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Understanding the Chinese Culture

In China, an individual’s actions, whether positive or negative, reflect on the group as a whole.

Many of the unspoken rules for navigating Chinese culture can be traced back to the teachings of Confucius. For a brief introduction to Confucianism, see our article on Religion in China. One important teaching that has persisted in modern Chinese culture is the importance given to rank and hierarchy. Even though Chinese society has become more egalitarian in modern centuries, much reverence is still given to superiors and the elderly.

For example, in Chinese culture, it would still be very uncommon for an employee to call his or her boss by their first name. Chinese people will act in a way befitting their rank or role. When you are expressing your frustration in a customer service situation, for example, the calm expression and seemingly detached interest of the Chinese employee may lead you to believe they do not match your concern. This is not usually the case. Instead, in this situation you are the customer and they are the service provider. The proper etiquette for their current role dictates that they not openly “share” your feelings.

The Needs of the Many: Individualism vs. Group Orientation

In Chinese culture, as well as in many other Asian ones, you are defined by your relationship to the larger group. All of your actions, whether positive or negative, don’t just reflect on yourself, but on the group as a whole. This is also part of Confucian thought, to subject your own desires to the needs of the group and the good of society. This collective responsibility first extends to one’s immediate and extended family, then community, and all the way to the entire nation. Expats from Western cultures, on the other hand, are used to putting an emphasis on the individual and praising someone for their individual accomplishments.

As modesty and humility are also prized traits in Chinese culture, bragging or otherwise loudly touting one’s own achievements is generally looked down upon. In fact, even when others give someone a compliment, a common response is “Nali, nali” — Where? Where? (i.e. there are no grounds for praise). On the other hand, if a Chinese person makes a deprecating remark about something, say their English skills, you should immediately jump in and reassure them that their English is wonderful. This ties into the concept of “face” which will be covered in the following section.

Mianzi: The Importance of Face

The concept of face (mianzi) in Chinese culture is a complex one. It can perhaps be most closely defined as “dignity” or “prestige”, but no translation can aptly cover all its fine nuances. It’s easy for a foreigner to unwittingly cause an embarrassing situation. One of the worst things that can happen to someone in Chinese culture is to “lose” face. A Chinese idiom goes, “Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.” Accordingly, after having lived in China for a while, you will start to notice the ways that Chinese people go out of their way to save face for each other.

For the Chinese, causing someone to lose face on purpose can make an enemy for life and is at the root of many conflicts. As a foreigner, it will often be assumed and accepted that you do not mean to cause someone to lose face. Nevertheless, to avoid uncomfortable situations for your Chinese friends and colleagues (and so you’re not left wondering why so-and-so suddenly stopped speaking to you), it is important to try to learn at least the basics of this fundamental part of Chinese culture. This is also important when doing business in China.

Here are some common ways to give face:

  • Give high compliments often and freely
  • Praise someone in front of their elders or superiors
  • Give high marks on customer evaluation forms
  • Give an expensive gift
  • Invite someone for an expensive meal or banquet

The following are some face-losing situations, which you should avoid if at all possible:

  • Revealing someone’s lack of knowledge or ability, e.g. that they have poor English skills
  • Calling someone out on a lie
  • Not showing the proper deference to one’s elders or superiors
  • Turning down an invitation outright. It’s better to deflect with noncommittal phrases such as “Maybe” or “Let’s talk about it later”.
  • Openly criticizing, challenging, or disagreeing with someone. This is especially embarrassing if the person’s superiors are present.
  • Being openly and publicly angry at someone. This actually causes you to lose face as well, because you are openly showing a strong emotion in public, instead of maintaining a calm outward demeanor, as is proper.

And as Chinese culture is based on the concepts of group identity and collectivism, there is also “shared face”. This means if one person loses face, this causes the entire wider group, be it a family, company, or entire nation, to also lose face.

Guanxi: Networking the Chinese Way

Another key element of Chinese culture are one’s guanxi or “social connections”. Having the right guanxi is vital to getting things done in China and moving up in Chinese society. You could even say this is the single most important factor in a person’s success. In China, everything is done through one’s connections, be it finding a job or meeting a potential spouse.

A person’s guanxi include one’s family, relatives, former classmates, coworkers, etc. plus all the people you meet through them. All the people in a particular group are connected to each other through a system of mutual obligation. The relationships between group members are nurtured by giving and receiving favors. Everyone keeps a mental checklist of all the people who owe them a favor and everyone to whom they are indebted in turn. Even if years have gone by, someone to whom you owe a favor can show up and ask you for one out of the blue.

Foreigners who have just arrived in China naturally do not have any guanxi. It’s important to try to build up this network of connections as quickly as possible, both professionally and personally. This will help you navigate through the many layers of Chinese bureaucracy and get things done faster. However, be wary of accepting big favors unless you are willing and/or capable of returning them. Foreigners are often surprised to be asked for favors for things over which they have no control, e.g. visa applications, university admissions, etc. Remember, in China, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!


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