CHAPTER SEVEN From Sorry to Apology: Understanding the Chin
The recent standoff between the United States and People's Republic of China on the spy plane incident tells us again that it is high time to know more about the Chinese. The Western world used to describe China as a mysterious land and the Chinese are inscrutable. The mindset leads us to think that it is impossible and gradually become unwilling to understand the nation and its people. Thus, to most USAmericans, our knowledge of China is still limited to the image created by Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which provide more stereotypes than an accurate picture.
The globalization trend warns us that we cannot afford to be ignorant about China anymore. With its 1.2 billion population and strong economic accomplishments in the last decades, China has become one of the major players in the world stage and affects almost every aspect of international affairs. To understand the way Chinese think and act is not only important to the prosperity of the United States, but also critical in maintaining a stable and peaceful world.
An effective way to understand the Chinese is to explore the deep structure of Chinese culture that is woven by a network of cultural values that guide and regulate Chinese behaviors. There are four key Chinese cultural values: harmony, guanxi, mianzi, and power.
Harmony is the cardinal value of Chinese culture. The Chinese believe that only through harmony can all things be nourished and flourish under heaven, the purpose of human interaction is then to develop and keep a harmonious relationship in the process of mutual dependency among people. Thus, harmony is the end rather than the means of human interaction in which people try to adapt and relocate themselves in the dynamic process of interdependence and cooperation. To sincerely display a wholehearted concern for the other is therefore a gateway to reach a harmonious relationship. As a result, aiming to establish a conflictfree interpersonal and social relationship is the ultimate goal for Chinese interaction. Harmony as the axis of the wheel of Chinese behaviors is supported by two spokes: guanxi and mianzi. Guanxi forms the structural pattern of the Chinese social fabric and mianzi is the operational mechanism that connects the nodes of guanxi network.
Guanxi, interrelation, refers to relationships between two parties. These relationships include friends, family, supervisors/subordinates, teachers/students, coworkers, and many others. In this network, the Chinese place a heavy weight on particularistic relationships and establish a clear boundary between ingroup and outgroup relationships.
Particularistic relationships are regulated by a set of specific communication rules and patterns that give individuals a direction of interaction in order to avoid an embarrassing encounter or serious conflict. In the Chinese society particularistic relationships are potentially powerful in persuasion, influence and control, and can be used not only to avoid conflicts but also to resolve conflicts. The emphasis on particularistic relationships leads to a clear distinction between ingroup and outgroup members. Those who belong to the network of particularistic relationships are ingroup members and all others are outgroup members. The "we feeling" among ingroup members greatly reduces the possibility of confrontation or conflict, while harmony often becomes a victim of distrusting outgroup membership. Mianzi, face, refers to the projected personal image in a relationship network. It represents one's social position and prestige gained from the successful performance of specific social roles that are well recognized by other members in the society, thus one is obliged to show due respect for others' feelings and act to save their face.
The Chinese believe that any conscious act of making others lose face will damage one's own image, and saving one's face is a way to heighten one's selfesteem. Showing no concern for face saving in social interaction often leads to emotional uneasiness or to a serious conflict. The Chinese often endeavor to establish guanxi and give face to others in order to avoid confrontation and conflict. If conflict is unavoidable, harmony is still the goal for reducing the negative impact of conflict by searching for any possible guanxi or saving face between the two parties. Consequently, the Chinese tend to use an intermediary to help them resolve an unavoidable conflict to save face. This kind of indirect communication pattern provides the Chinese with an opportunity for not saying "no" and not showing aggressive behaviors in public, for both saying "no" and showing aggression will led to losing face and are detrimental to harmony.
Finally, power refers to the control of resources valued by the other party. It seems universal that power will decide the type of human interaction. However, in the Chinese society power is embedded in seniority and authority. Seniority plays an important role in the Chinese social interaction, which means old age and experience in an organization. In China, elders receive a wide range of prerogatives and power and play a key role in Chinese politics and in other aspects of life. Seniority is not only the locus of power; it is also connected with credibility. Credibility usually increases the control over the interaction process and the acceptance of other's influence.
In China the degree of credibility attached to seniority often determines whether a person will adopt a cooperative or competitive stance in conflict situation. Authority is embedded in the hierarchical structure of particularistic relationships in which the superior, father, husband, and older brother tend to receive more power or control over their counterparts. In other words, in the Chinese society persons with higher status in the particularistic relationship structure are considered to be more knowledgeable and in turn more powerful in social interactions.
While Chinese treat harmony as the core value of their culture, it will be a great mistake to assume that conflict is uncommon in the Chinese society. When all harmonious means fail to resolve a conflict, it can result in a dire consequence due to the justification of an eye for an eye based on the principle of reciprocity, and this often leads to the exercise of revenge. This is the situation where we see the Chinese actions are filled with irrational emotions.
If we use these Chinese cultural traits to analyze the hidden meanings behind the "sorry" and "apology" language war between the U.S. and Chinese governments, we will see a very different picture emerge.