Proverbs Bring Profits in Chinese Business

06/16/2015 02:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

The best business negotiators know how to respond to their client's needs while taking care of business at home. Getting the best deal in China requires a combination of knowledge and tact. Chinese business negotiations have an added ingredient that can make or break any deal - a cultural literacy of China that is revealed in the language of business negotiations.

The Chinese language is full of four-word phrases that the Chinese use as a sort of linguistic shorthand. These are called chengyu, literally "set phrases." Chengyu can best be compared to tales from Aesop's Fables that are used to teach a lesson through a story.

Like Aesop's tales, most chengyu have their origins in ancient China, but they are still frequently used in today's China. They date from an era when China was composed of competing states that were constantly at war with one another and engaged in elaborate diplomatic maneuvering. These situations required tact and discretion, thus chengyu are most useful in difficult business situations. Using chengyu will allow you to elegantly point out a problem without fear of insulting your Chinese counterpart.

Using chengyu will set you apart from the competition. You will establish a reputation as a business professional who has done his homework and has a genuine respect for Chinese culture. There are thousands of chengyu, but below are some you might find useful in Chinese business negotiations.

Haste Makes Waste!
Ba Miao Zhu Shang (pull up, shoots, help, grow)
Pity the poor people of the state of Song, in today's Henan province. They were the perpetual butt of ancient Chinese jokes, even among Chinese philosophers. Mencius (372-289 BCE), a follower of Confucian philosophy, gives us this tale about a farmer from Song to illustrate the consequences of those who seek a quick profit instead of patiently nurturing a project to fruition.

Long ago, a farmer of Song looked at his rice field and worried about the yield of his crop and his profit. The farmer finally hit upon an idea to ensure the growth of his crop and ensure his profits. Rushing to his rice field, he pulled each rice shoot upward to speed its growth, and returned home to report upon the great success of his plan for profit.

Don't want to insult your Chinese counterpart by telling him his idea is foolhardy and likely to kill the deal? Instead, try a short reference to the misinformed farmer of Song who killed his crops in his foolish and hasty search for profits.

You Contradict Yourself
Zi Xiang Mao Dun (self, reciprocal, spear, shield)

What can you say when your Chinese counterpart makes an impossible claim about his product or service? A chengyu with a reference to an ancient Chinese tale about arms and armor will allow you to point out the impossibility of his claims in a "to the point" manner. This story is from the writings of the philosopher Han Fei (ca. 280-233 BCE), a philosopher who belonged to the school of Legalism. Legalism assumed that people were naturally evil and advocated a strict system of rewards and punishments. Han Fei lived during the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE.)

During the Warring States Period seven states made war against one another. In the state of Chu (in China's Yangzi River region) an arms peddler brought his wares to the market and boasted of their excellence. "My shields are so strong that no spear can pierce them," he boasted. As the crowd gathered around his wares, he continued to boast. "My spears are so strong that they can pierce through the strongest shield," he bragged. At this, a man in the crowd shouted: "What would happen if you used one of your shields to defend yourself against one of your spears." When the peddler could not answer, the crowd began to laugh. He left the market without making a single sale.

Leave Well Enough Alone
Hua She Tian Zu (draw, snake, add, feet)

Sometimes it's a good thing to know when enough is enough. Once you've added all the bells and whistles to a product, service or contract, adding more can sink the entire deal. In the West, we speak of gilding the lily; adding gold to an already beautiful flower. The result will be a dead flower. In China, they speak about drawing a snake and adding feet, another tale from the Warring States (475-221 BC) era.

A large household gathered to make a sacrifice to the family ancestors. At the end of the ceremony, the master of the house rewarded his servants with a vessel of leftover sacrificial wine. But the jug was small, and the servants numerous. They decided to have a drawing contest--the prize was the wine. The first servant to complete a picture of a snake would be the winner.

One of the servants completed his picture before the others. Seizing the wine as his prize, he mocked his fellow servants by then adding feet to his drawing. When the next servant completed his drawing, he said: "Snakes do not have feet; so that is not a snake." He snatched back the wine and drank it himself.

A Setback May Turn into an Advantage
Sai Weng Shi Ma (border, old man, lose, horse)

At times, what appears to be a setback can actually turn out to be "the best bad thing" for a business deal. At least one can hope so, and make a reference to the old man of ancient China who lived on the frontier. At the very least, a business setback can give you the chance to display your knowledge of Chinese chengyu and your determination to see the good in a bad situation.

An old man, known for his clear-sighted philosophy, lived with his only son on the northern grasslands near the Great Wall. Here, they raised horses, letting them graze freely on the grasslands. One day, a servant reported that one of the man's prize mares had wandered north into the lands inhabited by the Hu people. But the old man responded cheerfully: "Who knows! This loss may bring us good fortune." Later, the mare returned home accompanied by a fine steed from the Hu tribe's herds. But the old man said: "Who knows! This might bring ill fortune."

One day, the old man's son was riding the new steed. He fell, breaking his hip so that he was crippled. But again, the old man was philosophical saying: "Who knows! This may bring good fortune." When Hu troops crossed the frontier line, all young and strong men took up arms to defend their territory. Most were slaughtered on the battlefield. But the old man's son, a cripple, was spared.

You can also use this phrase when good business turns sour. But hopefully, your skill with chengyu will so impress your Chinese business partner that your negotiations will all be successful and you won't need to do so.

Let's All Pull Together!
Tong Zhou Gong Ji (same, boat, together, cross)

Business negotiations can sometimes feel like competitions instead of efforts to achieve a common goal. Sometimes the cause is different business style and cultural expectations. The ancient Chinese story of cooperation between competing states can acknowledge the difficulties. At the same time, it can illustrate your knowledge of chengyu and Chinese culture, and your desire to work in a cooperative spirit to achieve a shared goal.

During the Spring and Autumn period (770-221 BCE) two neighboring states, the state of Wu and the state of Yue, were continually involved in strife against one another. One year, torrential rain and wind caused a terrible flood and brought destruction throughout the region. The people had to rely upon wooden boats that rocked precariously in the strong wind. People from Wu and Yue realized they had to cooperate and work in unity to reach the shore safely and survive. They then worked harmoniously to achieve the best outcome for all concerned.

You don't need to speak a word of Chinese to negotiate successfully with the Chinese. But a basic literacy of Chinese culture can make any deal go more smoothly and pave the way for future deals. You can mention these chengyu stories to help during difficult negotiations. The Chinese will fully understand your meaning, your respect and your desire to work with them towards a positive conclusion. There are thousands of chengyu used by the Chinese. Aside from being a tool for business in China, a familiarity with these phrases provides a broad education in Chinese language, history and philosophy.