Breaking the ‘rules’ in China — getting involved when you know you’re not supposed to

Figuring out how publicly break cultural norms in a foreign society isn’t always easy, especially when the norms you want to break involve volatile situations that spring on you without warning.

I’m walking back to work from lunch and pass a group of older middle-aged people watching a man and a woman duke it out on the sidewalk. It’s not your typical vegetable market screaming match; they are full-on kicking and punching each other, furious and out of control. The guy is bigger and has the upper hand. Obviously I’m not going to just walk on by when a woman is literally getting beaten right in front of me.

But the tricky thing is, interfering in this sort of thing has huge potential to instantly make the situation worse and get the third party in a lot of trouble, which is partly why Mainland Chinese typically won’t interfere even in really bad situations. And adding to other people’s grief just so you can play hero is really selfish. Today’s situation is even trickier because this woman is asking for it. I don’t mean she deserves it. I mean that after the guy lands a couple punches or kicks he turns his back to her and starts walking away, but she chases after him, punches him in the face from behind, and provokes another couple haymakers in response. Anger can apparently override our survival instinct, or — and this is more likely — she could actually be trying to get him to beat her up. She might not want anyone to intervene because by provoking the violent man and deliberately making her situation worse she scores more pity points with onlookers or family members. And in their dispute’s bigger picture, winning over the relevant people probably matters more to her than a few bruises.

Anyway, that’s what I see happening in the few seconds from the time I notice them to the time I make it over to stand in between them. I don’t touch or even try to directly engage either one. The sudden presence of a foreigner who appears to not know the ‘rules’ for handling this sort of situation (which are: Don’t Get Involved) seems to throw them off their game a bit — either one would now have to go right over me to get at the other. It’s awkward, but it works. They give it up after a few choice parting words and walk away in opposite directions.

Intervening (or not) in public situations in China is a perennial topic among foreigners, partly because there seem to be more opportunities to do so here, and partly because the typical Mainland Chinese response to such situations scandalizes the resident lÇŽowàis. Not even the police are willing to get involved in domestic violence; it’s considered a private family thing, never mind if the victims are unable or unwilling to defend themselves. I’ve written before asking about culturally-intelligible, or at least effective, ways to break the ‘rules’ in hazardous situations where you feel compelled to do so. It’d be nice if life gave you a heads up when these situations are headed your way, so you had time to think about what to do instead of having to just act in the moment.

Other adventures in sticking our noses into other people’s volatile business in China:

P.S. – This post is brought to you by the verbs 干涉: to interfere, to meddle; and 管: to manage, to control, to take care of. (I was using 干涉 when telling this story to some students this afternoon, and they said I should use 管 instead because 干涉 sounded too formal.)

18 thoughts on “Breaking the ‘rules’ in China — getting involved when you know you’re not supposed to”

  1. I believe you have to make a decision in this situation based on the values you were brought up with. There is right and wrong in this world, and you have too look at yourself and ask if this is right (despite what Chinese may or may not do). You have to take a stand (despite the chance of direct violence taken on your own self). I always get involved in something like this, and I dont care of its not PC to do so. I was taught certain values that I BELIEVE in and will stand by those values, even for fear of loss to my self. I wish more people had the same attitude.

  2. I added a bit to the 3rd paragraph, because there’s a likely possibility that I forgot to put in: it could be that she’s trying to get him to beat her up more, and therefore doesn’t want anyone to intervene.

    I agree that people will act according to their values in these kinds of situations, but I’d add that the the values they hold might be different from the values they were raised with, and that they might actually hold different values from what they think they hold. Does that makes sense? I agree that there is right and wrong (I’m not a moral relativist), but I also want to be sensitive to the complicated cross-cultural factors at play. The right thing is always the right thing, but sometimes doing the right thing looks different in different cultural settings, where actions carry different meanings or are likely to be interpreted in different ways.

  3. similar situation in immediate (culturally similar) neighbour of china: rush hour and the couple were going hammer and tongs. wasn’t clear what had happened; from what I could understand there was infidelity on the mans part. she was *furious*, and largely attacking him; he was more on the defensive. I was getting my bike repaired nearby – and watched; getting increasingly tense (and the crowd growing and growing; and my comments to the bike repairman being met with a forget it, forget it..) for a few minutes.

    finally, when it looked like he got her in a submission lock and was about to go to town, I just bellowed (i mean thundered) “no”.

    everything stopped. instantly. she got on her bike and took off; he loitered and copped an earful from a few of the corners grandma hawkers, smoked a cigarette and left.

    this was – I don’t know, 5 years ago? prob. more. remember it clearly as it was yesterday. i still don’t think there was any other choice; it was the gross, clumsy foreigner move but i have no doubt the right thing. I still wonder whatever happened to them, every once in a while. like today :)

  4. I understand not wanting to go against a “cultural grain,” but I have to agree with Stand Up Values, if something is wrong, you understand what’s going on, and you’re not imposing your morals or beliefs onto the “wrong-doers,” the “cultural grain” shouldn’t even be a consideration.

  5. I think it’s pretty cowardly to say its “selfish” to intervene, clearly risking your neck to help another is never “selfish.” Walking away when some dude is beating on a girl is the ultimate act of cowardice and selfishness, you just want to save your own hide, run fast coward–hide your shame!

    I came across a Chinese male kicking the s— out of a young woman on the ground with her panties around her ankles just outside my complex about 2 years ago. The security guard just watched passively, not even phoning the police, apparently this insufferable act of violence is just normal here and a spectator sport besides. I rushed her aggressor, shoved him off and called the police. Then all of the people watching from their second story windows emerged to give me the thumbs up.

    All of you second floor voyeurs disgust me, none of you called the police and you were all perfectly willing to watch this young woman get brutalized for your own entertainment. China, you are a nation of cowards. The next dude I catch hitting a girl–I swear to god I will hospitalize you. I call on all men and women, Chinese and foreigner alike never to let such spineless cruelty pass, if you see this kind of crime in progress, AT THE VERY LEAST CALL THE POLICE. If you’re an able-bodied dude, kick the crap out of the guy, people need to be taught that behavior is unacceptable and if you engage in it, you will pay.

    1. Stephen — It’s an easy call in a situation like what you described, but other situations aren’t so clean-cut, and getting involved in the wrong way could actually make some situations worse.

      I’d say it can be selfish to intervene if you’re doing it mostly to feel good about yourself, but that in cases like what you described the person’s motives are beside the point and he or she needs to step in regardless of why they’re doing it. My situation last week wasn’t quite so easy to interpret as yours, though I think I did the right thing.

  6. Tom, I agree, but there’re two key complicating factors: (1) “if… you understand what’s going on” — most of the time foreigners don’t, and (2) the cultural grain exists for a reason; there are plenty of reasons why Chinese people don’t get involved (obviously I don’t believe they’re good enough to justify letting victims suffer when you could easily intervene). Greater cultural understanding will let us act more effectively and incur less risk, imo.

  7. The easiest way to see that getting involved is the right answer is by asking what Chinese people think of it after the fact. The vast majority will say getting involved is right, but “wo haipa”. Not getting involved is not really a cultural values thing, but more motivated by fear. And yes, anybody who doesn’t get involved is a coward.

    1. That’s an interesting point — and I’ve heard the same thing from locals when they’re willing to talk about this aspect of their society. People seem to recognize that not helping is bad, and that it’d be better if people did, but that no does because of reasons x, y, and z. The seem to think getting involved is good, but other concerns override that; they are holding other values that trump their belief that helping is good. Lin Yutang says it this way:

      There were always deviations from type, the … “chivalrous men,” but they were invariably of the bandit or vagabond class, unmarried, bachelors with good vagabond souls, willing to jump into the water to save an unknown drowning child. (Married men in China do not do that.) Or else they were married men who died penniless and made their wives and children suffer. We admire them, we love them, but we do not like to have them in the family.

  8. Time changed, so did the neighborhood. When I was a kid, living in a company compound (家属大院),you bet you that people would intervene. If you beat up your wife, “Women Alliance” (妇联)would talk to you, and so would your boss at the company.

    Now the fabrics of a neighborhood are different. People from all over the places reside in a new development. You do not know anybody, or anybody well. You mind your own business. There is no company “Women Alliance” in your neighborhood, and you don’t know the bosses of those men who beat their wives.

    This does not justify the in-actions. Calling cops is the sensible thing to do, or at least one can do.

    But I have been living in the States for more than 20 years, so what do I know…


  9. Sometimes it is not a question of foreigner, Chinese . It is a questions of being a human. I felt for a long time here that I was losing my humanity. I would see these situations and I would just stand helplessly watching and moving on. Maybe it is become global in the sense everyone thinks big brother will look after it. We have become accustomed to watching our television and the official government agencies take care of all these emergencies. A few years ago I suprised myself when I witnessed a traffic accident and a woman was very involved in helping a victim. She was a nurse. I suprised myself by pushing the people away and telling them to go home. Shock is the biggest problem for people who have been hurt in a traffic accident. You must not let the people stand around and stare at the injured person. You need to make contact with the person and try and get the names and phone numbers of people who care about them, so they can see them at the hospital. I know this but had many occasions in China where I did nothing. I felt terrible for doing nothing.

  10. Here’s a link to a recent story circulating around the Chinese internet, where a returning student stabbed his mother multiple times in the Shanghai airport and the one person who intervened was a foreigner. I’m mentioning this particular one because you can read some translated Chinese comments.

Leave a Reply!