THE BLOG
08/20/2007 06:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Chinese Culture and the Chinese Language

In order to "succeed" in China on both personal and professional levels, the Chinese worldview and Chinese behaviors must be explored with archeological rigor and a ruthlessly open mind.

What is ChineseCulture?

What is this so-called Chinese "world view." Everything that distinguishes China from any other country - Tang dynasty poetry, city layouts, furniture design, imperial law, Hello Kitty fan clubs, calligraphy, the cult of Mao, porcelain, the Starbucks craze, tin foil airports - can ultimately be boiled down to a unifying belief: the only absolute good is stability; the only absolute evil is chaos.

Stability and Balance.
All strands of indigenous Chinese philosophy or religion are explicitly geared to the preservation of stability and balance. Daoism teaches that the universe has a natural design - as encapsulated in the ba gua - which explains everything from the stars in the sky to the grains of sand on the ground. And man had better accept and snuggly fit into that structure. Confucianism is about societal order. Individuals and inalienable individual rights are not relevant. The basic productive unit of society is the clan. Each Chinese exists somewhere within a very regimented, very intricate hierarchy. That hierarchy mirrors the natural order in heaven. Trouble in the fields means trouble in the stars. Fortune in the bedroom is linked to fortune in heaven. A spoke in that wheel makes the flow wobble and, poof, you're dust. Everything must be aligned lest disaster break out.

(BUT...it's not quite that simple. Anyone who has spent more than three minutes in the PRC knows the place, and everyone in it, is almost insanely ambitious. Just try crossing the street during rush hour. You need to bring a gun. It's a dog eat dog world. Getting rich, showing off, climbing ladders, booming oration, oozing machismo...it's very Chinese (and not at all Japanese). If order is so sublime, why isn't caution the only game in town? The answer: Confucianism is not only about societal order. It is also very ambitious. Through Chinese history, until Deng Xiao Ping's economic reform era, advancement was only possible by internalizing, mastering, and memorizing both the "rules of the game" and the structure of the universal harmony. Confucian society is the world's first social mobile society. It is a paradoxical blend of regimentation and ambition. This uncomfortable tension is found only in China and to a lesser extent in Vietnam and Korea.)

Language and Conformism

"Culture" is not the only factor that hammers home the importance of order and discipline. The Chinese language, itself a window to the Red Heart, does too. The Chinese tongue is a lot like an algebra equation. Elegantly complex, it's ultimately structured and quantifiable. To foreign speakers, Chinese has five "traps" -characteristics that, in effect, limit access to full understanding of the written language: (1) the use of characters, (2) the gray area between characters and "words," (3) the prevalence of "condensed meaning" phrases, (4) extremely rigid sentence structure, and (5) the ubiquity of "measure words." (The more you study, the more ignorant you feel.) Together, they not only keep foreigners at a distance but also buttress the importance of conformity. The inflexibility of Chinese also militates against linguistic dynamism and semantic evolution. Even considering the early twentieth century death of classical Chinese, contemporary Mandarin is beautiful but a bit ossified, surprisingly similar to what was written 2,000 years ago.

First, Chinese characters are very complex. (The number of characters is a matter of some debate. The Kangxi Dictionary lists about 40,000 characters, while the modern Zhonghua Zihai lists in excess of 80,000. To be considered literate, one must know at least 2,000. Educated people know between 6,000 and 10,000. Good non native speakers recognize more than 3,000.) Without willful memorization, there is no way to master them and no two are contextually identical. Every character contains a "radical" or bu shou, one of over 200 meaning "hints" that categorizes -- and fixes -- a word's essence. All characters, therefore, are "slotted" into one of 200 conceptual straight jackets. There's no way to look up a word in the dictionary without knowing its classifier(s). For hundreds and hundreds of years, no bu shou has been invented. The stroke sequence of each written character is also non negotiable. (School children get their knuckles rapped for incorrect order.) To communicate, conformity is mandatory.

Second, individual characters are not "words." They are concepts, more than a morpheme but less than a dictionary entry. (Single-character words are, yes, unbalanced.) Wei "Real" words are character combinations, usually two together. The meaning, context, and flavor of each and every word are more or less fixed. "Manifestation" will always have a "material" or "physical" and "shining" feel. "Rape" can not be associated with men, only women. "Heaven," vivid and concrete, is a glorious palace on clouds, not Western religion's utopian abstraction. In stark contrast to English's dynamism, every Chinese word has a concrete "core," a non debatable, inflexible, immutable, static constant. To write, conformity is obligatory.

Third, abstruse cheng yu -- i.e., ancient four-character maxims that are used in modern Chinese -- show up everywhere.
So do four- and eight-character political slogans (and other sayings). Yi ju liang de more or less means "killing two birds with one stone." Lai re fang chang fuses "Rome wasn't built in a day", "All roads lead to Rome", and "Good things come to those who wait" into a demand for patience and perseverance. But wait. Let's not forget endless two-character "abbreviations." The Tiananmen Square "incident" is referred to simply as liu si, or "six four" (which itself is short for the date on which the tragedy occurred). Beijing University (Bei jing da xue,) is always shortened to "Bei Da." Newspaper headlines are loaded with these two-character traps. In order to be truly well-versed in pithy proverbs, condensations, and abbreviations, a foreigner must spend years on Chinese soil buried in books. Chinese vocabulary is inaccessible to all but the faithful and true. Only one who has been educated in politically- and culturally-correct boot camps, can speak with true grace.

Fourth, sentence structure is etched in stone. Grammatical simplicity -- i.e., lack of conjugations, tenses, inflections, and articles -- renders strict word order the only way to avoid ambiguity. In English, we can say, "I'm taking my pretty girlfriend to the airport at seven o'clock" or "My pretty girlfriend is being taken by me at seven o'clock to the airport" or "At seven o'clock, I will take my pretty girlfriend to the airport." Mandarin leaves no choice; one must say "seven-hour-I-take-my-pretty-girlfriend-arrive-airport." The concrete -- in this case, time -- always precedes the abstract. The "solid" always takes precedence over the ambiguous. In addition, sentences should be "balanced" and symmetrical. Our metronomic, restrained "not only, but also" construction has at least twenty Chinese equivalents. Speech, therefore, is "harmonious" (not lopsided) and obeys the rules.

Finally, "measure" or "counting" words ensure that nouns -- each and every one of them -- are clumped into no more than forty or so concrete categories.
In English, we can say, "a chicken, two chickens." In Chinese, the chicken must be "classified" as a zhi; it is slotted into the same category as other small mammals and birds (dogs, cats, pigeons). A table is a zhang, as are other flat, thin, slab-like objects (tickets, slabs, dominoes). An ordinary person is a ge. A high-status individual, on the other hand, is a wei. In order to count with dignity, respect for preordained labeling is strongly advised.

What's the point? Adherence to convention occurs with every utterance. In the PRC, you can't open your mouth without signaling embrace of the Chinese worldview. Such an air doesn't exactly fuel challenge to conventional wisdom. Once again, the supremacy of order manifests itself in the crannies of social consciousness.