Boyé Lafayette De Mente
Dealing successfully with the Chinese in business, diplomatic and political affairs requires an extraordinary level of knowledge about Chinese culture, from their day-to-day customs to their deepest beliefs and motivations.
As noted in my book China’s Cultural Code Words, understanding and dealing with commercial enterprises and government agencies in particular takes on an entirely new light when viewed from the Chinese perspective. Almost nothing follows the straightforward, expedient lines of thought and steps that logical and law-oriented Westerner expects.
Part of the difference in Chinese and Western thinking and behavior is expressed in the phrase budan xin (boo-dahn sheen), which means something like “sincerity plus understanding”—although I believe it would be more accurate to reverse these two concepts, with understanding coming first.
In its Chinese context, “understanding” refers to the outsider understanding a situation from the Chinese perspective, to the depth and breadth that the Chinese do. And “sincerity” refers to the cultural requirement that the individual or individuals concerned conform completely to the expectations and standards of the Chinese way—that is, conforming to all of the personal, social and legal obligations that make up the foundation of Chinese behavior.
In other words, in the Chinese context of things, a “sincere” person is one who can be depended upon to do what is right and expected from the Chinese viewpoint regardless of the situation.
This combination of understanding and sincerity in the Chinese context is the foundation of Chinese behavior, whether or not it makes sense to foreigners. And this is why the Chinese are continuously reminding foreigners that they must “understand” China in order to deal effectively with them.
It is also why the Chinese typically accuse foreigners of not understanding China when things go wrong. In the Chinese context of things, foreigners cannot be sincere in their relationships with Chinese if they do not understand China, since sincerity without understanding is impossible.
Like Americans (if I may make the comparison) the Chinese almost always automatically take the position that they are right and that their way of doing this should prevail. It is therefore very important for foreigners dealing with China to be aware of the budan xin cultural factor and be prepared to deal with it.
I suggest that in the beginning of business or diplomatic relationships the foreigners involved note up-front to their Chinese counterparts that they are familiar with the role of budan xin in Chinese culture because it is an integral part of their culture as well, and that there may be differences of opinion that require both sides to compromise for them to achieve their goals.
This will alert the Chinese to the fact that you do know something about China, and will provide you with a more solid footing for negotiating with them.
Copyright © 2007 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
For a more definitive discussion of budan xin and more than 300 other key Chinese terms see the author’s China’s Cultural Code Words (McGraw-Hill), available from Amazon.com, other online booksellers, and bookstores worldwide. To see a full list of his books on China, Korea, Japan and Mexico, go to his personal website: http://www.phoenixbookspublishers.com/.