If we were to characterise in one word the Chinese way of life for the last thousand years, the word would be Confucian. No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as well as millions more in Vietnam, Korea, Japan and even Europe and America (1)
Despite his influence, no other moralist has been more tenaciously attacked. The most recent attack being the one led by no less than Mao Tse Tung himself. Mao conceived an early and great hatred for him and decided to free China from his powerful influence which was, he said, "confusing, elitist and antiscientific" Nevertheless, and the point has been noted by many scholars, Mao's attitude was ambivalent and many facets of his own philosophy reflect elements of Confucianism. The Little Red Book to be studied and committed to memory, was not far from the adoration which used to be offered to the classics.
A good Chinese was supposed to be "red", meaning politically correct, before being "expert" which reminds one immediately of the Confucian principle that virtue should be the first quality of a ruler, coming before competence : professional expertise, without moral superiority, would be harmful, if not useless. The very essence of Confucianism still lies beneath the surface of maoism.
For 2000 years, though with variations, Confucianism was the official ideology of the empire, even if, at a later date, it was impregnated in its neo-confucianist version (eleventh century) by Buddhist metaphysics. Furthermore, for 1200 years since the Suei dynasty, Confucian books were the sole material for the civil service examination and for those scholars who aspired to be administrators. Scholarship in the classics continued up to 1911, ending when the traditional examination was abolished.
There are only two branches in the tree of Confucianism which still grow today. Singapore is to introduce Confucian ethics as part of its programme to teach religions in the schools as from the next academic year (1983?1984). Deputy Prime Minister Goh explained the rationale for this : "Confucius believed that unless a government was headed by upright leaders, the country would face disaster. This is also what the PAP government believes in ... The impact of Confucian ethics in Asia can be compared to that of protestant ethics in the United States. They both showed the importance of character in achieving business and professional success"
In Taiwan the government still performs the spring and autumn rites for the "Great Teacher" and a television channel turned the famous Analects into a popular series. Current textbooks, especially in primary schools also emphasise Confucian ethics as the source of all good and virtue, and filial piety, the all encompassing concept of Confucianism impregnates any story on television or in films.
Harmony in the social order
Far from evoking the supernatural, Confucius devoted most of his teachings to the attainment of social harmony through cultivation of the individual and virtuous government, the model of which laid in the golden ages of the past. Therefore, man had to be taught (be he a ruler or a commoner) that he was perfectible through education, a moral education able to develop his inner and inborn virtue. This is the origin of Chinese reverence for tradition and learning. Social harmony was achieved when the "Five Relations" were fulfilled ; four of them structure the group and are of a hierarchical nature: Prince - Subject, Elder - Younger, Father - Son, Husband - Wife the fifth relation being among friends.
This heavy commitment to the family unit and order has a few important consequences :
- an almost universal distrust among non?kin
- difficulty in communicating
- little interpersonal trust and confidence in cooperation outside the limited group
- little room left for initiative on the subordinate's part as obedience to elders is a must
- little attention paid to the affective aspects of interpersonal relations inside the family or to non-group relationships (2)
An important correction to the "dryness" of the scheme is the existence of friends who are part of the group. Friendship is highly praised and is described in its different versions (good, intimate, etc ... ) with a rich vocabulary. More than the wife or the family, intimate friends may be trusted and confided in. Heightened by the general lack of trust in interpersonal relations, a priority is given to the emotional content of friendship, therefore, one does not easily make friends with work associates or business acquaintances for fear of mixing feelings and self?interest, even be it legitimate. Friends, in fact, are frequently schoolmates (3)
Inside the family and the group emphasis is put on cultivation of the individual : to govern oneself in order to govern the house properly. Cultivation is the learning of received behaviour and stylised response, gentleness, controlled expression including a strong dislike of raw emotion and impulsive reaction. A man is not judged for himself in himself, but rather by the way he fits into the standard pattern of interpersonal relations within the group. This politeness is not courtesy and should not be mistaken for it, as we too often do : it is adherence to a formal model, the very way a man is a gentleman, meaning a man of "virtue".
Anger and other extreme emotions will be met with even more soft?spoken language and even more smiles. This is where the very essence of face lies : the recognition by others of an ability to uphold the commitment to interpersonal relations as fixed in the generally accepted Confucian pattern.
Education is part of cultivation and therefore is equally stressed. The family being the basic unit and a formal model for society, school is largely identified with the family, and plays a leading role in socialisation. Among the recurrent themes, are :
- the respect for teachers and scholars (naturally classified as elders), traditionally the prominent class in status if not financially
- the importance of academic achievements and examinations
- the cult of diplomas
- the re?expression of the family hierarchy in schools (director, chiefs of section, teachers, student leaders, etc. )
- the stress (in textbooks and elsewhere) on filial piety, duty, diligent and successful study, acceptance of authority
- the school as the primary place for making friends, therefore of utmost importance for the enlargement of one's group
- the cradle of ethnocentrism
Interpersonal relations in business
The social distance, reluctance to make easy friends, lack of models for the resolution of conflicts (being of an antisocial nature they escalate with unexpected speed), formalism in relations with authority, absence of delegation of power, a certain denial of opposition (even constructive) create overall a hostile environment (4)
A self-defence exists : the guanxi, an overly simple translation of which would be "personal relations". The guanxi is in fact a group including family, friends and acquaintances in a sphere of influence or a small lobby. It is described also by a very rich vocabulary and integrates friendship, origin , affinity, duty, self-interest, schoolday relations, etc. The social space is generated by such volumes, the density and weight of which also corresponds to face : face grows with the importance and quality of one's guanxi (social nexus), that is to say :
- social space means society at large,
- volume is the importance of the guanxi
- density is the quality of the guanxi
- face integrates importance and quality.
Bureaucracy being beyond human comprehension and out of reach of the individual, the aspiring suppliant must search for a suitable bureaucrat who will have a guanxi with the bureaucrat in charge of receiving the application, and must then visit the said bureaucrat in the company of the former. Generally, no appointment is made since either being late for the appointment, or being forced to wait, would be equally damaging to the face of both sides. This is the reason why Chinese offices often seem open to all winds. In fact they are not ; they are only open to the guanxi of the office holder. Naturally, such visits involve a great deployment of courtesy, ritual formulas, bows and other formalities confirming each side in his own hierarchical position.
Ritual business lunches or dinners fulfill another important function in the good exercise of the guanxi for they are not only for business, as very often believed. The banquet is primarily aimed at strengthening bonds in the organisation ; in that respect, loss of sobriety is almost imperative, to reduce tensions, to facilitate communication, and to allow what the prevailing pattern of interpersonal relations forbids.
If a foreigner is included, which is the general case in business contacts, he should be aware of a few facts. The apparent disorder in the seating arrangement is the supreme order. Gentlemen fighting five good minutes to sit on the low side of the table (i.e., with their back to the door) know perfectly well where to sit. The fight is a mere manifestation of cultivation, an ever repeated test of politeness. This is also a good test for foreigners whose attitude is carefully watched and analysed. He will be judged, at the beginning at least, following very ethnocentric criteria. To win acceptance, he will have to display the manners of a Chinese gentleman (a bit of Chinese language helps enormously) :
- anonymity in dressing : there is a businessman's uniform which tends to be sloppy rather than elegant
- modesty in speech : boasting is not a "done" thing and arrogance is the worst of all sins
- softness in behaviour : a gentleman never talks too loudly unless he is drinking or drunk, then he can shout and add to the general merriment
- courtesy in toasts : it is a rite to invite every one individually to drink a cup, preferably in the hierarchical order
- capacity in drinking : Chinese drink very little, except on these occasions; if the host and the guests are blind?drunk, it is a good omen
- appetite in food : ethnocentrism is very sensitive on food ; cooperation, or even enthusiasm, is highly appreciated
A useful complement to banquets is the exchange of small gifts, also highly appreciated because it shows what is called a "personal style".
The banquet might also help to ascertain the composition of a possible negotiating team and its internal structure. This is of utmost importance since Chinese have always been credited with being skilful negotiators.
In the continuous fight "authority versus influence"(5) (i.e. guanxi), the latter regularly wins, other than in exceptional cases, for decision-making relies heavily on consensus which has to be reached inside the organisation. Furthermore, any compromise with the preset limits or any mistakes during negotiations would be severely criticised within the organisation and result in a considerable loss of face. A failure in negotiation, unless there are excessive demands by the other side, is equally dangerous because the very fact of engaging in talks presupposes, at least, some progress.
Last but not least, Chinese generally insist on reaching an agreement on items of general principle, more philosophical in nature than matters of fact, but nevertheless a potential weapon if the negotiations turn sour.
All these considerations account for the fact that Chinese negotiators are stubborn and display an enormous patience in repeating, over and over, the same arguments.
Such strategy :
- wins time for further discussion or a consensus if need be
- gives the feeling of monolithic determination
- breaks the nerves of the other side who frequently change their approach in order to bypass the deadlock so giving way to logical contradiction
- is frequently linked to the use of not directly relevant arguments of weak points (logical contradictions), and to an appeal to the general principle of friendship, cooperation, etc.
- enables the negotiators to avoid the terrible responsibility of breaking the talks.(6)
Advice to the outsider The Chinese sociological landscape is, to a certain extent, frozen, as far as interpersonal relations are concerned. Being frozen, any unexpected event, or new face, is something of an upsetting nature ; any action without precedent is looked at with extreme caution. This is particularly true in the administration of large and old organisations where tradition, exalted respect for it, and little effective cooperation creates the famous Chinese bureaucracy. The bureaucracy (guanliao) is an unchanged world since the days of the Empire.
A subtle and intricate hierarchy where everybody is called by his title atomises the decision-making process. Fear of responsibility causes a slow progress of papers with an extraordinary accumulation of seals. Letters are still written in the literary style, which is quite practical for hiding responsibilities behind the evasiveness of a language not oriented towards theoretical reasoning.
Decision-making speed is low also because of the necessity to convene innumerable meetings, the only way to achieve consensus. However, once a decision is reached, implementation can be surprisingly fast.
For an outsider, it is considered a basic requirement to have some sort of guanxi inside the organisation to achieve anything. Personal relationships are much more effective than formal ones, especially since people feel compelled to help and to ask for assistance. This is also part of the eternal "face".
It would be rather futile to attempt to try to give a definition of "face". It is not "machismo", "humbria" "honour", or whatever skin?sensitiveness is otherwise called. It is essentially "you", a "you" evaluated in terms of ability to stick to the standard of interpersonal commitment, to fulfil the duties to a group of known others. Face is the group evaluation of your reliability in dealing with it according to pre?set patterns.
Face is all important, and to lose face is to give up all hopes of ever cooperating with the person concerned. To give face to somebody is to enhance his position in his group to valourise him in front of his quanxi: it more than obliges, it absolutely compels him to reciprocate, if need or opportunity arises. Let us underline the fact that it is not mercantilism or simple exchanges of services : it is the very way things are done among gentlemen and all men, through cultivation, are potential gentlemen.
Any new contact will have to surmount the reluctance to make easy friends, the strict separation of public and private business, and the assessment of potential loss of face risks before engaging on a more intimate road. The whole exercise is lengthy, difficult, perilous, and constantly appraised. Chinese are extremely tolerant in a lot of fields but not forgiving in matters related to the breaking of the Confucian code of etiquette.
Notes and references
(1) William Th. de Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York : Columbia University Press, 1960.
(2) Robert H. Silin, Leadership and Values, the organization of large-scale Taiwanese enterprises. Cambridge,Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1976.
(3) Kenneth E. Folsom, Friends, Guests and Colleagues. University of California, 1968.
(4) and (5) See reference 2.
(6 ) Ogura Kazuo, How the "inscrutables" negotiate with the inscrutables : Chinese negotiating tactics vis a vis the Japanese, The China Quarterly, 79, 9, 79.
© Michel Deverge and Euro-Asia Business review, vol 2, n° 3