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Who are the Chinese? 5 Questions PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Warholak   
Jan 18, 2010 at 02:12 AM

Who are the Chinese The genesis of this article, which is the beginning of an ongoing series, came out of a conference this fall at Bard College titled The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis.  Liah Greenfeld, Boston U. Political Science Professor, stated her prediction for the future of the United States.  "The USA will become like Switzerland but without the banks, making chocolate and cuckoo clocks for the Chinese consumer."  Dr. Greenfeld went on to ask, "Who are the Chinese?  Does anyone here know anything about them or their culture?"

We hope this series begins to answer this question for the GTBP readers.  Also, since the GTBP news site is soon to be translated to Chinese (and German), to assist North American based companies make headway in China, it might be good to have some experts give us their opinion and feedback.  I picked the five starting questions and passed them on to three acquaintances who are all American 30 something males who met and married a Chinese lady while working in China.  Today, one couple lives in Beijing, one lives both in Washington DC and Beijing, and the other relocated the family just up the Hudson River in New York.  I found that Mark Warholak's answers encompassed the replies from the other two gentlemen.  Mark also is a writer and will be continuing this series for the GTBP.org.  Enjoy!  Rob

By Mark Warholak

Great Wall of China 2003When speaking of a culture as large, geographically and culturally diverse as China, one can easily fall into gray-area generalizations, and even statements that may come across as negative. This is certainly not my intension, and if the following inadvertently falls into one of these pits, then it is a shortcoming in my writing , not perspective.  Although a Western ‘Laowai',   I learned to speak fluent Chinese, and even though I've now returned to the states after spending years living in Mainland China, I still speak only Mandarin at home to give my son a proper base in such a vital language for the 21st Century. 

What were your first few inaccurate stereotypes and/or common stereotypes that Westerners have of the Chinese?

 Communism ≠ collectivitism.  Chinese can be fiercely individualistic in business and very opportunity driven.   The lure of short-term gains often trump the potential of long term growth relationships.    Many competitors were former employees.  Watch the expenses very closely, and internally limiting the flow of information is usually the best defense.  It's a culturally accepted method of management as it effectively happens on all levels of society.  Although some high profile organizations have said that there is great cultural capacity for teamwork, I have seen little evidence of this in my own experience.

Debate and speculation of issues of international significance is not a common cultural pastime in China.  This kind of exchange is rarely a gratifying experience. Football as in Soccer in the US   

Media influences our perspectives, as it does theirs.  Don't expect them to match.  But also keep in mind that I have witnessed first-hand a number of instances where the Western account of events were somewhat further from fact  than what that proclaimed by the China state-controlled media.  Probably the biggest misconception that Westerners have about the Chinese is that they are yearning to be "free."  This is just not the case.  Most are very content with the opportunity to conduct business and grow their personal wealth.  Culturally speaking, they value a stronger state and are very proud of their history and their rising place in the world.  They do not place such a high value on personal freedoms as we do in the West.  This does not mean that they believe that the current system is perfect or just, but most feel that it can be handled internally through gradual reforms.  Often they will willingly sacrifice some personal freedom for higher sense of security for themselves and their families.  

How do government officials who make the equivalent of $1200/month drive BMWs?  It's not always the simple answer of corruption.  There is a huge economy outside of employer/employee, and a majority of personal income, regardless of industry, happens in this grey area. 

What are the first and most common stereotypes that the Chinese have of Westerners?

many of the generalizations are incredible and not at all subtle.   Westerners do this.  Black people are like that. These statements are frequently made publicly, with no embarrassment.  Some of them are so pervasive and that they really make one me wonder about the origins.  One of my personal favorites: all western children address their parents on a first name basis. 

In business, a common stereotype of Westerners is that they are comparatively lacking when it comes to numbers, and are easy to fleece they don't care about detail.

What do you find are the most unique characteristics of the Chinese people, different from other Asian cultures like the Japanese and Koreans?

I often use the following analogy to explain to this concept to westerners:  Japanese :British :: Chinese: Americans.  Entrepreneurial and individualistic with all the characteristics that come with it - tenacious, focused, driven and unyielding.

How is the role of the family different that then the American family?

 Chinese child bike seatFamily values are big in China.  Really big.  Though the definition differs fundamentally from the US.  It is NOT religion, community, or even necessarily monogamy.  Family is such a core cultural value in China that it can still hold strong, even in the face  of falling short in one or even all of these categories.   Often the extended family provides one's core network of ‘guanxi' so the family unit is vital in everything from getting certain government business opportunities, or getting one's child into the proper high school or university. 

How is the Chinese dream different then the American dream?

The pursuit of a better life is common to both, but different in specifics .  In America, the common dream is usually an equilibrium between financial security and happiness, which generally outweighs the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.  China is the reverse.  Amassing and displaying great wealth is top priority, ranking usually just below family in importance.   Outward appearances are very important.  People will go to great lengths to sacrifice personal comforts at home to carry the latest mobile phone, Prada bag, IWC watch, etc.   I have a friend who was deeply embarrassed by the fact that his Mercedes was the cheapest car parked at an event.  This set off a period of deep introspection for him, which eventually resulted in his leaving a very well-paid and secure position with a multinational to found his own company.   I'm certain he'll have his Ferrari within two years.

 Any other thoughts or questions that might be of interest to Western businesses? 

There are tomes of generalizations about the Chinese consumer, so I won't add yet another layer here.  The Chinese divide themselves loosely into Northern and Southern.  Some generalizations offered by each (and I quote) "northerners like to talk big, but seldom deliver," and "Southerners are so cheap that they'll wear you down with their pettiness."   Both claims do have some cultural basis, and can serve at least as .   Another thing to consider:  try to imagine each Chinese province as its own interconnected nation (like the EU), with its own culture and language that has developed over millennia.  Then you can get a sense of the centuries of the network of parallel and interconnected micro-cultures that exist in China.  Each has its own language, effectively.  The term dialect understates the case.  In most case, it's not the case of a New Yorker who has to learn the slang and speech patterns of a Texan.  Although the grammatical structure is similar and some words are mutually intelligible, people coming to work in Shanghai from other places in China will need a year to really understand the local language.  And if you can pick up a few words in the local dialect along the way, they will serve you well.  The Shanghainese took great pride from Obama just saying "hello" in their own tongue.  Chinese Consumer


User Comments

Comment by rob on 2010-01-29 10:27:05
Technology Alert 
from The Wall Street Journal 
Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt defended his company's recent decision to stop obeying government censorship rules on its Chinese search site. 
"We like what China is doing in terms of growth ... we just don't like censorship," he said, speaking at the World Economic Forum annual summit in Davos, Switzerland. "We hope that will change and we can apply some pressure to make things better for the Chinese people."

Comment by Anonymous Westerner in Beijing on 2010-01-22 09:45:59
I don’t want to infer the wrath of Chinese patriots, but here are some ramblings. 
What were your first few inaccurate stereotypes and/or common stereotypes that Westerners have of the Chinese? One of the common stereotypes that westerners have of Chinese is that they are “all the same”, eating the same types of food, particularly Cantonese food that you find abundantly in most Chinatowns. Westerners often think of Chinese as being “very smart” and good at math. I think this stems from seeing them in professions such as engineering, science, medicine. I can tell you I know a lot of dumb Chinese J Seriously, the type of Chinese that we often meet in the US are often coming in via the university graduate programs, and are very heavily loaded towards math and science.  
Other stereotypes that may be just now emerging, is that the Chinese are very nationalistic. This is not inaccurate. In fact, I would say the average Chinese is even more nationalistic than Amerians’ realize.  
When you talk about sterotypes, I, having lived over here for 10 years now, am now sure what is the “average” stereotype in the US anymore. For instance, my parents, who get their news and info from the CBS evening news, probably think of China as a 3rd world country still. 
What are the first and most common stereotypes that the Chinese have of Westerners?  
Religion: They typical Chinese person a-religious, which has quite an influence on the mores, values, and adherence to the law. An interesting example is pirated movies, and software. Over the years, as a bit of a joke, I have expressed shock at Chinese friends and acquaintances at the idea of buying pirated movies and software. They laugh, but I have never, not even once encountered a Chinese person to feel any sense of shame or wrongdoing about that. Cheating on exams is another good example. Cheating is ramped in Chinese colleges, and universities, and they will laugh if you point it out. The Chinese find religion to be dangerous, and they sort of look down the religiosity of India, the Middle east and the West. Particularly India. There is quite a nationalistic rivalry brewing between China and India, and the Chinese will be quick to point out how religion has made a mess in India. A few historians would point that out too.  
Etiquette: Chinese are much less direct when discussing their opinion with other people. This is a departure from westerners, and especially Americans and certain Europeans.  
Food: Rice. Say no more. The Chinese find it strange that Westerners eat so little rice. Many also find cheese abhorrent. Having said that, many western “delicacies” are finding their way into China including pizza, hamburgers, etc. The Chinese hate the Japanese (see WWII, and more), but because fresh fish and rice are a big part of the diet, I find that a lot of Chinese like Japanese food. Again, the Chinese are proud of their culture, and very proud of their food. There are many Chinese friends who almost universally dislike Western food, and are rather closed minded about trying things. But the coming generation (under 20) seems very ripe for a Change. Mcdonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut are expanding at a breakneck pace, and they’ve all been here for 10-15 years. Those little kids are now nearing 20, and they have very different appetites from their parents.  
What do you find are the most unique characteristics of the Chinese people, different from other Asian cultures like the Japanese and Koreans? First, the Chinese will tell you every chance they get that Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and almost every other asian culture descended from China. Any distinctions that you find will be explained away as trying to differentiate, so as not to be a cultural carbon copy, not unlike what Americans did with the English language and sports (football-rugby, baseball-cricket). China is such a large and diverse culture, that it’s hard to pin down “overriding” differentiators. Most asian cultures put family, and the extended family, at the center of their lives. A couple of things that do come to mind about Chinese differences though is their strong gravity to their traditions China, possibly because of strength of culture, possibly because of it’s later arrival on the world stage, seems much more traditional, and proud of it’s traditions than Korea and Japan. There is a constant “looking back’ in China, to it’s proud history and accomplishments. And as such, I find the Chinese, across all social classes, to be much more superstitious (Feng Shui, etc) and adherent to very traditional health, cooking and medical practices (Chinese medicine, acupuncture). I would also speak about food, and it’s importance to Chinese culture, and relationships. The average Chinese can explain to you why certain foods are healthy for you, because their parents passed on these notions, going back many generations. The average Chines person is much more passionate about food, and more knowledgeable about food than an American. This stems from the tight nit family, and the traditions of the family cooking together during holiday seasons. I don’t recall every cooking a turkey with my mom, on the occasion that I was home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Almost every Chinese person I know will go home to be with his/her family during the Chinese New Year.  
The Chinese are proud. Proud of their history, and ever more proud of their government. They can be very irrationally nationalistic, which I have heard explained as more of a love of history, and culture, than government. On any given night, you can find 4-5 channels showing the Chinese equivalent of a “Western” (Cowboy) tv soap opera or tv series, set in eras hundreds or even thousands of years gone by. They love to revel in their history, and reinforce the China’s great history, and culture. Korea and Japan are also very proud countries, but I find both to be inward looking (read xenophobic), and at the same time forward looking, and obsessed with modernity. China is equally proud, even more so, but it stems from a desire to return to the past glory.  
How is the role of the family different that then the American family? To many Chinese, family is the dominant force in their life.  
How is the Chinese dream different then the American dream? This is a hard one to answer. What I have observed, during this past decade, is that the average 20-30-something Chinese person is almost singularly focused on making money, and getting rich. It even encroaches on the family focus discussed above.  

Comment by rob on 2010-01-20 09:51:23
There was a correction made to the original article on a quote. It was Liah Greenfeld, not Drucilla Cornell who was quoted saying, "The USA will become like Switzerland but without the banks, making chocolate and cuckoo clocks for the Chinese consumer." You can find the GTBP coverage of The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis under the News Menu Tab above.

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Last Updated ( Jan 20, 2010 at 09:37 AM )

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