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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 texts that can shed light on the different way in which Chinese and Westerners perceive honesty and communicate with each other. The first text is the Liji (simplified Chinese 礼记, traditional Chinese 禮記; English: Book of Rites), a Confucian classic that prescribes the proper behaviour of individuals in society. The part that interests us here is the one which defines propriety within the family.


以適父母舅姑之所,及所,下氣怡聲,問衣燠寒,疾痛苛癢,而敬抑搔之。出入,則或先或後,而敬扶持之。進盥,少者奉盤,長者奉水,請沃盥,盥卒授巾。問所欲而敬進之,柔色以溫之 ... 

Nei Ze:
Thus dressed, they [husband and wife] should go to their parents and parents-in-law. On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are (too) warm or (too) cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if they be so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place. They should in the same way, going before or following after, help and support their parents in quitting or entering (the apartment). In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand the towel. They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they will do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease.... 


Nei Ze:
Sons and sons' wives, who are filial and reverential, when they receive an order from their parents should not refuse, nor be dilatory, to execute it. When (their parents) give them anything to eat or drink, which they do not like, they will notwithstanding taste it and wait (for their further orders); when they give them clothes, which are not to their mind, they will put them on, and wait (in the same way). If (their parents) give them anything to do, and then employ another to take their place, although they do not like the arrangement, they will in the meantime give it into his hands and let him do it, doing it again, if it be not done well. 


Nei Ze:
If a son have two concubines, one of whom is loved by his parents, while he himself loves the other, yet he should not dare to make this one equal to the former whom his parents love, in dress, or food, or the duties which she discharges, nor should he lessen his attentions to her after their death. If he very much approves of his wife, and his parents do not like her, he should divorce her. If he do not approve of his wife, and his parents say, 'she serves us well,' he should behave to her in all respects as his wife, without fail even to the end of her life.

From these excerpts we can clearly see that Chinese family life was (and still partly is) based on hierarchy and propriety. As I have already explained, Chinese collectivism is not to be understood as altruism, but as the social pressure applied to individuals in order that they may fulfill their proper social roles dutifully. The Liji shows how this principle works. The book does not talk about individuals; it defines abstract social roles that derive from blood relations, social position, age, gender etc. It is not proper for individuals to negotiate their attitude and relationship on an individual-to-individual basis. They must fulfill their proper social roles, no matter what they really feel or think. The husband should divorce his wife if his parents demand him to do so, because he is hierarchically inferior to his parents and neither his or his wives' feelings matter or need to be taken into consideration; the son and the daughter-in-law have to accept whatever food or clothes they receive from his parents without expressing their opinion or preference; they should display gentleness and pleasure while serving the elders, etc. The Liji is not a book about honesty, or the psychology of individuals. It is a set of instructions that aims at reducing individuality to its minimum and to make everyone fit into the 'proper' order of society. 

As Vivian Miu-Chi Lun explains:

The Confucian system of social regulation surrounds the five 'cardinal relations' ... which are characterized by social roles occupying specific positions in a social hierarchy. These five relations concern the relationships between: emperor and minister, father and son, husband and wife, brothers and friends, in which power differentials and duties prescribed for each occupant of the role relationship. To achieve harmony within a hierarchical social structure, each individual is expected to fulfill his or her role responsibilities according to the rules of propriety ... which refer to the norms and rules of proper behaviors in a social context. The task for each individual is to adjust to the hierarchical order of society and to behave according to the normative expectations of this social order, so that the whole society will be kept in a harmonious and orderly state. Ideally, such a social system would function like a well-designed machine, such that everyone fulfills his or her prescribed duties ... Consequently, society would progress in unity and without disorder and struggle (Huang/Bond 2012, p. 471).

According to the same principle, politeness and etiquette in the Chinese-speaking world are detached from the character and feelings of the individual. They are a set of formal and situation-based norms of behaviour and do not necessarily reflect the true self of a person. 

In the West, politeness and etiquette do not enjoy the same high reputation and solid social recognition they enjoy in East Asia. The reason is simple: in the West, formal and socially standardised behaviour may be easily perceived as deception or hypocrisy. And this is also the reason why the sensibilities of Westerners and Chinese can at times be different. 

A 19th century book by Cecil B. Hartley, The Gentlemen's Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, reveals this aspect. The author often feels compelled to defend politeness against the charge of being by definition a deception. According to Hartley, politeness is not and should not be a mere formality. It should rather be a reflection of an individual's character. Politeness and honesty are not regarded as opposed, but as compementary:

There is a difference between politeness and etiquette. Real politeness is in-born, and may exist in the savage, while etiquette is the outward expression of politeness reduced to the rules current in good society. A man may be polite, really so in heart, yet show in every movement an ignorance of the rules of etiquette, and offend against the laws of society. You may find him with his elbows upon the table, or tilting his chair in a parlor. You may see him commit every hour gross breaches of etiquette, yet you will never hear him intentionally utter one word to wound another, you will see that he habitually endeavors to make others comfortable, choosing for them the easiest seats, or the daintiest dishes, and putting self entirely aside to contribute to the pleasure of all around him. Such a man will learn, by contact with refined society, that his ignorance of the rules which govern it, make him, at times, disagreeable, and from the same unselfish motive which prompts him to make a sacrifice of comfort for the sake of others, he will watch and learn quickly, almost by instinct, where he offends against good breeding, drop one by one his errors in etiquette, and become truly a gentleman. On the other hand, you will meet constantly, in the best society, men whose polish of manner is exquisite, who will perform to the minutest point the niceties of good breeding, who never commit the least act that is forbidden by the strictest rules of etiquette; yet under all this mask of chivalry, gallantry, and politeness will carry a cold, selfish heart; will, with a sweet smile, graceful bow, and elegant language, wound deeply the feelings of others, and while passing in society for models of courtesy and elegance of manner, be in feeling as cruel and barbarous as the veriest savage. So I would say to you, Cultivate your heart. Cherish there the Christian graces, love for the neighbor, unselfishness, charity, and gentleness, and you will be truly a gentleman; add to these the graceful forms of etiquette, and you then become a perfect gentleman...

Do not look upon the rules of etiquette as deceptions. They are just as often vehicles for the expression of sincere feeling, as they are the mask to conceal a want of it. You will in society meet with men who rail against politeness, and call it deceit and hypocrisy. Watch these men when they have an object to gain, or are desirous of making a favorable impression, and see them tacitly, but unconsciously, admit the power of courtesy, by dropping for the time, their uncouth ways, to affect the politeness, they oftentimes do not feel.

Certainly, every Western might have a different perception of what politeness means. But I would argue that the majority of Westerners will agree that true politeness must come from the heart, must be rooted in the sincere intentions, the tactfulness, and the respect of the individual. It should not be a mere formality. And this is exactly the point that makes Westerners and Chinese so different. 

As we have seen in the Liji, relations between individuals in China tend to be more solemn, and regulated by a stricter and inflexible 'proper' order in which the feelings of the individual are subordinate to social roles. The Liji does not even mention honesty, hypocrisy, truthfulness etc as subjects worth discussing. What is important is that the individual accepts hierarchy and social duties and always acts properly. 

The next post, I will show through three examples - Six Records of a Floating Life, Eine Jugend in Hitlers Reich (A Youth in Hitler's Empire), and Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China - the effect of hierarchy and social roles on communication strategies both in the West and in China. 


  1. Couldn't agree more about the indirectness stemming from their hierarchy, power distribution and social roles. It's been one year since I moved to Taiwan, and I'm slowly learning how to communicate better with my employer. One thing I have learned is to use a lot of "maybes" to preface many of my requests or suggestions.

  2. Haha, funny, I also had to change my behaviour to adjust myself to the environment, but to be honest, I find it increasingly difficult. My understanding of politeness is very similar to that of Hartley's. I wish you happy year 2014 : )


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