The Chinese Logic Puzzle

How Cultures Think, a Cross-cultural Tour; Part II

Dean Foster
Mar 9, 2017 · 13 min read
© Attila Jandi |

Here’s the second part of a chapter from my next book, How the World Thinks.

“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill’s famous remark concerning Russia may apply equally well to China. To Western observers, China and Chinese behavior certainly has appeared confounding over the centuries, but we can be sure that Western behaviors have been equally confounding and challenging for the Chinese to understand. In many ways, there are no two cultures more different than China and the US, and it’s a wonder that Western and Chinese business, government and social relations actually succeed to the degree that they do, given the significant cultural challenges. In fact, most individuals involved with China and the West, on either side, will tell you that the cultural differences are ultimately the biggest challenge for any interaction.

A seasoned “old China hand” (an experienced Westerner working with the Chinese) once stated that “it’s really easy to work with the Chinese … all you have to remember is to do everything the opposite of the way you would do it in the West.” Simplistic, perhaps, but not unwise. Consider, for example, the fact that Chinese culture has been around for over 5,000 years; US culture has been around for about 350 years. For almost the totality of those 5,000 years, China viewed itself as “The Middle Kingdom,” meaning that it was the center of world, with the rest of the world revolving around China. It wasn’t until 2001 that the leader of China actually left China to meet with other world leaders: for 5,000 years, up to that point, if you wanted to do business with the Chinese, you went to the emperor — the emperor did not come to you. 90 percent of the Chinese are ethnically homogeneous Han Chinese, and China, approximately as large as the contiguous continental United States geographically, has one unifying time zone. The contiguous US has four time zones, and 99 percent of the population of the US is made up of people who themselves, or their parents or grandparents, came from everywhere else. China has more than 15 cities with a population of over 5,000,000 people — each! — and just the statistical deviation used when measuring the population of China is itself equivalent to the entire population of the United States. China is geographically 180 degrees opposite the US (it is after all, on the “other side” of the world, and exactly 12 time-zones away from Eastern Standard Time: when in NYC, just flip the a.m. and p.m., and that’s the time in China). It is also socially, politically, and, most important, culturally “opposite” the US.

So the old China hand’s observation about doing things opposite isn’t exactly wrong. But like all things Chinese, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and I learned about some of the critical cultural complications when I first started going to China, back in the 1980s, when the US still referred to the mainland as “Red China”; when the economic reforms that unleashed the modern Chinese dragon had not yet been put in place; and when Pudong, now the gleaming iconic symbol of modern China, with its business towers and neon-lit Western hotels, was just a sleepy patch of farmland across the river from a still very colonial Shanghai.

Today, when I stroll the Bund (the waterside park) on the Shanghai side of the river, I am one of many Westerners, among tens of thousands of Chinese and other tourists from around the world, and I am mainly unnoticed. But that wasn’t always the case; when I first came to Shanghai, I couldn’t stroll but a few feet on the Bund before I would surely be stopped by a Chinese local:

“Speak English?” he would say, always with a big smile.
“Yes,” I would respond.
“Can we be friends?”

And that was the beginning of a conversation that always revealed more about the differences between how Westerners and Chinese think than anything actually discussed.

For one thing, my Chinese colleague rarely spoke English well enough for any substantive discussion, and my Mandarin was barely existent (not to mention my totally nonexistent Shanghainese, the local dialect of Shanghai). So there were lots of silent spaces, filled with awkward smiles, as each of us tried to figure out what the other was actually saying in English. As a Westerner, I was an object of intense interest, especially for those Chinese who were studying English, and apparently there were thousands of them here in Shanghai. Here I was, a real English-speaker, with whom they could practice their English, and perhaps learn a bit more about the West along the way, and there simply weren’t many of us around at the time. Every five or 10 feet along the long stretch of the Bund, children rushed up to touch me and old people stared. You could meet a lot of people, and when one conversation petered out, there was always another waiting to be had just a few feet away.

If there was enough English to get us beyond a first few hesitant pauses, like all conversations between strangers, pleasantries would then be exchanged, and here is where the cultural differences would start to emerge. For starters, I quickly learned not to ask if people were married, or how many children they had. For one thing, it was extremely odd in those days, and for the most part still is, for any adult in China to not be married, and because of the government’s strict one-child-per-family policy, people did not speak about the number of children they had or didn’t have. It was always a source of embarrassment, or at the minimum, discomfort, but, because of cultural differences, this discomfort would be expressed in uniquely Chinese ways, at first often unnoticed by me:

“How many children do you have?”
“Sorry, not too many.”
(Silence: me trying to figure this out)
“Oh, and do you and your wife live here in Shanghai?”
“Her mother lives with her.”
(Silence: me trying to figure this out)
“So, what do you do?”
“I am a teacher.”
“What do you teach?”
“About the glorious Chinese people.”
“You teach history?”
“No, about important Chinese people and how to be a good Chinese person.”
(Silence: me trying to understand the subject he teaches)
“What is your name?”
“Peng Hsui, sorry.”
(I try it)
“Very good, you speak Chinese very well.”
(I know I’ve made a botched job of it when I ask him to repeat his name, and it doesn’t sound anything like what I just said.)
“No, I’m afraid I don’t know how to speak Chinese at all.”
“No, you should not be afraid, am I frightening you? Sorry! Please, I hope I don’t frighten you, you are a brave and very good Chinese speaker, I can tell. It is my English that is not good at all.”
Then abruptly, he adds: “Do you like Chinese people?”
“Yes, your country is remarkable.”
“We are not as advanced as your country. We can learn a great deal from America.”
Sensing a possible opening for a more robust discussion, I wade in: “What do Chinese people think of America today?”
(His silent moment)
Smiling, he answers: “What’s your favorite Chinese food?”

At this point, there aren’t many places I feel the conversation can go, and there are now other Chinese who are joining us on our walk, asking me the same questions over again, eager to practice their English. I politely excuse myself, find my way to the vast boulevard separating the Bund from the old colonial buildings of Shanghai, wait for the light to turn green in front of the giant statue of Mao, and cross the street to a taxi that will take me back to my hotel, replaying the recent conversation in my head in an effort to try to understand what it was really about.

I had these conversations with Chinese “friends” on the Bund, and with myself afterward, many times since that first one back in the ’80s, and while China certainly has come a long way since, and many more Chinese speak much better English today (nobody asks you if they can speak English with you on the Bund anymore), these kinds of opaque and somewhat mysterious conversations still occur, between new acquaintances, between old friends, between businesspeople. It is the communication behavior of a culture that is based on a very different set of values from Western cultures, resulting in information processing and communication styles that can seem mysterious and opaque to westerners because that is precisely what the culture requires.

On my first trip to Beijing, many years later, I treated myself to a tour of the city; however, in order to get in to see many of the sites, I would need to be escorted by a Chinese tour guide. Despite the affront this presented to my independent American spirit, I signed up for a private day tour with a service recommended by the hotel. There are many such tour services in China, and the one I chose was, in the end, more than competent; however, all are there to accomplish what is obvious … and also not so obvious. In China, things are always more than what they appear to be. While ostensibly serving a growing tourist market and providing a satisfactory experience for their clients, the tour guide is also there to ensure that independent foreigners do not get themselves in trouble, do not wander off to see and do things the government would rather they not see or do, and to, if necessary, report any concerns they may have with the foreigner and their activities in China. Every tour guide must be licensed by the government, which means that they are in the client’s service as well as in the service of the government of the People’s Republic of China.

This made for interesting moments as I toured Beijing with Zhang. Especially when we visited Tiananmen Square, the site of the massacre by the People’s Army of many young students demonstrating for more democracy in 1989.

“And here we are in the great square of Tiananmen,” Zhang said as she led me into what is one of the world’s largest and most impressive of all urban squares, surrounded as it is by the Great Hall of the People, other major government buildings, and huge boulevards that keep the traffic moving and form a tactical constraining barrier around the square. She was pointing out all the major sites of the square when I said,
“Zhang, you know in my country, and many others, there was and still is great concern for what happened here.”
“I understand there are many opinions,” she said.
“I wonder, what can you tell me about what happened here?”
There was thoughtful silence at this point, and then she said,
“Let’s just say that we know that the Western media reported a great many deaths; however, our media did not.”
We continued to walk, and I sensed an uncomfortable change in mood. I was about to say something, when she interrupted me quickly: “If we are to see everything on our tour, we need to move quickly. This way, please,” and I was on the mini-bus on to the next site.

What we are seeing in both the Shanghai and Beijing conversations are examples of what I refer to as holistic thought and communication patterns. While we saw deductive thought as a priority mindset in France, and inductive thought as a priority mindset in the US, holistic thought–and its resulting communication style–is the priority mindset in China (and other Chinese-influenced cultures in Asia). And, as was the case with deductive and inductive mindsets, the reason for the holistic mindset in China is based on the priority values developed over that 5,000-year Chinese history that are, in many key ways, so different from the West.

Here’s what I mean by holistic thinking: Holistic thinkers choose from the whole field of information available the items they want to focus on, independent of any constraining rules of logic, deductive or inductive. Here’s the difference between holistic thinking and deductive/inductive thinking: Whether you are thinking deductively or inductively, you are relying on a line of logic as your primary guide to reasoning (and communication), from concept to conclusion for deductive thinkers, or from conclusion back to concept for inductive thinkers. In either case, it is linear logic that determines whether your thinking is rational or not.

Holistic thinkers aren’t constrained by rules of logic. Certainly, logical linear thought is critical, and the Chinese can be as masterful at it as any French or American (they may, in fact, insist on it from you, while not behaving so themselves, quite common behavior in business negotiations). In Chinese culture, because of critical cultural values that are different from those of the West, the logical response is only one of many that can be chosen. For the Chinese, there is a whole universe of possible responses or next-step options to any thought process (beyond just the obvious logical one), many of which sound, to the logic-seeking Westerner, completely illogical (which they may in fact be) but which are chosen for a compelling reason: the greater priority of honoring a set of deeper cultural needs than to simply be logical.

These greater, uniquely Chinese needs include the necessity to avoid confrontation (between individuals with whom a relationship would be advantageous); the need to demonstrate intense (at least from the Western perspective) humility and self-deprecation; and a strong sense of honoring obligations (both theirs and mine) to each other and others in their immediate universe, based on their role, hierarchy or rank within this group.

Many of these deep-priority Chinese values are either absent or opposite to those of the West (can you imagine a Texan or New Yorker taking pains to demonstrate humility and self-deprecation?) That is precisely why Westerners either don’t see them, or don’t understand them when they do. Most important, because these values are part of Chinese cultural DNA, they are the central element of Chinese thinking, subordinating logic, when necessary, to a secondary role. These values are the result of 5,000 years of Confucius, Lao Tze and Buddha — not Plato, Moses or Kant.

I’ll explore the different behaviors these different value systems create further in future chapters, but this is the source of holistic thinking, and the next time your Chinese colleagues suddenly storm out of a negotiation; or answer a question with a non sequitur; or smile when the expected response should be something else; they are selecting behaviors, for very good reasons, from a larger field of options than just logic.

A famous cross-cultural psychological research experiment involved showing a subject a picture of a tropical home aquarium. The fish tank is stocked with all the usual aquarium accoutrements: the bubbling diver, rocks, stones and corals of different colors, underwater plants, and of course, a myriad of fish of all shapes, colors and designs. The subject is given a minute or two to look at the picture, and then the picture is removed from view, and the subject is asked to recall what they saw. Time and again, Western subjects typically first recall the largest, most impressive fish in the tank, then the most colorful or fastest; down the diminishing list will be larger plants, and perhaps some of the miscellaneous rocks, stones, corals and assorted fish-tank tschotchkes. The order of recall is usually always the same, with many items being left out in order to focus on, first the largest fish, the most colorful or active fish, then the larger plants, then the smaller plants, etc.

When Chinese subjects were asked to look at the picture and to recall afterward what they saw, the typical response might start with a small, unremarkable fish, or perhaps the bubbling diver, or a particular stone, and go on to other items, seemingly at random. In most cases, Chinese subjects recalled seeing many more items than those reported by the Western subjects. Most important, the Chinese did not organize their reporting according to any implicit logical pattern (larger to smaller, moving to stationary, colorful to dull, fish to plant, animate to inanimate, etc.). Apparently, the Chinese were capable of seeing the entire fish-tank universe, and to select from that universe without a set of implicit logical rules intervening, especially when there was no requirement to do so. Viewed the other way, Westerners were constrained by an implicit requirement to organize what they recalled into pre-existing logical sets, and therefore limiting all that could be recalled to only those things that fit the predetermined, logical-set requirements.

Henry Kissinger tells the story of how confounded he was with the Chinese thought process when he first went to China to open trade negotiations with the US. In his book, he explains how discussions at the table during the day seemed to wander from point to point, no matter how intensely he and the US team tried to keep the Chinese “on point.” After many frustrating meetings, he decided to give up trying to keep the conversation going in the linear direction he assumed all conversations would go, and decided to “go with the flow” and simply write down everything that was happening during the day. Then, in the evening, he would go back to his hotel and put all his notes out on the bed, exposition-style, without trying to impose any kind of order or logic to them. What he discovered was that the day’s discussions only made sense when looked at “holistically”: each item that seemed so disconnected from what preceded or followed it could, from a holistic 30,000-foot view, begin to be seen as part of a larger message that simply wasn’t visible from down in the logical trenches. Taoist requirements for humility, Confucian expectations of certain behaviors that demonstrate respect for rank and status, and the need to conform to one’s role based on the greater needs (and agenda) of the larger group one is affiliated with (which may not necessarily be present at the table); all these priority Chinese values required them to think and speak in a way that avoided linear logic, and which, therefore, only “made sense” when viewed holistically, within the context of the entire “fish tank.”

When Kissinger took each independent item from the day, and laid them out on index cards on his bed in his hotel room at night, in no particular logical order, their message suddenly appeared, as in an “aha” moment. And in that holistic moment — similar to the many “aha” moments I have had, beginning on the Bund in Shanghai and Tiananmen square in Beijing — Kissinger understood more than just what was being discussed at the negotiation table that day: he saw the Chinese thought mindset at work, as it has been working for 5,000 years.

To be continued…

Dean Foster

Written by

World traveler (100+ countries), cross-cultural business expert, author, speaker, founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions,

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