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Showing posts from December, 2013

Etiquette and the Problem of Rejecting in Chinese Culture

As I have explained in other posts, the function of etiquette and formality in Chinese culture is deeper and more substantial than one may assume in the West. Many foreigners in the Middle Kingdom have noted the importance of ceremony, ritual and etiquette in Chinese people's every day life. This should not be understood as a superficial phenomenon, but as a reflection of the very structure of Chinese society. In fact, formality is a result of the significance of hierarchy and social roles. 
That etiquette has always been a cornerstone of Chinese social interaction can already be seen in the works of Confucius. "Etiquette is nothing but reverence,” he argued. “If the father is revered, his sons will be happy; if the elder brother is revered, the younger brother will be happy; if a ruler is revered, all his subjects will be happy" (Boden 2008, p. 210).
As Jeanne Boden explains:
In ancient China the 'Ministry of Rites' was extremely important. All rites, rituals and c…

Travel Impressions – Differences Between Taiwan and Italy

Last week I returned to Italy after a whole year spent in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I believe I am not the only person who sees his own country in a different way after living for a long time abroad. 
From this point of view, my almost four years in Germany weren't as groundbreaking an experience as my two years in Asia. Germany and Italy are technically two separate countries with different culture and history. And yet, for hundreds of years they have been neighbours, they share a common set of values and historical developments. Greco-Roman civilisation, Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Discoveries, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Age of Nationalism, the two World Wars, and economic boom and many other historical processes are shared by most European countries. One can hardly explain the history of a single European country without talking about what happened in the others. 
East Asia, on the contrary, was for centuries isolated from the West, d…

The Myth of the "Deceitful Chinaman": A Few thoughts About Politeness and Etiquette in Chinese Culture

As I mentioned in my previous post, many Western observers and expatriates living in China have noticed a difference between the way Chinese and Westerners communicate. Chinese are often criticised for their alleged lack of 'honesty' and 'transparency'. In the 19th and early 20th century, there was a tendency to regard Chinese people's communication strategies as the result of the 'deceitfulness' and 'insincerity' of the Chinese.
In recent times, this interpretation has shifted towards a milder one, according to which Chinese value face-saving, unoffensive and indirect communication in order to avoid confrontation.
I would like to challenge this view and argue that the apparent 'indirectness' and 'vagueness' Westerners notice in China is rather the consequence of hierarchy, social roles, 'collectivism', and power distribution. 


Honesty vs Deference: Western and Chinese Views on Politeness and Etiquette
Let us briefly examine two …

"Do Chinese Lie?" - The Myth of the "Deceitful Chinaman"

A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he has to deal with; extremely covetous and deceitful ("China," Encyclopedia Britannica, 7th ed., vol. 6 [1842]; quoted in The Things They Say behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them, p. 115) They [the Chinese] are well-behaved, law-abiding, intelligent, economical, and industrious, - they can learn anything and do anything ... they possess and practise an admirable system of ethics, and they are generous, charitable, and fond of good works, - they never forget a favour, they make rich return for any kindness ... they are practical, teachable, and wonderfully gifted with common sense (Sir Robert Hart [1975]: The I. G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (2 Volumes), p. 27). 
These two extremely different generalisations about China symbolize the difficulty of Western observers to make sense of this country. Even today, there are Westerners who…

Taiwan's Weather and Cold Houses

If you go to Taiwan, one of the things you absolutely need to get used to is the cold at home during the winter. In fact, in Taiwan, parts of mainland China and other Asian countries there is no heating system at home.
I really want to tell you this because I got a cold this week and I'm feeling awful. The weather in Taipei is a big challenge for foreigners. Only two weeks ago it was as hot as summer. I think as late as last weekend I ate and enjoyed an ice cream, and I was still wearing shorts. 
Fooled by the heat, I underestimated Taipei's winter, which came all of a sudden this week. The temperature dropped from around 28-30 degrees to between 12 and 22 degrees; of course, this would make most Europeans smile, but it is a humid, nasty kind of cold. Since houses have no heaters the cold follows you everywhere, you just can't get rid of it. I guess people think it's not worth installing a heating system at home since the winter is short and the temperature constantly go…

228 Peace Park (Former Taipei Park)

The 228 Peace Park (二二八和平公園) may seem just a park like any other, but in fact it is one of Taipei's most interesting historic sites, full of hidden gems that reflect the political, urban, and ideological transformations of the city during the last two hundred years.



The park is located in the heart of Taipei, just a few minutes walk from Main Station and Bus Station. When I came to Taipei for the first time, I often walked around this area. I used to eat lunch in the food court of the Japanese department store Shinkong Mitsukoshi, which is inside one of the tallest buildings in the city. While strolling around, I noticed a nice neoclassical building surrounded by trees. Back then I didn't know that I was walking in the centre of both Qing-era and Japanese-era Taipei.
The neoclassical building is National Taiwan Museum, and the trees are part of the 228 Peace Park. Although the names do not suggest their origin, both the building and the park were built by the Japanese at the beg…