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Jul 16

(Letter) Chinese and American Culture

Written by guest on Wednesday, July 16th, 2008 at 9:22 pm
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I. Introduction to Culture

Culture, Society and Business

The principles of business transactions are based on cultural values. To define culture we must first know where culture comes from. Culture comes from a mutual interaction between individuals, groups, subcultures and societies. Values, ideas and ideology are passed down from one generation to the next. Gradually over time they adapt to change and outside influences.

A more sociological technical definition of culture is as follows: “the total, generally organized way of life, including values, norms, institutions, and artifacts, that is passed on from generation to generation by learning alone”. Thus culture includes tangible and non-tangible things where are passed down through the years.


Chinese culture heavily influences their business attitudes, norms and behavior. An in depth understanding of Chinese culture will allow an individual to fully understand the background and behavioral motivation of Chinese business people. In American we tend to compartmentalize our cultural values and behavior according to the social situation. In China they tend to universalize their behavior across different social situations. That means that friendships, business transactions and conversations will tend to follow the same basic patterns.

Chinese people are very proud of their culture. This is shown in their communication, attitudes and behavior. If one lives in China there will be a familiar mantra heard. This nationalistic propaganda mantra is pounded into their heads by the Communist government. In essence” China is the oldest, most distinguished, most amazingly complex and superior culture in the history of the world.” History, art, science, literature, politics, society all comes from China. This is almost a monotheistic approach to culture: there is only one true culture and it is Chinese.

This ethnocentric attitude is constantly displayed in every facet of life. Business transactions especially must play by the rules of Chinese culture. International organizations and multinational companies have learned to combine different cultural values to their advantage. In China you either adhere to their way or they don’t do business. Of course at the beginning everything is optimistically bright but this will eventually fade because the Chinese will only play by their own rules and seek their own benefit and profit.

Another mantra constantly used is “this is China. You are in China now. This is how it’s done.” When a mainland Chinese person is asked such questions as ‘why there is such terrible pollution control, rampant government corruption, growing epidemics of social problems they will indignantly ignore the facts of the situation and fire back insults and facts about the problem of the speakers country. This never brings to light the actual issues and will always point out the faults in other societies and cultures.

When asked about why product quality can’t be improved the situation will be ignored and excuses will be provided. Excuses include “China is a developing country”, “China has the biggest population in the world, there are too many people,” “You are ignorant because you are not Chinese and therefore cannot comprehend the problem.”

Basis of Cultural Differences

At a very fundamental level, the basis of cultural differences lies in geography. Each culture develops both independent and interdependent of different cultures. This leads to a constant comparing and contrasting of opposing or complementary values. This can either lead to reconciliation and cooperation or conflict.

There are different factors that influence the culture and thus the values. These factors include tradition/history, physical environment, and neighboring cultures. Values can be defined as an idea or belief. Ideas and beliefs native to a unique culture develop through the advancement of the culture. Different cultures place different value emphasis on everyday things and ideas.

American values began in ancient Mediterranean countries, develop throughout Europe and subsequently found their way to America. Chinese values have been influenced by contact with surrounding countries but their basic values can be traced 5,000 years back to the beginning of their civilization.

Americans especially associate their own values with ancient Greece, such as political ideology. One reason this came about was through the abstract comparison of Greek democracy (demagoguery and mobocracy), beginning through archeological excavations in the 19th century, with modern American democracy (representational democracy).

China on the other hand doesn’t compare itself to a distant foreign country but only themselves. They are the standard by which the world is judged. There are thousands of years of difference between China and America. On the outside there will be obvious similarities and slight differences but the deeper once digs the more one will find a unique values at the core of Chinese culture and society.

If you understand and respect these values you will be welcomed and successful but if you don’t understand or even dare to disagree then you are an enemy of the state.

Impact of Culture on International Business

Even though culture is one of the most highly influential factors in business but it is often the least regarded. Culture is often misunderstood as art, food, media and other such topics which are best reserved for a dinner conversation. This kind of culture is the external representations of culture. There are many deeper values which are at the core of a society.

Almost every business person I met in Asia had amazing technical training, an excellent education, good communication skills and was very profession. They didn’t care less about “pointless culture” because of their strong business training. I always felt it was interesting because I knew so much about Chinese culture but had little business experience while they had a lot of business experience but no cultural knowledge about America.

The only American culture the average Chinese person (and businessperson) knows is either out of date: black and white movies, a few classical English novels and cheesy 60’s songs or disturbingly modern almost futuristic vision of America: a highly developed, crime ridden Imperialistic country in the middle of taking over the world through economic and military invasion. Both of these examples are extremes and there is little middle ground.

There will be many misperceptions and misunderstandings because neither American nor Chinese business people understand each other. The majority of businesspeople I worked with in China lacked social skills, cross cultural understanding and the confidence to engage foreigners even in polite conversation.

In a business situation the Chinese will be very friendly but over conservative because they are unsure of how to act and afraid to make a mistake. Publicly making an error is social death for a Chinese individual. This means a loss of face and dignity. Many Westerns are openly friendly and confident in their social approach. They establish comfortable relationships quickly and get right down to business. Chinese on the other hand take a long time to get to know each other.

Part of this is due to a historical tradition of thousands of years of civil unrest, bloody regime changes, war and constant conflict. China has a history of 5,000 years which is basically a repeating cycle of temporary peaceful development and violent political conflict and government restructuring.

America has one of the longest unchanged political histories in the world. While America does have domestic problems with crime and international problems with terrorism there are few threats to the actual restructuring of the government.

On the outside Chinese are friendly, loyal and kind yet on the inside whether or not they actually decide to be this way depends on the relationship and the future potential therein. If a Chinese person establishes a relationship with a foreign enterprise will it have long term benefits? Will it endanger their financial health, which will directly influence their family, friends and social network?

So when Chinese businesspeople began a business relationship they are amiably conservative. As things go along they will either become more involved with the relationship as their trust and satisfaction grows or they will become more worried and concerned about the future and gradually break off the relationship.

Many relationships in social life and business all begin the same way: they reach a middle point, a breaking ground but the foreigner doesn’t understand how to invest in trust and relationship integrity, so everything naturally falls apart. It is very important to understand where the Chinese are coming from, be empathetic with their unique needs/wants and work on gaining their trust.

The key to doing good business was said by Sun Zi in the Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” This is one of the most famously useful quotes in the Art of War. One must fully understand the cultural background of your “enemy” or business associates and competitors in order to be financially successful. The Chinese will fully understand the market and business partners before going into a long term relationship.

In North East China there is a simply way they establish trust between each other. Most all of the real business transactions take place in bars, discos, KTV clubs and tea houses where all the business people go after hours to relax, enjoy themselves and establish relationships. When I would go to these places of entertainment I would often sit back and watch what was going on. One of my best friends was an area manager for many of the local bars. He would explain how the people were meeting and “testing the waters”. One important way is the background check. In China people always boast and brag about their accomplishments, work and connections. This is to be expected. However, businesspeople always do underground background checks to verify the information. With foreign companies there is no direct way to verify this information. The foreigner is out of the social/relationship matrix which Chinese culture depends on. This can creates a sense of uneasiness and unfamiliarity; therefore the Chinese will be extra cautious and slow to make any decisions.

II. Components of Culture and their influence on Business

a) Universalism vs. Particularism

There are 5 basic values within Culture. They are…

The first of the five values is universalism vs. particularism. Universalistic orientated societies have set rules for morals, behavior, ethics and truth in specific situations. Countries which are Universalist tend to be influenced by Christianity. The legal system is also important because it is the main way to enforce the rules and contracts between businesses. America and Europeans tend to be Universalist. Therefore contracts are used to document and communicate the terms of an agreement. The contract defines the relationship between the two parties.

Asian countries tend to bee Particularist. Particularism is based on the logic of the heart and human relationships. There are basic rules morals, behavior, and ethics but the specific circumstances of a situation deem the response. The legal system, and thus contractual agreements, is only an empty shell which contain the human relationships within. The legal contract indicates a starting point for a long term “contract” with is intangible expressed through trust, dependability, loyalty and commitment.
The success of the business transaction depends on the depth and strength of the relationship.

This creates a problem because Americans rely on contractual agreements as a basis for a mutual understanding with regards to business transactions. An American will typically want to quickly begin contract negotiations, contract, hammer out the details in short period and finish the project. Later the individuals involved can relax, enjoy drinks together and get to know each other. In China the wining and dining begins before the idea of signing a contract is even mentioned. First comes guan xi and then comes the contract which will be written in a way to provide loopholes and opportunities to adapt or manipulate the original meaning. In China there is no such thing as agreements written and adhered to the ‘spirit’ of the original meaning. The original meanings will be twisted to conform to current needs and wants.

Personal Anecdotes

The first experience I had with signing a contract was with the first private school I worked at in China. I found out very quickly that when mainland Chinese sign contracts they will always verbally promise and expound upon the wonderful future benefits which will inevitability be received. The future will hold no such benefits if you do not conform to their random demands, drastic changes, strange requests and chaotic organization.
Every contract I signed always ended up in the same way: the boss ignored every single point which implied an obligation while demanding everything and more from me.

This is typical of almost every contractual agreement between a mainland Chinese person and another party. When a Westerner faces this situation they will become frustrated, upset and angry. They will verbally and physically express their dissatisfaction. This only feeds the fire and more and more will be required, further pushing the foreigner to a breaking point. The harder the foreigner fights the dirtier and more unethical the Chinese boss will become.

I personally saw dozens of foreigners come and go because they couldn’t adapt to the unreasonable demands and chaotic nature of Chinese business transactions. The contract will always start out in the honeymoon stage where there will be many promises of future benefit, glory and success. Mainland Chinese business people always use this as a hook to catch the business. Whatever you say you want they will promise to get it for you. They will claim to want only certain things but this will only be partially true. They always hide their true intent and goal (to make more money at your expense).

The Westerner will be good natured, honest and straightforward but in China this is one of the greatest mistakes one can make. One can never openly express their true goals and desires. This will become a weakness as it will be at the beginning used to attract the business and sustain it successful but gradually it will be changed to a tool to manipulate the other party.

An excellent example can be illustrated through the story of one of my co-workers. She was a German engineer and instructor at the Chang Chun FAW automobile factory (the biggest in China). She worked part time at one of the schools I worked at. She was a typical German business person: professional, well dressed, impeccably organized, always on time and perfectly efficient. In a Westerners perspective she was an ideal employee.

However there was a minor problem. She also worked at the FAW automobile factory, which meant she had another schedule to keep. In China that is a major ‘clash of interests’. Foreigners employed in China are jealously guarded by their boss, who has taken the trouble to employee the foreigner. Of course, the boss will not assist in fulfilling their obligations to provide proper visas/immigration paperwork, salary, good working conditions, housing and other such promises. In essence the boss does nothing while requiring everything.

Working at a different organization is a big no-no because the boss would prefer to have a foreigner work a few hours for them, pay them a little and restrict their freedom. The foreigner will struggle with practically no pay and not being able to work another job, earn more money, provide higher quality work, enjoy a high quality of life, happiness and improve themselves.

Even though the German teacher had been verbally promised that having another job wouldn’t be a problem the contract said otherwise. Because the boss did not have a full monopoly over the teacher he spitefully began to create problems. They constantly changed her schedule which contradicted with her original job. This was used as an excuse to blame her for not being able to teach the required classes. The German teacher refused to accept a lower pay rate or late salary and the battle really begin. Like all similar struggles I saw it was highlighted with a few intense confrontations which did not involve the mysterious boss who only gave commands but never actually showed his face. It only involved a lower level nicer individual who took the brunt of the foreigner’s anger and wasn’t authorized to accept any compromises. Everything had to be relayed back to the big boss and this constantly stalled everything. One day the German teacher did not show up and I knew that she also had fallen prey to the unethical behavior which is so common in China.

I on the other hand enjoyed great success. I patiently accepted every setback but firmly stood my ground. If the message bearer of the boss told me that I wouldn’t be paid on time I would smile and quietly say that I would be unable to come to work after a certain number of days. Phone calls would be made and salary would be promised. Normally a foreigner would go away happy but I knew that this was only a front. When I would come back on the designated day of course the salary would not be prepared. As expected, they would demand that I teach the classes without pay anyway. I would simply smile and say that I would be back 10 minutes before the class started. If I was paid on time then I would teach. If not, I would return home and await payment. There were always groans of complaint, constant berating for not being a responsible teacher, and plenty of excuses. I simply waited and would get paid where as other foreigner would have exploded and pulled out a contract and pointed out of their grievances.

In China you can never openly express anger. This is the easier way to offend someone who will hate you as long as you live, your children and their children. Even though the contract is always ignored, obligations are unmet; quality is poor one must not openly express anger. Of course, anger and insults will be expressed to the foreigner but one must simply ignore this. 5 minutes later everything will be ok and life will be good again.

Every organization I worked with in China displayed the same typical behavior: late pay, poor quality, unfulfilled promises, inconvenient or outrageous demands, the ignoring of the contract, and eventually intentional problems created to find fault in me. This is to be expected. The foreigner in China will predictably try to be patient and understanding, but this will come to an end when the problems don’t stop. Eventually they will break off the relationship or business transaction because they feel the situation isn’t fair. They of course are correct but they will not be able to continue to do business.

As previously explained a contract is only a superficially symbolic document which has no real legal or business value. Contracts in China are expressed through intangible relationships. The stronger and healthier the relationship, the more success there will be. I think that the idea of “social contract” can be used to explain how Americans approach this situation. The “social contract” is an idea which generally states that people give up certain rights in order to obtain social order. We represent these rights through a firm legal framework, social rules, and contracts. In China they have a “relationship contract” where the relationships, not law, are the guiding principles in society and business transactions.

Particularistic societies such as China focus more on relationships and believe that every situation is different and therefore behavior must be adapted accordingly. The company must be prepared to patiently deal with unexpected situations that will surely arise. The company must be flexible and bend the rules in order to satisfy business partners.

b) Individualism vs. Collectivism

Individualistic cultures focus on individual people first and the group second. From individuals a collective group can be formed. Social relationships are much more relaxed and flexible. Independence and self reliability are important. This of course leads to many individuals becoming self orientated, which can lead to positive things like innovation and the realization of personal ambitions but also negative things like selfishness and inability to cooperate. In short, ‘I’ is the most important word.

On the other hand, collective cultures focus on the group first and the individual second. From the group, individuals can be separated. Interdependence and group loyalty are important. The positive aspects are that people within a collective culture can have strong group cohesion and sense of togetherness. The negative aspects are that many people will be overly dependant, un-independent, uncreative and ignore personal problems for the good of the group. For this group ‘we’ is the most important word.
A company from an individualistic culture wishing to do business in a collective culture must be ready to focus on group harmony and meeting collective needs. The group needs must be paid more attention to (even though it might be detrimental to certain individuals). On the outside this might seem to be a very noble and note worthy cause yet in China it is only a façade. Asian cultures are collective but China is really the ultimate individualist society where greed, corruption, and treachery are rampant. This is very hard to accept and the Chinese deal with this by ignoring it, blaming others or becoming angry at the slightest analysis of China.
On the outside China seems to be very group orientated. Family and friends are close, business relationships are intimate, everybody eats together while sharing the same dishes, rides the bus together and is proud of their collective history. This is what textbooks, culture guides and so called “Old China Hands” will faithfully attest to. However, it couldn’t be furthest from the truth.
Chinese businesses transactions are jealously watched over by different individuals who all want to curry favor and steal the success. So if one wants to be successful in China they must establish meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with the individuals in power, not the company itself. Chinese companies are led by clans with powerful leaders and their own followers. If something detriment happens suddenly a boss will leave and many will follow. Chinese group dynamics are clan based to its best if the foreigners align themselves with all of the clans involved but work closely with the most powerful.
Once a trustworthy and healthy relationship is formed with the biggest players then everything will fall to place. The only reason why there are problems with quality, lateness, mix ups, etc is because the foreigner is working with a small fry who pretends to be big. An intimate alignment with the big boss means that whatever you request, he commands and it will be done.
Americans support a much different style of group behavior. Individuals are encouraged to be innovated, personalize their work and take responsibility for the company. This is opposite in China where these actions would seriously jeopardize a Chinese person situation. In China standing out and being different is discouraged and can lead to loss of face, employment and quality of life.
Chinese are very individualistic but their personality and modes of expression have been censored and limited. For their own safety they are very reserved and socially bland. It wasn’t 50 years ago when…

c) Neutral vs. Emotional

Neutral cultures, like China, are much more careful about how emotions are expressed. Oftentimes emotions are masked and direct emotionally confrontation is avoided. In emotional cultures, like America, emotions are expressed more naturally and directly. In America emotions within an organization are quite direct and straightforward. Talking behind people’s backs and beating around the bush are discouraged. This clarifies information and cuts down on miscommunication. In China and the China business world everybody beats around the bush and purposely miscommunicates and limits information in order to protect themselves and gain the advantage.

When dealing with a neutral culture it is important to understand that everything is usually not what it seems. Every situation and the relationships within the situation must be carefully post-analyzed before a final decision can be made. My negotiation experience in China proves this point: emotions are often deceptive and only superficial. They are used to manipulate the situation. It takes many years to fully and more deeply understand individuals/groups and how they really feel.

While Chinese might seem more conservative and quiet they are just as emotional and expressive. American’s tend to encourage the direct expression of feelings while China is the opposite. Sometimes emotions are a tool which is purposely used to cause a reaction. This can be very difficult to understand if it happens during the negotiation process. For example, a normally quiet Chinese coworker suddenly shouting and getting upset over a small matter and then 5 minutes later calmly drinking tea would be very confusing to an America.

Often times the emotions are used to manipulate, confuse and guard true inner feelings. This is all in the Chinese communication game. No matter what is said one must not become too involved and over reactive (even if the situation is outrageous and unfair). The Chinese always use emotions as prodding stick to test the waters and get reactions. Many foreigners react by verbally exploding and challenging the unfair treatment.

Personal anecdote

Many times the Chinese bosses I worked for and Chinese bosses I was familiar with used emotions to control people. One way would be to purposely make outrageous demands or accusations while smiling and speaking calmly. Of course the recipient would over react emotionally. This would make the person look foolish, out of control and unprofessional. Normally very volatile statements are made with a smile and calm face. This protects the speaker while damaging the listener who will always logically over react.

One time while I was insisting on getting paid on time one boss suddenly announced that certain students had bruises and accused me of physically beating the students while teaching them. Also, she claimed that I had been stealing student’s food and textbooks. It was a typical ploy: the Chinese business person is guilty yet turns the tables to accuse the other person. This draws attention away from their obvious faults.

When dealing with this boss I patiently endured their unethical and unfair treatment while subtly preparing myself for the predictable final confrontation ahead. One time this boss refused to pay salary for one month, then suddenly relived all the teachers from classes for another month and stalled to pay the teachers until the end of the third month. She did this because the teachers kept demanding fair treatment, timely salary and their legal paperwork to be handed over to them. Instead she kept the legal documents all locked up in the school safe. So all together it was 3 months without pay. I had already saved up and was prepared so I didn’t have any problems. Other teachers didn’t fare so well and the problems worsened until near the end of the year when one teacher became so frustrated they stopped teaching and was subsequently fired. The boss refused to pay the final salary so the teacher stayed in their apartment (which was being paid for by the boss).

Previously the boss had been openly praising and overtly paying this teacher more money while accusing and criticizing me as previously mentioned. Suddenly I was the star teacher and received favorable treatment. As expected the boss suddenly canceled my contract and agreed to pay part of the final salary and bonus. Of course, I was accused of stealing items from the apartment and they simply withheld half of the salary which didn’t even equal the purported amount of stolen items.

Like many Chinese bosses, she expressed different emotions according to her needs. She cried when necessary and begged teachers to be more responsible and mature. She shouted and yelled over minor problems yet salaciously smiled and invited me out to drink coffee after terminating my contract one month early and evicting me the same day.

Emotions are a manipulative tool. When dealing with the Chinese in business transactions one must ask the following questions: what do they really want, what are the real intentions, what do they hope to get out of this?

Chinese business people always think of their own wants and needs first. They mask their emotions and pretend to be eager to please the foreign party. Over time their demands will become higher while providing less. Prices are raised while quality is lowered. Time of payment must be on the same day while delivery time will be weeks late. Unless a foreign organization is able to understand and stand up to this kind of behavior they will be bullied into submission.

Therefore during the business relationship and subsequent transactions one must play it cool by not over reacting or responding too quickly. One must take their time and do as the Chinese do: patiently wait to fully understand before any decisions are made. If the decisions are made they will be only half hearted and the out come will depend on the reactions to the plans.

d) Specific vs. Diffuse

Specific cultures, like America, have a separate private and public life. The private space tends to be small and concrete. Americans compartmentalize the different activities of their lives and adapt their personality accordingly. This means the manager of a company is assertively active at work; yet while attending a PTA meeting is quiet and passive; at

Diffuse cultures care more about face and social appearances. There can be sometimes less privacy because relationships tend to get very close in the business world. With a diffuse culture there needs to be more time spend on developing relationships and trust.

I think the most difficult one to deal with is a diffuse culture. In Asia communication always had to be carefully worded. In the words of Confucius “think three times before you act.” In the business world the Chinese are encouraged to be quiet, conservative and preserve face. It is difficult to jump head first into a problem and openly communicate because others resist the open confrontation of ideas. I remember so many times asking direct questions and never getting a straight answer. It can be very frustrating but the key is to ‘ask the right question.’

Full communication is for those who are trusted and respected. I would like to provide an example from personal experience. As a foreign stranger in China it was difficult to get good service. If you were a regular and there was face involved you would get everything you wanted. So many times I went into a store and asked for goods which were right in front of my face – always the clerks simply ignored me even when I pointed to what I was asking. “We don’t have any,” would be the response. Many foreigners would feel angry and frustrated but it always seemed to me that face and level of respect mattered a lot. When I knew the owner of an establishment it always guaranteed first rate service (even discounts). If I didn’t know the owner then it would be more difficult to get good service. It might sound abstractly confusing, but I think that face isn’t just about social prestige and appropriate social treatment but also how individuals concerned about face treat others and limit their behavior to protect themselves. (Speaking to a foreigner breaks traditional social habits and some people avoid foreigners)

e) Achievement vs. Ascription

American is an achievement culture. What you do or the amount of personalized effort matter the most. A question might be asked ‘what do you do?” The response “I work for a — company. I put myself through school and I am currently a —“. Your status depends on your personal achievement.

In an ascriptive culture the response would be influenced by background, birth, gender, status, age, and connections. Normally when I asked Chinese students to introduce themselves it focused on the status of the university they attended or the position in the company. It was never directly admitted but I could see that everybody’s status was determined by the university they attended and the subsequent job they had. There was always the oddball, a poor hardworking farmer who had worked his way through school and had a good job. Individuals like this person would sometimes be looked down upon.
Once I got to know students they always introduced themselves and their family based on their social position/power and connections.

Chinese power dynamics

The collective behavior is determined by those in power, who come form the politically powerful upper socio-economic class. Political power means social and business power. Politics, Business and organized crime go hand in hand in China. Educated Chinese people often joke that China has the largest organized crime syndicate in the world: the Communist government.
Within a Chinese organization there will be different groups which struggle for power. They all work to gain the advantage, maintain and develop lucrative relationships, and work their way up the social power ladder.
Chinese group behavior and norms are determined by the boss. To be a boss in China means you have power. You can either give life or destroy life. If a coworker or maverick individual gives you trouble you can send out thugs to harass, threaten and physically attack. China is a thugocracy. So the collective group depends on unethical individuals to control and guide their behavior, not the other way around. Many people (including Chinese literati) criticize Chinese for being sheep like, passive, and brainwashed. Most Chinese are aware of the situation but they are powerless to change it. They simply bit the bullet and accept the way things are in order to survive.
When dealing with business transactions it is important to work with and please the boss who has the real power. While many individuals involved in the business will brag and act big they are most likely small potatoes. The real boss is the one who is unseen yet his policies are everywhere. It is very difficult to meet the real boss face to face. Many powerful bosses purposely avoid being directly involved and have their bidding done through scapegoats, who take the blame for all the problems.
I experienced this many times personally. At the first school I worked as time passed and the bosses unethical behavior become progressively worse the boss became more and more difficult to see. The boss would refuse to pay salary or overtime, suddenly cancel or add classes, stall on sponsoring the visa/immigration paperwork and even steal the foreigners work permit. All of this was supposed to intimidate and control the foreigners, who inevitably rebelled.
At the beginning the boss would always invite everybody out to a nice dinner and then at the end break the news. This only worked so many times. Each time we met to discuss the problems the boss would rely on a minion translator who would explain everything and give the same excuses over and over again. It didn’t matter if you were bleeding to death you would still get the same lame excuses. Over time some foreigners became very upset and verbally expressed their outrage. Suddenly the boss would not be available. Every time there was a meeting the boss would give an excuse and not show up at the last moment. The minion of the boss would inform the teachers about how the problems had been unresolved and how their issues were irrelevant.
Teachers who continued to stubbornly defend their rights and demand fair treatment would eventually be fired. Everything would be done to harass the teacher. The boss, being a powerful figure, would contact every educational institute and spread lies about how horrible the foreigners were. I helped many foreigners find jobs when they could not due to situations like this.

Culture: relationship and rules

Due to different factors (face, traditions, social hierarchy, constant proximity, extended families, etc) relationships are much more sensitive to change and complicated in certain countries. The relationships you have determine the reaction of certain individuals to rules. These rules can be legal, social and corporate.

Asians tend to pay much closer attention to smaller details and interpret them in more meaningful ways. American’s tend to brush off smaller things (this is considered petty) and try to be more open and accepting. (This is a generalization of group behavior and in no way can collectively sum up the behavior of every individual. There are always exceptions to every rule).

A relationship is a double edged sword and must be treated that way. If you have a strong relationship you might find the sword is your protector. If you fail to maintain a relationship you might find the sword to be your financial doom.

In Asia every day effort must be extended to maintain and develop relationships. This can be a huge problem for American’s who aren’t used to focusing so much seemingly worthless time and energy into a relationship which immediately has no value. I had a very difficult time when I had to deal with business (mafia/government) leaders.

Cultural Divide

I think the culture divide can be understood as different kinds of ‘gaps’. There is an income cap, a culture gap, an education gap, a social gap, etc. The ‘gap’ merely means there is a difference between the individuals and this means there is usually a hierarchy. Rich vs. poor, educated vs. uneducated, cultured vs. uncultured, etc.

These gaps come into play as individuals within a corporation interact. Social groups are formed and members are expected to play by their culturally assignment role. The boss can take extra time off for lunch because they are the boss. The worker should stay later and work without overtime because they are the worker.

Recognizing differences

The process of recognizing differences one the one hand can be enlightening but on the other hand can produce prejudice and hate. If you delve deeply in a culture’s traditions and ideas it can sometimes be quite sensitive to those involved. After teaching American English and Culture classes for years in China I found that no matter what there were always individuals who had trouble reconciling differences. This took the form of ethnocentrisms, prejudice and hate. It is the same for everyone regardless of nationality. Recognizing differences can produce an uncomfortable feeling which must be acted up (usually in the form of cultural racism and put downs)

It has been sociologically proven that one of the ways to overcome prejudices and allow individuals to not only recognize but accept diverse differences is through positive and cooperative interaction.

Status within a culture

To figure out how a society sets status within a culture we must first look at what are the cultural values. Most all cultures rate status according to socio-economic level. Society and culture sets an ideal standard for individuals to work towards. Every individual reacts differently to their cultural/social experiences. Their status reflects personal achievements and culturally approved success.

Merton’s theory of deviance can shed light on this: there are five basic reactions to “a discontinuity between cultural goals and the legitimate means available for reaching them”. They are conformity, innovation, ritualism , retreatism and rebellion. Individuals who confirm, innovate, and ritualize are socially/culturally accepted while those who retreat or rebel are not accepted.

Thus if you overtly play by the rules and “win” (or covertly and unethically play by the rules and “win”) a high social status is conferred.

Time and past/present/future oriented societies

Each culture has its own specific perspective about time. Not only that but each culture has its own orientation in regards to the past, present and future. To briefly explain the three time orientations: a present orientated society focuses on current events and goals. A past orientated society focuses on tradition and what happened before. A future orientated society look forward to change and developments.

China is an extremely past orientated culture/society. Because China developed in a set geographical area the same traditions, ideas, values, beliefs have been handed down over thousands of years. Some have even survived the Communist regime’s propaganda and white washing. China has a history of 4,000 years old.

Being geographically isolated and sharing a common culture had very special influences on the Chinese society. Other influences include Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and other schools of religion/philosophy.

Behavior is governed by keeping history, tradition, ancestors, culture and society in mind. American’s are obsessed with obtaining and enjoying today which might not be there in the future. On the other hand, traditional Chinese thought focuses on the past but many will admit that China is stuck in a past orientation.

Time to the Chinese is a cyclical motional, like the Buddhist reincarnation wheel of life – all beings are constantly reborn as they struggle to attain enlightenment and free themselves from the burden of earthly life. Control and proactive action during life is very important. It all comes down to timing. Timing is controlled through limited communication and information. Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist revolution and founder of China based his revolutionary ideas on ancient Chinese warfare and modern guerilla tactics. The key to success was hunkering down and waiting until the right chance came along.

How does the components of culture relate to my business?

Many of the above mentioned components of culture are necessary to understand in order to be successful in China. Relationships, or guanxi, are a must. The success of a foreign business in China depends on the strength and power of your contacts and social network. Nothing can be done without having connections. This is all part of the Chinese culture, which emphasizes taking your time in order to guarantee long term success and mutually beneficial relationships.

Social status is also very important, as are titles, business cards, seating arrangements and other certain business protocol behavior. A lack of understanding will be verbally acknowledged with politeness but the real damage will be hidden from view. Emotions are always hidden in China and used as a tool. A sudden outburst might lead to sudden contract agreement and reconciliation. The key is to not react and play things by ear.

III. Cultural differences in International Business

National culture and corporate culture

There are many symbols of the nationalized culture of China. The symbols included “red lanterns, dragon dancing, kung fu, Peking opera costumes, Chinese musical instruments, Oriental women in modified chang shan, etc.” The communist government constantly bombards these images through the media, press, tourist industry, educational system, and workplace. Foreign countries also use these symbols.

China’s national culture has experienced extreme changes and alterations. It wasn’t 50 years ago that Chairman Mao ordered Chinese culture to be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Tibetan monasteries were razed, books were burned, scholars were murdered and other such atrocities were committed. Yet now the Communist party acts like it never happened. They have used traditional Chinese culture as a vehicle to control the Chinese while pretending to be the protectors of China. Most everything in the nationalized Chinese culture now reeks of propaganda and has twisted the original culture to become corrupted with lies and ignorance.

I think nationalization has affected Chinese culture in many negative ways. The current presented media image misrepresents one of the most fascinating and complicated cultures in the world. It is important to understand the differences between real cultural values and nationalized cultural values because they make a big difference with regards to decisions in human resources, marketing corporate goals, etc.

International/transnational companies and how they deal with centralization vs. decentralization

International and transnational companies must deal with Centralization vs. decentralization. At the heart of this matter is the understanding of authority and the social power that it brings. Many Asian companies are centralized and therefore centralized authority in Asia is supreme. Authority comes from social/political/mafia power. (In the words of Chairman Mao “power comes from the gun barrel”).

Those with authority are considered to be correct and must be obeyed even if their decision is obviously wrong. (Groupthink is a big problem in Asia). Because the elderly and more experienced are given most of the decision making power (gerontocracy) they usually use this power to protect their position, focus on personal interests and commit nepotism.

Many Asians are atheist (except for Filipino’s, who are extreme Christians and Koreans). Religious authority isn’t easily recognized. If an individual had certain religious issues I think it would be difficult to get them accepted. Many Westerns obey different sources of authority (depending on the situation.) These sources include religion, politics, ethnicity, family and work. I will obey my boss but if he asks me to do something which is against my religion, what do I do? Due to religious influence I refused to drink alcohol in China and thus sabotaged any real business opportunities. If you don’t want to out to eat/drink whatever is placed before you then it is ‘bu gou yi si’ (I guess you could translate it as a major ‘turn off’ or undesirable behavior).

Environment and culture

The environment is the physical incubator which spawns the culture. It can be noted that climate and natural surroundings have some degree of cultural influence. Hotter climates seem to encourage individuals to enjoy the cooler air outside and thus socialize more. In Southern China, Thailand, the Philippines it seemed this way to me. Everybody was out at night eating and socializing. In the frozen North Eastern China where I lived people spent more time indoors except during the brief summer.

Cultural sensitivity to fashion was very strong in NE China. I think it was partially because people wore so many clothes (as compared to hotter climates where a tank top, shorts and sandals sufficed). Also because of this NE China is very restaurant orientated. I ate out at restaurants every single day and the food was excellent. On every street there were many restaurants to be found to meet the people’s needs to not only stay indoors and also to eat, hang out and do business.

Gender

Gender roles influence how individuals see themselves; interact with others, the business world, and society in general. Sociologically speaking, gender roles are set through cultural and social conditioning. Different cultures place different values and norms for expected behavior.

Here are some personal examples of how culturally defined gender roles influence behavior in society.

• In the Philippines women do not drive cars. I only saw one female driver while I was there (for two years) and she (hopefully a she) looked quite masculine.
• In SE Asia (the Philippines and Thailand especially) male homosexuality is accepted and encouraged. This is a normal but might make the average homophobic American uncomfortable.
• Filipino men (and women) often hold hands and put their arms on each other’s shoulders as they walk down the street.
• Generally speaking women do not smoke in Asia (except for older women with old fashioned cigarettes).
• Women who play pool in NE China are considered to be risqué and socially improper.

These simple examples might seem non-related to the business world of international markets but they do make a difference. The corporate culture will be strongly influenced by the social norms for expected gender behavior. An effective cultural strategy will taken into consideration the fact that not every culture shares the same norms for gender roles. Sensitivity and understanding must be applied to business transactions where such issues might arise. You cannot judge a culture to be “wrong” because they have an alternative viewpoint about gender roles and sexuality.

Ethnicity

To Westerners ethnicity is a dividing principle which helps them discover who they are individually and how others are different. Asian ethnicity is a unifying principle which tells them they are collectively one and how others are different.

Ethnicity is also in some ways related to nationalism. The strongest ethnic majority often has the most social/political power. In America it has been Caucasian Europeans while in China it is the Han majority.

Ethnocentric attitudes and behavior are unavoidable when two cultures come into contact with each other. Often times we are not aware of our arrogance or shortcomings because we have been programmed to consider our cultural ways the norm and other cultural ways abnormal.

Often times during leadership or every day decisions there might be a clash of ethnocentric related issues. If one manager suggests a solution he might be outvoted by other members of the team just because “they are used to doing it their way and their way is better. Foreigners just can’t understand.”

How to reconcile these differences? The most important thing to remember is that no one single culture has the answer to all of life’s problems. This goes the same for politics, religion, etc. Employees need to be encouraged to not only be bilingual but bicultural. Leadership must set an expectation for team members to harmoniously reconcile differences with compromises. The positive aspects of every culture must be focused on while the negative aspects must be avoided.

How do cultural differences in international business relate to my business?

China has a nationalized culture which is influenced by a strong Communist tradition. While most individuals recognize the shortcomings and corruption of Communism everybody smiles and plays by the rules. For business people hoping to get a financial foothold in China they must be prepared to dance to the Communists tune. China is very centralized and overtly ethnocentric. While many individuals personally disagree they must officially endorse certain policies and behave in certain ways. If you want to buy lumber (like my company) you must be prepared to jump through semi-legal hoops and accept propaganda like business ideology.

IV. Final suggestions

Understanding diversity in global business

The road to reconciling culture differences is not an easy one. When I taught English I often liked to write up sayings and idioms in English or Chinese. We would then debate about the truthfulness and applicability in modern society.

One of my favorite sayings is “When in Rome do as the Romans” or in Mandarin “Ru Xiang Sui Su (”enter the village and follow the customs”). I often challenged my student’s idea of the actual meaning. Their perception of the meaning would be: “This means I will follow Chinese traditions no matter which culture I am in. Everybody else is a foreigner so they should follow our traditions when they come here.”

I would explain as follows: “foreigners are expected to following Chinese customs in China but Chinese rarely follow foreign customs abroad (unless of course they are second/third generation). There are China Towns in every country over the world but where are the America Towns? (It is usually the street with the most bars in all actuality). The Chinese are a collective society which focuses on maintaining traditions. American’s are a multi-ethnic and diverse country where we experiment with different cultural traditions. We celebrate Hanukah along with Thanksgiving and Chinese New Year. Our sense of cultural identity comes from a blend of different traditions. The Chinese sense of cultural identity comes from maintaining traditions. Why am I expected to worshipfully adore traditional Chinese cultural symbols (martial arts, panda bears, fireworks, Beijing opera, and Chinese inventions, food, historical sites, dances, art and language) when Chinese reject foreign symbols as inferior and pointless?” (This would always heat things up and would hopefully get a rip roaring debate going– a good way to make introverted shy students talk!)

The average response would be as follows: “Chinese invented kung fu (the universally applicable word “martial arts” is not used). You foreigners only copied us. We invented art, medicine, and ancient technology and we are the oldest and most superior culture in the world. We invented the meaning of culture. Your cultures are all only cheap imitations. ”

Then I would follow up with “if China has the most superior culture in the world then where is it to be found? Why is the world Americanized and not Sino-ized? Chinese people laugh at their own martial arts, Chinese religion is considered satanic superstition, and nobody cares about art or knows anything about Chinese history. You don’t even know that the rest of the world thinks you still practice ancestral worship and burn incense at grave sites while you yourself have never even experienced it except for on TV. Everybody has become westernized and is only concerned with consumerism and materialism. You are basically American. How can foreigners be expected to revere something which Chinese themselves ignore?”

This artificial and provocative debate pretty much sums up past dialogues (though somewhat exaggerated) which were exchanged between students and myself. When you want to understand culture you first need to understand how individuals within the different cultures themselves view their own culture. Reading the textbook reveals much about how westerns view culture: the textbook is based on the experiences of a European businessman. It is empirically based with a lot of statistics and graphs breaking down different ethnicities and cultures and how they compare to each other. While it claims to non-judgmentally discuss culture it is still highly biased in its approach and methodology. (Not to mention the fact that it always lists Hong Kong and Taiwan and separate territories – that is like listing Alaska and Hawaii as separate territories. It is therefore politically biased.)

When studying culture through Chinese literature and textbooks it was refreshing to find little statistically data which constantly focuses on the breakdown of different ethnic groups and gender and how they compare. Due to Westerners obsession with ethnic identity, gender issues, etc you can’t study culture without reading about what percentage of surveyed Hispanics listen to music and how many times per week does a female South African brush her teeth. Empirically and scientifically based statistical data has its use and merit but is always over utilized by westerners. We understand culture through the eyes of the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Without science to literally prove to us we shun the information as unreliable and unprofessional.

Asians take a more holistic and theoretical approach. I find it very refreshing and enlightening. The information tends to be more practical and simple. Besides Asia there is much to learn from all cultures. The only way to truly comprehend culture is to study it from different cultural perspectives and authorities. This is the same for the business world: the key to successfully integrating different parts of a multinational company is to not only respect but to integrate the positive cultural aspects which each culture has to offer into the business as a whole.

Who determines your cultural values? I think that cultural values of ever individual (myself included) are initially pre-determined through childhood. Family plays a big role in influencing major values/ideas in regards to morality, society, religion, politics, and life in general. My parents were religious and conservative. As I child I was taught that the religious values and beliefs were superior to anything else and it was forbidden to challenge them. This limited my ability to understand and interact with different cultural values and groups. Over the years I have been able to slowly shed the religiously arrogant attitude which I was brought up in. Now as an adult my cultural values have been heavily influenced by Asian society, values and religion. After living in Asia for 7 years many of my values and beliefs have been integrated with alternative viewpoints. I am very satisfied with my adjustment of cultural values. Overall, I think it is the social and physical environment, which determines cultural values. Then again, it is the individual also who interacts with these different environments and accepts the surrounding cultural values.

For example, every culture has it’s own way in which the elderly are valued. In Asia the various cultures value the elderly more. Following the tradition of Confucianism the elderly are respected more than as would be in a Western society. Children and eventually adult children take an active role in taking care of parents and the elderly. The opinions of the elderly are highly valued.

This is very important when it comes to business negotiations because the opinion of the eldest member of the team is often valued the most. On a side note, people in China often say “America is heaven for children, hell for the elderly. China is hell for the children, heaven for the elderly.” Clearly, the cultural values towards the elderly in America and China are quite opposite. The traditions of China have clearly made an obvious cultural difference.

In China the negotiation process never stops and is very complicated. In America the negotiation process is a quick and friendly introduction and then intensive bargaining process. When it’s over it is finished and everything is usually final.

Negotiation is never finished in China. Contracts can take years to hammer out all the details. The negotiation process is a time for mutual understanding as the relationship develops. Foreigners are often impatient and can’t understand the chaotic and confusing Chinese negotiation styles. They often leave or quit in frustration and blame the Chinese for failing to ‘play by the rules’.

Final Note

In the end it is important to know that socio-cultural differences are not detrimental but necessary for a diverse and healthy world. By understanding and respecting these differences there is harmony and peace.


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Page :On First Page

  1. I. Introduction to Culture
  2. II. Components of Culture and their influence on Business
  3. III. Cultural differences in International Business
  4. IV. Final suggestions
  5. ALL
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20 Responses to “(Letter) Chinese and American Culture”

  1. FOARP Says:

    There are a whole load of things which stuck in my craw in the first page of this alone:

    1) Democracy was not ‘excavated’ during the 19th Century

    2) Americans, surely, do not only link their democracy to that of the Greeks

    3) The Average Chinese person knows more about America than “black and white movies, a few classical English novels and cheesy 60’s songs”, especially given than many of the B/W movies, novels and 60’s songs that are though western classics in China are not American.

    4) I don’t know what industry you work in, but I personally never found cultural problems that huge in business – outside of it was a different thing.

    5) Sun Zi was talking about war – will people stop quoting him as a way of explaining how Chinese people do business?

    6) Too often you see people talking about the ‘thousands of years between America and China’, as far as I am aware China has been republic only since 1911, the current republic was founded in 1949, and the current system only started developing in 1978 – none of this speaks of gradualism.

    7) A bar manager is not a great source for how people conduct business – this may surprise you, but I have been to plenty of totally boring meetings which happened during the working day and in which karaoke was not involved.

    8) What is so important about writing yet again about cultural differences between the US and China and their impact on business? Do Americans think it necessary to do so when dealing with people from Africa, India, Russia or (according to at least one survey of US expats, the least favourite and most culturally difficult place to deal with) the UK?

    Look, I’m not trying to insult you here, but I just don’t understand why you didn’t look around a bit at what’s already out there before writing this.

  2. Buxi Says:

    I think this topic is too detailed and in depth to be appropriate for a blog entry, in all honesty. I compliment FOARP for getting through the first page and giving it a pretty good try. 🙂 This really deserves to be a book… well, a cottage industry of books, really.

  3. Netizen Says:

    Are we publishing theses here? If that’s the case, let’s see the bio.

    I didn’t read whole thing, but it seems to me that this is really one generalization to another. Assertions are never backed up by facts.

  4. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    Scholarly papers are music to my ears.
    “Chinese people are very proud of their culture. This is shown in their communication, attitudes and behavior. If one lives in China there will be a familiar mantra heard. This nationalistic propaganda mantra is pounded into their heads by the Communist government. In essence” China is the oldest, most distinguished, most amazingly complex and superior culture in the history of the world.” History, art, science, literature, politics, society all comes from China. This is almost a monotheistic approach to culture: there is only one true culture and it is Chinese.”
    This is a typical Western stereotype of the Chinese culture. It is not false, but incomplete and one-side. The Chinese cherish their culture but not without self-criticism. One reason that non-Chinese are unaware of Chinese self-criticism and analyses is that this discourse takes place only within the Chinese society, in the Chinese language and directed to Chinese only. One only needs to read Lu Xun to realize this. His papers are filled with statements like “I never hesitate to interpret the Chinese actions in the worst possible light….” (non-authoritative translation).

    Personally I have said tons of China-bashing stuff myself, but only inside China, in Chinese and to other Chinese. I have never made negative statements of any substance outside China (nothing more substantial than self-deprecating and showing off modesty). There is a stigma on those Chinese who bad mouthing China outside China to non-Chinese. In fact the most effective procedure for the Chinese authorities to neuter a political dissident is to make him an exile, place him in a Western country, even better, make him appear in one of those US Congress anti-China hearings. This procedure is surgical and Wang Dan, Wei Jingsheng can testify how effective it is in removing their credibility among the Chinese and ruining their political ambitions.

    Yes. The Chinese do engage in tearful self-reflections and self loathing, but only behind closed doors.

  5. Daniel Says:

    Sort of like between siblings it’s ok to talk critically regarding your own mother or household but for non-relatives it’s pass the comfort zone…I presume?
    Although I’m pretty sure running a country is more complex than a family.

  6. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    Daniel,

    Yes. The Chinese society, including the government, is modeled after the family. It is a patriarch structure. Therefore we make no distinction between those who bash the Chinese government and those who bash the Chinese people.

  7. opersai Says:

    Sorry Oldson, I had not had the bravery to finish your entire essay yet. I’ll find time for it later (maybe on the bus tomorrow?)

    Now, @Daniel, bxbq

    I had heard a speech about the root of the family concept of Chinese society -extending to government – from Confucius. The philosophy that started this metaphor was in hope that when, people extend the feeling, care to even strangers like to a family member, the society will be a better place. When everyone could care about everyone else, like they do to their family members. The Chinese government from long ago addresses the people under it’s rule as 子民-zimin, (zi-son, min-people). The officials were often addressed as 父母官-fumuguan (fumu-parent, guan-governor, official). The ideal was that if the government officials and emperor could care the people under it’s rule as family members, then they will treat the people well and take care of them. Of course, more often than not, it’s sadly no where near true.

    The family metaphoric is not used uniquely by the government. Among the ordinary lives of lay Chinese person, this metaphor is used constantly. In Chinese, when you address a stranger who is your peer, you call them sisters, brother (大哥,大姐) depending on their gender and relative age to yours. When you address strangers who’s of your parent’s generation, you address them as uncles, aunts (叔叔,伯伯,阿姨,婶婶), and so on. You will address someone as with your own family even though you could have absolute no blood connection with him/her.

  8. pug_ster Says:

    Wow this is very detailed and mostly correct. I might want to add certain things…

    I am sorry to hear that you didn’t get paid for your job. It used to be pretty common because these Chinese bosses figure you are ‘disposible’ and can take advantage of you. This results in walkouts, protests, and among other things that ultimately look bad for the boss. I think this has changed because of the ‘shortage’ of the cheaply paid migrant workers because it is no longer the case where you are easily replaced by the next unemployed migrant worker. Also, if you work in many of the white-collared jobs in China and many of the western companies’ factories, you shouldn’t have a problem getting paid.

    Many Chinese know that food is an cheap and easy way to boost morale. Many times the co-workers are forced to work overtime and workers grumble. The boss would buy food, and eat with the workers, have a little chit-chat like one of the guys, and would make the time more bearable. And like what you said, most of the deals are made at a banquet.

    The Chinese are learning from the West. My wife worked for an export company based on Shanghai (my wife is the middlewoman in the US.) When my wife’s company deals with the Western Companies, they do deal with deadlines, contract rules, etc… and not by the ‘made up rules’ by the Chinese.

  9. FOARP Says:

    @Guys – I have never held back my criticism of the UK government when I thought it was deserved. I often here this talk about China being a ‘family’ which must not be criticised to outsiders, but it seems pretty nonsensical – a ‘family’ that makes up a fifth of the human race and which has spent a large part of its history at war with itself is surely as much its neighbour business as it is anyone’s. Nor is Chinese commentary inaccessible to the outside world, what is written in Sichuan newspapers may be read as easily in Bonn as it is in Beijing.

  10. Daniel Says:

    I don’t think the people here really mean no criticism is allowed from the outside. It’s going to happen one way or another. Probably more in cultural terms or how some people really think. A lot of people criticize the US from the outside and rightfully so, but it doesn’t mean that Americans like it. One notion I hear in the US regarding this is “do they live here” or “I have my own life to live than to listen to that” or even “um…it doesn’t work that way” and countless other reactions. It doesn’t mean that they are right, it’s just how they feel. Not every American is that way, but I’m pretty certain people can push the limits to how much a person can handle regarding their community. Maybe it might not be express publically, but privately they may feel that way.

  11. oldson Says:

    @ FOARP

    You had some great comments. Thanks for taking the time to read my epic length commentary on Chinese culture.

    1) “Democracy was not ‘excavated’ during the 19th Century”

    I might be wrong but I thought that ancient Greek civilization was relatively unknown until archeology exploded onto the 19th century scene. Before the fall of Communism in Greece did we not know little about it? Democracy has always been around but it seems to me that countries often associate themselves with positive successful things from the past. The Chinese always claim a strong bond to their ancient culture but anyone that has been to China can see that while the government violently and destructively broke that bond during the Cultural Revolution, they have focused a lot of current energy on rebuilding that now. It’s like America still views itself as the hard working savior of the world during WWII and I get the feeling that we are supposed to be doing that now but surely we are doing the opposite with our current detrimental foreign policies. My idea here is that many countries/governments often try to legitimize themselves by connecting to positive past histories.

    2) “Americans, surely, do not only link their democracy to that of the Greeks”

    Historically, wasn’t Grecian democracy (demagoguery perhaps) heavily influential on Medieval European civilizations which paved the way for 18th century British parliamentary democracy and the French revolution, both of which were used by Jefferson, Hamilton, etc when forming the ideas for our American democracy?

    3) “The Average Chinese person knows more about America than “black and white movies, a few classical English novels and cheesy 60’s songs”, especially given than many of the B/W movies, novels and 60’s songs that are though western classics in China are not American.”

    Here is an average stereotype of a Chinese university student. How I hate “Yesterday Once More” and “Gone with the Wind” and “Pride and Prejudice” because it was the only things which students were interested in. Having said that, most of what I learned about America and China was taught to me by elderly Chinese while I was studying kung fu, Chinese medicine, etc. I would say that the average person only knows a few stereotypes while the educated non average Chinese is highly knowledgeable and perhaps even more familiar with the reality of America than Americans themselves.

    4) “I don’t know what industry you work in, but I personally never found cultural problems that huge in business – outside of it was a different thing.”

    I have worked in the education, general business and import/export. Cultural problems can be huge but in China they are always indirect and you never openly talk about them. I think from your perspective you seem to be more experienced and higher up on the business food chain, so you probably experienced a higher level of Chinese cultural business interaction (official meetings, communications, etc). I was the one who was sitting in the back, translating and watching all of the inter office cut throat competition and having the reality of what was going on explained to me by my Chinese counterparts. Everything can look so happy and nice but as the 36 Strategies say ‘xiao li cang dao’ (knife is hidden in the mouth).

    5) “Sun Zi was talking about war – will people stop quoting him as a way of explaining how Chinese people do business?”

    Chinese themselves use Sun Zi, Sun Bun, Zhu Ge Liang, 3 Kingdoms and the 36 Stratagies for business. It isn’t just a children Western obsession. As Clausewitz so famously said “war is an an extension of politics”. One reason why the Chinese are the masters of negations and business is because they have a strict/focused attitude for this. American tend to take it easy, sign a legally concise contract and then play golf to consummate the relationship. My current employer, like many of the companies I work with, struggle to understand the complexity of Chinese business strategies but they never get it. The Chinese are always playing hard ball and the American counter parts are always whining that they broke the contract.

    6) “Too often you see people talking about the ‘thousands of years between America and China’, as far as I am aware China has been republic only since 1911, the current republic was founded in 1949, and the current system only started developing in 1978 – none of this speaks of gradualism.”

    You have a point here – same say that technically Chinese history started in1949 with Mao, was destroyed during the 60’s and then reborn after ’78 so actually Chinese history is very short 

    7) “A bar manager is not a great source for how people conduct business – this may surprise you, but I have been to plenty of totally boring meetings which happened during the working day and in which karaoke was not involved.”

    A bar manager is only an example. I could use my Chinese friends who are salesmen and spend all of their time in Europe and the Middle East or family who hold high government positions but it all comes down to the same thing: the majority of Chinese official business will take place during lots of boring meetings. Everything is nice and quite and routine. However, because China is a guanxi-ocracy, the real relationships and business deals are done outside of work, over a dinner table with a glass of bai jiu or at a bar or karaoke, or a tea house. If you want to success in business in China you have to smile and play the official game during the day time hours but then head out at night and make friends and the real business deals during the night.

  12. FOARP Says:

    1) See the Renaissance

    2) See above, plus the legacy of the original republic and senate of Rome, as well as the common law tradition, the growth of parliaments (which pre-dated the renaissance), the Magna Carta etc.

    3) “Pride and Prejudice” is a British novel. Much of what the average Chinese university English student has to read in the way of western literature is 19th and early 20th century stuff, but I know plenty of Chinese who have read beat poetry, listen to Jazz, enjoy modern art etc. Sure, these were city-dwelling intellectuals, so I’ll say that the majority of Chinese urbanites probably know as much about the US as you can learn from a watching a poorly subtitled season of Friends on pirate DVD, whilst the folk in the countryside may know very little indeed, but they don’t have to. RE: The Carpenters, I second that emotion.

    4&5) You may find western offices to be pretty cut-throat too, and most of my ex-colleagues were much more likely to have read a book on Six Sigma by Jack Welch, or “Business the Jewish way”, than the “Art of War”. If I told you that to understand how to do business in the west you would have to read Tacitus, Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaigns and “Vom Krieg” by Von Clausevitz you’d laugh, wouldn’t you? Myself, I learned how to do business from the ancient mysteries of the Wu Tang.

    6) I don’t know – but it’s something you can argue. Let’s just put it like this: When you go to buy Jiaozi in the middle of the night and you find yourself eye-to-eye with your local jiaozi man – do you feel the weight of 5,000 years of culture pressing down on you, or do you just feel hungry for jiaozi? Henry Ford said something about this I believe.

    7) I think this comes down partly to the general prohibition against boring your colleagues by ‘talking shop’ during social occasions that is found in most western countries, but China is hardly the only place where alcoholic events also serve as opportunities for networking. Over the last year or so I have had the good fortune to be involved in a good number of conferences on IP, and believe me, much booze was consumed and many new professional relations formed – but thankfully karaoke was not involved.

  13. oldson Says:

    FOARP

    Actually “If I told you that to understand how to do business in the west you would have to read Tacitus, Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaigns and “Vom Krieg” by Von Clausevitz you’d laugh, wouldn’t you?” I would not laugh. I think that one way to gain a deep understanding of foreign culture/cultural aspects is through literature. For example, I did read Tacitus, Thucydides, Herodotus,etc and I consider them a great influence in my understanding of Western culture. I also think that although it is an abstract reach, one can compare reading European military treaties to understand European/American business practices and reading Chinese military treaties to the same affect. It gives one an idea of the ideological background, management styles and history. Aggresive American capitalism with an occasional helping hand from the US military is a part of our economy. The same goes for China, which is kind of like the 3 Kingdoms as different political lords stuggle for power and control over Zhong Yuan.

    Also, learning “how to do business from the ancient mysteries of the Wu Tang” sounds like you understand the Daoist/Buddhist ideas of enlightenment 🙂 (一则无量, 无量则一) (One is all and all is one)

  14. ZT Says:

    Another horseshit commentary from a foreigner visiting China and not staying long enough to be really accepted. Had he stayed long enough he would have found that Chinese business people are no different than business people from any other venue. Sad that he thinks business in done in bars. I make millions in deals every year and it is generally taboo to talk business in a bar.

    It irks me that these people who just superficially touch China go back to their own countries and publish this drivel.

  15. FOARP Says:

    @ZT – Even if what you are saying is true, what is the point of putting it in such combative terms?

  16. ZT Says:

    @FOARP

    Okay…I apologize but I have lived in China for many years and done business here successfully for all that time. I don’t have any problem being accepted and I don’t confuse culture and business. I am irked, as I said, by the foreigners who spend a little time here and then go back home as professed experts on China and Chinese. Oldson is obviously very intelligent and he writes in a way that everyone can understand, as you do also FOARP, but the problem I have is his registration of fact regarding business here. He is dead wrong. Businessmen are businessmen wherever you go. I have no problem with his dissertation on Culture. For the most part he is right on but business is it’s own culture worldwide.

  17. oldson Says:

    @ ZT & FOARP

    I should jump in here to clarify a few things. I do not claim to be a Zhong Guo Tong but I have spent many years in Asia. My business experiences in China are either personal or were taught to me my Chinese coworkers. Anyone who claims to be an expert on China is obviously a fool. I only offer my limited experiences in exchange for constructive criticism and open dialogue.

    Most of my experiences in China were with the ‘under side’ of the business world with regards to China’s unique socio-cultural structure. I realize that business does have its own subculture which is universal no matter where you go but China presents a special situation. Most business interaction is initially formal and then gradually informal as people become more familiar with each other. Sometimes this does involve entertainment venues. China follows this Asian pattern but I see it as sometimes a “guanxi-ocracy” – where individuals are more tribal and depend more on friends, connections, associates, classmates, etc. The place to communicate with this vast network of friends and potential business associates is through resteraunts and other such public places.

    With going out to bars or clubbing, I think the business level I am referring is directed towards the lower level entrepreneur and common businessman. CEO’s and high level businessmen have a reputation to maintain and it is important that they keep away from such seemingly vulgar and pointless activities. They do not go to bars to get drunk and party, but their employees below them do. These employees are the ones that I am referring to. They want to raise their position on the hierarchy so they use their guanxi. Perhaps we could say that in the business personnel hierarchy, the lower you go on the pyramid, there is a higher chance that these individuals will over depend on their guanxi network to help them out and solve their business issues in informal public places?

    So my question to ZT is: do you see anything unique about the Chinese business world with regards to different Asian countries? Other countries? How does it differ or compare?

  18. ZT Says:

    Well thanks for forgiving my outburst OLDSON and you ask an interesting question.

    There is something unique that confirms your belief in the culture of the people here that affects their business behavior.

    Chinese businessmen are real “survivors”. When they start a business or they have one started for them such as an SOE they already have two strikes against them. Business here is hard and oftentimes cruel …to be kind.

    The uniqueness comes from the presence of real “guanxi”. The kind that exists culturally and isn’t paid for with bribes. Businessmen here survive by having close relationships with their competitors..yes, I said competitors, as well as suppliers. Those relationships are quite serious and even though they aren’t formed in bars to my knowledge, they become close friendships in many cases.

    Under a common cause they develop “guanxi” with one another to survive against the onslaught of unfairness heaped upon them daily by a government who is too involved in business.

    Whether a businessman here belongs to the CCP or not makes little difference. Since you have to obtain a license to have an official Trade Association and you cannot speak to the government without one, the only avenue for survival becomes your dependence on your “friends”. The individual voice has no power. These melding relationships help them figure out a way to continue surviving.

    Guanxi is the cultural element involved indeed

  19. oldson Says:

    I can see that you really understand guanxi – perhaps we can divide guanxi into 1) loyalty centered guanxi and 2) brown nosing guanxi (money grubbing and bribes).

    I have the upmost respect for the real Chinese business person because they most likely grew up in poverty, worked hard through school and started out from the bottom of the corporate ladder. They slowly climbed to the top through their own effort and the assistance of friends and family. That is definently the real guanxi. A number of times I ran into serious problems and I was able to solve them through loyal friends and associates.

    And yes, guanxi is a survival necessity in China. I wish that America had stronger relationships because most problems end up in a state of frustration – by calling a Customer Service Rep and waiting on the line to be told that your problem cannot be solved and you are out of luck.

  20. Jack Says:

    I like your strong opinions and overall I think you delivered a vivid picture of Chinese culture and its evolution. You say it may go all Western and lose 5 thousand years of history, which I doubt. As you like sayings, see English sayings and compare them to Chinese sayings You will see that the common sense gave birth to similar values and sayings, but the flavour is nevertheless different. And more, China is a very big country that has a lots of different sub cultures.

    I think that the Chinese will change a lot their ways by embracing Western values. Same time USA will evolve rapidly into a different culture. It is no longer the white American male culture, it is also female, hispanic, Chinese, Indian and so on. It’s a huge melting pot of different civilizations and only God knows what will come of it.

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