Five misperceptions of China

If one searches “western misunderstanding of China” in Chinese language at Baidu, the Chinese equivalent to Google, you would find more than 250,000 entries. During the past decade, with the growing population of overseas Chinese and returned Chinese who read one or more foreign languages, discussions in China over how and why the “Westerners”, in particular US journalists, misrepresent China have been growing. Concerns about inaccurate, if not twisted, representations of China have developed to such a level that many Chinese netizens believe that the misrepresentations must be deliberate.

Some of this suspicion is exaggerated, but western misunderstanding of China’s past and present is widespread even in this era of convenient international travelling and internet communication. Some misperceptions reflect the lingering Orientalism inherited from the colonial period in western view of the East in academia; and some simply are caused by out-of-date information or impressions.

Many misperceptions, whatever the cause, mislead people whose career does not expose them to current developments in China. Doing business in China while labouring under these misperceptions will put investors and finance professionals under a significant disadvantage. Here are five of the most common.

1. Confucianism is an ancient religion of China
Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy of life; it originated more than 2000 years ago, and is still influential in East Asia. It provides teachings on human relationships and human-nature relations. Many of these teachings were and still are applied to personal morality, managing family life and ruling a state.

For example, the concept of “Harmony” (he) has been formally adopted by the current leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a strategy called “building a society of harmony”.

This new rhetoric of “harmonious society” reflects the cultural heritage of Confucianism that defines “harmony” as the peace and balance of human interaction, interaction between people and nature, and between one’s own body and soul. Viewing the PRC government’s actions without understanding its close connection to Confucianism is likely to lead to mistakes.

Moreover, Confucianism is influential throughout East Asia. Not only the Chinese but also people in other East Asian regions and countries still turn to Confucianism for guidance in their career and life. During the past several years, a professor of Beijing Normal University, Yu Dan, has become a celebrity for her lectures on a Confucian classical text, The Analects. The lectures were broadcast at the “Lecture Room” of the China Central Television (CCTV). Professor Yu argues that The Analects teaches an attitude about life. Yu’s book based on her lectures was published in 2006, and about 4,000,000 copies were sold within one year. It has been translated into Korean and Japanese languages.

Many other books and articles on Confucianism have published in East Asia during the past decades, offering new interpretations and providing advice to people from various walks of life.

Even business people, whose professional ancestors in the past were ranked low in a Confucian society, can find volumes of publications on how to apply Confucian concepts of human relationships to contemporary management problems. Understanding something about Confucian thought and its place in current Asian societies is thus critical for anyone doing business there.

2. China has a continuing history of 5000 years and the language of China is Chinese
Chinese history textbooks trace the national history back thousands of years. In fact, those kingdoms and dynasties that ruled the territory of today’s China were not called “Zhongguo”   – the Chinese term translated into English as “China”. “Zhongguo” means “central regime”, which sometimes was used by an ancient or imperial regime to claim a superior status over others. People under these regimes did not identify themselves as “Zhongguo ren ” (Chinese). For example, the subjects of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were called “Songren” (Song people).

While the long history of civilizations in what is today China is an important source of pride for Chinese people today, an accurate understanding of China’s history reveals significant diversity among the civilizations there.

Moreover, this diversity continues in the languages spoken in China. There were, and are, different languages in China. Local dialects between some regions are distinctive from the Mandarin, although they are all written in the Han characters. Cantonese, spoken in the area around Guangdong and Hong Kong, bears a similar relationship to Mandarin (the standard language that originated in the area around Beijing) as French bears to Italian.

In addition, quite a few of the non-Han people of China have a long history of their own alphabetic systems of written and spoken languages, such as the Mongols, the Tibetans and the Manchus. In the ethnic autonomous regions of China, at least one non-Han language is the regional official language, such as Tibetan in Tibet and Mongolian in Inner Mongolia. China’s languages reflect much greater cultural diversity than most Westerners see. To those who are interested in doing business in western, southwestern, or northwestern areas where the non-Han population is large, it is important to acquire some knowledge about ethnic diversities and relationships there.

3. China is a land of suppression and suffering, ruled by a dictator
The radical political movements of the early PRC years under Mao Zedong      (1893-1976) left dark stains in the public image of China. What these stains conceal are the deep wounds left by repeated foreign invasions and colonial expansion in the century after the Opium War (1840-1842) as well as the rapid pace of change in recent years. Anyone who overlooks the historical experiences the Chinese went through in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth century will never understand why the Chinese government and the common people respond as they do toward “foreign pressure” on either diplomatic or domestic affairs. Without seeing the difficulties and dramatic changes Chinese people had been through before they achieved what they have now, in terms of material possession and political freedom that might seem little in others’ eyes, an outsider cannot understand why many Chinese would choose steady economic development over radical political reform.

In the opinion of many foreigners who grew up in the Cold War era, “China is ruled by a dictator”, or “by the evil Communist Party”. Though still under only one ruling party, China today is ruled not by a dictator, but by a group of CCP leaders who have been trained at various local governments for years and watched and examined by the seniors for decades before they are recruited into the central government.

In addition, although the CCP as a leading party has produced some corrupt officials during these years, this party once was favoured by liberal intellectuals, commoners and students because it represented political dissidents’ voices in the years from the late 1920s to late 1940s before the CCP came into power in 1949. Many members of this party were executed by the ruling Nationalist Party for being political dissidents. While today, the reputation of the CCP is dominated by the radical and irrational political movements in earlier years and corruption in recent years, many Chinese also credit the party for its defence of political opposition under the Nationalists, resistance against foreign imperialism and its recent economic achievements. Particularly as the party’s radical rhetoric of violent revolution against the capitalist class has faded, symbolised by the 2007 revision of its constitution that allows capitalists to join the party, the Chinese and foreign understandings of the CCP’s role have diverged.

4. China is a land of opportunities
Misperceptions of China sometimes are held by different generations who see only parts of China’s past and present. When some second-generation Asian-Britons decided to develop their career in China, their parents were shocked. To the parents who chose to emigrate from China to more advanced countries, China was the land of suppression and suffering. Their collective memories about China perhaps are composed of tragic events such as loss of property, dignity or even the lives of their family members.

But in the eyes of the younger generation who witness and experience China’s economic miracle and cultural diversity, that land is full of opportunities. A well-known anchorman of the CCTV English Channel, one of these returned second-generation Asian-Britons, believes that “everyone can succeed in China”.

Nevertheless, what these young optimists do not see, or underestimate, are the many problems that have arisen in China, including the difficult life of some people of their age. Some domestic college graduates living and working nearby big cities are called the “ant tribe”. They have to rent cheap rooms in areas far away from their workplaces, spending hours on public transportation every workday, working long hours and earning low salaries.

Many Chinese “mingong” (contract or hourly workers from rural areas) live in even worse situations, lacking access to social resources urban citizens take for granted, such as health insurance, education opportunity and retirement plan. China’s government and people are focused on both the opportunities and the challenges. Understanding both is thus essential to understanding how both will respond to future developments in economic and political reforms in China.

5. “My favourite Chinese dish is Orange Chicken, and favourite tea is Jasmine Tea”
Knowledge of food culture and teas is important to business people in China because they read messages about social, economic, cultural taste and status, and even personality and attitudes of their business acquaintances from a banquet menu or a pot of tea.

Many dishes in Chinese restaurants in the West, such as Orange Chicken, are new to first-time Chinese guests. In general, the styles and tastes of Chinese cuisine available outside China are limited. The food culture of China is so diversified that different tastes from various cuisines will bring surprising joy to people who simply travel to another province or to another county. In addition to the Sichuan, Hunan, and Canton cousins popular everywhere, a traveller in China interested in exploring authentic flavours needs some basic knowledge about local specialties before ordering.

For example, when travelling in Sichuan, one should try their local spicy food such as beef in hot chilli oil, but not any steamed seafood dish. When travelling in Jiangsu Province, try dishes made of their freshwater and mountain soil produce, such as lake fishes and fresh bamboo shoots, but not imported salmon. Your interest in local special food would help you to establish friendship with your business partners who see in your ordering of dishes your respect to his or her culture.

Tea is an important element in Chinese culture itself, not just in combination with meals. The wide range of types of tea leaves and styles of tea making in China is known by few outsiders. The Jasmine Tea served at many Chinese restaurants outside China is favoured only by some people in North China. Most people in South China, where the tea culture is rooted, prefer a cup of tea that provides pure tea taste and original fragrance from the tea, not any added ingredient. In different regions, the popularity of green, red, white, black and herbal teas vary.

To name only a few popular teas: Westlake’s Dragon Well, Dongting Mountain’s Biluochun and Yellow Mountain’s Maofeng in lower Yangzi River Valley, Iron Budda Tea of Wulong category in Fujian, Pu’er Tea of red tea in Yunnan, Baihao and Junshan silver needle tea in Zhejiang and Hunan. Knowledge and taste of tea, tea pot settings and water was often related to the drinker’s social and cultural status in China, as reflected in thousands of classical poems. In recent years, this cultural function of tea as status marker has returned. Developing an appreciation for the richness of Chinese tea culture can be a vehicle for outsiders to learn some of the nuances of Chinese culture and to deepen relationships with Chinese acquaintances.

Those doing business in China and with Chinese associates need to move beyond the superficial knowledge of Chinese culture and society if they are to be successful in the long run. These five misperceptions offer a place to start.

(Acknowledgement: Thanks to Lingling Yao who contributed information on how Chinese college and graduate school students view western misrepresentations and misperceptions of China.)

1., latest access 11 December 2010.

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Shao Dan

Prof. Shao Dan’s publications include: “Princess, Traitor, Soldier, Spy: Aisin Gioro Xianyu and the Dilemma of Manchu Identity,” In Tamanoi Mariko, ed., Crossed histories : Manchuria in the age of empire. Honolulu : Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai`i Press, 2005.; “Between Empire and Nation: Manchus and Manchuria in the early 20th century,” Special Issue on Manchuria as a borderland, East Asian History, forthcoming, December 2005. She is currently working on her book, Borderlanders in Empire and Nation: Manchus, Manchoukuo and Manchuria (1909-1985) and another paper titled “Chinese by Definition: Jus Sanguinis and Nationality Law, 1909-1982”.

Shao Dan
Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, and Gender and Women's Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
230 International Studies Building
910 S. Fifth St.
Champaign, IL 61820

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