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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…

Taipei Guest House (台北賓館)

Located between three major boulevards, Ketagalan Boulevard, Zhongshan South Road, and Park Road, Taipei Guest House (台北賓館) is one of the most prominent buildings of Japanese-era Taiwan. Nowadays the magnificent structure with surrounding park is under the administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (外交部), whose headquarters stands opposite the guest house. Taipei Guest House is used for important meetings, conferences, and to accommodate distinguished guests. During the Japanese colonial era, however, the function of the building was of a completely different nature.

National Taiwan Museum and Land Bank

National Taiwan Museum (國立臺灣博物館)
This European-style neoclassical building is located in the very heart of Taipei, close to North Gate, Taipei Main Station, the government district, the old National Taiwan University Hospital building, and adjacent to 288 Peace Park. Guanqianlu (館前路) leads directly from Taipei Main Station and Taipei Bus station to the museum, which is visible in the distance.


The museum was erected by the Japanese in 1915 in honour of governor-general Kodama Gentaro (兒玉 源太郎, 1852 – 1906) and civil administrator Goto Shimpei (後藤 新平 1857 – 1929). It is located on the site of Tianhou Temple (天后宮) which was built during the Qing Dynasty. In 1913, the Japanese tore down the temple, as they did with the majority of Chinese Imperial buildings in the city centre, and replaced it with the memorial museum as part of their project of urban restructuring of Taipei in order to transform it into a colonial capital. 

Taipei City Gates - From the Qing Dynasty to the Present

Taipei City Gates
The City Gates belong to the few remnants of Taipei walled city as it was built during the Qing Dynasty. As I explained in the previous post, the Japanese built the nucleus of their colonial capital in and around what used to be Taipei walled city. After demolishing the walls they constructed large boulevards, many of which run exactly along the former walls themselves. One can go on a tour of Japanese Taipei by simply walking from gate to gate, thus circling Qing Taipei and Japanese Taipei's government district. Let's now take a virtual walk around Qing Dynasty Taipei, starting from North Gate and ending at East Gate.
North Gate (北門)
There are two good reasons to begin our walk here. First, it is through North Gate that the victorious Japanese colonial troops entered Taipei in 1895. Second, this is the only gate that has remained unchanged since the Qing Dynasty, while all others have been transformed under the Guomindang government.  Therefore, one may say tha…

Taipei City Walls - From the Qing Dynasty to the Republican Era

As the economic and geopolitical importance of Taiwan grew following the two Opium Wars (1839 - 1842, 1856 - 1860) the Qing Imperial government decided to invest in the development of the island-frontier (see my post about Taipei under the Qing Dynasty). During the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1871 – 1908), Taipei became Taiwan's administrative centre and the city was gradually expanded. Shops, governmental offices, gates and city walls were constructed in this period. Many of the funds for the erection of the walls and the gates came from donations by local merchants and the gentry (Zhuang Zhangpeng / Huang Jingyi et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou [台北古城深度旅遊] Taipei 2000, p. 22-23). The gates and walls were completed in 1884 (on the map below you can see the approximate location of the city walls).




View Larger Map

However, the destiny of the Qing fortification reflects the turbulent history of both Taiwan and the Qing Empire. Only ten years later, the Japanese would annex Taiwan and …

Qing Dynasty Taipei - A Forgotten City

Qing Dynasty Taipei is a city enshrouded in mystery. Little has remained of what used to be the capital of Taiwan Province. However, the old city is still visible in the urban structure of contemporary Taipei City, and some interesting historic sites date back to the Qing era. 



Taiwan and Imperial China
It is hard to tell when Han settlers began to migrate to Taiwan. What is certain is that for a long time Taiwan was not included in the maps of the Chinese Empire and it remained beyond the scope of imperial expansion (Davison 2003, chapter 2).
By the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), however, Han settlements were already numerous, and Taiwan played an important role in imperial politics. In fact, Taiwan became the last stronghold of Ming Dynasty loyalists who resisted Qing rule. Zheng Chenggong, a supporter of the Ming, established a family dynasty on Taiwan that lasted until 1683. By the end of the Zheng era, the Han population of Taiwan is estimated to have stood at 150,000-20…

The Control Yuan (監察院) in Taipei (Former Taihoku Prefecture)

One evening I decided to walk from Gongguan to Taipei Main Station. I knew the section between Gongguan and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, because a few months earlier I had taken a taxi with a group of Western friends to go to a pub nearby. But I didn't know anything about the area between Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Taipei Main Station. I imagined I'd just see normal streets, all similar to one another, like ones usually sees in Taipei. 
It took me about 15 minutes to get from Gongguan to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. I went through Freedom Square and turned right. Using Shinkong Mitsukoshi (新光三越), which is the second tallest skyscraper in the city, for orientation, I walked along Zhongshan South Road. All of a sudden, there stood in front of me a huge Chinese-style Gate. Next to it, there was a Western-style building. When I looked around, I saw the silhouette of the Office of the President from afar, and another Western-style building, a very opulent one. 

As I contin…

Judicial Yuan of the Republic of China, Taipei (Formerly God of War Temple)

When the Japanese established their rule in Taiwan, they set about the task of transforming the face of the city. Architecture had a political and social function. The Japanese constructed edifices that symbolised modernity, power, and efficiency. Their architecture reflected the Japanese desire to emulate the West, its technology, institutions, and way of life. As I mentioned in a previous post, Western-style buildings also had an important psychological function: They showed that Japan  was equal to the West. Western-style buildings were to the Japanese what skyscrapers are to us nowadays - symbols of power, technological and social progress, and of status in the global community.



Upon their capture of Taipei the Japanese found a city built according to traditional Chinese patterns. There were gates, city walls, yamens (offices of imperial administrators), temples, and so on. While in some areas this kind of buildings remained untouched, in other areas, especially in the government d…

Original National Taiwan University College of Medicine (臺大醫學院舊館)

During the early years of Japanese rule in Taiwan, casualties among Japanese troops and colonialists were numerous. On the one hand, Taiwanese partisans fought bitterly against the Japanese, causing fatalities among the soldiers. On the other hand, the Japanese experienced difficulties in adjusting to the Taiwanese climate, so that illnesses were widespread. As a consequence, the colonial government established facilities where soldiers and civilians could be treated. 



Already in 1895 the Japanese founded the Dainihon Taiwan Hospital, which is today's National Taiwan University Hospital. Because there weren't enough Japanese doctors available, in 1897 an Academy of Medicine was founded, where Taiwanese doctors could be trained. In 1919 the institute was upgraded to a College of Medicine, and in 1936 it became the Taihoku Imperial University Department of Medicine (Taihoku was the Japanese name for Taipei).