Tuesday, 31 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 ceremonies needed to be administered correctly to preserve harmony in the universe ... For this reason, etiquette has a much deeper significance in China than in the West. Etiquette and rituals are more than manners or politeness alone. These ancient rules are to some extent still applied in today's new China. Chinese etiquette rules are mainly connected to hierarchy and social position (ibid.).

The link between etiquette and hierarchy / social roles is fundamental. The formality of Chinese social life may not be noticed at once by foreigners. Chinese people seldom talk about their modes of social interaction in terms of formality or ritualism. They prefer to emphasize what they regard as the praiseworthy nature of their ethical norms. They tend to assume that the system of hierarchical social roles on which etiquette in China is based has a self-evidently moral quality; some people even consider it superior to the moral system of other nations. 

In ancient China, the formality of social interaction was far more obvious than it is nowadays. The following excerpt from the Book of Etiquette and Ritual shows how extreme rituals and etiquette could be in old China. The scene describes how a gentleman should behave when paying a visit to a man of higher rank:

When a gentleman visits an official, the latter declines altogether to receive his present. At his entrance the host bows once, acknowledging their difference in rank. When the guest withdraws, he escorts him and bows twice. When a gentleman calls on his former superior, the host formally declines the visitor’s gift: “As I have not been able to receive your consent to my declining, I dare not persist in it.” Then the guest enters, lays down his gift, and bows twice. The host replies with a single bow. When the guest leaves, the host sends the attendant to return the gift outside the gate. 
THE ATTENDANT: So-and-so sends me to hand back your gift. 
THE GUEST: Since I have already obtained an interview, I venture to decline to receive the gift. 
THE ATTENDANT: So-and-so has issued his commands to me, and I cannot myself take the initiative in this matter. I must press his request on you. 
THE GUEST: I am the humble servant of his excellency, and am not capable of observing the ceremonies of a visitor with his host; so I venture to persist in declining. 
THE ATTENDANT: Since So-and-do has ordered me, I dare not take it upon myself to make decisions in this matter, but persist in this request. 
THE GUEST: I have repeatedly declined, without receiving his honor’s permission to do so. How then dare I not obey? [He thus bows twice and receives the present back.] (Ebrey 2009, pp. 42-43).

Some people may question the importance of etiquette in the contemporary Chinese=speaking world, which many consider increasingly 'Westernised'. However, I believe we should look at this phenomenon from a different perspective. Social roles and hierarchies have been changing rapidly over the past one or two hundred years due to social, political, and economic transformations. Therefore, it is obvious that the society that Confucius and later generations of Chinese thinkers described and advocated doesn't exist any more in that particular form. 

Nevertheless, the relative importance of etiquette, ritualism and formality has remained. What has changed, are the social roles and hierarchies that they regulate. For example, the relationship between boss and employee, or that between employees, is an entirely new kind of human relationship that derives from the industrial restructuring of Chinese society. And yet, we find a high degree of formality and hierarchy in such relations. 

The relationship between boyfriend and girlfriend is also a modern phenomenon, since in old China engagements and marriages were mostly arranged by parents and the eligible age was much earlier than in contemporary society. Despite all this, we still find that social roles and hierarchy shape such unions. 

I would like to quote an excerpt from a recent Taiwanese romantic novel. Its target audience mostly consists of teenage girls. The protagonists are Boyan and Xiaowei. Boyan and Xiaowei are engaged, but at the beginning of the novel she breaks up with him because she isn't sure she loves him. But in the course of the book, he tries over and over again to win her back. After she has been 'saved' by Boyan, who prevented her new fiance from raping her, she begins to change her mind about him. In the following passage, Xiaowei brings him food she has prepared herself; as I will explain in another post, in traditional Chinese thinking the act of 'nourishing' someone has always been a central element of filial piety, and food is a way of showing care which reflects social and hierarchical roles. 

For instance, the Book of Rites, a Confucian classic, prescribes that children or daughters-in-law should never refuse the food offered by parents even if they dislike it. When parents give children food they show care and love, and children, who are hierarchically inferior to parents, are not entitled to refuse. Here we see how social roles are not based on feelings, dialogue, or mutual understanding, but on standardised patterns of behaviour, and on codified norms. 

In the following scene, Xiaowei, faithful to her social role, shows care by preparing food for Boyan. He dislikes the food, but he eats it, pretending to like it. On the other hand, Xiaowei refuses the drink offered to her by Boyan, but she expresses her worries that he might feel hurt by her refusal. Here we see the result of the relative disruption of old social roles, which have become somewhat more ambiguous. Having said that, Xiaowei's social role as a woman is still relatively fixed, and it is her being a woman which makes it more acceptable for her to refuse. On the contrary, a man is expected to show that he takes care of his woman, that he spoils her and perhaps, from a Western perspective, treats her as a child. His role as a saviour, caregiver, and family-oriented man is in many respects typical of the image of a man who can fulfill his social role properly.

The question asked by Boyan at the end also shows how the old practice of arranging marriages has not disappeared. In fact, after Xiaowei broke up with Boyan, her family, worried about her marital status, hurried to find for her another fiance, making it clear that it was her responsibility to get married soon. Overall, we observe in this passage that many of the elements of the past still exist, but that they are in a process of change and readjustment which does not necessarily lead to a 'Western'-style society. 


她打開便當盒, 拿出裡面的食物。 『算了。說了半天, 你應該俄了吧?』
『其實我...』剛吃完午飯不久。
『這是我親手煮的義大利麵, 還熱騰騰的, 你快嚐嚐看。』
李曉薇帶著一臉期待, 笑吟吟的看他。
『還有南瓜濃湯。』
『好。』
她開朗的笑靨, 讓柏岩不知該如何拒絕。
『味道怎麼樣?』
看他拿起刀叉, 捲起麵條, 她立即屏住呼吸, 揚起眉梢。
『很好吃。』
將過於綿軟且微冷的麵條放進口裡後, 柏岩卻給了她一個讚許的眼神。
『 沒想到, 妳這個太小姐也會自己煮東西吃。』
『其他我不會。但在米蘭待了兩年, 簡單的義大利麵還是會煮的。』
李曉薇滿意的喝了一口柏岩遞給她的綜合果菜汁,然後坐了個魁臉。
『我 向來不喜歡喝這種果菜汁, 覺得有股怪怪的味道。』
他立刻將手裡的柳橙汁換給她。『不喜歡喝就早點說。』
李曉薇若有所思地笑了笑。『說出來更好嗎? 如果我說我不喜歡, 然後拒絕你給的飲料, 會不會顯得不夠禮貌? 我好像... 向來不太懂得該怎麼拒絕別人。』
『幹麼勉強喝討厭的東西? 不懂得拒絕的後果, 只會讓自己感到不舒服。』
柏岩不贊同地皺起眉, 繼續吃著他無法『拒絕』的義大利麵。『所以, 妳也不懂得拒絕妳父親給妳安排的婚事。』
 
  
She opened a lunchbox and took out some food. “All right. We've been talking for a while. You must be hungry.”
“Well, actually ...” I've just had my lunch.
“This is pasta. I cooked it myself. It's still hot. Try it!”Li Xiaowei smiled at him with an expression full of expectation. “I've also brought pumpkin soup.”
“Okay.” When he looked at her bright smile, he didn't know how he could possibly refuse.
As she saw him take up fork and knife and roll the noodles, she held her breath and rose the tip of her brow. “How does it taste?” she asked.
“Delicious,” he answered. He put the noodles – which were way too soft and already cold - into his mouth, and then he looked at her with an expression of praise.
“I didn't know you can cook.”
“I can't cook anything else,” she said. “But I lived in Milan for two years, and at least I learned some simple pasta recipes.”
With a complacent air, Li Xiaowei took a sip of the fruit and vegetable juice that Boyan had given to her. As she drank, her face twisted into a grimace.
“I never liked this kind of juice,” she said, “I always thought it tasted weird.”
He immediately gave her the orange juice he was holding in his hand. 
“If you didn't like it you could have just told me at once.”
As if lost in thought, Li Xiaowei smiled at him. “Is it better to say it directly? If I'd said I didn't like it, and then had refused the drink you'd given me, wouldn't it have been too impolite? Apparently … I've never quite understood how to reject other people.”  
“Why force yourself to drink something you don't like? If you don't know how to reject others you'll just make yourself feel uncomfortable.”
Boyan disapprovingly knit his brows as he spoke. And yet he went on eating the pasta he didn't dare refuse. 
“So,” he continued, “don't you know how to reject the marriage your father has arranged for you, either?” (Tang Xin: Zhe Ci Wo Aishang Ni. Taipei 2013, pp. 72-73).

Thursday, 26 December 2013

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, despite more or less sporadic contacts. Before the 19th century, East Asian history was virtually independent from the events in other parts of the globe. Therefore, the cultural difference between Italy and Taiwan is much wider than that between Italy and other Western countries. 

I have seldom missed Italy, but I did miss Europe. When I came back, I felt somewhat relieved, I felt at home. Here I need no visa, I am familiar with the way of life and people's attitude. It was as if a burden had fallen off my shoulders. 

In this post I would like to talk about my impressions after returning to Italy from East Asia.

1- Efficiency


One of the first things one notices in Italy is inefficiency. The little problems one encounters everywhere are striking, unpleasant. Italy is indeed extremely disorganised. After I arrived at Milan airport I went to the ticket counter to buy a train ticket to Milan Main Station. It was 7.43 am. The staff told me the next train would depart one hour later... This is disheartening. However, there is a shuttle bus service that takes one to the station in less than an hour and departs every 20 minutes.

In Hong Kong, the express train from the airport to the city centre comes very often and it takes only 25 minutes to get to Central MTR station. Taipei is much worse than Hong Kong and is currently comparable to Italy, but a new underground connection to the airport will soon improve the situation. I guess that among developed countries Italy has one of the worst public transport systems. 

2 - Weather


Monday, 16 December 2013

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.


Saturday, 14 December 2013

"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 extol the virtues of Chinese society and ethics, while others blacken and stigmatize them.

As a foreigner, one is always confronted with traits of the host culture which appear shocking or hard to comprehend. As I have explained in my post about culture shock, the ways in which individuals react and adapt themselves to the life in a foreign country are manifold. Some people cannot cope with the challenge of adjusting themselves to a new environment and may develop a resentment towards the host culture. Others integrate themselves more or less smoothly. 

This is a problem that, as far as I have experienced, affects expatriates in general, regardless of where they come from. When I lived in Germany, I saw many Chinese, Koreans and people from other countries who did not feel comfortable in the new environment. For example, many Koreans, who are accustomed to a social order where etiquette, age, hierarchy etc. are important for the individual, find it hard to get used to a society that is based upon different values, where what they've learned to be just and right causes them to be scorned or derided, rather than praised. 

I remember when a Korean friend of mine once bowed to a professor as a sign of respect; in Germany, this is considered excessive, to say the least. He wanted to honour his professor as he had learned to do in his home country. He believed to be behaving properly, and yet he was met with ridicule by the other students, who giggled mockingly. Some expats who experience such situations may eventually mature a deep-seated hostility towards the host culture. They feel wronged and misunderstood by others and wish to go back to a social context where things are clear and predictable to them.

The myth of the 'deceitful Chinaman' developed in a somewhat similar way. In the past as in the present, Western people who live in China are confronted with behaviours that surprise them, offend them, even repulse them. Of course, not all expatriates have the same point of view. As the two aforementioned quotations show, the way in which people react to and interpret a new culture can be very different. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

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 goes up and down.

What's more, Taiwanese houses don't seem to be insulated. Many of them even have open spaces like huge windows which can't be closed at all. So, the cold can just get inside as it pleases. I find this rather uncomfortable and  it doesn't create a nice 'winter atmosphere'. Anyway, guys, take care and wear warm clothes both at home and outside. I'll go to take a rest.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

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 beginning of their colonial rule.


During The Qing Dynasty


In the Qing era, on around the same location of present-day National Taiwan Museum there was a temple: Tianhou Temple (天后宮), dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The left side of the temple (as seen from the north) was occupied by farmland or wasteland. On the right side there were houses and a street, called "Stone Memorial Archway Street" (石坊街). This street led from the temple to an arch that still exists today (Zhang / Huang 2000, pp. 24-25). The history of this arch is quite interesting.

In the Qing era, people had to undertake a long and difficult journey to Tainan, in Southern Taiwan, in order to participate to the imperial examinations. In the 6th year of Emperor Guangxu (1880) Hong Tengyun (洪騰雲), a rich merchant from Bangka, a settlement close to Taipei walled city, funded the construction of an examination hall (考棚) which accommodated more than 2000 students. The examination hall was located in the northeastern part of Taipei, approximately where Taipei Main Station stands now; it was later demolished by the Japanese.

The governor of Taiwan, Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳), asked the Qing court for the permission to honour Hong Tengyun with a memorial arch to celebrate the merchant's dedication to the common good (急公好義) (ibid., p. 80). 


The arch in honour of Hong Tengyun

The arch stands next to a temple; before it are placed a pair of stone lion figures. These figures used to stand in front of the Qing-era provincial administration office (台北府衙). In 1915, the Japanese tore down the office and moved the lions to Taipei Park (ibid.). 

Another arch that has survived is the arch in honour of a woman from the Huang family (to know more about the history of this memorial arch, read my post about memorial arches, state, and family virtues in imperial China). The arch in honour of the virtuous and exemplar wife and mother was erected by order of Emperor Tongzhi in 1882, close to East Gate (note). Later on the Japanese moved the arch to Taipei Park to make space for the residence of the governor-general (see Allen 2012, pp. 101-102).


The arch in honour of Huang

As Joseph Allen has remarked, the Japanese had a complex relationship with the culture of their colonial subjects. On the one hand, the Japanese empire was based on the idea that the Japanese were superior to the Han Chinese population of Taiwan. On the other hand, however, Chinese culture had been for centuries the model for Japan. Confucianism, Chinese characters, Chinese literature and poetry etc. were all integral parts of Japanese culture. Therefore, certain elements like the arches could be accepted and integrated into the Japanese colonial project. 

Japanese Era


The Japanese introduced Western-style buildings, facilities and public spaces into Taipei's urban planning. One of such innovations was the public park (Allen 2012, p. 91). During the Qing era, when half of the area of Taipei was farmland and the urban layout was basically premodern, there was no need for parks. Taipei was a rural town, not an industrial metropolis. 

The modern use of the Chinese word for park (公園) was a rendering of the Japanese koen (ibid.). Modern public parks were first created in Western cities to reproduce a "natural" space inside the bustling, fast, stressful urban landscape of the industrial age. They were places set apart from the densely populated and hectic urban districts, where people could experience nature, relax and find rest from metropolitan life (ibid.). The Japanese picked up this concept and in 1873 they designed their first public park, Ueno Park in Tokyo (ibid.). However, the Japanese version of the park had a somewhat different function: it was not a place to rest and preserve a natural and healthy environment, but a political, civic space.

As part of their urban restructuring of Taipei, the Japanese demolished most Qing-era buildings within Taipei walled city, most especially the religious and administrative buildings. Apparently, the Japanese felt the need to erase Taipei's Chinese imperial identity. They wanted to make clear that that was a new age, and the architecture of Taipei had to reflect the new Japanese-colonial reality.


The structure of the park has remained the same since the Japanese era, although a few new elements have been added, such as the amphitheatre (the white building on the right) and some Chinese-style pagodas. The path that cuts through the park is Qing-era "Stone Memorial Archway Street"

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Tianhou Temple and the surrounding buildings were demolished and a park was completed in 1908. It was called Taipei Park (台北公園). Since it was the second park to have been built in Taipei (the first being Yuanshan park in 1897), Taipei Park began to be called  by the locals "New Park" (新公園).

In 1915 the construction of the memorial hall for governor-general Kodama Gentaro and civil administrator Goto Shimpei, which is present-day National Taiwan Museum, completed Taipei Park and made it a central urban space of Japanese colonialism.