What is Chinese Culture?

Why do the Chinese act like they do?

When I first came to China I thought Chinese culture and mindset was baffling and still do! Learning what makes the Chinese tick and why they act like they do is essential to a successful stay or trip in the country. Even after 17 years in China I sometimes find myself asking “why, why, why?”….

Many of the unspoken rules for navigating Chinese culture can be traced back to the teachings of Confucius. One important teaching that has persisted even in today’s modern China is the importance given to rank and hierarchy. Even though Chinese society has become more egalitarian in modern times, much reverence is still given to superiors and the elderly.

The teaching of Confucius plays a major role in shaping Chinese thinking today.

Having worked here for what feels like forever I have had to get used to being called “Teacher Gibby” even when I have insisted on just Gibby. The Chinese will attach a title and use it for almost every job. That way they can assign order to whoever they are speaking to. In Chinese culture, it would still be very uncommon for an employee to call his or her boss by their first name, no matter how hard I try my work colleagues still call my “Teacher, Gibby”. Chinese people will mostly act in a way befitting their rank or role.

Keeping Calm isn’t Easy in China

When you are expressing your frustration in a customer service situation, for example, the calm and disinterested expression of the Chinese employee may lead you to believe they do not match your concern or care at all about what you are complaining about. However, 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 and will wait until you finish and offer to get a manager to help you.

The Needs of the Many: Individualism vs. Group Orientation

In Chinese culture, as well as in many other Asian countries, an individual is defined by your relationship to the larger group. All of their actions, whether positive or negative, don’t just reflect on themself, 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.

People from western cultures, on the other hand, are used to putting an emphasis on the individual and praising someone for their individual accomplishments.

What is Chinese Culture?

As modesty and humility are also prized traits in Chinese culture, bragging or otherwise loudly touting one’s own achievements is generally looked down, unless you are in the company of someone that feels that they have done very well for themselves and want you, the foreigner to hear how “amazing” their achievements are in the face of incredible difficulties, you will then probably have to spend several hours listening to how awesome they are. upon. However, when a Chinese person gives 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 I cover below.

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. It’s very easy for a foreigner travelling or working in China 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.” So, after having lived in China for a while or on your travels, 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. It is at the root of many conflicts. 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 or traveling in China.

Here are some common ways to give face:

  • Praise people often and freely for doing something well
  • Praise someone in front of their elders or superiors
  • When given the opportunity give high marks on customer evaluation forms
  • Give an expensive gift when invited to visit someone or have a meal
  • Invite someone for an expensive meal or banquet and introduce them to everyone

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
  • Pointing out that someone just lied
  • Not showing the proper deference to one’s elders or superiors
  • Never turn down an invitation outright. It’s better to deflect with noncommittal phrases such as “Maybe” or “Let’s talk about it later”.
  • Never openly criticizing, challenging, or disagreeing with someone. This is especially embarrassing if the person’s superiors are present.
  • Bite your lip if you have to. Being openly and publicly angry at someone will cause 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.

photo of people near wooden table
It’s not what you know, but who you know in China.

A person’s guanxi include one’s family, relatives, former classmates, co-workers, 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 favours.

Everyone keeps a mental check-list of all the people who owe them a favour and everyone to whom they are indebted in turn. Even if years have gone by, someone to whom you owe a favour can show up and ask you for one out of the blue.

chinese offer gifts whenever they do business
The giving of gifts is considered normal practice when doing business in China.

Travellers or people wishing to live 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 favours unless you are willing and/or capable of returning them. Foreigners are often surprised to be asked for favours 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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What is Chinese Culture?
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What is Chinese Culture?
When I first came to China I thought Chinese culture and mindset was baffling and still do! Learning what makes the Chinese tick and why they act like they do is essential to a successful stay or trip in the country.
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Our Elysium
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