making, showed me a presentation about the company and its products – basically what made it great. He also told me about their ideas for crowdfunding, which is what I was later hired to help them with. It was relatively relaxed; we basically chatted, and then he got back to me that night and offered me the job.

In the end, I feel finding my current job was possible in part because of my basic Mandarin skills, which persuaded my boss that I was hard-working, persistent in my pursuit of my ideal job, and skilled at working through problems.

China Culture Corner: How do you feel working in China so far?

Adam Horton: I am working in the Longhua area of Shenzhen which is still developing and the area itself does not feel particularly Western-friendly. Sometimes, it almost feels like I’ve taken a step backwards, compared to when I worked in London previously. Also, when working in a Chinese environment, I sometimes find that while I can get by in Chinese, I crave to be more articulate, and have people understand what I really want to say. There have been many times where I’ve felt frustrated; I think when anyone speaks a second language, unless they can get up to the level of a native speaker, there are will always be places where you can’t express everything to a satisfactory level, the same as you could in English. So I feel I’ve never going to be 100% satisfied, there is always going to be some area where I can’t get Chinese people to understand what I mean.

In terms of working with a Chinese company, I’ve found that it’s very important to respect the boss’ authority, and it’s something you need to do every day. No matter whether the office environment is formal or informal, it’s very important. With other co-workers, it’s a little bit more relaxed. It sort of feels like they feel they need to respect me to an extent. It’s hard to be sure, but they tend to be very polite to me, though of course I always try to treat them the same. There are also many cultural elements in China that are different than what I’m used to. For example, people do lots of things together, so they’ll go to lunch together, and then they generally all take a nap during lunch time. My co-workers find it a little strange when I don’t do the same thing, and they’ll ask me about it. That is hard to get used to as a Westerner, where I am used to just doing what feels right for me.

China Culture Corner: How important do you think it is for young graduates to learn Chinese?

Adam Horton: My own experience has been that in small Chinese businesses, being able to speak Chinese is very important. Without that ability, work can be very, very hard. For young graduates, I think it’s certainly important to know the basics. There are plenty people who don’t speak English, and there are many place you’ll go, such as the metro, where no one speaks any English. So learning some Chinese is unavoidable; at some point you’ll need to learn some. I’ve also found it’s very important to check with a native speaker to make sure you are pronouncing words right, especially the tone.

China Culture Corner: What advice would you give to young non-Chinese looking to work in China?

Adam Horton: It depends a lot on what you want to do, because certain industries have more depth than others. In Shenzhen, for example, with all its technology start-ups, there’s a lot of opportunities for computer programmers, engineers, and other technical roles. So if this is the field you are in, then there are definitely lots of opportunities. But you need to do the research beforehand. If you are, for example, an architect, you need to make sure there will be something available for you, or when you arrive you might be stuck doing something you don’t want to do. Or you might even just waste your time and then have to leave. It’s important to remember that China’s environment, culture, and language are very different from the West, so you need to prepare yourself for that. I think it’s ideal to have some friends, or at least know a few Chinese people, because they’ll be able to give you some advice and tell you what it’s actually like on the ground in China. I think all this preparation is very important before going to China, in order to avoid disappointment.

China Culture Corner: Would you say it’s wise for most non-Chinese to move to China for work right after graduation?

Make most of your China journey! Learn the language and culture.Adam Horton: Personally, I feel that graduates should be working overseas, even if it’s just a temporary thing. It teaches you so much, and it really gives your brain a different dynamic. You will have think about everything, including things you take for granted, including the way you talk to people. We all take our cultural environments for granted, and we get comfortable. But when we leave them, especially moving from The West to The East, it’s a massive culture shock that I think everyone needs to experience, and people deal with it in different ways. This kind of environment really allows you to think more about who you are, what you want to do in the future, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

China Culture Corner: What are the pros and cons based on your own experience?

Adam Horton: Well the pros are obviously that you get to learn about a new language and culture. In some cases, you may be able to get better opportunities, depending on the local economy. For example, in the UK it’s been tough for graduates to find anything, especially relating to what they studied. So sometimes it can pay off to take a job overseas. You might find that you can get more experience and more opportunities.

There are also cons. For myself, my first week in China was probably one of the most traumatic experiences in my life. I think everyone will experience culture shock, though some people will naturally find it easier to deal with than others. Being in a different environment you’ll find that there are many differences of opinion, and sometimes people come across as being not so friendly. In these cases, you can’t understand their point of view and they can’t understand yours. There are different working styles as well, completely different from what I was used to from British companies. You might find you have to work more overtime, you might find you get less days off, you might have to work in an office environment that you feel is less than optimal, such as dirtier than you’d like.

China Culture Corner: Can you sum up your China experience so far?

Adam Horton: Well, starting off as someone with absolutely no knowledge of China, Chinese culture or the Chinese language, I’ve made a good start in terms of learning about the culture and language. It’s required a lot of hard work, and even though there were times when I felt like giving up, I stuck at it. And I’ve found that once you get past that first hurdle, the others are nowhere near as hard. The first part is just getting used to living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, and dealing with all the cross-cultural issues. In the end, you have to have a clear motivation and be very determined.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about looking for work in China as a recent non-Chinese graduate? Can you share any of your own experiences on finding work in China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Follow the China Culture Corner on Facebook!

FB-f-Logo__blue_1024Do you enjoy learning about the Chinese culture and language via the China Culture Corner? Are you interested in reading more articles about China from a variety of different sources? Are you looking to connect with other like-minded people to talk about China?

If so, you may be interested in checking out the China Culture Corner’s Facebook page. I have recently launched a page on Facebook for the China Culture Corner with the goal of getting more feedback from readers and providing you all with another channel to learn about China.

How to Contribute

Going forward I would encourage all readers to take a look at the page. While up until now I’ve mainly been sharing articles I like, I hope that in the future readers will share more too. For example, readers can:

  • Share articles
  • Comment on articles share on the page
  • Ask question of myself and other group members

If you don’t like using Facebook, there are also other ways to join the conversation. You can:

I look forward to talking further and seeing your contributions!

-Sean Upton-McLaughlin

Will We Meet Again: A Sacrifice of Working Overseas

I was recently listening to a Chinese podcast, and happened across an interesting lesson on a poem from China’s Tang Dynasty. While the poem is rather simple (only four verses), it still stuck a personal chord.

The poem describes the parting of two friends who live far apart and are not sure when they will see each other again, if ever. As I have chosen to spend my life (or at least a significant potion of it) in China interacting with the Chinese people, I often find that I am far from home, with few opportunities to return regularly. The poem thus spoke to me pretty strongly, and seemed rather appropriate to describe the sentiments experienced by other world travelers and expats who find themselves far from home in foreign lands.

Therefore, I wanted to share the poem here on the China Culture Corner, as I am sure others have had similar experiences and sentiments. My own translation of the poem is provided below:


We say farewell between the mountain peaks;

The sun sets and I close the door;

Next year when the grass is green again;

Will you return once more?

For those of you interested in the Chinese version, I have provided it below along with Pinyin for easy pronunciation:

送别 (sòng bié)

山中相送罢 (shān zhōng xiang sòng bà);

日暮掩柴扉 (rì mù yǎn chái fēi);

春草明年绿 (chūn cǎo míng nián lǜ);

王孙归不归 (Wáng sǔn guī bù guī)。

About the Poem and Poet

While the poem starts off describing the parting of two friends, the central theme actually revolves around the author thinking about whether he will see his friend again. The last three lines focus on the poet longing for his friend after their parting,  and wondering whether his friend will return the following year.

王维 (Wáng Wéi) was an accomplished Chinese poet, painter, and who lived in the Tang dynasty between approximately 699 and 761 AD. During his life he wrote over 400 poems, and was especially known for portraying and describing nature. His works were so highly thought of that it was said his poems contained a painting, and his paintings a poem.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about translating between the English and Chinese languages? Do you have any ideas you would like to share on bridging the Chinese and Western cultures? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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How “Chinese” Should You Act in China?

mp1538457_1423329768198_2Living and working in China can be a rewarding experience for some and a trying ordeal for others. What “makes or breaks” Western visitors to China is often their ability, or lack thereof, to adapt to Chinese culture and society. This usually involves learning some Chinese, adapting to Chinese communication styles, learning about local working environments and giving up (i.e. not being able to fully follow) some of the customs, habits, or norms of their home country. And while this process is both natural and necessary, it is by no means simple. After all, when living in China, exactly how much should you adapt, and how much of your old culture should you be prepared to give up?

This is a contentious issue, and I have seen it debated on many social media platforms (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Quora). Both sides have strong proponents, each with their own ideas on the best ways to “survive” in China and the most effective ways to interact with the local Chinese. While I have an obvious preference for localization and adaptation, I’d like to briefly share my thoughts on both sides of the argument, as well as how to quickly, healthily, and effectively adapt to life and work in China. Broadly speaking, there are two main camps: those that want to live a more Western (or non-Chinese) lifestyle, and those that are favor of doing things the Chinese way.

The International Expat

To some extent, the international expat (or expatriate) could be considered a holdover from a bygone era when international business and economics was clearly led by Western countries (e.g. the USA, UK, Germany, etc.) and China was still an underdeveloped country. In the 1970’s and 80’s when Western companies began expanding into China, it was natural for high-level experts,  managers and executives to be deployed to China, complete with expensive benefit packages. Due to the differences in culture, language and economic class, it was natural for Western expats to live apart from the local Chinese, banding together for comfort and companionship. However, despite over 30 years of break-neck development in China, this trend has continued. Life for many expats in China still exists in a bubble, and a number of large cities (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong) have their own expat districts or communities. In these areas, expats can distance themselves from Chinese society and culture, and live a life similar to one from their home countries.

Western expats in China don't adaptBut is this really necessary? I have seen a number of comments by Westerners and non-Chinese on social media (sometimes in response to my own posts), saying they will “never, ever, give in and start doing things the Chinese way.” While I have nothing against trying to maintain one’s own cultural identity in China (I do so myself), refusing to do anything the Chinese way can result in some fairly obvious negative consequences:

  • An US vs. THEM mentality
  • A lack of trust between Chinese coworkers and partners
  • A lack of learning opportunities
  • A potentially miserable experience in China

It’s true that a visitor to China can’t really be expected to completely adapt to or accept everything about living and working in China. However, for those of us that choose to live here, it is worthwhile to remember that this was our choice. While it is completely acceptable to disagree with certain aspects of Chinese culture, society or business practices on a personal level, refusing to participate may do more harm than good. Remember, Western expats are now leaving China in increasing numbers, partly because more and more Chinese locals can do their jobs, AND because they understand the culture. While there will likely always be some need for Western expats and experts in China, those that refuse to adapt will not last long.

The Zhōng Guó Tōng

A zhōng guó tōng (中国通), can be roughly translated as: “someone from outside China who possesses a high level of Chinese language skills, a deep appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture, and the ability to fluently engage and interact with Chinese people from different backgrounds.” The zhōng guó tōng is an ever-increasing phenomenon in China, and it not restricted to specific groups or backgrounds. They can be foreign students studying at Chinese universities, travelers exploring the Chinese countryside, or adventurous professionals from all over the world working for Chinese companies. There are an increasing number of Westerners and non-Chinese learning about the Chinese language and culture and adapting to local Chinese customers and practices. This includes: networking and spending time with Chinese locals, imbibing generous amounts of Chinese Baijiu, trying local Chinese delicacies, and doing things in a more Chinese style.

Doing things the Chinese way in ChinaWhile the number of zhōng guó tōng is comparatively smaller than that of International Expats, their numbers are growing. After all, China is full of new, strange, and exciting opportunities, and it makes sense that many would want to experience all they could. However, based on my time in China,  as well as my conversations with other Westerners and non-Chinese, there are several potential negative side effects to this lifestyle. For example:

  • Reverse culture shock can be greater when returning home
  • Other Westerners or non-Chinese often mistake a zhōng guó tōng’s passion for showing off
  • Becoming too close to the Chinese world can distance you from useful Western networks and contacts

The path of a zhōng guó tōng or any non-native Chinese with a love for Chinese culture can be both easier and harder than others. On one hand, with knowledge of the Chinese language, culture and people, it is easier to communicate and get things done. However, on the other hand, this knowledge and passion takes us to faraway shores, and it can be easier to lose one’s way, or at the very least lose heart, from time to time.

Finding a Balance

During my time in China, I have come to the or conclusion that, for Westerners and non-Chinese truly interested in learning about and living in China, trying to choose between Chinese culture and one’s own is not realistic. Just as shutting ourselves off from the Chinese world by living in isolationist expat complexes does nothing to help us adapt, shutting ourselves off from other Westerners while we study Chinese language and culture can also be unhealthy. If we truly aim to live in China (and this applies more to larger cities), it’s very important to live with one foot in each world.

Balancing Chinese and Western customs is importantIn the modern era, there are multiple reasons to stay involved with the international/Western world, some cultural, and some more related to career development prospects. For young Westerners wanting to live and work in China long-term, and who aren’t content with potentially low-paying or illegal jobs teaching English, the bigger international firms offer key opportunities. With this being the case, it definitely pays (sometimes quite literally) to maintain ties with the Western or non-Chinese communities. Therefore, whether through social networks (such as LinkedIn) or through personal relationships, I feel it is very important to maintain ties to the international community.

Lastly, it is important to remember that one reason English and Western culture have dominated the world for the past several centuries is due to continued economic superiority. With the rise of China, this global focus on English and the West can at least be partly expected to shift to China and Chinese. In fact, a trend towards China and the Chinese language is already clear is certain areas. Western expats have in recent years been leaving China in increasingly greater numbers as Chinese with local experience connections replace them. Across the Pacific, I have seen certain Chinese firms in Silicon Valley require fluency in Mandarin as a job prerequisite for some roles, effectively keeping many Americans of non-Chinese decent out of the running. In short, Westerners who want to work in China can no longer afford not to understand the Chinese language (including the writing system) and culture, or not to be comfortable interacting with the local Chinese.

Final Thoughts

In the end we all have to make our own choice on how much to adapt to local Chinese customs and behavior. Some people naturally feel more comfortable in a Western environment, or one resembling their own home country, while others might feel more at home among the Chinese locals. However I believe its important to realize that the Chinese world is becoming increasingly important to global affairs, both economically and politically. When dealing with the Chinese world, those that feel comfortable “walking the walk” will undoubtedly be better prepared, and able to do more.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any about living and working in China? Do you prefer to live more of an expat lifestyle, or localize and adapt to the local Chinese environment? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Why I Write “Westerner”: The Essence of a Word

3779872335_41f7f0a4c9_o_dDuring the writing process I often think about style issues, namely things that should be kept consistent throughout an entire article, and even across articles. For example, I long ago made the decision to use businessperson or businesspeople, as opposed to businessman, as the latter implies sexism. Also, I consistently discuss issues more diplomatically, not because I’m happy about everything that is going on in China, or because I agree with or accept every part of Chinese culture and society. Instead, I believe that cultural barriers are overcome through reflection and understanding, not by looking for points to disagree on.

So with this mindset, I regularly use the term Westerner in my articles to refer to non-Chinese expatriates, professionals, students, and travelers in China. However, the word is not perfect, and I have agonized over it a good deal while writing and proofreading. It’s clear that Westerner, when used in the classic sense, only refers to those hailing from North America or Western Europe. I also understand that non-Chinese living in China, as well as my readers, come from all over the world. However, I have yet to come up with a better word.

Here are two important reasons why I choose to use the term Westerner:

  1. I’d rather not use foreigner: One very important reason why I use Westerner, is perhaps due to my dislike of the term foreigner. The Chinese often use the terms 外国人 (wài guó rén, foreigner) or 老外 (lǎo wài, slang term for foreigner) to refer to non-Chinese. I don’t overly mind these terms in and of themselves, and foreigner might actually be the most appropriate word simply in terms of scope. But in China, the word foreigner will always serve to emphasize someone’s status as an outsider. This, by itself, is more than enough for me to look for another word, as one of my goals in China is to pursue unity and understanding, not emphasize differences.
  2. I don’t assume I understand your challenges in China: I don’t like to present myself as someone who has all the answers on China for everyone. I was born in raised in the United States, and so it’s natural that I know that region best, in addition to China. While I aim to help everyone I can by sharing my insights on, and experiences in China, I understand that people from different countries and cultures may face their own unique challenges in adapting to life and work in China. What may work for me or other Americans, may not, for whatever reason, work for someone from South America, Eastern Europe or Africa. I feel I would be doing these readers a disservice by broadly assuming my experiences can always be applied to them. Therefore in using Westerner I mean to say that I am confident my insights on China can be used and applied by those from North America and Europe; I sincerely hope they can also be used and applied by people all around the world.

So that’s why I consistently use the term Westerner, though I’m always open to other suggestions. After reading the above points, if you feel there is another term that can better represent all the non-Chinese living, working and traveling in China, I’d be very glad to hear from you. After all, writing can be said to be an art form (one which I have yet to perfect), and there is always room for improvement.

And lastly, if you have read and enjoyed my articles, but feel your experience has been different due to your specific culture or country of origin, I’d like to hear your story too. You can:

  • Post your experiences in the comments sections of specific articles
  • Email me to discuss specific issues at greater length
  • Author a guest blog post to share more off your personal experiences with the world

I look forward to hearing from you!


Thanks for reading!

Do you have any suggestions on proper words to describe non-Chinese expatiates in China? Can you think of examples of how non-Chinese from different countries might have different reactions to various facets of Chinese culture? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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“Little Sisters” and “Older Brothers” in China

cartoon_lovely_children_vector_2968_4In a previous article I discussed China’s traditional family hierarchy and how it continues to influence Chinese society in modern times. Here, I’d like to introduce how common familial terms (e.g. mom, dad, auntie, uncle, etc.) have evolved in modern times. Specifically, I’ll share some of my own observations and experiences on how China’s younger generations use the terms “little sister” and “older brother” to show respect, as well as build and maintain relationships. These term offer an interesting look at modern Chinese society and can be very valuable for Westerners who want to try doing things the “Chinese way” in order to get a taste of local life and culture.

Little Sisters and Older Brothers

In my experience, the terms Mèi Mei [妹妹, younger sister] and Gē Ge [哥哥, older brother], have become very common over the last several decades. While Mèi Mei used to only refer one’s actual younger sister, it is now also commonly used as a colloquial form of address for younger women. Gē Ge, meaning older brother, is now also a more general term for boys or men. These terms are used in many parts of China, though different regions can often have their own versions or pronunciations. They are commonly used among friends, at the workplace, online, and even on the dating scene. And while knowing the terms is easy enough, if you use them improperly, it is possible to embarrass yourself or confuse your Chinese friends and colleagues.

Related Article: Learn How to Pronounce “Mèi Mei” and “Gē Ge”

Creating a Warm and Respectful Environment

The GG and MM relationship is characterized by warmth and support.

These two terms are largely used to create a warm and familial environment, often between friends and coworkers. They can also be used to engender trust and create a collaborative working environment and stronger relationships. Interestingly, the terms are also used to express interest in and to flirt with a member of the opposite sex. But no matter the intended usage, I’ve found the use of both terms to create an emotional reaction in the Chinese, which relates strongly to the terms’ perceived and implied meaning.

The terms Mèi Mei and “Ge Ge” have changed somewhat over the past 20 years. In the 1980’s, they chiefly functioned as a form of address that distinguished between different ages, even when there were no family ties. Today, they focus less on age, and are commonly written shorthand as MM and GG. Using these terms can close the distance between two people, no matter whether they have previously met, or how well they know each other.

– Fiona Ma, White Collar Worker, Shenzhen

There is a greater focus on youth and beauty in China

Addressing a girl or woman as a little sister in Chinese implies that she is young, attractive, and desirable. Addressing a boy or man as an older brother implies that he is mature and handsome, and in some cases that he possesses power and authority. In my experience the platonic use of these terms among the Chinese can be likened to casual flirting. This type of flirting can often create a strong and positive emotional in most people (not just the Chinese), and emotions are one of the important elements necessary to build and maintain relationships in China. And as relationships and status are so important in Chinese society, these terms often act to help maintain relationships and make things flow smoother.

Differences Between Forms of Address

It’s worth noting that there are small, yet distinct differences between using the term little sister or older brother with terms you might use to address a stranger. To give a few examples, when you are ready to order at a restaurant (mainly those in Southern China), you can call a waiter over with the terms Měi Nǚ [美女, beautiful girl] or Shuài Gē [帅哥, handsome guy]. When addressing a man or woman older than you in public that you do

Young men want to be viewed as mature and handsome.

not know, you can use the terms Dà Gē [大哥, older brother] and Jiě Jie [姐姐, older sister], respectively. And while Dà Gē and Gē Ge can both be translated as “older brother,” the former conveys more respect while the latter is more familial.

How Can Westerners Effectively Use These Terms?

For the Westerner interested in trying out Mei Mei or Ge Ge in conversation, I have prepared the following pointers, based on my experience:

  1. Only use Mèi Mei or Gē Ge with people you know, such as friends or colleagues.
  2. Before trying out one of the terms, first pay attention to how your friends and colleagues address one another, to see if these terms are commonly used in your own social circles (not everyone uses them).
  3. Pay attention to how a friend or coworker reacts to either term, so you can decide whether it is welcome, or causes awkwardness.
  4. Don’t use either term constantly. Instead save them for specific occasions, such as making requests or offering praise or congratulations.
  5. Men should generally not use the term Gē Ge to address another man, and instead stick to Dà Gē or other polite forms of address. However, it is perfectly acceptable for women to refer to other women and girls as Mèi Mei.
  6. I would strong caution those new to China against using the terms Mèi Mei and Gē Ge with romantic intent. While they are also commonly used in China
    A MM and GG are often like a real brother and sister.

    in this context, it can be easy for Westerners to mix up the slight nuances that exist being the platonic and romantic usages of Mèi Mei and Gē Ge.

At the end of the day these terms are an important part of how modern Chinese communicate and interact. While they are not absolutely necessary for the Westerner living, working or traveling in China, they can certainly add some local flavor to everyday life. In addition, for the Westerner interested in building relationships the Chinese way, these terms can be a useful addition to one’s linguistic and cultural toolkit. Enjoy!


Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments on using the terms “little sister” or “older brother” in Chinese society? Are you interested in learning more about building and maintaining relationships in China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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SeekPanda: Revolutionizing the Chinese Interpretation Market

SeekPanda can help you succeed in China!In March 2015, I sat down with Matt Conger and Phil Kohn, two young China entrepreneurs from the United States who are pursuing their China dream in Beijing. Matt and Phil are the co-founders of SeekPanda, which aims to revolutionize China’s interpretation market by providing Western businesspeople with easy-to-find, top-quality interpreters who can truly help their clients bridge the China-West cultural divide. In this interview, I speak with Matt and Phil about the SeekPanda business model and their experiences in China thus far.

China Culture Corner: So, in a nutshell, what is SeekPanda?

SeekPanda: SeekPanda is China’s top curated marketplace for on-demand, professional interpreters and translators. Founded in 2014, we have served 200+ customers, including government delegations such as U.S Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, in over 1,000 meetings, including several of the world’s leading expert networks. Our management team is based in Beijing and Seattle, and has previous work experience at Credit Suisse, Bain & Company, and other major professional services firms.

China Culture Corner:  When we first spoke, you mentioned the interpretation market in China was broken. Can you tell me more about the specifics? How and when did you first discover this?

Seek Panda was founded to help Westerners do business in China
SeekPanda founders, Matt Conger and Phil Kohn

SeekPanda: In general, unless you use an interpretation agency it is very hard for first-time business travelers to find trusted freelance interpreters. At the same time, it is hard for these interpreters to find good clients. In addition, the world of agencies is full of unfavorable circumstances, including:

  • Agencies price discriminate and lack price transparency
  • Agencies keep much of what the client pays, often well over 50%, and sometimes up to 70%
  • Agencies “bait and switch,” meaning they show a client the CV of one interpreter but then assign a different interpreter to do the job.

As we were forming SeekPanda, we also discovered through LinkedIn that even if an interpreter looks reliable on paper, they might not have adequate IQ [traditional intelligence] and EQ [emotional intelligence] to succeed as a business interpreter.

China Culture Corner: What made you decide that revolutionizing the current interpretation business model was the way to go? Do you feel there is a lot of room for growth?

SeekPanda: At the end of the day, we are committed to helping people succeed in doing business in China, and very early on, we sensed the difficulty of this in the pre-SeekPanda world. This realization, coupled with the agency issue, made it clear that this market is ripe for innovation and needed to change. In terms of growth, we believe that once we master the Chinese market, we can apply this business model to other countries that have similar language and cultural barriers, such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and others.

A skilled Chinese interpreter equals effective meetings in China
A good interpreter makes a “noticeable” difference

China Culture Corner: Are you worried about other businesses copying your model? Could a local Chinese company come in and be a second SeekPanda at a lower cost?

SeekPanda: There will definitely be SeekPanda copycats and people can certainly copy the basics of our model. However, we hold three key competitive advantages:

  • First, we’ve established strong relationships, not just with interpreters themselves, but also with the institutions they’ve graduated from – basically we have a strong control over the supply.
  • Second, we are building a powerful matching algorithm and tech solutions.
  • Third, our management team has a unique combination of business education, job experience, China work experience, and Chinese language skills.

China Culture Corner: Can you tell me more about SeekPanda’s interpreters? How are they different from those you would find through agencies, or are they?

SeekPanda: To begin with, they are exclusively either graduates from the world’s top masters in interpretation programs (e.g. MIIS, the University of Bath, Shanghai International Studies University, Beijing Foreign Studies University), or seasoned industry experts, such as someone who worked on a wind farm in the USA for seven years. Beyond that, we vet each interpreter for their “people skills” to make sure they have the proper EQ needed to be successful.

How are interpreters and translators different?
The difference between interpreters and translators

China Culture Corner: Based on your experience, what makes a good interpreter versus a bad interpreter? What about a good versus bad interpretation experience for a Western businessperson?

SeekPanda: A good interpreter is much more than just a walking dictionary. They have EQ, not just IQ. They can manage the mood of the meeting and help the client relate to what is really being said, not just a literal interpretation.

A great example that we like to refer to is as follows: consider a situation where a customer has flown all the way to China for a highly anticipated and important meeting with a government official that has been cancelled, rescheduled, cancelled, and then finally rescheduled again. The customer is in the middle of the meeting with this high level government official, when suddenly the government official gets a phone call and blurts out “不好意思我有急事” [literal translation: I’m sorry, I have an important matter] and immediately leaves the room.

Only an interpreter with high EQ will succeed in this situation. “I’m sorry I have an emergency” is the low-EQ answer. It may be factually accurate, but could alarm the client. “I’m sorry but something has come up” is also accurate, but implies disrespect to the visitor who has waited so long for the meeting. A good interpreter would pay attention to the mood throughout the meeting, such as whether the official was looking for an excuse to end the meeting, and then make a judgment call for how to convey the message to the client. Perhaps the message to the client would be “he had something to take care of quickly. It’s not clear what has happened but let’s just wait and see. Don’t worry.”

A good interpreter can help bridge the China-West divide
A SeekPanda interpreter with U.S Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker

China Culture Corner: I understand SeekPanda’s interpreters receive a much larger cut of the interpretation fee than they would from an agency. Does that also mean that SeekPanda’s total fees are higher too?

SeekPanda: No, the total pie is still 100% – we just allow the interpreter to keep more of it. And, we can afford to do this because we have a much lower cost, highly efficient operation.

China Culture Corner: What advice would you give to a Westerner who is coming to China for the first time and is in need of an interpreter? What are the key things they need to know?

SeekPanda: Don’t assume that being bilingual in English and Chinese is synonymous with a good interpreter. Many companies choose to bring their bilingual analyst or associate from their law firm along to meetings to translate. These individuals lack the extensive training that interpreters go through during their two to three years of graduate school. Interpreters learn special methods of note-taking, etiquette, and concentration skills that even the most fluent bilingual speakers lack.

China Culture Corner: What originally drew you to China? Was it the culture? The language? Or mainly business opportunities?

SeekPanda: For Matt, it was a combination of language and business opportunities. For Phil, it was a combination of the language and culture. This is part of what makes us such a powerful team.

China Culture Corner: Do you have any interesting China stories you can share? What really surprised or shocked you after you arrived in China for the first time?

SeekPanda was launched in 2014 in Beijing, China
The SeekPanda launch party at a traditional Beijing Courtyard

Phil: During one of my initial business visits to China I went to Hainan for a day of meetings. I arrived in the meeting room, sat down at my assigned seat, which had a name-card that read 孔菲尔 [kǒng fēi’ěr, a Chinese transliteration of Phil Kohn], which I figured was a really cool name at that time. There was also a plate of fruit, tea and a coconut. What a cool meeting setup in tropical southern China! That night I remember eating sand worms, which was a truly unique delicacy.

Matt: I was on an investor roadshow and we were pitching to three to four companies a day. The most prestigious company on the list, whose founder was one of China’s richest men at the time, had us pitch at 8pm on a Saturday evening. It was the first time I had encountered the famous Chinese work ethic so obviously, this time coming from a 金领 [jīn lǐng: a gold collar worker, a highly paid professional or executive] and not a 蓝领! [lán lǐng: a blue collar worker]

China Culture Corner: What words or expressions would you say best sum up your China experience thus far?

SeekPanda: Full of excitement, surprises, challenges, twists and turns, and new experiences.

Thanks for reading!

If you would like to learn more about SeekPanda, please feel free to visit their website at If you have any thoughts or questions on the interview, or on the interpretation market in China, please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Share Your China Story with the World!

C360_2014-09-06-10-12-02-468In order to help my fellow Westerners and other non-Chinese better understand China,  I will be featuring additional articles on the China Culture Corner that tell the stories of exceptional China travelers, students, expatriates, academics, and entrepreneurs. I hope that through reading more on-the-ground and personal stories about China, Westerners can come to truly understand the Chinese people, and in doing so allow Western society as a whole to take a great leap forward in closing the cultural divide.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, please click HERE. You will be directed to another page with all the details on publishing a story or interview via the China Culture Corner.

Even if you aren’t interested in sharing your own story, please feel free to share this page with other China enthusiasts.  I believe that everyone has a story to tell, and through them we can slowly lift the veil of mystery (and sometimes suspicion) that all too often hangs over China.

Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you!

-Sean Upton-McLaughlin

35 Ways to Wish Someone Well in Chinese

Use Chinese idioms as polite greetings Well-wishing is an important part of Chinese culture and is vital to conveying respect and building and maintaining social relationships. There are also a number of occasions in China when offering someone a respectful greeting is not only recommended but may be seen as necessary by the host or organizer. These types of situations can include weddings, birthdays, holidays, meeting the in-laws, opening a new business, and many others. There are a number of forms well-wishing can take, and one of the more common is Chinese idioms: quick four-character phrases with a lot of meaning.

I have compiled a list below of some of the most common idioms which can be used to wish someone well. Learning several of these idioms will give any Westerners attending an event in China a big head start in terms of knowing what to say and making an impression on the Chinese.

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A Quick Note on Usage

When using one of the below idioms, although they can be used on their own, it is more common to first begin by addressing the person in question and saying 祝你 (zhù nǐ), which basically means “I wish you (to have)…” This phrase can then be followed by any idiom on the list below. And while it is fine to simply use one idiom at a time, in China it is more common to use multiple idioms for a single greeting.

While this not only confers more respect from a Chinese point of view, a Westerner using multiple idioms is almost guaranteed to make an even bigger impression with Chinese friends and hosts. For example: “zhù nǐ + idiom 1, idiom 2, idiom 3.” However, it’s important to understand that trying to use more than three to four idioms at one time might also be seen as showing off, even for a Westerner. So, its always best to keep modesty in mind as well.

In any event, take a look at the idioms below for a sure-fire way to make an impression at a Chinese party or event!

Wishing a Happy Marriage

  1. Prepare an appropriate Chinese Idiom before weddings and parties早生贵子 (zǎo shēng guì zǐ): May you soon give birth to a son.
  2. 永结同心 (yǒng jié tóng xīn): May you forever be of one mind.
  3. 百年好合 (bǎi nián hǎo hé): May you have a harmonious union that lasts one hundred years.
  4. 互敬互爱 (hù jìng hù ài): May you have mutual love and respect.
  5. 白头偕老 (bái tóu xié lǎo): May you live together until your hair turns white with old age.
  6. 举案齐眉 (jǔ àn qí méi) May you have harmonious marital relations.

Wishing a Happy New Year

  1. Idioms can be used to wish a family well新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè): May you have a Happy New Year.
  2. 恭贺新禧 (gōng hè xīn xǐ): May you have a Happy New Year.
  3. 年年有余 (nián nián yǒu yú): May you have excess every year.
  4. 岁岁平安 (suì suì píng ān): May you have peace year after year.
  5. 新春大吉 (xīn chūn dà jí): May you have a lucky New Year.

Wishing Business Success

  1. 开业大吉 (kāi yè dà jí): May you have the best of luck with your new business.
  2. 财源广进 (cái yuan guǎng jìn): May your wealth be plentiful.
  3. 财源滚滚 (cái yuán gǔn gǔn): May profits pour in from all sides.
  4. 生意兴隆 (shēng yì xīng lóng): May you be endowed with a thriving business and prosperous trade.
  5. 和气生财 (hé qì shēng cái): May you succeed through harmony and friendship.
  6. 日进斗金 (rì jìn dòu jīn):  May you earn huge profits every day.
  7. 招财进宝 (zhāo cái jìn bǎo): May you have wealth and success (also traditionally said during the new year).

Wishing a Long Life

  1. Idioms are traditional greetings in China长命百岁  (cháng mìng bǎi suì): May you live for one hundred years.
  2. 福如东海 (fú rú dōng hǎi): May your luck be as immense as the Eastern Sea.
  3. 寿比南山 (shòu bǐ nán shān): May you live as long as Mount Nan.

Wishing a Happy Family

  1. 天伦之乐 (tiān lún zhī lè): May you have domestic bliss.
  2. 欢聚一堂 (huān jù yī táng): May you gather happily under one roof.
  3. 幸福美满 (xìng fú měi mǎn): May you be blessed and happy.
  4. 平平安安 (píng píng ān ān): May you be blessed with safety and peace.
  5. 团团圆圆 (tuán tuán yuan yuán): May you be blessed with unity and happiness.

Wishing Success at Work

  1. Use Chinese Idioms to give face to Chinese friends步步高升 (bù bù gāo shēng): May you rise steadily (at work).
  2. 平步青云 (píng bù qīng yún): May you rise rapidly in the world (social status or career).
  3. 前程似锦 (qián chéng sì jǐn): May your future be as brilliant as embroidered cloth.

General Well-Wishing

  1. 心想事成 (xīn xiǎng shì chéng): May all your wishes come true.
  2. 出入平安 (chū rù píng ān): May you have peace wherever you go.
  3. 一帆风顺 (yī fān fēng shùn): May you have smooth sailing (i.e. figuratively).
  4. 吉祥如意 (jí xiang rú yì): May you be as lucky as you desire.
  5. 紫气东来 (zǐ qì dōng lái): May “lucky air” come to your house from the East (used when someone moves to a new house).
  6. 金玉满堂 (jīn yù mǎn táng): May treasures fill your home (can refer to children or money).

Final Thoughts

Use Chinese idioms to wish someone good fortune!The above 35 idioms should provide a good start, though it is always a good idea to try and pick up additional sayings based on individual needs. For example, someone who does a lot of business travel would almost certainly want to focus on knowing 10-20 business-related idioms. By contrast, a Westerner with Chinese in-laws would likely want to focus on remembering a number of idioms related to family and longevity. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of Chinese idioms that can be used for well-wishing. For those passionate about Chinese idioms, there are many more waiting to be learned!

Best of luck!

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments on common greetings or courtesies in Chinese?  Do you have any experience you can share on occasion-specific greetings and phrases?  Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Happy Chinese New Year – 2015 is the Year of the Goat!

Let's celebrate 2015 - the Chinese Year of the Goat!I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers and fellow China enthusiasts a Happy Chinese New Year and a fortuitous 2015! Thank you for reading and your continued support!

The Chinese New Year is a very important holiday in Mainland China, and for Chinese communities all over the world. Not only does it mark the beginning of the lunar new year, but the Chinese New Year – also called the Spring Festival – is a very important time of reunion, especially for Chinese workers and business people, many of whom may be only able to return home once per year.

2015 is the Year of the Goat, or more specifically, the Year of the “Yáng (羊).” The Chinese character Yáng can refer to either sheep or goat, and is also not specific to either sex.  Therefore translations such as the “Year of the Ram” and “Year of the Sheep” are also perfectly acceptable. However, I myself prefer and generally use the term “Goat.”

Chinese astrology contains 12 animals (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig), and those born in the year corresponding to a certain animal are believed to be endowed with specific traits (e.g. strengths and weaknesses) tied to that animal. For example, while those born in the year of the Goat are believed to be calm, kind, filial and clever, they are also thought of as worrywarts, timid, indecisive and weak-willed. For those interested in Chinese astrology, it is commonly thought that knowing one’s birth year (and associated animal) is a guide not just to likely strengths and weaknesses, but also to careers, financial prospects, future relationships, health, and a number of other elements.

Again, best wishes to you all in 2015, the Year of the Goat, and may all your hearts’ desires come true!

12 Important Symbols of the Chinese Spring Festival

羊剪紙1The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important holiday in Mainland China and is also celebrated by millions of ethnic Chinese around the world. Despite modern commercialism, the Spring Festival remains primarily a family holiday, and an important time of reunion. While many Westerners may never have the chance to observe first-hand how the Chinese celebrate the festival in their own homes, every year Chinese cities and towns are filled with a multitude of decorations, all of which contain strong symbolism with regard to the Chinese Spring Festival, and what the Chinese people value at the start of a new year..

I have put together a list of some of the key symbols and themes Westerners are likely to see around the time of the Chinese Spring Festival, along with short descriptions of their meanings and history. In learning about these symbols, Westerners will be able to understand how the Chinese celebrate this important festival. So the next time a Chinese friend or business partner asks “Do you know why we use XX during the Spring Festival?” you can give them a nice surprise!

  1. the color red in China signifies good fortuneThe Color Red: in Chinese culture the color red is closely associated with good fortune and happiness. It is a common theme throughout the Chinese Spring Festival, and many items are created partly or entirely in red colors, including clothing, firecrackers, and many types of decorations. In China, the importance of the color red is also linked to a beast called a “Nián (年)” which is said to have terrorized a village in ancient China on the first day of every New Year. The villagers eventually realized that the Nián was scared of the color red, and began using the color to decorate their houses when preparing for the coming of the new year. In addition to its usage during the Spring Festival, the color red is also commonly used in weddings, and when a new business opens.
  2. The color yellow means good luck in ChinaThe Color Yellow: the color yellow was traditionally the symbol of the Chinese emperor, and even in modern society can be seen as denoting a higher status. While yellow is often viewed as a symbol of cowardice in Western societies, this bias does not exist in China as the color is a symbol of heroism. In China, the color yellow is also seen as symbolizing good luck. However, the color yellow should be used carefully by those not familiar with Chinese culture as in some circumstances it can refer to pornography or lewd behavior.
  3. The Chinese hang Fu characters during the new yearFú Characters: a very common decoration during the Chinese Spring Festival is the “Fú (福)” character, which means good fortune in Chinese. A square of red paper adorned with the Fú character is pasted to the outer side of the door to one’s home, and sometimes the character is also used to adorn interior doors. While in the past the decoration usually consisted of a red square of paper with black-colored calligraphy, many modern version are much more elaborate and use a golden color for the character, and are decorated with other characters from cartoons or the zodiac animal of the current year. In addition, a tradition practiced in some, but not all, regions in China is to paste the Fú character upside down. In Chinese the word for upside down,”dǎo (倒),” sounds similar to the word for arrive, “dào (到).” Thus, pasting the character upside down implies that good fortune has, or will arrive.
  4. Chinese couplets contain important messages for the new yearCouplets: couplets, or “duì lián (对联)” in Chinese, consist of two vertical strips usually comprising 7-11 characters, and sometimes a third horizontal strip comprising 4 characters. Duì lián are intended as permanent fixtures adorning the outer gates of a home and can embody one’s hope with regard to a number of different themes including prosperity, peace, success, among others. “Chūn lián,” by contrast are a non-permanent version displayed before, during, and after the Chinese Spring Festival. Red strips of paper are used, with characters written in black or gold ink.
  5. Hong Baos are used to give money to childrenRed Envelopes: during the Chinese Spring Festival it is a common practice for elders and married couples to gift small amounts of money to children and young adults. This money, referred to as “yā suì qián (压岁钱),” is presented in small red envelopes, also called a “hóng bāo (红包).” The money is given both to make children happy as well as to give them good luck in the new year. Interestingly, the practice’s roots are related to fending off evil spirits and protecting the children, as opposed to merely blessing them with good luck. Historically, large amounts of money were not given to children in these red envelopes. However, following China’s democratic reforms cash amounts have increased, especially with a smaller number of children in each family.
  6. "may you have fish every year" is a common saying in ChinaFish: fish are a very common theme in Chinese Spring Festival decorations, mainly due to a common blessing during the New Year, “nián nián yǒu yú (年年有鱼).” This saying,  “may you have fish every year” is pronounce exactly the same as “may you have extra every year” in Chinese. Thus when one wishes for someone to have fish every year in Chinese, one is also wishing for them to never have a deficit with regard to food, money, or other matters. Fish are therefore a common decoration, not just during the Chinese Spring Festival, but for anyone hoping for a little “extra” in their lives.
  7. Paper Cutting is a traditional craft in ChinaPaper Cutting: paper cutting is another traditional Chinese craft commonly seen during the Spring Festival. The cutting of designs and patterns supposedly began thousands of years ago as a way to worship the gods, and the tradition is said to have begun prior even to the invention of paper. During the Chinese Spring Festival, some of the most common designs are the Fú character, fish, and the zodiac animal of the current year. Paper cuttings are also commonly found at weddings and other types of Chinese celebrations. The material used in this craft is almost always the color red.
  8. Red lanterns re everywhere during the Chinese Spring FestivalLanterns: while there are many types of Chinese lanterns, the ones prevalent during the Chinese Spring Festival are always red in color, and are almost always round or oval in shape. They can be made out of either paper or cloth, and are usually decorated with black or gold calligraphy, and sometimes with other prosperous symbols. Common messages of goodwill on Chinese lanterns during the new year refer to happiness, peace, good fortune, and prosperity, among others.
  9. Firecrackers are meant to scare away evil spiritsFireworks: in China, fireworks and firecrackers were first made out of bamboo stems filled with gunpowder, and used to drive away evil spirits. Modern Chinese fireworks and firecrackers are painted red or wrapped in red paper. While there are many varieties, one of the most common is a long string of popping firecrackers (sometimes numbering in the hundreds). Setting off these firecrackers is deafening, and in addition to the Spring Festival they are also very common at weddings and business openings.
  10. The Chinese God of the Kitchen is names Zao JunThe Kitchen God: Zào Jūn (灶君), or the kitchen god, is a traditionally deity widely revered in ancient China. Traditionally pictures of the kitchen god are hung above the fire in the kitchen, and he is thought to be a protector of the family. At the end of the year, It is believed that the kitchen god will travel to heaven to report on the family’s doings to the Jade Emperor. Various practices are meant to ensure he does not say anything bad, including smearing the lips of his portrait with honey to sweeten his words, and presenting him with an offering of glutinous rice so that his mouth will be too full to speak. At the end of the year his portrait is burned so that he may return to heaven, and a portrait is put up on the first day of the Spring Festival. It is worth nothing that while a new portrait is put up at the start of the new year, the actual activities relating to the kitchen god actually occur on a separate “mini festival” before the Chinese Spring Festival begins.
  11. Gate Gods are one type of Chinese ”nian hua (年画)“The God of Gates: the tradition of gate gods dates back to the Tang dynasty when the emperor fell sick after having a bad dream in which ghost were searching for him in the palace. As the people of China took ghosts very seriously at the time, the emperor asked two of his top generals to stand guard at his door while he slept. On following nights the emperor instead hung portraits of the generals outside his door to protect himself. The story spread throughout China and to this day the Chinese people paste pictures of these gate gods outside their home around the time of the Spring Festival in order to ward off evil spirits and bring on good luck. In addition, gate gods are in fact part of a larger category of “nián huà (年画),” which are paintings or pictures pasted on the doors to one’s home during the new year. Other types of paintings include children and red carp.
  12. "Cai Shen (财神)" is the Chinese god of money and wealthThe God of Money: “Cái Shén (财神),” the Chinese god of money/wealth, is a deity believed to be able to bring wealth to those that revere him. Pictures of Cái Shén are traditionally hung in the family home, and family members often visit his temple during the Spring Festival to burn incense. Cái Shén is one of the reasons for the common Chinese New Year’s greeting “gōng xǐ fā cái (恭喜发财),” which means “may you become wealthy.”

The above symbols and decorations are those that I personally have observed in China, and those which I know to be of significant importance to the Chinese people and Chinese culture. Of course, customs can differ from place to place, and it is not uncommon for specific Chinese regions, cities and towns to have their own customs and even variations on those I listed above. So when in China, or in regions with large Chinese populations before, during, and after the Chinese Spring Festival,  be on the lookout for these enduing symbols of the Chinese Spring Festival!

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about common decorations or symbols displayed in China during the Spring Festival? Do you know of any types of national or regional decorations that can be added to the above list? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Baijiu: the Misunderstood Drink of China

FY146Chinese Baijiu (bái jiǔ, 白酒), pronounced BUY JEE-OH, is the national drink of China, though it remains rather misunderstood by Westerners. Sometimes called “rice wine” in English, Baijiu has developed a bad reputation among Western expatriates and business people due to its high potency and strong unfamiliar taste. However, despite its perceived unpleasantness, drinking Chinese Baijiu, and alcohol in general, is an extremely important part of doing business in China. Therefore, in this short article I will explain a few Baijiu basics and attempt to help Westerners understand this elusive liquor, as well as make a case for why Westerners should take up drinking, or at least be open to sampling, Chinese Baijiu.

A Short History of Alcohol in China

Baijiu is stored in ceramic jars Before the birth of the Baijiu we know today, alcohol had already been present in China for thousands of years. Alcohol is said to have appeared in China as early as 5,800 – 7,000 B.C.,  and later took on a revered role in Chinese society. Considered to be a luxury in ancient China, it was used by the political and religious elite to commune with the spirit world, as a part of various rites, during important state banquets, and as a prestigious gift. Baijiu (or something close to it) first appeared sometime during the Song dynasty (960–1270) or Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), when foreign distillation techniques were first introduced into China. This new and much cheaper form of alcohol (compared to that favored by the Chinese elite) quickly spread throughout China, and was manufactured primarily with sorghum (meaning that “Rice Wine” is not a particularly accurate description), though rice and certain types of wheat were used as well.

Baijiu in Modern China

In China today Baijiu is drunk almost exclusively at meals, as alcohol is a very important part of Chinese dining culture. Baijiu is served in shot sized glasses and used during toasts to show respect and build relationships. When toasting, the Baijiu glass of  is gripped with both hands, with either one hand on either side, or with one hand/finger on the bottom of the glass. After a Er Guo Tou (二锅头) is a cheap type of Baijiu available everywheretoast the Baijiu is usually consumed in one gulp, though exceptions are sometimes made, usually out of respect, for those not accustomed to Baijiu’s potency. Following a toast, the glass can be turned upside down or tilted forward to display that one has consumed the entire glass, and thus give face to your friend, partner or host (for more rules on toasting click HERE).

Unfortunately, the very nature of drinking Bajiu is partly to blame for why many first-time Western drinkers quickly grow to hate it. As it is common for multiple shots to be drunk in quick succession, Westerners usually have no time to adapt to the flavor. (While Westerners may sip Whiskey and other liquors, the Chinese  as a rule do not sip Baijiu.) In addition, while Face is and will always be important in China, its interaction with toasting and Baijiu can make for a very unpleasant experience for the uninitiated. In many places in China, especially northern China, the drunker a person becomes via being toasted with Baijiu (or other liquors and alcohols) the more Face has been conferred upon them. Therefore, it can be common for visitors to China to be entertained by well-meaning Chinese hosts who are intent on showing them as must respect as possible, by getting them as drunk as possible, on an completely unfamiliar and relatively strong liquor. Needless to say, this does not provide an ideal foundation for Westerners to learn to like and appreciate Baijiu.

There’s Actually More than One Type of Baijiu!

Maotai (also written as Moutai) is very popular in China, and very expensiveAnother element that may contribute to Westerners’ misunderstandings regarding Chinese Baijiu is in the name itself. Baijiu, which literally means “clear alcohol,” is not so much one type of alcohol, but rather a common term used to refer to many different types of Chinese liquor. Different types of Baijiu vary in taste, ingredients, quality, and price. The cheapest type of Baijiu are small 2-5 RMB bottles of low quality (and potentially hazardous) alcohol which can be found almost anywhere. In contrast, more expensive brands can often go for over 1,000 RMB per bottle. Below is a short introduction to the key types, or aromas, of Baijiu:

  1. Strong Aroma (nóng xiāng, 浓香): this is the most popular variety of Chinese Baijiu. It is fermented in earthen pits, and made with either a single or multiple types of grain. It has a strong fiery flavor with a hint of sweetness. This type of Baijiu has strong ties with the Sichuan province, and some areas in eastern China.
  2. Light Aroma (qīng xiāng, 清香): this type of Baijiu is distilled using sorghum and rice husks and fermented in ceramic jars. Barley and peas used in process to five it a mild sweetness. It is most common in northern China.
  3. Sauce Aroma (jiàng xiāng, 酱香): this type of Baijiu requires a good deal of resources and labor, and it is fermented in underground pits. Its taste is said to resemble that of soy sauce, and it is closely associated with the southeastern Sichuan and northwestern Guizhou provinces.
  4. Rice Aroma (mǐ xiāng, 米香): this type of Baijiu is distilled from long grain or glutinous rice, and is sometimes fermented in combination with Chinese medicinal herbs. This type of Baijiu is often infused with fruits, tea leaves, and herbs. Ii is common throughout all of southern China, particularly in the Guanxi and Guangdong provinces.

There are a number of other lesser known aromas of Baijiu as well. For more in-depth information on all the different types, I highly recommend taking a look at “Baijiu: The Essesntial Guide to Chinese Spirits,” by Derek Sandhaus.

 Baijiu is here to stayWhy I Drink Baijiu, and Why You Should Too

When I first came to China, like many others I quickly acquired a negative impression of Baijiu, which in my case was brought on by drinking multiple shots of cheap (and possibly counterfeit) local variety. This initial impression worsened when, while studying abroad in Chengdu, I later had the disturbing experience of sampling a type of Chinese alcohol called Snake Wine (shé jiǔ, 蛇酒), which was basically a big jar of Baijiu with a dead snake fermenting inside.

However despite this rocky beginning I was able to slowly become accustomed to drinking Chinese Baijiu, and experience it in a number of different settings. I’ve drunk Baijiu with local government officials in the Zhejiang province, with friends in Tianjin, with local businessmen in Beijing, and with coworkers in Shanghai and Shenzhen. And while I cannot yet say I drink Baijiu just like one of the locals (i.e. profusely), I have found there to be a great value to drinking Baijiu that is completely separate to one’s subjective impressions of its taste. As mentioned previously, drinking in China, including Baijiu, is a very important part of Chinese dining culture, a time when important relationships are built and maintained. And while in my experience the Chinese will usually never coerce or expect a Westerner to drink Baijiu, the Chinese are universally pleased and surprised when a Westerner is willing to proactively bridge the (dining) culture gap and drink Baijiu with them.

Therefore, for any Westerner who is currently doing business in China, or plans to in the future, I would strongly recommend exploring Chinese Baijiu in advance. It can be somewhat shocking to the uninitiated, but given a little time one’s palate can adjust to it, making attending Chinese banquets and developing Chinese friendships a much more enjoyable experience.

Sources and Additional Reading


Thanks for reading!

Do you have any more questions about Chinese Baijiu or alcohol in China? Do you have any Baijiu experiences that you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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27 Idioms For More Effective Communication with the Chinese

Learn Chinese idioms to communicate more effectivelyWorking in Mainland China can be tough for Westerners, not simply because of the incredibly different culture and society, but also because almost everyone else speaks a different language. And while learning Chinese can increase one’s ability to engage with Chinese colleagues and add value within a Chinese organization, most Westerners and those born outside Chinese-speaking countries will always be at a disadvantage compared to native Chinese speakers.

This can lead Westerners in Chinese organizations to feel left out of the loop, or looked down on for not being able to communicate effectively. Mainland China has long been an enclosed and isolated country. When combined with China’s long and illustrious culture, it can be hard for Mainland China natives to accept that non-Chinese are truly capable of understanding them, their culture or their language. This can amplify communication difficulties initially caused by language barriers, and make it much harder for Westerners to reach an understanding with their Chinese coworkers and partners.

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争先恐后 (zhēng xiān kǒng hòu) is an expression that describes modern Chinese society after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms – everyone is “struggling to get ahead” because they are “afraid they will be left behind”.

However, there is an easy solution based on my own experience working with the Chinese, specifically to learn and use Chinese idioms. Chinese idioms are linked to the very cultural history that the Chinese value so highly, and can help Westerners build bridges and communicate more effectively with the Chinese. In this article, I will introduce the concept of Chinese idioms and set phrases, including their background and significance to the Chinese, and how they can be used when communicating with the Chinese. For those interested in jumping straight in, a list of easy to use idioms I often use in business settings is provided at the end of this article.

打草惊蛇 (dǎ cǎo jīng shé) can be literally translated as “beating the grass and startling the snake.” It actually has nothing to do with snakes and instead refers to alerting your enemies to your plans through carelessness.

The History of Literary Knowledge in Mainland China

Chinese idioms, 画龙点睛, to paint a dragon and dot in the eyes Chinese idioms (often 4 characters) and set phrases (often 4-10 characters) are short sayings that contain a specific message or moral. They are often based on events or stories of historical significance and are viewed as an important part of the Chinese language and culture. They possess the added bonus of delivering complex ideas in a quick and concise format. The one downside is that these phrases can not be ad-libbed. There is only one way to say a particular combination of characters (hence the term “set phrase”) and thus they must be memorized exactly. Knowledge of literary phrases and texts has been highly regarded in Mainland China for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A prime example is the ancient imperial examination system, which began coming to prominence in the Tang dynasty (618–906 AD). During the Tang dynasty, the Confucian classics were introduced as a core part of the higher-level examinations, and candidates were expected to memorize sections and even entire texts word for word (or character for character) if they expected to have any chance of success. As a result, for hundreds of years Imperial China’s government bureaucracy was dominated by so-called scholar elites, who possessed an outstanding knowledge of Chinese literature and Confucian philosophies (e.g. not science or economics). And while modern China has now developed beyond this narrow definition of elite status, those in China with academic distinction, including that related to language and culture, continue to be admired for their knowledge and accomplishments.

闭门造车 (bì mén zào chē) is used to refer to someone who “closes their door and builds a cart,” which means to attempt a task that one has no prior knowledge of while disregarding the advice of experts.

Idioms in Modern China

Idioms and set phrases are very common in modern China, and while they are more often found in books, articles, and reports, they are common in spoken language as well. I have observed them being used regularly by business leaders, academics, and others who desire to demonstrate their knowledge or refinement. Idioms and set phrases are also a very common sight in the Chinese entertainment industry. In Chinese TV sitcoms, which often feature tales from ancient China, communist heroes or modern business professionals, it is common for main characters to make use of idioms, which makes them appear smarter, more refined or in control of the situation. Idioms even have specific game shows devoted to them, in which participants have to guess the correct phrase based on a clue. Needless to say, whosoever has spent the most time studying and memorizing the idioms will come out ahead.

井底之蛙(jǐng dǐ zhī wā) refers to the story of a “frog at the bottom of a well,” who believed that the well was the whole world,  and that the speck of light above him was the sun. This idiom refers to people who are narrow minded or who discount things outside of their own experiences.

My Experiences Using Chinese Idioms

Chinese idioms, 如鱼得水, to feel like a fish in water

While I initially learned some idioms and set phrases over the course of my Chinese studies in college, I only really started using them after moving to China for work. While working in China, I started to notice that idioms were employed in professional environments, mainly by managers, executives, and experts. I also observed that correctly employing idioms and set phrases in conversations with native Chinese speakers almost always led to a very surprised reaction, even more so than when using a colloquial Chinese phrase or greeting. The correct use of idioms and set phrases in a conversation has almost always resulted in the Chinese speaker expressing their admiration and respect for a Westerner putting in the time to extensively study the Chinese culture and language.

Since then, I have continued to study idioms and set phrases, and have found them to be a very useful tool in my communications with Chinese managers and executives. For me, and I hope for you as well, these phrases have helped to bridge the cultural and language barriers between China and the West, and have allowed greater degrees of trust and cooperation to flourish between myself and Chinese colleagues.

三人成虎(sān rén chéng hǔ), or “three people can turn into a tiger,” warns that a repeated rumor can become fact, or at least believed by the public at large.

Here Are Some Idioms to Get You Started!

Chinese idioms, 对牛弹琴, to play the lute to a cowI have provided a shortlist of idioms and set phrases below (in addition to the five links above), which I have personally found to be very useful and relatively easy to apply in conversations with the Chinese. The trick to effective idiom study and usage for non-native Chinese speakers is to choose and focus on a set number that you can see yourself using on a regular basis. After that, it’s a simple matter of practice and repetition. To start with, try combining idioms you like with simple phrases such as “this/that is,” “don’t,” “remember…,” and “we should…, ” etc.

For those of you new to the Chinese language I would suggest first checking out this guide to Hanyu Pinyin and basic pronunciation. Good Luck!

Simple Idioms and Set Phrases:

  1.  一举两得 (yī jǔ liǎng dé): to achieve two gains in one effort. This means the same thing as the English expressions, “to kill two birds with one stone.”
  2. 入乡随俗 (rù xiāng suí sú): when entering a village, obey all the local customs and traditions. This is the Chinese version of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
  3. 前所未有 (qián suǒ wèi yǒu): unprecedented (e.g. of a situation).
  4. 不可思议 (bù kě sī yì): unimaginable or unfathomable.
  5. 骑虎难下 (qí hǔ nán xià): when one is riding a tiger it is hard to dismount. The idea behind this idiom is that when one is stuck in a difficult situation, all one can do is continue onwards and do one’s Chinese idioms are an important part of Chinese language and culturebest.
  6. 讨价还价 (tǎo jià huán jià): to haggle over a price.
  7. 精益求精 (jīng yì qiú jīng): to improve something that is already outstanding.
  8. 对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín): playing a lute to a cow. This saying describes talking to the wrong audience or to an unappreciative one.
  9. 功亏一篑 (gōng kuī yī kuì): failing for lack of a final bucketful. This saying refers to failing through the lack of a final effort.
  10. 实事求是 (shí shì qiú shì): to seek the truth from facts. This saying means to be practical and realistic.
  11. 班门弄斧 (bān mén nòng fǔ): to play with one’s axe in front of the house of Lu Ban, the master carpenter. This saying refers to showing off one’s slight skill in front of an expert.
  12. 好事多磨 (hǎo shì duō mó): good things do not come without toil, or the road to happiness is paved with hardships.
  13. 听天由命 (tīng tiān yóu mìng): to consign oneself to the will of heaven. This saying means to resign oneself to fate or trust to luck.
  14. 情不自禁 (qíng bù zì jīn): unable to restrain one’s emotions; cannot help oneself.
  15. 半途而废 (bàn tú ér fèi): to give up halfway or leave something unfinished.

 Longer Set Phrases:

  1. Chinese idioms, 狐朋狗友, foxes and dogs are friends
    Click for more great pictures based on Chinese idioms.

    万事俱备,只欠东风 (wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng): everything has been prepared, and all that is needed is an easterly wind. This saying means to lack only one crucial (and final) item.

  2. 读万卷书,行万里路 (dú wàn juǎn shū, xíng wàn lǐ lù): to read 10,000 books and walk 10,000 miles. This saying extolls the virtues of both knowledge and experience.
  3. 天外有天,人上有人 (tiān wài yǒu tiān, rén shàng yǒu rén): there is a heaven outside  of heaven and a person above a person. This saying reminds us that there will always be someone better or more skilled.
  4. 不经一事,不长一智 (bù jīng yī shì, bù zhǎng yī zhì): wisdom only comes through experience.
  5. 兵马未动,粮草先行 (bīng mǎ wèi dòng, liáng cǎo xiān xíng): before the troops get underway all the supplies must be prepared. This saying extolls the importance of being prepared ahead of time.
  6. 千军易得,一将难求 (qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiàng nán qiú): while it is easy to raise an army of 1,000, a competent general is hard to come by. This saying means that it is hard to find a good leader.
  7. 单丝不成线,独木不成林 (dān sī bù chéng xiàn, dú mù bù chéng lín): a single thread cannot become a cord, and a single tree does not make a forest. This saying extolls the necessity of cooperation or being part of a greater whole.
Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments on using Chinese idioms to communicate with the Chinese? Do you have any experience you can share on using idioms in Chinese companies, or on what idioms are most effective for communicating with Chinese executives? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Quest for an Accurate Translation, a Chinese Fable

images6There was once a community of monks who lived in a beautiful valley. These monks were the guardians of a holy sutra, representative of the Buddha’s divine truth in the world of men. They lived peacefully enough and enjoyed a relatively uneventful life, that is, until everything changed.

One day, the Bodhisattva Guanyin descended from the heavens and gave the monks an important mission. Guanyin directed the monks to make copies of the 1,000 scrolls comprising the sutra and spread their teachings in the lands to the far West, which lay beyond a dark and foreboding mountain range.

“There,” said Guanyin, pointing toward the western horizon, “you must cross that mountain range and bring the sutra to those who live in the land beyond.”

However, upon hearing this, the abbot of the temple protested, saying, “There is only one pass through the mountains, and it is inhabited by horrible monsters and bandits. If we take that path we will surely be attacked, and even if we do survive, the scrolls of the sutra may be destroyed in the attempt.”

Guanyin merely smiled and said, “Do not be afraid, for I will tell you of a secret trail through the mountains, which will allow you to transport the sutra safely into the new land.”

Again the abbot protested, “Surely that will take too long, and it would be much better to reach the other side faster. Is there no other direct trail we could take?”

thGuanyin replied, “No, time is not important, only the divine truth contained in the sutra is important. It must be transported safely and arrive whole and intact to the land beyond the mountain. Do as I have instructed and you will not fail in this quest.” At this, the abbot finally relented and agreed to lead his fellow monks on the journey across the mountain range.

Several days later, a group of monks led by the abbot arrived at the secret path that Guanyin had told them of and began the arduous journey through the mountains. As the path was steep and treacherous, the monks could only walk along it in single file and could bring no wagons or carts with them to carry the scrolls of the sutra. Instead, each monk carried a number of scrolls of the sutra in a basket strapped to his shoulders. The baskets were made from vines that grew near the monks’ temple. These vines were pliant enough to flex and bend under the scrolls’ weight to ensure the safety of the sutra. The monks traveled for many days along the narrow path that snaked back and forth through the mountain range.

The monks endured many hardships but finally reached the peak of the highest mountain, where they were able to see the new land stretching out before them. But as beautiful as it was, it was noticeably dryer than the lands where their temple had been built, and it became apparent as they traveled farther into the new land that the baskets holding the scrolls of the sutra were stiffening and drying in the new climate. The baskets were no longer able to support the scrolls. One by one the baskets began to disintegrate until the monks could no longer continue on their journey.

As the monks explored the new land in an attempt to find materials with which to repair the baskets, they were filled with dismay. They could find no plants that resembled those from their homeland. Instead of the pliant vines they were used to, they found straight and rigid trees with sparse branches.

One of the monks suggested building wooden boxes that could then be hung between wooden poles, but the abbot objected fiercely saying, “We know nothing about the reliability of these new plants as building materials and therefore cannot trust them with the scrolls of the sutra. We know the vines of our homeland are reliable, so we should go back and collect more of them.”

FB-Monks-traveling-324x214The monks argued back and forth, with some in favor of using the new materials to transport the sutra, and some arguing in favor of a long journey back to the temple to gather more of the vines. At this point, the clouds parted and Guanyin once again descended from the heavens to speak with the monks.

“Listen well,” she said, “for in this new and strange land you have forgotten your true purpose. What is used to carry the sutras is not important, only that they reach their destination whole and undamaged. Would it not be suitable to use the material of these lands to carry the sutra to the people who call this land home? And might it not be easier for them to understand and accept the divine truth contained in the sutra if they saw it brought forth with things they were already familiar with, and not strange materials from a foreign land? Go forth, carry the sutra into this new land using materials native to it, and you will not fail.”

The monks, upon hearing this, did as Guanyin instructed. And although the boxes they constructed out of the trees native to the new land were heavier and more cumbersome than the monks were used to, they served their purpose well in safely transporting the sutra. The people of the new land welcomed the monks and through time came to understand and love the divine truth contained within the holy sutra.

Key Ideas of this Story

  1. The sutra = original Chinese source text. The sutra in the story represents original ideas or source text in the Chinese language, specifically what a Chinese author or organization wants to translate into English. It could be a simple news article, or it could be a more complicated cultural concept such as “Face” or “Guanxi.” Similar to a holy sutra, which is a collection of Buddhist scriptures, the Chinese people place a great deal of importance on (not to mention take pride in) their language and culture, revering it to an extent. For example, Chinese idioms are commonly used in Chinese and often possess hundreds if not thousands of years of history. Chinese authors therefore often feel very protective of these unique aspects of the Chinese language and are loathe to see the original meanings changed or degraded.
  2. The direct path = the dangers of direct translation. In the translation process, the direct path through the mountains represents the dangers of directly translating Chinese into English, either on your own or using an often unreliable tool like Google Translate. English grammar is much more complex than its Chinese counterpart, and sentence structure is often arranged quite differently. Thus while a direct translation is fast, it often results in a mishmash of words and phrases that are only somewhat comprehensible at best.
  3. The difficult mountain path = the real difficulties of effective translation. The winding mountain path represents the extra time and effort that must be undertaken to translate Chinese into an English format that is not only comprehensible to native English-speaking readers, but also accurately captures the nuances contained in the original Chinese text.
  4. The twisting vines = Chinese linguistic structures. Not only are Chinese grammar and sentence structure very different from English, the Chinese language in general is very vague and roundabout.
  5. The new materials = English linguistic structures. Unlike Chinese, the English language is often direct, clear, and to the point.

Final Thoughts

This article was a departure from my usual, more straightforward style of describing and discussing life, business, and culture in Mainland China. However, it addresses a very important topic, the difficulties of translating the Chinese language and cultural concepts into English. And while it can be both frustrating and laughable to be confronted with a poorly executed Chinese to English translation, I would suggest that reader keep the following points in mind.

take_luggageFirst, Chinese translators (I rarely see native English speakers translating from Chinese into English) are often operating in the dark. They translate material from their native language into one they may have studied, but are often inexperienced in from a cultural and societal perspective. This naturally leads to small mistakes, even from the best translators. And when translations are rushed due to time constraints, this only compounds the problem. Therefore I would suggest that anyone requiring a Chinese to English translation to learn from the monks in the story, who chose to take the long and difficult path, in order to ensure their success. After a translation is completed, always try to make sure there is time for a review of the translation, and if a native English speaker can do it, so much the better.

Second, many of the quirks of Chinese to English translations in part come from the unique characteristics of the Chinese language, culture and society, which often do not have direct counterparts in Western countries. Just as the monks were attempting to bring a foreign concept (the sutra) into the new land with unsuitable methods and materials, translating Chinese ideas into English effectively is all about the proper packaging. For editors, proofreaders and clients working with Chinese translators, it is often not enough to know all the proper expressions in English. Only by doing one’s best to understand the concept or idea from the Chinese point of view, can a truly suitable English language phrasing be selected. This can be accomplished by holding discussing with translators, as well as by learning more about Chinese culture and society. A broader understanding of Chinese culture and concepts will make it much easier to tell which language quirks are acceptable, and which need to be changed.

Finally, I will close with the following thought. Translation is not just about translating someone’s language, but also their culture. The Chinese could be said to value their culture and language above most other things, so please, tread lightly, and you will eventually be rewarded with a deeper understanding of a complex, ancient and beautiful culture.

images2Notation: While the idea for this article was inspired by my own experience working among the Chinese, the form the fable took was inspired in part by the classic Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” This story details the exploits of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, and his companions in their quest escort a Buddhist monk to India and procure sacred sutras. This story has strong roots in Chinese religion and mythology, and I would strongly recommend it as a way to learn more about Chinese culture and beliefs.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about translating between the English and Chinese languages? Do you have any ideas you would like to share on bridging the Chinese and Western cultures? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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8 Reasons Young Professionals Should Avoid Teaching English in China

Don't teach English in ChinaFirst and foremost, this post does not apply to everyone. There are still many enjoyable opportunities in Mainland China that involve the English language, from both a general teaching and business training standpoint. The work I myself currently do focuses on both the English and Chinese languages, as well as business and cross cultural issues. However, from my own experience this is not the reality facing the large number of Western graduates and professionals who come to Mainland China every year looking for a new experience and hoping to jump start their careers.

This is who this post is primarily intended for, those ambitious (and often young) Westerners who are itching to realize their own “China dream.” Some first spend some time studying at Chinese universities. Others come straight to Mainland China in a professional capacity looking for work. In either case the result is often the same. In the Chinese market, a market which increasingly favors local and Chinese speaking talent, these young professionals can find it very difficult, if not impossible to find work in their field of study (e.g. business management, PR, finance). Many of these Western professionals, intent on making it in the Chinese market, will take on odd jobs to pay the bills. These part times jobs often include English teaching or training at one or more of the many small schools and training centers that populate most large Chinese cities.

Unfortunately, some of the ways in which the English language learning market has developed in Mainland China can easily create situations in which Westerners can feel stuck, unappreciated, and not moving forward. Because of this, Western graduates and professionals might want to rethink becoming an English teacher in Mainland China. I list some of the most compelling reasons below, based partly on my own experiences, and partly through conversations with other Westerners who have taught English in China.

  1. You might be “just a face” to your students. For many years the Chinese have focused on learning English as an effective route to career advancement. Most Chinese agree that a proper learning environment (e.g. not enough native speakers) does not exist in Mainland China, and therefore many students focus primarily on trying to find a native speaker to teach them. Not knowing any better, and primarily associating native English speakers with white faces, a white face is often the key litmus test for many Chinese looking for a English teacher or trainer (though this more often happens among parents of young students). And whether you are the “white face” or just the “Western face,” It can sometimes lead the Chinese the view you as a mere tool and prevent meaningful relationships with students from developing.
  2. Students expect miracles. Chinese nationals are bombarded daily with many advertisements for English learning methods and schools, which often promise miracles through little effort. For example, certain ads I have previously seen for English First, promise students the ability to “understand CNN” or “watch American TV shows without subtitles” through one month of practicing five minutes a day. These promises (or what I personally would call blatant lies) are promoted by English schools and training centers desperate to attract students. With such high hopes placed on the “miracles” Western teachers can achieve, it is therefore not surprising that Chinese students may start studying with high expectations, only to become disappointed later. This disappointment can sometimes manifest itself in unhappy parents or students who may decide to find a “more effective” teacher.

    English First Deceptive Advertisement
    This advertisement, and others like it, promises amazing results through only five minutes of practice a day.
  3. Students usually don’t go out of their way to practice. It can be common for many Chinese students to not study much outside of class time. Whether due to work, a busy social life or shyness with regard to practicing English in public (e.g. fear of losing Face), many Chinese find it very difficult to spend a lot of time proactively studying (e.g. speaking and writing) on their own. Not only can this cause frustration for a devoted teacher, but the Chinese nationals (or their parents, in the case of a young student) may consciously or unconsciously hold the Western teacher responsible for a lack of progress. After all, the teacher is “the expert,” and an expert would have taken steps to ensure efficient and effective language learning.
  4. You are easily replaced. To the Chinese, who by and large do not have much experience interacting with Westerners, one Westerner often seems as good as any other with regard to teaching the English language. And while Americans, Canadians, or British are often preferred, a German, French, or other European national usually seems almost just as good. This is especially relevant when a Westerner is working for a small school or training center (as opposed to independently, or with a large school or university), as what schools are selling (and students are buying) is a Western face. Thus a teacher may be let go (or have a specific class, or one-on-one arrangement canceled) if a student complains or the school thinks it can find a better (cheaper) deal. After all, there are hundreds of other Westerners looking for work, how different can one be from the other?
  5. Competition drives down wages. Another potential negative aspect of so many young Western would-be teachers and trainers flooding Chinese cities looking for work, is that they usually have little to no bargaining power. After all many if not most English teachers in China are working part time or short term, and don’t have the experience or certificates that would be required to land a higher paying job at one of China’s more well know and bigger training schools or universities. Thus in China, most part time English teachers receive a fixed offer from a student, school, or training center. Also, this offer is likely to be based on the going market rate, and not on the experience of the teacher, or the value he or she can provide. And while these wages might allow an easy and carefree life in 2nd and 3rd tier cities, it can be much harder to get by on in the big city.
  6. Students will expect you to conform to their schedule. When taking work from a small school or training center, some students may prefer to hold lessons at home, at a public location, or sometimes at the training center itself. In all cases, these locations are almost always arranged for maximum convenience for the student, and if a teacher accepts a given student, its common that the teacher be required to compute up to 30-60 minutes (if not longer) one way, just for one or two hours of work. In addition, general practice is that a student can cancel for any reason (to 12-24 hours prior to the lesson) without having to compensate the teacher.
  7. Lack of job satisfaction. While the above factors are largely due to market factors and not to the Chinese having any ill will towards Westerners, the result can still leave Westerners trying to grow and develop in China with a sour taste in their mouths. Whether due to low wages, students that don’t improve, or a hectic schedule, teaching English in China can just feel like a bad experience all around, depending on one’s individual situation.
  8. It will not move you forward professionally. Lastly, as this article is written mainly with aspiring Western professionals in mind, it’s important to remember that teaching English in Mainland China will almost certainly not move you closer to your professional goals; mainly it will only allow you to survive in China for a time. In addition, most small schools are almost unilaterally unable to legally employ foreigners (any signed contract in these cases is fake), and working with such an illegal institution can not only not provide job genuine job references, but foreign teachers could find themselves at the mercy of the Chinese authorities, if discovered.

What to Do if You Want to Work in China

The fact of the matter is that the number of Westerners interested in China is steadily increasing, while the number of available opportunities is shrinking rapidly. In my experience there are currently almost no available opportunities for untried and untested Western professionals in the Mainland Chinese market. Therefore, if you are a Westerner who wants to not only experience China, but also to grow and develop in Mainland China professionally, I would suggest a different path.

  1. Go home and get some experience. Unlike in years past, there are very few legitimate opportunities for Westerners in China who have little to no work experience. Therefore its likely best to return to your home country and acquire at least a few years of experience in a given industry. If it’s an industry growing quickly in China, all the better. The booming (relatively) Chinese market still seems to need experienced professionals in a number of industries and local resources (e.g. universities and the Mainland Chinese talent pool) are still having a hard time picking up the slack.
  2. Start studying Chinese. From the standpoint of a Western professional, not being able to speak, read, or write Chinese is a big disadvantage in Mainland China, and this disadvantage is likely to become more pronounced over time. While it’s true many current Western business people in China arn’t required to speak Chinese, the younger generation has already begun being subjected to a different standard. In addition, much of the internal communication that takes place in China-based organizations (especially Chinese firms) is not only in spoken Chinese, but in written Chinese as well. With no Chinese abilities inexperienced Western talent might be considered too much of a bother to bring on-board.
  3. Start networking. Build your network on LinkedIn and other professional networking sites so that when the right opportunity presents itself, you will not only be ready, but you will be connected to the people that can help you grab onto it. I myself found several of my more rewarding China jobs through contacts on LinkedIn, and strongly recommend forming a strong China-focused network (though this doesn’t include sending out invitations blindly). After all, if no one knows who you are, how can they give you a job in Mainland China?
Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about teaching English in Mainland China? Do you have any experiences you can share regarding searching for jobs in Mainland China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Why Overseas Chinese Talent Has Trouble Adjusting in Mainland China

In Mainland China, having the right local Chinese talent has always been important. However, finding local talent has become increasingly difficult in recent years with larger numbers of Western businesses looking to expand their operations in Mainland China, and domestic Chinese firms offering better incentives in an attempt to poach talent from their Western competitors. The overall poor quality of the Chinese national education system does not help matters, and produces a relatively low number of graduates that possess a genuine ability to work comfortably and effectively in an international environment. Thus, in order to solve their China talent problems, it is common for Western companies look to Overseas Chinese talent to fill important roles in their Mainland Chinese operations (in this article, Overseas Chinese refers to people of Chinese birth or descent that live outside Mainland China).

Hiring Overseas Chinese talent to send to Mainland China can seem like a really smart move for Western companies. After all, they are Chinese, they speak the language, and they understand the culture, right? Actually, things are rarely so simple. As it turns out, having Chinese ancestry, or even coming from China originally, does not necessarily ensure Overseas Chinese talent can succeed – or help a Western company to – in the Mainland Chinese market.

A Shared Cultural Ancestry But Little More

It is very common for Overseas Chinese around the world to identify as a single ethnic group. A common saying among Mainland Chinese is, “no matter where they are in the world, Chinese are always Chinese.” This view is not surprising. The majority of Overseas Chinese are proud of their cultural heritage, which goes back 5,000 years. Chinese culture has many unique and defining characteristics including language, writing system, culture and beliefs which separate it clearly from that of other countries. China also played a very important role in the early development of many East Asian countries and regions, passing on many important cultural ideas, including a writing system, philosophy and religion. Traditional Chinese culture and ideologies are usually passed down through the generations, and remains an important part of the family life and structure. It is also common for Overseas Chinese to gather in separate communities so as to maintain a more unique “Chinese identity.”

Overseas Chinese, Chinese Americans, culture clash in ChinaHowever, while Overseas Chinese all over the world may share a common link through ancient Chinese culture, they are nevertheless divided by the differences of their respective countries and societies, which have developed independently from that of Mainland China. Even regions relatively close to Mainland China, such has Hong Kong and Taiwan, have had more than half a century to develop independently (60+ years for Taiwan, 170+ years for Hong Kong). During that time, each region has been able to develop its own unique culture, society and customs. Overseas Chinese who were born in and grew up in Western countries (e.g. the USA) are in effect Westerners that retain varying degrees of connection to their ancestral homeland. In the last 60+ years Mainland China has also undergone a number of changes. The journey from Communism to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” along with break-neck paced economic development has produced a new modern Chinese persona that is significantly different from their overseas peers.
Just from the general issues noted above, there is a huge potential for differences between Overseas Chinese and their Mainland counterparts with regard to upbringing, social norms, communication styles, and beliefs. Thus, it is very important for Western managers and executives to not only understand that such differences exist, but also how these differences can potentially limit the effectiveness of newly hired Overseas Chinese talent. The article below offers a brief discussion of several different types of Overseas Chinese, and the various factors which can inhibit their smooth transition into the Mainland Chinese society and business environment.

Chinese Raised in the West Can Lack Language Skills and Social Understanding

Overseas Chinese born and raised in Western countries (e.g. Chinese Americans) may be at the greatest overall disadvantage when attempting to adapt to life and work in Mainland China. While in many cases these Overseas Chinese might have been raised in Chinese households by parents originally from the Mainland, there is no guarantee that language, culture, or social ideas will be passed on. While being raised in a Chinese household will often ensure Overseas Chinese learn to speak, read, and write some Chinese, it can be much harder to reach a level of actual fluency for everyday and business communication. For some, there might be a lack of sufficient opportunities to practice. Others may distance themselves the Chinese culture and language in favor of fitting into Western society. Language skills and family life aside, many Chinese-Americans are largely inexperienced with regard to Mainland China’s social environment. Even for Overseas Chinese who have had the opportunity to visit friends and relatives in Mainland China from time to time, their ability to live and work in Mainland China can in no way compare with actual Mainland Chinese natives.

The result is that when Overseas Chinese raised in the West relocate to Mainland China, in many cases they will be viewed as a Westerner, and will not immediately be able to gain any type of “special access” to the Chinese. Any number of things can and will give them away as non-Mainlander, including lack of Chinese fluency, their accent, Western behavior, and even skin complexion. On one hand, there is nothing wrong with being viewed as a Westerner, as many Chinese both like and respect them, usually giving them a warm welcome. However, Overseas Chinese can suffer from a special handicap that Westerners of non Asian-descent are not burdened with. Since all Chinese everywhere are “supposed to be Chinese,” there can be the expectation that even Overseas Chinese should act like Mainland Chinese. When Overseas Chinese raised in the West cannot speak Chinese, or do not understand much about Chinese culture, there is the risk that they might be looked down on slightly by the Mainland Chinese, who could potentially regard Overseas Chinese as being lazy, un-Chinese, or in some very rare cases, unpatriotic. In an extreme example, former US Ambassador to China Gary Locke was once mocked by the Chinese Media, partly regarding his inability to speak Mandarin Chinese. To summarize, Overseas Chinese who were raised in the West might be unable to function much more effectively than the average Western China expatriate, and may receive less respect as well.

Overseas Chinese from Other Countries Can Have Trouble Fitting In

As mentioned earlier, many overseas regions and countries with Chinese speaking populations can differ significantly from Mainland China in terms of their modern cultures and societies. While these differences might not seem obvious to Western managers and executives, they are easy to perceive for Mainland Chinese natives. For example, after being ceded to the British after the first Opium War, Hong Kong developed quite differently from Mainland China. Through more than 100 years of British influence, Hong Kong developed its own unique culture and society, which can now sometimes put it at odds with the Mainland Chinese government and citizens. In addition, Mandarin (the official language of Mainland China), is not the official language of Hong Kong. Hong Kong citizens learn Cantonese first (in effect a separate language), usually followed by English, and sometimes Mandarin. Thus for an Overseas Chinese from Hong Kong be able to live and work effectively in Mainland China, he or she must make an extra effort to learn an additional language. Taiwan by comparison has much less of a cultural distinction from the Mainland than Hong Kong, but Overseas Chinese from Taiwan can still encounter their own difficulties in Mainland China. On one hand Taiwan managers have been known to speak in a more direct manner than Mainland Chinese are used to, which holds the potential to cause embarrassment and ruin business deals. On the other hand, Taiwanese managers and business owners have a bad reputation in the Mainland as being stingy and treating Mainland workers unfairly. A bad reputation among Mainland Chinese subordinates and coworkers can lead to inefficient operations and a toxic work environment.

While Overseas Chinese talent from Hong Kong or Taiwan may have an easier time adapting to life and work in the Mainland than those Overseas Chinese born and raised in Western countries, problems can still occur. Even after candidates have been verified to possess the proper language skills as well as a sensitivity to Mainland Chinese communication styles, this is still not a complete guarantee they will be able to adapt well to all facets of Mainland Chinese society. Hong Kong and Taiwanese natives with previous work experience in Mainland China therefore represent a much lower risk to potential Western employers.

Mainland Chinese Can Become “Too Westernized”

When a Western company is looking for Overseas Chinese talent to bring onboard at its Mainland China operations, Mainland Chinese citizens studying, living, or working overseas are often a good choice. This type of Overseas Chinese will have grown up in and spent most of their life in Mainland China. Thus, they will speak Mandarin Chinese fluently and understand the Mainland Chinese society and culture much better than non-Mainland Overseas Chinese. However, Mainland Chinese that spend too much time in Western countries may be faced a few key challenges which can affect their ability to interact with other Mainland Chinese and successfully re-integrate into Chinese society.

First, much of business and social life in Mainland China is driven by relationships, or Guanxi. Due to distance, and a Chinese preference for face-to-face meetings, maintaining important networks can be difficult when living abroad for extended periods. Thus, some Mainland Chinese may find that they have fallen out of contact with their local networks once arriving back in Mainland China. In these cases Mainland Chinese may not only feel disconnected, but may also have trouble at work as well (e.g. if they work in sales). Second, Mainland Chinese citizens, who have spent most of their academic or professional lives in the West, often become accustomed to life in Western society and adopt social and political views of their host countries, along with behavioral traits. When these students or professionals return to Mainland China, they may face the challenge of not thinking or acting completely like a native from Mainland China. This can cause trouble with regard to communicating effectively with other native Chinese workers and managers. The above two examples are more extreme than what most Mainland Chinese are subject to when relocating back to China. However, Western managers and executives should in all cases remember that the longer Mainland Chinese native has spent in the West means a relatively shorter amount of time and experience in Mainland China.

What are the Key Elements Needed in Overseas Chinese Talent?

At the end of the day what really matters is not whether one from the Mainland, but whether one has the correct skills, experience, and mentality to adapt to the on-the-ground business environment in Mainland China. From this authors own experience, Western managers and executives would do well to focus on the following elements when screening and interviewing potential Overseas Chinese candidates for their Mainland China operations.

  1. Language Ability: Language is the first barrier that one must overcome to be able to do business successfully in Mainland China. It is never certain whether the locals in Mainland China natives will have a high enough competency in English to communicate on everyday topics, let alone more technical or business-oriented ones. Thus an overseas Chinese candidate should have a high fluency in Mandarin Chinese and in some cases relevant local dialects. An ability to read and write Chinese characters should also not be overlooked. Without this basic skill, simple tasks such as filling out paperwork or doing simple research online will be all but impossible.
  2. Knowledge and Experience with Mainland Chinese Society: Language aside, much of what will determine how well overseas Chinese can integrate into a Western company’s Mainland China operations is their knowledge of and skill with regard to Mainland Chinese society. This includes issues such as social and business etiquette, local communication styles, common mindsets and beliefs. If an overseas Chinese cannot “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” in front of Mainland Chinese citizens and business professionals, then they will lose some of their potential value.
  3. Ability to Emphasize with Mainland Chinese: Finally, it is imperative to not only be able to understand the Chinese, but to empathize with them as well. This author has observed all too many overseas experts (both overseas Chinese and Western) who have worked in China for a long time, and understand the Chinese well from an outside perspective. Unfortunately all too often these experts go home after work and spend time mainly with others from their home countries. They are either unable or unwilling to spend enough time with the Chinese locals to really get to know them on a personal level, something that can have a profound effect on achieving business results.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, despite the potential drawbacks of overseas Chinese talent, they are still an invaluable resource to Western companies doing business in China. Many overseas Chinese in fact have more than an adequate understandings of the Chinese language, culture, and society. However, because it is impossible for Westerners (or even Mainland Chinese) to judge relative competency or knowledge at first glance, it would be a big mistake to lump all overseas Chinese together in one group, or take a candidate’s word at face value. After all, the concepts of Chinese language fluency or expertise on Chinese culture are relative ideas based on individual experiences and perspectives. Therefore, it’s important to fully understand the capabilities and potential weaknesses of all Overseas Chinese candidates before making a hiring decision. Only through due diligence can Western managers and executives ensure that their new Overseas Chinese hires can deliver on everything the company expects.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or thoughts about the differences between Mainland Chinese and Overseas Chinese? Do you have any experiences you can share as an Overseas Chinese living in Mainland China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Journal Article : The Many Faces of Suzhi in China

200304-omag-book-publish-600x411Dear Readers and China Enthuiasts,

I am pleased to announce that I have recenly published a new article on Chinese culture and management practices: The many faces of suzhi in the Chinese organization and society: Implications for multinational HRM practice. This article has been published through a cooperation with The Journal of Chinese Human Resource Management, a part of Emerald Group Publishing.

In this article, I expand on the concept of suzhi, which I previously introduced in a another article. In this new article however, I list and discuss additional important details and context, which can help Western managers and executives gain a better understanding of their local Chinese employees, as well as how to more effectively interact with them. As the new article is somewhat long (about 11 pages in original formatting ), I suggest that all those new to the concept of suzhi first take a look at my orginal short article on the subject HERE. If you like what you see, I have provided links to the complete article below:

Article Abstract on Emerald Group Publishing’s Site

Read the Full Article on The China Culture Corner

It brings me a great deal of excitement to bring you all this indepth look into the Chinese concept of Suzhi. If you have any additional questions , please feel free to email me through the Contact Info page, or leave me a comment.

Thanks for reading!

– Sean Upton-McLaughlin


The “China Culture Corner” is Now in Shenzhen!

Shenzhen ChinaAs of May 2014, I, Sean Upton-McLaughlin, have officially relocated to Shenzhen to continue my work with Chinese companies and executives, this time with a multinational Chinese firm in the ICT sector. From this new location I will continue to bring you, the reader and China enthusiast, new and useful insights into Chinese business, culture, and language through “the China Culture Corner.” As some of you may not be familiar with the city of Shenzhen, I have provided a brief introduction below.

A Short Overview of Shenzhen

The modern city of Shenzhen is, in effect, something made from nothing. Shenzhen does not possess the rich history and culture which many Chinese cities can lay claim to, and prior to China’s “opening up” possessed a relatively small population, around 30,000 in 1979. Following the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping took over the leadership of China and spearheaded China’s move toward market capitalism. Initially, Shenzhen served as the sole test bed for what were very new concepts to the China of that era, and its proximity to Hong Kong (right across the border) served as an effective mode to attract investment, both from Hong Kong as well as from overseas. In just three decades the population of Shenzhen grew to over 10 million (as of the last census), practically an overnight success.

Along with its population, Shenzhen’s economy also grew by leaps and bounds. Shenzhen began as and continues to be a center for low-cost manufacturing, though in recent years the city has begun branching out into new areas. Currently, aside from manufacturing, Shenzhen is also focusing on areas such as hi-tech, logistics, finance and culture. In fact, many now famous Chinese hi-tech firms are based in Shenzhen, including Huawei, ZTE, and Tencent. Several top Chinese banks are headquartered in Shenzhen (e.g. China Merchant’s Bank), and Shenzhen is also a busy container port.

Today, Shenzhen stands as one of China’s most prosperous metropolises, only falling short of megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. However, unlike many of China’s large cities, Shenzhen has a decidedly “green” feel to it, with a multitude of parks and green spaces, along with a visibly lower level of pollution than other Chinese cities.

Send Me Your Feedback

As always, I remain committed to raising and discussing issues that can help my fellow Westerners better understand China, including its culture, language, and business environment. To this end, I am always happy to receive feedback and article suggestions.  If any of you has a specific issue you would like to see me write about, please feel free to contact me through the “contact info” page.

Best of luck to all of you with your own China adventures, and thanks for reading!

-Sean Upton-McLaughlin

What Does “Leader” Mean in China?

Chinese leaders and power.There are many cultural differences between China and Western countries, which impact how business is conducted on a daily basis. However, one issue which may hold a disproportionate influence over company culture is differences in leadership styles. There are many ways in which Chinese leaders are different from their Western counterparts, some of which have been touched upon in previous articles. These include issues such as more roundabout communication styles, a greater focus on Face and relationships, and unique social and behavioral etiquette. And while this may be a lot to take in for the uninitiated, there is a simpler way. In order to understand how to interact with Chinese leaders, an easy first step is to learn about how they view themselves, and the titles they choose to assume.

An Introduction to the Concept of Lingdao (领导)

A universal term in Chinese for an executive, a boss, or anyone’s direct superior is “Lingdao (领导),” which can be roughly translated as “leader.” However, in actual practice the term Lingdao cannot simply be used interchangeably with its English equivalent. First of all, the general usage of the term varies greatly with how Westerners use the term “leader.” Most Westerners only use the term “leader” on occasion, (e.g. a conference of western leaders), and rarely, if ever, use the term to refer to or directly address a superior. In contrast, the term Lingdao is much more common in Chinese daily and professional language, and is often used to directly address managers and executives. Several common uses of the term Lingdao have been translated and provided below as examples:

  1. Through the support of the Lingdao, I will do my best to make contributions to the company
  2. I value the Lingdao’s concern for me.
  3. We’ve just received the Lingdao’s instructions. Let’s begin work immediately.

A Chinese boss is an emperorIn addition to the differences in common usage, the term Lingdao also carries a very different inherent meaning in China, than leader does in Western countries. In many ways, it harkens back to the traditional system of imperial rule in ancient China, with an all powerful emperor supported by an elite cadre of government officials. Rulers and other powerful men and women in China over the centuries have never really had to deal with limits on their power or the sort of checks and balances found in many Western democracies. In Western countries, the terms “leader” and “leadership” often imply bettering oneself and managing in a fair, just, and responsible manner. In China, Lingdao has much more to do with personal power.

It is also worth noting that while the boss of a company is universally “the Lingdao,” the term it is never directly associated with a specific role. Based on this author’s own experiences networking and cooperating with Chinese managers and executives, it would be more accurate to describe the term “Lingdao” as a status or honor that one attains through a position, or role. And this status does not necessarily only apply to the “top dog” within a company.  A director or manager might also be called a Lingdao by subordinates providing no one of a higher rank is present. Thus the specific person doing the “leading” gets the title, and the power and respect that go along with it.

Lingdao (领导) in Modern China

Of course, China is no longer an empire, although some companies are certainly run like one. Within many Chinese companies, especially small privately owned ones, a Lingdao can be is akin to an emperor within the sphere of his or her own authority. Orders and directives are expected to be carried out promptly without question. Those who might be granted the title of Lingdao also take a different approach to management – they don’t. Instead, a Lingdao often prefers to make decisions relating to strategy and general courses of action,while leaving implementation and employee management to their subordinates. And although it would be wrong to assume that all Chinese managers and executives are tyrants, there is most certainly a tendency to abuse the power that the status of Lingdao confers. As being a Lingdao represents a certain type of status or honor, Chinese managers and executives sometimes do whatever they can maintain that prestige, both by encouraging their superior status (and gain more Face) and exercising their authority, which can include issuing arbitrary commands, making employees work overtime, and offering verbal abuse.

The status of a Lingdao can have very strong pull for young Chinese white collar workers, many of whom dream of starting their own companies with this in mind. On one hand, abusive working environments, especially those in small companies, can make them eager (or desperate) to move on and try something new. On the other, Face is very important to many young Chinese employees, especially young men. In small companies only the boss or the manager can aspire to attain the Face and respect of a Lingdao. Thus, these two factors taken together, present a very strong case for Chinese workers to quit their current jobs and start their own companies. This author has, on many occasions, overheard many Chinese white collar workers remark on their plans to start a company, not to be an entrepreneur, but to be a Lingdao.

What Does This Mean for Western Business People & Employees?

For the Western business executive working in or traveling to China, the concept of Lingdao will likely not preset a huge problem. However, being aware of the concept can certainly provide greater insights into the actions and mindset of Chinese managers and executives. Chinese politicians are also leadersThe main times one must be careful are when meeting with an executive of an obviously higher status than oneself. In many cases, a Chinese executive might ignore any unintended gaffs or breaches of etiquette, though there are always times when a particular executive may be overly sensitive and decide to hold such a breach against the Westerner in question. If a Chinese executive’s Face is damaged, there may not be a way to recover the business relationship.

In fact, it is younger Western employees in China that are much more likely to have trouble with the concept of Lingdao. While almost all Westerners in China are treated with a certain degree of courtesy and respect, including low-level Western employees, this type of status only goes so far. Western employees who find opportunities to work with smaller domestic Chinese companies will likely have far less freedom to speak their mind, make suggestions, or help shape the course of the company. And dissatisfied Western employees who decide to press the point in pursuit of what they feel is rightfully theirs, may not only find any credibility they have built up disappearing, but their positions as well.

Final Thoughts

All in all, there is nothing perverse or wrong about the Chinese concept of Lingdao. Yes, it represents a model of leadership and behavior that many Westerners will find themselves at odds with, but for the most part it is not a system that is arbitrarily forced upon the Chinese rank and file. Many Chinese employees are much more passive than their Western counterparts, and for the most part do not chafe under a stronger hand at the wheel. Those that do in many cases leave for better opportunities, or aspire to become a Lingdao in their own company. What this author hopes to accomplish for Western readers through this article, is a deeper appreciation (if not necessarily agreement) of the core issues that drive Chinese managers and executives. By understanding the Chinese concept of Lingdao, managing cross-cultural business ventures will go smoother for Westerners, and younger Westerners will find it simpler to take up new opportunities in Mainland China.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about leadership and management styles in China? Can you share any of your own experiences from working and doing business in China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Chinese Families of Flight MH370

Chinese Hold Vigil for MH370 PassengersOne story that has been dominating Western news networks for more than a month is the mystery of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. As of this article’s publishing, the search to find the missing plane and passengers in the South Indian Ocean is still ongoing, with no definite news on the location of the plane or the fate of the passengers. From the very beginning, the story has had a specific Chinese angle, as 153 of the 239 passengers aboard flight MH were from Mainland China. Many of the family members of these Chinese passengers have been forced to wait for weeks, some in Malaysia and some in China, hoping for some word on their loved ones. And while Western viewers have been privy to the mourning and public outbursts of these Chinese families, there has been little coverage in the West on the specific reasons behind them. While it is certainly true that any family in this situation would be wracked with grief, there are some specific differences in the grief displayed by these Chinese families that reflects cultural and social disparities between China and Western countries. In the following article, some of these differences will be explored to enlighten Westerners on the true plight of these Chinese families.

Families in China Don’t Get a Second Chance

MH370 Tragedy The family has always been very important in China, though the smaller size of the modern Chinese family has in some ways increased its importance, and perhaps its fragility. While the Chinese family (including the extended family) has traditionally been very large, its size has been drastically reduced due to the one child policy. And while there may be no technical barriers to rebuilding a family after a tragedy, it still may be a practical impossibility. On one hand, the Chinese possess strong prejudices against divorce and remarriage, with a stable family viewed as more important than individual happiness. While a Chinese man or woman who has lost their spouse may desire to find another partner, there may be internal resistance from friends and family. Many Chinese are strongly against marrying at a later age. And while Chinese men find it possible to marry a younger woman (if they have enough money), Chinese women above the age 30 or 35 will likely find it near to impossible. On the other hand, even though the birth of a second child is allowed under the Chinese one child policy after the death of the first child, Chinese couples are rarely willing to have children at a later date. This is partly due to the increasing risk of birth defects as a woman ages (even though plenty of later births occur in other countries), as well as the continuing belief that a woman’s role is to marry and have children early. For the above reasons, Chinese families who have lost one or more members of their families in the MH370 tragedy may be faced with the inescapable fact that they will have no chance to rebuild or recover.

The Public Outpouring of Grief

One issue that struck a chord with this author was the grief displayed very publicly by some Chinese family members. While any family faced with such a horrific tragedy would surely be filled with grief, the ways the Chinese (and many Asians in general) deal with their grief and negative emotions differ significantly from those in the West. Many Westerners hold the view that the Chinese are more reserved in their displays of emotion and to a degree they are correct.  Chinese society’s early focus on hierarchy and collectivism meant that everyone had a proper place and way to act. One of the ways this translates into modern Chinese society is a reticence to discuss or openly display emotion among strangers and sometimes even one’s own family. However there are several reasons why Chinese people might break with this norm where grief and mourning are concerned.

Chinese Outpouring of Grief - MH370The Chinese concept of Ren (忍) can be involved in sudden and violent displays of emotion. In Chinese, Ren means to endure or to tolerate. Because specific members of Chinese society have specific roles and accepted behavior within those roles, they are rarely completely free to act or speak their mind. As such it is very common for negative feelings and stress to gradually increase within a Chinese person as an emotional pressure. At particularly tumultuous times these negative emotions can become too much to bear, and like a broken dam, spill forth in a torrent.

Also, under certain circumstances, especially where the death of loved ones and close friends is involved, Chinese people are expected to display exaggerated emotions. This practice comes from the Chinese custom of worshiping their ancestors and revering their elders, an incredibly important part of traditional Chinese life. The eldest member of the family (usually the eldest male) was always accorded the most respect, and upon dying, an elaborate ceremony would be held to pay respects and allow the family to mourn. This mourning would many times be public in front of the neighborhood. Chinese family members who were not seen to mourn and grieve publically and exaggeratedly were thought to be heartless and not filial (not fulfilling their duty to their elders). In modern China where family sizes are much smaller, this type of behavior may be extended to other family members besides the oldest, such as a child or sibling.

Offense Is the Best Defense in Modern Chinese Society

Chinese Families Protest Against Malaysian AirlinesMany family members of the Chinese passengers of flight MH370, in addition to their grief, have been notably aggressive and confrontational in both their language and actions toward representatives of Malaysian Airlines and the Malaysian government. While this might be understandable for anyone with a missing loved one, it is more so for the Chinese. The rapid pace of China’s economic development, along with the weak social and legal infrastructure present in many areas in China, has resulted in China’s citizens becoming accustomed to being taking advantage of with little to no legal recourse. As such, the Chinese often take an aggressive stance when faced with a situation in which they feel they are being taken advantage of. This author has personally observed this aspect of modern Chinese society on multiple occasions, and offers the following examples to further illustrate this point.

  1. Supermarket Lines: A common sight at China’s large Hypermarts (e.g. Carrefour, Walmart) is one or several customers haranguing and hectoring cashiers over pricing or other issues of discontent. More often than not excuses are not accepted and the customer will keep at it until their concern is adequately addressed.
  2. Delays at the Airport: In one instance when flying from Shanghai to the USA, this author’s flight was canceled, and all passengers were shuttled off to another airport to catch a different flight. Little information was provided to any of the passengers as to where it was feasible to make the arranged flight. Due to what was viewed as a lack of information and poor customer service, several Chinese passengers came close to assaulting the accompanying airport representative when their questions were not answered satisfactorily. In the end these passengers detained this representative aboard the shuttle bus for 5-10 minutes before he was finally allowed to leave.

The important point to be aware of from the preceding examples is not that the Chinese are mean or violent; indeed, far from it. In modern China the pace of economic growth along with weak social and legal infrastructure have created a social environment in which many Chinese are very wary about trusting companies or their fellow citizens. One result of this is that the Chinese can be understandably aggressive in defending their own interests, especially because in many cases the law may not be able to.

Returning to the tragedy of missing flight MH370, it seems to be the opinion of many, if not all, of these Chinese families that Malaysian Airlines and the government have at the very least bungled the investigation and search efforts, and may very well have withheld information from the public in their own self-interest. This author’s interpretation of the protests and aggressive rhetoric and demands put forth by these families is that they have become convinced that the Malaysian government and Malaysian Airlines have no intention of going out of their way for the families and that the only option available is to fight back and become loud enough to force compliance with their demands and concerns.

What Does This Mean For Western Audiences?

Pray for MH370To a certain extent the Chinese are just like people all over the world. They all have families and react similarly as anyone else when they lose someone they love. However one key point that should be remembered is that although the Chinese may appear similar to Westerners on the surface in some ways, they are actually very different. The Chinese mindset is distinct, and is shaped not only by their cultural history, but by the conditions of modern Chinese society. Understanding Chinese culture and society will not only provide Westerners with a greater appreciation of the Chinese people, but will also make it easier to empathize with them when tragedies similar to the missing flight MH370 occur in the future.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about the Chinese families of Flight MH370? What have your own feelings been when viewing the news stories on this tragedy? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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3 Ideas For More Effective Networking With the Chinese

Networking in China

Do you want to expand your circle of Chinese business contacts? Do you want to make more Chinese friends? Are you unsure how to talk with the Chinese at networking and other social events?

Networking events have become a very popular pastime in Mainland China, especially in areas with a large numbers of Western expatriate workers. But aside from providing Westerners with the opportunity to relax and expand valuable networks of Western business and personal contacts, there is the potential to connect with the Chinese as well. Although the more conservative ideas and beliefs of the Chinese on social and business relationships do not often mesh well with more open and relaxed Western networking practices, this has not prevented a growing number of Chinese locals from attending networking events, especially  in the big cities. These not only include younger Chinese who have previously studied and worked overseas, but also more “local” business people and officials.

Despite the opportunities presented by this upswing in Chinese attendees, connecting with them is not as easy as you might first think. Overcoming differences in culture, language, and communication styles might initially seem like a simple proposition, but in realty can present a greater challenge. However, with a little practice and some insights into how the Chinese communicate, things can become a lot simpler. In the following article I share a few important tips on how to take the first step in connecting with the Chinese, whether for business or pleasure.

It’s Important To Actually Approach the Chinese

Creating relationships with the ChineseOne problem I’ve seen prevent other Westerners from effectively connecting with the Chinese at events is an initial unwillingness or hesitance to approach them. This does not usually stem from any kind of ill will, but rather from language barriers and differences in communication styles. Many Westerners new to China have not had much experience with the Chinese language or culture, and this can lead to a great deal of stress, especially following a long work day. Many Chinese attendees, especially those older or more senior, are more reserved or hesitant to speak in English for fear of embarrassment. Thus, it might be no surprise that at these types of after work social and networking events, the room often separates out into two distinct groups – locals speaking Chinese and Westerners speaking in English (or another Western language).

However if you are really interested in making new Chinese contacts, someone has to take the first step, and why not you? Simply find a group, and insert yourself into the conversation with a hello or “ni hao,” and the group will almost certainly move to welcome you. In addition, it’s worth considering that any Chinese “loners” at a given event may turn out to be a more senior, or possibly more local individual (with more local connections), and seeking them out will at the very least provide you with a a good introduction to more local Chinese communication styles, and potentially a good contact with local industry connections.

 Try To Create an Emotional Connection 

It is also worthwhile to consider the idea that, through emulating local Chinese communication styles, you may allow yourself to create a greater degree of rapport with the Chinese. While this prospect may seem difficult or uncomfortable to some readers, for those who sincerely wish to expand their network of Chinese contacts, creating an emotional connection in your conversations with the Chinese can be incredibly effective. Due to traditional Chinese concepts such as Face, and ideas of proper behavior, conversations can take on a slightly different tone between Chinese attendees of networking events, and contain nuances separate from the experiences of most Westerners. And because Chinese relationship networks tend to be much more personal than many in the West, the Chinese prefer to feel some sort of emotional connection when networking or meeting new contacts. If Westerners can tap into this type of connection when networking with the Chinese, then it will be possible to more quickly and effectively create new friendships or partnerships.

In practice actually emulating or copying specific Chinese communication styles effectively can be difficult at first. Therefore from my own experience in China I have selected several simple methods, displayed below, which Westerners can use to immediately start building an emotional rapport with the Chinese:

  1. Offer more compliments than usual: Face is such a rudimentary part of Chinese people’s daily lives that even among close friends and business partners little compliments fly back and forth simply on pure reflex. If you can pick up on this “rhythm” of the conversation, native Chinese will likely feel more comfortable around you.
  2. Let your enthusiasm show through: The Chinese focus on Face and relationships also combine to create what can only be described as an atmosphere of greater enthusiasm, as if everyone were best friends. Therefore its not advisable to be cool, and reserved when trying to make new Chinese friends and contacts.
  3. Defer to age and seniority: There is a cultural attitude among the Chinese to respect those that are older, more experienced, more senior, or simply those who have a higher status (e.g. famous). Those in these positions expect this type f respect even at casual events, and providing it can engender positive feelings between the two of you.
  4. Try out some Chinese: The Chinese take pride in their country, culture, and language and seeing a Westerner try to speak Chinese with them will usually impress them and demonstrate your own appreciation of China. And when you are talking with Chinese people who are unsure of their own English language skills, being able to communicate in Chinese is an easy way to get the conversation started.

With regard to the above ideas on emulating Chinese communication styles, it should be noted that the Chinese (all of us, in fact) respond to interpersonal communications both consciously as well as subconsciously. This means that although a Chinese person will almost certainly consciously recognize that Westerners communicate differently, they can rarely escape the subconscious reaction to respond positively to the application of Face or other Chinese communication styles. In contrast, a Westerner who adamantly refuses to adapt to local communication styles, may find it difficult to create strong and lasting connections with the Chinese.

Know How the Chinese Think About Relationships

20120817001Another very Chinese concept you might want to keep in mind when networking with the Chinese, is that of Yuanfen. While many Westerners may have never heard of this term, the idea behind it is simple enough, that some relationships are predestined, and some people are pulled together by the mysterious forces of the universe. While many younger Chinese only give credence to the romantic implications of Yuanfen, older and more traditionally minded Chinese are much more likely to view Yuanfen as relevant to all relationships, including business and politics. And when a Chinese person believes in Yuanfen, first impressions can matter a lot. Specifically, if a Chinese person discovers you share a common background, interest, or professions, in addition to experiencing the type of emotional connection described above, they may decide they have Yuanfen with you right away. Therefore make sure you put your best face forward lest a potential friend or business partner slip through your fingers and a potential opportunity be lost.

Final Thoughts

When networking in China, whether for fun or professional reasons, the more time and effort you invest, the more you get can get back. In my opinion, by not networking with the Chinese, a Westerner loses out on a potential valuable opportunity to make new friends and learn about a new culture. For the business minded, you never know who might be a potential business partner you might not have approached otherwise. All in all, life is a journey, and knowing more people helps you get where you want to go faster, and have more fun along the way.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about communicating effectively with the Chinese at networking events? Do you have positive stories of your own you would like to share with other readers? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Difficulties in Connecting With Influential Chinese

In China it is common to encounter Western business people looking for introductions to Chinese executives or government officials. This is usually accompanied by the idea that these kinds of powerful connections, or guanxi, can be the lynchpin in establishing a successful business or venture in the Chinese market. And while possessing strong guanxi in China can indeed help one’s business to grow and flourish, actually obtaining it is not as easy as some may think.

The Chinese think about introductions and networking in a very different manner than most Westerners. While many Western business people thrive on an open and all inclusive model for meeting new people, influential Chinese business people are more low-key, and prefer to remain within their own social circles. Despite this, it is indeed possible to network with and obtain introductions to the influential in China, though, to succeed, it is essential for Westerners to study and understand the Chinese mindset. Below, the author lists several common points of concern he has observed in Chinese executives and officials.   

“Who Are You and Why Should I Care?”

Power and money are the true capital in modern China, and the Chinese business and political “influencers” do not exit on the same level as the rest of Chinese society. In order to be able to directly connect and converse with these influential Chinese power players, it is vital to possess something to which they can respect and relate. For example, CEOs and top executives from well known Western MNCs will have a better chance at obtaining introductions or meetings with their Chinese counterparts. This is not merely due to a relative equality in position and power, but also because high-level Western business people (and politicians) are likely to have high-level connections within their own countries. However, for entrepreneurs and executives of smaller companies, a lack of prestige and connections may prove to be a barrier to obtaining introductions. Status is very important in China, and unfortunately some people just do not “make the cut.”

“Why Should I Share My Network With You?”

Although the Chinese in general are very polite and enthusiastic when talking to Westerners, they are also usually more reserved and cautious with their personal network of contacts. To a greater extent than many countries in the West, the Chinese rely deeply on their networks for both social and business functions, which are essential to life and business in modern China.  In fact, many successful and influential business people in China have succeeded specifically due to their own networks. As such, the Chinese are usually very cautious about opening up such an important part of their life to someone they don’t know, no matter how powerful. Therefore, networking in China seldom occurs as it might in Western countries. Generous amounts of time is required for both parties to get to know one another other, both before and after an introduction takes place. After all, to paraphrase an English expression, the Chinese don’t let just anyone see the goose that laid the golden egg.

“What’s In It For Me?”

Even if an influential Chinese person is impressed with a Westerner’s position and with what he or she can offer, there may be an additional factor causing an influential Chinese business person to hesitate. After all, if a Westerner is offering a potential Chinese contact, introduced through a Chinese intermediary, a chance to increase their own money, influence or power, why should the intermediary not get anything in return? In fact, many introductions that take place in China are not necessarily one close friend introducing another. If a Chinese person claims to have guanxi in a certain sector, they may simply mean that they “know a guy” who then knows “another guy.” Therefore, if the person that they are introducing may not actually be a close friend at all, there may be no guarantee of a payout for the Chinese contact. In these cases the Chinese which a Westerner hopes will provide an introduction may feel more comfortable waiting until they get something which they want. It is also common practice in China, especially in sales, for facilitators of business deals to receive unofficial commissions or other perks. Within the sometimes-murky realm of high-level personal relationships in China, nothing is free.

“Will This Damage My Relationship With My Contact?”

Lastly, the Chinese people are universally concerned about staying on good terms with their business and personal contacts. Thus, before providing introductions into their network, one issue an influential Chinese person will consider is not only the potential benefit (for their contact as well as themselves), but also any potential risks as well. For example, if a Chinese person discovers any risks to a valuable relationship, he/she will likely choose to pass on providing a specific introduction.

How Can “Regular” Western Business People Get Introductions in China?

Unfortunately, there just isn’t any quick and easy way to gain instant access to the rich and powerful in China, especially if one lacks power and prestige of one’s own. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to gain access to influential Chinese business people.  This author, through his own experience in China, points out a few tips below that could help:

1) Spend time on-the-ground in China: When it is impossible to reach out and connect with powerful Chinese directly, it may be necessary to first spend some time in China, learning about the business environment and working within the local business community. Many Chinese cities, especially the large metropolises, possess numerous business and trade organizations at which it is very easy to meet and greet a variety of Chinese business people. Through this type of networking, it may be possible over time to slowly get in touch with influential Chinese.

2) Create a Successful Company: Creating your own company or venture, which either has a strong advantage in the Chinese market or presents advantages for Chinese companies doing business abroad, can create new corridors for connecting with influential business people in China. On one hand, a successful company or brand may entice offers for partnership or purchase. On the other, certain Western regions (e.g. Silicon Valley in the USA) have large entrepreneur communities focusing on the Chinese market. Networking in your home country in this context may present the opportunity to meet powerful Chinese VC executives, who in turn would have their own powerful circles of contacts.

3) Expand your network in your home country: Building a strong network of connections in one’s own country is also a method which can build a foundation for later contact with China’s business “influencers.” This is especially relevant in light of the fact that an increasing number of Chinese companies are starting to set up operations in foreign countries. While its true that many Chinese returnees or overseas workers join these companies, there is no substitute for a lifetime of experience in one’s home country. If a Westerner has something the Chinese want (e.g. connections and knowledge), they may have the chance to get to know some of the powerful executives in charge of these firms.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about connecting with the influential business elite in China? Do you have any helpful examples from your own experiences from working with the Chinese that you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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What is the Secret to Speaking Better Chinese?

How to speak better Chinese?Many Westerners in China have a love-hate relationship with the Chinese language. No matter whether learning for professional for personal reasons, Westerners all over China and abroad attempt to improve their Chinese language skills on a daily basis but to no avail. Despite having studied Chinese for many years it is common many Westerners to be unable to speak Chinese fluidly or fluently. It is then no surprise that many wonder if they will ever be able to succeed in learning the Chinese language.

In fact, the Chinese language is by no means beyond the grasp of Westerners living in or planning to move to China. It simply takes the right approach and focus. After five years in China I have identified several important factors which can make a big difference in attaining a verbal fluency in Chinese. I list and discuss them below:

Spend Time with the Chinese, Not Westerners

When Westerners or other learners of the Chinese language ask me how to improve their own Chinese skills, they often confess to spending most of their time in China with other expatriates. This is a big problem. Chinese cannot be learned by repeating a few phrases each week in restaurants or on the street. It cannot be learned by going out to Western bars. It cannot be learned by speaking English every day. It can only be learned by engaging in real and in-depth conversations with the Chinese everyday and by immersing oneself in a Chinese environment. Many Westerners assume that by being in China they are immersing themselves in the language and culture and the rest will follow. This is unfortunately not the case. Learning to speak Chinese well takes effort everyday and requires one to make Chinese friends and spend time with them regularly speaking the Chinese language. Even Westerners outside of China can immerse themselves in a Chinese environment by seeking out overseas Chinese communities and surrounding themselves with Chinese video and audio material.

There is No Substitute for Making Mistakes and Feeling Awkward

When attending business events and social gatherings, I rarely see Westerners actively trying and speak Chinese with the locals. The room usually separates out into two groups – Westerners and overseas Chinese speaking English and local Chinese speaking Chinese. This is the easy way out, and certainly not an effective way to learn the Chinese language. The way the Chinese language is learned is by putting oneself in Chinese-only environments, and constantly taking risks to try out new words or expressions. Most of the time one will make mistakes, and will feel awkward or embarrassed. But this is an absolutely necessary part of the Chinese language learning process. How many times do babies fall before learning how to stand? The same applies very much to learning Chinese. When one makes a mistakes it is clear that one is pushing at their own limits. Only through persistence and dedication can one surpass those limits and increase their fluency in the Chinese language.

Don’t Focus on Studying Vocabulary

A question I hear a lot is “Can you recommend a book or Chinese dictionary to study?” From my own perspective, while it is of course necessary for new students of Chinese language to put certain amount of focus on dictionaries and course books, this is a bad frame of mind to get into for those with an existing proficiency in Chinese. With this approach a student of the Chinese language ends up with lots of words that they have never or rarely been put into practice. Even when one CAN remember all the words they have learned, the words are usually not spoken in a sure and confident manner. Instead, I would suggest that books and other study material be instead thought of as tools to assist one’s study of Chinese, not be the sole focus of study. So learn some new words, and then go out into the world and practice using them. When a Chinese person uses a word one doesn’t understand, it’s important to ask what it means, and then remember it. Only by constantly putting newly learned Chinese into practice can it be remembered and mastered.

Decide How Much Chinese is Right for You

In the end, learning any language requires a definite commitment to one’s time. Chinese is especially so due to its characters, tones, and other differences from Latin based languages. And learning Chinese is more difficult when combined with the obligations of work and family. Because of these limits on time many Chinese learners constantly feel that they are spinning their wheels and never improving. Therefore I would recommend that current and future students of the Chinese language consider how much Chinese they both want to learn, as well as need to learn. Instead of constantly trying to learn new words and phrases, pick a set number of words and phrases and concentrate solely on mastering their usage. This and continuous practice can allow Westerners to achieve increased verbal fluency in the areas that matter most to them. In any case, there is one point I hope becomes clear from the above discussion. Learning to speak Chinese may not be easy, but it is simple and straightforward, as outlined above.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about learning the Chinese language? Do you have any helpful examples from your own experiences learning Chinese that you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Frog in the Well – Bridging The Cultural Gap

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.

Final Thoughts

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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Saying “No” in China

When doing business or living in China, it is inevitable that one will, from time to time, be forced to say no, to deny a request, or to offer criticism. However, in Chinese society, which emphasizes respecting people’s Face and maintaining important relationships, saying no directly can lead to unintended problems.

As a rule, the Chinese are much more vague and indirect than Westerners. By understanding the different ways in which the Chinese indirectly refuse others, Western business people in China will have several advantages. First, when speaking with Chinese employees, superiors, friends and family members, recognizing a vague refusal can lead to an earlier comprehension and reduce the potential danger caused by misinformation. Second, understanding the Chinese indirect methods of refusal can allow Western business people to apply them to their own conversations and negotiations with the Chinese. By saying no in the Chinese way, the feelings of the Chinese can be spared, allowing for a more effective working relationship.

Below, several common methods of saying “no” in China are presented for the education of interested Western businesspeople and travelers, so as to be more able to effectively communicate with the Chinese.

Express Embarrassment

One of the more common methods of saying no in China is to begin a refusal by expressing one’s own embarrassment at the situation. This is stated in an exaggerated fashion, with the person saying no acting as if they are inconveniencing the person they are saying no to. The goal here is to placate the person being spoken to and to give them an extra measure of respect so as to not cause them to lose face or feel unappreciated. This method might be used to get out of going to lunch with a coworker or declining to help a friend with a favor.

“Oh my gosh, I’m SO embarrassed! I completely forgot about having lunch with you today.  I’ll definitely make it up to you tomorrow, ok?” (哎呀,太不好意思,我完全忘记今天与你吃饭的计划,明天我是一定会补偿你的!)

Be Roundabout and Vague

Another way to say no in China, without unduly offending a Chinese person, is by being roundabout and vague. In other words this means not giving a direct reply. The Chinese often use terms such as “I’m not sure,” “maybe,” and “perhaps.” In addition, other words which in Western cultures express assent or understanding can in China be used to be noncommittal  These include words such as  “I understand,” “sure,” and “I know.” In practice, there are two ways vague language can be used in this regard. First is when one does not want to damage the Face of a Chinese person. Second is when one wants to protect oneself from negative consequences of overtly supporting or agreeing with another. One example could be a manager who does not want to directly reject the idea of a subordinate and thus cause them to lose Face in front of coworkers. Using vague language can allow the manager to put the issue on hold until his or she is better prepared to handle it.

Make Excuses – You Need to Confer With Your Boss

A common method in the Chinese business community to say no (or aid in negotiations) is to pass the blame for making a decision to one’s boss or superior. With this method of saying no, although a Chinese person might say no more directly than at other times, they to a degree are able to remove responsibility from themselves. This method serves to protect the relationship between two people (e.g. salesman and client) even when saying no directly is unavoidable. In fact, it is common for small business owners to display a lower level position (such as senior consultant or senior manager) on their business cards expressly for the purpose of using this tactic and allowing greater flexibility in negotiations.

Tell a “White Lie”

It’s important to remember that saving Face for the Chinese has little to do with the truth and everything to do with personal feelings and prestige. The Chinese try to protect the Face of friends and coworkers by hiding the truth and replacing it with something less embarrassing or negative. For example, when an outing has been planned with friends or family, not attending because one “ doesn’t want to” would cause hurt feelings or anger. It is much more acceptable to the Chinese way of thinking to claim that one has to work overtime to prevent hurting the feelings of a friend. Likewise, when unwilling to work overtime or attend a conference a Chinese employee might tell their superior that their parents have fallen ill, and thus cannot attend.

“I’m sorry John, I just found out that my wife’s parents are coming to visit Shanghai this weekend. They expect me to show them around the city and I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend the conference with you. I really wanted to go with you but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.” (John,很对不起你,我刚刚发现下周末我岳父岳母都会来参观一下上海,再说他们期待我我来带路。我本来很想与你一起参与那个会议,但现在我好像是没办法的。) 

Put Things Off

One Chinese method of saying no, which causes misunderstandings for Western sales and business development professionals, is the Chinese tendency to put things on hold, or to claim to be busy. For example, when a Chinese company does not want to meet with a salesperson it is common for the salesperson to be told to “call back in a few months.” In many cases, this simply means that the company is not interested in a meeting. In the above example, it is of course likely that the company doesn’t care about the Face of the salesperson, they would simply rather be indirect. However, putting things on hold can also be used to try and preserve the feelings of a friend or coworker. If a good friend asks for a loan of a large amount of money, a Chinese person would likely rather try and put things on hold for a few months rather than embarrass their friend by saying no.

Offer a Positive before a Negative

When one has to say something less than positive to a subordinate, this method can be used to mitigate a potentially bad reaction. For example, if one needs to say no to an employee that asks for a promotion, it might be a good idea to first praise their hard work and their contributions to the team/company. When it is necessary to criticize a certain area in an employee’s performance that needs to be improved, one can first highlight areas in which they excelled. In this manner the employee’s Face and they will less likely to feel humiliated in front of their coworkers.

Final Thoughts

Although Chinese people are not always politely indirect when speaking with one another, it is common enough behavior within the Chinese business and social environments to merit study by Westerners. And while the actual practice of saying no appropriately does indeed take some practice, there are several key categories to saying no which the Western business person in China should try to remember.  These are 1) padding the truth, 2) telling white lies, and 3) being roundabout and vague. Taking heed of these three methods will allow Westerners to be more able to communicate effectively with the Chinese as well as to understand them quicker and with less difficulty.

Lastly, while it is true that many Westerners may recognize some of the above methods for saying no from their own experience in Western society, there is an important distinction that one should understand. While most Westerners may at times be vague and indirect, this is not the norm and usually clashes with Western society’s concepts regarding honesty and the truth. Chinese society is the opposite. To the Chinese, being vague and indirect is a part of everyday life and it not only colors they way they offer refusals, but also how they communicate in general.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about how to say no or refuse someone in China? Do you have any additional tips or suggestions based on your own experience? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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China Expat Survival Tips: 15 Ways to Apply “Face” in China

Watch and SuitMany Western business people working in or traveling to China for the first time have heard of the Chinese concept of Face. However, understanding the basic elements of Face and knowing how to apply it within an office environment are very different. Applying Face correctly can depend on a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the Chinese people, society, and culture, which many Westerners new to China may lack. However, it is also possible for Westerners is to learn about and adopt common methods used by the Chinese to give Face to each other and earn Face for themselves. In this way, Western business people can more easily show respect to the Chinese which can lead to a more harmonious and effective working environment and a better China experience in general.

An article published by efinancialcareers provides a useful list of 15 ways for Western expatriates working in Chinese companies to effectively apply the Chinese concept of Face. A number of the most useful tips, based upon the author’s own experiences in China, are explained below. 

Create Face for Yourself

  1. Buy and wear well-known brands
  2. Have a successful family
  3. Pay the bill when dining out
  4. Learn about Chinese culture

Creating Face for yourself is a good way to build your reputation and prestige within the office in China. For instance, wearing well known brands (as appropriate for your workplace) can show that you are well off and stylish without bragging. Similarly, as family is important to the Chinese,  demonstrating that you have a stable and successful family, through photos or attendance at company outings, can earn the respect and admiration of coworkers. When dining with colleagues in China, paying for the bill, or more specifically paying for the bill over the objections of others, is a way to gain Face for yourself and show respect and friendship to your coworkers.  The Chinese Paying the bill gives Faceidea of courtesy and reciprocity provides that everyone needs to take a turn at paying the bill sooner or later, but attempting to pay it more than your equal share of the time can show you to be generous and helps to build and maintain relationships with your coworkers. Even when a coworker is taking “their turn” at paying the bill, making half an attempt to pay the bill shows that you care.  This and other efforts to learn about and understand Chinese culture will show that you are committed to China and can significantly increase your own Face at the workplace.

Work Harmoniously With Your Coworkers

  1. Don’t openly flaunt money or possessions
  2. Don’t trip over vague or misleading phrases
  3. Support your boss
  4. Be over-generous to team members
  5. Avoid complex English

Respect Chinese employeesYour work life in China can be made a lot easier when you respect the Face of your Chinese coworkers as well as giving them Face directly. Although many Chinese respect the possession of money and expensive items, it is considered immodest and rude to opening flaunt or brag about them and can insult your coworkers.  Being on good terms with your boss is important, and giving Face when appropriate can accomplish a good deal in this regard. For instance, a manager or boss in China places a huge deal of importance on their own Face and prestige as a leader. Praising the leadership of your boss in front of clients, quickly and efficiently carrying out their orders and giving them useful ideas or suggestions which they can receive credit for can cement your position in a given role and open up avenues for promotion in the future. Likewise, it is important to not trip over or misunderstand directives from your boss which are worded in a vague or roundabout manner. For example, you may be asked if you would be able to attend a conference on the weekend, or how you feel about working overtime in a given week. In each of these scenarios your boss likely is telling you to do these things, and not making him or her tell you directly will give Face Give Face to build relatonshipsand preserve your relationship with them. In many cases if you refuse your boss, he or she may not actually order you to comply but feel a loss of Face and regard you as less of a team player. Relationships with coworkers are important too, and while many managers and white collar workers in China tend to copy the “get ahead quick” attitude of their Western colleagues, it is not considered polite to show it. Instead, show you are a team player by praising contributions of your colleagues, even if you have done most of the work. In this way you can preserve their Face and gain Face for yourself for acting as a generous team member. Lastly, try and avoid making your coworkers or business partners feel embarrassed or awkward. Despite a nationwide focus on learning English in China, not many Chinese speak it fluently.  This is especially true of successful local business tycoons located far from China’s huge eastern metropolises. Thus, insisting on using complex English can result in you being misunderstood, and can also cause a loss of Face through embarrassment for the Chinese. Instead focus on simpler language and building mutual understanding and respect.

Don’t Cause a Severe Loss of Face

  1. Don’t disagree openly with your boss
  2. Don’t be seen as a threat
  3. Take time before you criticize
  4. Resolve differences ahead of time

Hierarchy is important in ChinaA big mistake to make in China is causing your coworkers to lose Face, especially those that are above you in the office hierarchy or those that can negatively influence your career. The worst mistake with regards to causing a loss of Face applies to your boss or other high ranking Chinese executives. For instance, disagreeing with your boss in front of others is a sure way to make them lose Face. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, by disagreeing OPENLY, you are questioning their leadership. Instead speak with them in private if you find it necessary to question one of your boss’ decisions.  Also, most Chinese leaders feel like they need to be the smartest or most competent to maintain their prestige as a leader. If you act as though you are smarter or have more experience than your boss, you may immediately be labeled as the enemy and slowly forced out. Until you are promoted, focus on acting as an effective #2. In addition, it is a good idea to avoid criticizing coworkers and do your utmost to settle any differences in advance of public meetings or discussions. Even if you directly criticize one of your subordinates, it still has the potential to backfire. When an employee is criticizing can backfirecriticized directly, especially if it is in front of others, he or she could feel embarrassed and lose Face to the extent that it negatively affects the employee’s relationship with you, negatively affects the employee’s work, or causes them to leave the company in embarrassment or anger. And if you argue with others in meetings there is the potential leave a bad impression and have others label you as a troublemaker. Thus, it is always a good idea in China to settle any differences beforehand and by all means avoid criticizing others when possible.

To see the full list of 15 ways to apply Face along with perspectives from China business experts,  the article,  “The ancient Chinese cultural concept that could save your banking career,” can be viewed HERE on efinancialcareers’ website.

As can be seen from list items presented above, in China, Face is all about respect. And to use Face properly you must 1) create Face for yourself, 2) give Face to others, and 3) don’t make others lose Face. Creating Face for oneself is easier to a degree, while giving Face to the Chinese and preventing them from losing it can be much harder. And while gaining a comprehensive understanding of how to use Face in China can take many years of studying Chinese culture and working among the Chinese people, following the tips above is a good place to start.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions on how to apply the concept of Face in China? Do you have any additional tips or ideas on how to apply Face based on your own experiences? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Are Relationships Predestined? They are in China!

Yuánfèn  (缘分) is a common term often heard among the local Chinese and is strongly tied to the idea of relationships in China, both personal and business. As discussed in a previous article on relationships, in China there is a strong emphasis placed on building and maintaining networks of personal and business relationships. Beyond the fundamental importance of relationship networks in China, the idea of Yuánfèn can represent an even deeper meaning for many Chinese. Through this somewhat ambiguous yet important term, many Chinese people come to believe that some relationships contain a touch of destiny, and as a result this can lead to even greater commitment with regard to certain relationships.

However, due to the many cultural and language gaps between China and Western countries, Yuánfèn is not a term that many Western business people are familiar with. Even if Westerners have heard the term, they often do not fully understand its significance. The following article details some of the specific points relating to Yuánfèn in China, as well as how Western expatriates can best apply them to their lives and businesses.

 Defining Yuánfèn (缘分

Although the term Yuánfèn is ambiguous and has many different interpretations, there are several meanings that hold more weight than others.    Yuán (缘) by itself means karma or fate; the second character Fèn(分) can mean the division between two halves. When combined together the term Yuánfèn (缘分) can be defined in the following ways:

  1. A relationship that has been predestined
  2. Fate or chance that brings (two or more) people together
  3. A predestined affinity (with a person, place, etc.)

While much of the information available about Yuánfèn through popular sources, including the internet, pertains chiefly to its application in the areas of love and romance, it is important to be aware that Yuánfèn can be applied to any type of relationship. These additional areas can include relationships of the personal, business, and political persuasions.  Additionally, in colloquial language it is not unheard of for the Chinese to use the term Yuánfèn to describe their relationship (or lack thereof) with a country, custom, or habit. For example, Westerners with a great love of China might choose to remark that they “have Yuánfèn with China.” In contrast, a Chinese person who has had to give up smoking may comment that he or she “has no Yuánfèn with cigarettes.”

 The Origins of Yuánfèn 

buddhism and yuanfen

The origin of the Chinese concept of Yuánfèn comes from an ancient Chinese and Asian idea that two people can be drawn inexorably together through an innate connection in the universe. And although this concept can, especially when translated incorrectly, be construed as akin to the English concept of “destiny,” there are  several important distinctions. First, the inevitability of this link does not in fact derive from any god-like figure as Westerners might understand it. Second, it focuses more specifically on two people sharing a strong bond which draws them together, and does not necessarily relate to what they may or may not be fated to accomplish together.

A large part of the significance of Yuánfèn draws upon ideas inherent in the Buddhist faith which has long been prevalent in Chinese culture. Practitioners of Buddhism believe that all living things are reincarnated at the end of their lives to lead new lives on Earth. By itself the probability of two people coming together in a world of over seven billion (or a in country of over 1.3 billion Chinese) is significantly low. When one considers the possibility that two individuals might go through countless incarnations on earth before finally chancing a meeting would make such a meeting (and relationship) even more special and profound.

 Yuánfèn in China Today: Business, Friendships, and Romance

Relationships in chinaFor friends in China, Yuánfèn can be that special element that determines a lifelong friendship. As there is not really a reliable method to determine whether or not there is truly an innate connection between two people, the Chinese chiefly rely on common backgrounds, interests, and their emotional impressions to let them know whether or not they feel they have Yuánfèn with a specific person. For example, if two individuals working in the big city meet, and upon conversing discover that they are from the same small town they might feel as if they have Yuánfèn. This would be especially true if they met by chance on multiple occasions.

One common, if non-business related, area in Chinese society in which Yuanfen is often encountered is in romantic relationships. Two people who meet by chance or through a certain set of circumstances, and thereafter find that they possess strong feelings for each other, often believe that their meeting was the will of the universe. However, being fated to be drawn together and being fated to end up together do not necessarily go hand in hand. The Chinese have a saying in this regard, yǒu yuán wú fèn (有缘无分). It means that although two people might have been fated to meet, in the end they were not destined to remain together. It is a saying  commonly used in China when one person wishes to break up with another.

Perhaps more important to the Western businessperson is Yuánfèn’s potential to influence and affect the formation of important personal and business relationships. Despite an overt focus by younger Chinese people on Yuánfèn’s romantic implications, there are many Chinese within the business community that think of the idea of Yuánfèn when meeting new contacts. Through upbringing and societal structure many Chinese, especially older ones, will hold key contacts  close to their chests, a silo separate and protected from the outside world. If they say they have Yuánfèn with you, they may be tentatively offering you the opportunity to have a stronger personal relationship with you. This in turn can lead to more business opportunities down the road.

What Does This Mean for Westerners?

While the idea of Yuánfèn does not directly affect the way the Chinese go about forming and maintaining relationships, it can certainly offer fresh insights into the thought process that a Chinese person is subject to when meeting new people. From the concept of Yuánfèn, not only do the Chinese believe that two people can be brought together by fate, but also that they will be. Thus many Chinese will over the course of their lives be on the lookout for those special or gifted individuals with whom they can or are fated to develop close connections. In contrast to Westerners who are used to getting to know people over a length of time, especially in the workplace, Chinese people may be prone to make much quicker decisions. If a Chinese business person meets someone with whom he or she shares  common business interests,  hobbies, or an emotional connection, they may make a very quick decision to extend their friendship to that person. Likewise, if a Chinese business person gets a bad impression from someone, they may be much quicker to cut all contact or decide against that person in a specific matter. Understand of course that the Chinese people in general are still very friendly and hospitable to Westerners. The concept of Yuánfèn does not usually affect the normal course of forming friends or business relationships. It will however affect who the Chinese choose to form especially close and trusting relationships with.

Additionally, as the Chinese economy and society continue to develop, the concept of Yuánfèn may remain more relevant to smaller portions of the overall population . And as Yuánfèn is strongly connected to the concept of relationships in China, Yuánfèn will then continue to matter the most where relationships play a greater role in Chinese business and society. This means inland areas far away from the modern metropolises (e.g. Beijing and Shanghai), and  in local industries dominated mostly or solely by Chinese players (e.g. government and Baijiu/sorgum liquor manufacturers) who rely on strong regional and national relationship networks. Age can also be a factor; in the author’s experience it was much more common for Chinese business people born in the 1980’s or earlier to refer to or believe in the concept of Yuánfèn as it might relate to their life or business. Younger Chinese workers, especially those with experience in the West, may not put much, if any, stock in Yuánfèn in the workplace.

To summarize, while Western business people will not be able to count on Yuánfèn in all their dealings with the Chinese, it is by no means something that can be discounted entirely. And because many Chinese use their emotions in part to decide on Yuánfèn, it’s important for Westerners to always try and put on their best face. One can never know when too casual an attitude or too direct an approach can cause discomfort to the Chinese and spoil a potentially rewarding and beneficial relationship. 

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions on how Yuánfèn can be applied in China? Do you have any interesting experiences with regard to Yuánfèn that you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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China Expat Survival Tips: Joining a Chinese Company

group activeChinese companies in Mainland China are expanding and improving their operations to increase profits and compete globally. Part of this includes sourcing top-tier Western talent for a variety of functions including finance, operations, sales, and marketing. However, for the Western business professional contemplating a move to Mainland China, it is essential to first be aware of the many differences present in Chinese companies. The office culture of many companies in Mainland China, even those operated by Western companies, can cause stress and worry for the unprepared Western expatriate as a result of differences in culture, business practices and unspoken social rules. Research  suggests that at least 30% of  expatriates on assignment in foreign countries  may not complete their entire assignments. It is likely that some of these failures in China are a result of stress and other difficulties brought on by cultural differences. To increase an expatriate’s chances of success and reduce the time required for cultural acclimation, it is a good idea to first be aware of the basic elements at play within a Chinese office environment.

An article published by efinancialcareers lists a number important points to be aware of before joining a company in the Chinese finance industry. In fact, many of these lessons can be applied to Chinese companies in many sectors throughout China. Some of the more widespread issues are listed and expanded on below:

  1. You Need to Understand Guānxì. Guānxì is your relationships with coworkers and the favors owed between you and them. The Chinese make use of gifts, social dinners, and other methods to maintain their relationship networks and navigate the office environment. To get things done in a Chinese company, it is essential to form friendships and alliances with your coworkers and supervisors.
  2. Account for Yearly Bonuses. When accepting a contract at a Chinese company, be aware that your actual salary is based upon 13  months rather than 12. It is  customary in China for all employees to receive a yearly bonus before the Chinese new year equal to one month’s pay.
  3. Don’t Rush Meetings. Meetings can take time in China. On one hand, when meeting with new people the Chinese will want to get to know you first and will not want to get down to business immediately. At internal company meetings, social etiquette can prevent direct communication as no one wants to cause embarrassment. Don’t try to rush things or it is possible to alienate or annoy clients and coworkers.
  4. Learn the Company’s Hierarchy. In a Chinese company there is much more space (or power distance) in a company between the highest and lowest level employees. While in Western companies there can be much more freedom for low and mid level employees to talk and mingle with company executives, this is usually not the case in China. You probably won’t be able create relationships higher than your direct supervisor.
  5. Orders are not Debatable.The leadership model in many Chinese companies is markedly different than many successful Western firms. Chinese leaders are not accustomed to discussing courses of action and getting everyone’s opinion and buy-in. They give orders and expect them to be carried out.
  6. Don’t Cause a Loss of Face. Causing a loss of face can be dangerous in China as it strains relationships. It can also drive away coworkers or prevent a promotion. Also, be careful when criticizing others, or offering up an opinion lest you become a disliked member of the office.
  7. After Work Company Entertainment May Not be Optional. When invited to attend a company dinner or karaoke event after office hours, attendance  is likely expected. These occasions not only offer an opportunity to relax, but also act to reinforce the various relationships within the company. If you don’t attend, it can reflect badly on you and your supervisor may feel you are not demonstrating the proper amount of respect and loyalty for the company.
  8. Expect to Minimize Expenses. No matter what official company policy might be, the Chinese have different ideas than some Westerners on company expenses. For example employees in Chinese companies are expected to be proactive in saving the company money. This might include things such as sharing hotel rooms on business trips, using personal cell phones for company calls,  and providing personal receipts for the company to write off as business expenses. Not complying can cause one to be seen as greedy and not a team player.

For the full list from efinancialcareers’s website including perspectives from local experts in China, the article,  “Ten things to know before you join a Chinese bank,” can be viewed HERE.

All in all, Chinese companies are not so different from Western ones in that they have similar goals; they simply have different ways in which they go about achieving those goals. A solid foundational understanding of Chinese business culture and the Chinese office environment can go a long way towards preparing new Western expats for China and preventing costly mistakes. For more information on the fundamentals of Chinese culture, take a look at the China Culture Corner’s section on Culture Basics.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional tips, advice, or questions about working in a Chinese company? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Three People Can Create a Tiger – Social Media in China

三人成虎The Chinese idiom “it takes only three people to create a tiger”  tells the story of a young but inexperienced Chinese emperor in ancient times. At court the emperor was surrounded by councilors who were only concerned with increasing their own standing through flattery and the spreading of rumors.

One of the emperor’s few loyal councilors thought long and hard on how to educate his emperor, and in doing so protect him from the greedy and pernicious advisers. After a time, he approached the emperor and said “Your highness, a person has come to the palace and said that there are tigers in the streets. Do you believe it?” The emperor immediately replied that he did not. The next day the loyal councilor approached the emperor again and said “your highness, another person has come to the palace and said there are tigers in the streets. Do you believe it?” Although the emperor felt slightly apprehensive, he again replied that he did not believe that there were tigers in the streets. On the third day, the loyal councilor approached the emperor and told him a third person had come forward claiming there were tigers in the streets. This time however, the emperor felt very afraid and immediately rushed to the outer wall of the palace to look out over the city. To his surprise, there nothing was out of the ordinary. There were in fact no tigers anywhere in sight.

At this point the loyal councilor, who had accompanied the emperor, turned to him and said “Your highness, now can you see the dangers of rumors? Even you believed there were tigers in the street when only three strangers had said it was so.” At these words the emperor realized his past foolishness in tolerating the false councilors and afterwards he have no credence to rumors without first investigating them fully.

This Idiom in Chinese: 三人成虎, Sān Rén Chéng Hǔ

A key lesson implied by this idiom is that not only can rumors and bad news spread very quickly, but also that people are likely to believe them. This is very true in China, especially with the recent proliferation of cell phones and social media. And while Western companies can indeed take advantage of the “viral” aspect of the Chinese internet to sell products, all too often they are faced with bad PR and the ire of Chinese citizens. Below are three examples of how social media and the internet can turned against foreign businesses in China:

Nationalism Gone Viral

The advent of Chinese social media has allowed Chinese citizens to be more open in their self expression (within the purview of government censors), and this has had a significant influence on Chinese nationalism, both at home and abroad. And while Chinese nationalistic agendas come from both the government and grass-roots, they are alike in their ability to transform into fierce, if transitory, prejudices against businesses from specific countries. Japan in particular has repeatedly come into conflict with the Chinese government and Chinese people. One of these more recent spats has been over the ownership of the Diaoyu islands, a small group of islands in the East China Sea which China and Japan both claim  as their own sovereign territory. 

This conflict, and others like it, have sparked numerous anti-Japanese protests in China, as well as the boycott of Japanese products and goods. This has included attacks on Japanese restaurants in China (often owned by Chinese citizens), as well as decreased sales (up to 40% in some cases) for Japanese branded automobiles in 2012. Despite the cooling of tensions and protests in recent months,  it is unlikely that Japanese and Western businesses will be able to completely avoid international policy decisions impacting their operations in China. 

Poor Customer Service

Chinese blogger destroys faulty Siemens refrigerator

Foreign companies selling products in China can also get into trouble for quality issues and poor customer service, as German multinational Siemens found out the hard way. After influential Chinese blogger, Luo Yonghao, decided that he was not satisfied with how Siemens customer service in China had responded to a complaint about his Siemens refrigerator,  he posted his complaint online. Following the posting, thousands of Chinese bloggers echoed his comments regarding Siemens’ product quality issues and poor customer service.

Throughout the following social media fallout, Siemens remained silent on the matter, which resulted in the situation going from bad to worse. Finally, with no satisfactory response to his complaints, Luo Yonghao and supporters gathered in front of Siemens’ China offices, and proceeded to destroy Siemens branded refrigerators with sledgehammers. Siemens’ president in China finally responded to public criticism with an official apology, but the damage had already been done, with Siemens receiving a significant amount of negative PR. 

Targeting Foreign Multinationals 

The Chinese government has traditionally made use of its extensive control over the Chinese media and broadcasting industry as an extremely effective propaganda tool, both to shift attention away from problem areas at home and promote important domestic issues and policies. In recent years it has used this power to target high profile Western multinationals that “take advantage of Chinese consumers.”

In March of 2013, state-owned broadcasting network CCTV put the spotlight on Apple for discriminating against Chinese consumers in its China after sales service policy. The report prompted widespread discussion on Chinese social media, and resulted in a public apology by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook. Later, in October of 2013, CCTV target international coffee-chain Starbucks for overcharging Chinese consumers.

However, in this case, many Chinese bloggers defended Starbucks, commenting that state-owned broadcasters should be directing attention at more important issues. The fact that many Chinese consumers see Starbucks’ products as a luxury item (and thus worthy of a high price) also likely prevented a large social media fallout. The fact of the matter here is that foreign multinationals present a tempting target for state-owned media reports, and the smallest misstep can open the doorway to a slew of bad press.

Final Thoughts

As shown in the above examples, news spreads fast in China after ideas or rumors appear, and there is little Western companies can do to directly control or influence what they may evolve into. When Western businesses correctly manage their operations in China, the result can be great product launch or a successful marketing campaign. Chinese consumers will happily share information on their favorite products and videos, no matter the country of origin. However, when things are done the wrong way, when problems are ignored or simply overlooked, businesses and products can be derailed in very short order. Like the idiom presented at the beginning of this article, once someone starts talking about tigers in the street, it won’t be long until many more people are doing likewise. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether the tigers are real or not, once Chinese consumers (and state-owned media) believe the tigers existit may already be too late. 

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional thoughts or questions on the negative effects of Social Media in China? Do you know any other useful Chinese idioms that are similar to the one above? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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