Lying, “Lying” and Mainland China [Updated 2x]

“Lying” isn’t just a cross-cultural communication pot-hole between Chinese and Euro-Americans, it’s a crater. Conflicting communication styles result in Westerners sometimes thinking their Chinese counterparts are lying even when they actually have no intention of deceiving anyone. The Americans get the (long-standing) impression that the Chinese are devious and deceptive, while the Chinese, who weren’t intending to deceive anyone and were merely being polite and gracious, are annoyed to no end at the simplistic and judgmental Americans.

But there’s another side to Mainland Chinese society, where ethics are simply a non-factor in decision making. Mainland Chinese lie and deceive reflexively in many aspects of their daily lives and relationships; it’s routine, accepted, expected and generally considered unavoidable. If you’re straight, honest and genuine, people will think you’re simple, naive and stupid. Corruption is endemic in every layer of society, and it is common for it to taint thesis papers, resumes and job applications, personal ads, and communication between spouses, parents and children, employees and employers, clients and suppliers, etc.

This is the China revealed Factory Girls: the post-Communist, unapologetically amoral, full-on materialistic free-for-all China. It’s a social world where everyone seems to automatically, reflexively lie all the time about everything to everyone else, including parents, boyfriends, coworkers, bosses, clients, employees and potential spouses. This is deliberate deception, not mere non-literal communication. Here’s one of many examples:

Married men who pretended not to be were the number-one dating hazard of Dongguan… In a place where people lied reflexively for work, deception naturally seeped into personal relationships. Lying was often the pragmatic choice because it got you what you wanted. Eventually your lies might catch up with you, but few people thought that far ahead.

Chunming had her own rules for such affairs. No one should get hurt, and neither side should make demands. “Of course, I’d like to find the right person and get married,” she told me. “But since I haven’t, it’s fine to be with someone you don’t love. You can still enjoy your time together. You can still rest your head on his shoulder when you’re tired and feel a sense of security.” [p.350]

So Mainland China presents outsiders with a cross-cultural communication double-whammy: a relatively high reliance on nonverbal, “high-context” communication, and generations of people raised in a corruption-saturated society in which deception is routine. You can find both aspects of Chinese “lying” in the posts below:

  • Caging a Monster (by Murong Xuecun)
    “In my country, there is a strange system that rewards liars, and with the passage of time, people have become accustomed to lying. People lie as naturally as they breathe, to the point that lying has become a virtue.
    “In this system, people only care about short-term profits. In this system, not following the rules is the rule, and unscrupulous means are the only means in government and business so only the dirtiest players emerge victorious. In this system, everyone is a criminal so no one needs to repent.”
  • Chinese “Lies That Bind” (Frog in a Well)
    “because they live in closer and longer lived groups, Chinese are more focused on the social consequences of a statement than its literal truth. […] these differences cut two ways. To be “free” or “independent” can also be “irresponsible,” “lonely,” or “selfish.” What Chinese call “harmony” can be “conformity” or “repression.” American “straight talk” can be childish, reckless, or self-righteous, and Chinese “sweet talk” can cover up realities until they fester.”
  • Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends… (The Lingua Franca)
    “In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.”
  • Dumb Americans (Seeing Red in China)
    To many Chinese, Americans don’t have xin-yan (心眼, meaning, literally, eyes of the mind; or figuratively, calculating, wily), they trust what you say, and they believe you are doing what you say you are doing. For that, they are dumb.

    …to speak your mind straightforwardly, to defend your position forcefully, and to uphold what you believe without compromise, are all signs of childishness. A lot of Americans, alas, fill that bill.

  • Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them? (China Hope Live)
    “Interpersonal communication ‘with Chinese characteristics’: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication”
  • To “lie” or not to “lie” (China Hope Live)
    “If you stop to think about it, there a tons of common situations in English where we use words to mean what they don’t actually literally say, but to us it’s “obvious” in those situations what the intended meaning really is. Our delivery, the context, and our non-verbals all speak quite loudly and quite clearly, so clearly that we would never think of such instances as “lies.” Sarcasm is only one kind of example.”
  • Free Advice – for you and your Chinese friends (China Hope Live)
    “If you’re a Westerner with Chinese friends, or a Chinese person with Western friends, you probably ought to read this. It’s from the end of Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, which is co-authored by a Chinese and a Western scholar and easily the single best-all-around book I’ve read on the subject so far. They should force-feed it to all China-bound Westerners, in my opinion.”

11 thoughts on “Lying, “Lying” and Mainland China [Updated 2x]”

  1. Apart from pointing out that in Chinese culture, lying is an evil of a lesser order, I think it might also help to think in terms of ‘politics’.

    Chinese people may be the most political people on Earth, by which I mean that they relate to their worlds in ways that we generally confine to matters of politics and interstate relations. All of the things that Westerners might detest when viewed from the prism of ‘personal’ behavior we accept, cheer, or turn a blind eye towards when it comes to dealing with ‘external’ elements, especially foreign states.

    Religious people often have this same tendency when it comes to people of a different faith. The mass murderer in Norway springs to mind. He hated how duplicitous Muslims supposedly are, and then he slaps himself on the back for deceiving everyone and then murdering youngsters, because it was all for a greater cause.

    The point I am trying to make is that people have roughly two sets of morality, one that they use for the group they primarily identify with and one for outsiders. I think that for Westerners, feudal and religious ties have been replaced by national, racial, or humanistic conceptions primarily. For the Chinese, though, their circle of loyalty tends to be much more narrow. They identify mostly with family or clan or guild or something of that nature, and so this requires a different sort of morality when dealing with people outside of one’s group.

    I don’t think that’s the whole story, because even within Chinese groups, I think there is a strong tendency to downplay honesty and rely on manipulation (for good or evil) and self-censorship to maintain relationships, but I have found that keeping this feudalistic aspect of Chinese society (although I know feudalism is an anachronistic category in describing Chinese culture) in mind makes the culture more intelligible and less challenging to my brand of humanism.

    1. Maybe you should cite mass murdering muslims as a more appropriate example.But then again,you are most likely one of those Western Society loathing politically correct Westerners.Because of people like yourself.,and I’m sure you regard yourself as intelligent and all knowing.,I applaud the Chinese for their common sense.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, John. I’ll reply inline to some points below.

    …in Chinese culture, lying is an evil of a lesser order…

    Yeah. Much of what I’ve seen in China and read says that Chinese typically prioritize their values differently than the average American is likely to, and one of the more notable features of this is placing “honesty”, “truth” and “being true to yourself” farther down the list, while giving priority to values that Americans tend to care less about (like avoiding friction and maintaining smoothness on the surface of the relationship).

    Religious people often have this same tendency when it comes to people of a different faith. The mass murderer in Norway springs to mind.

    I think there are several things wrong with this.

    One, I don’t think it reflects reality very well to categorize people into “religious people” and “nonreligious people” groups. Those categories are too broad and arbitrary, and the distinction too blurred to be meaningful, especially regarding the motivations of human behaviour.

    Two, “religious people often” is a very broad generalization about an allegedly common phenomenon, but then you use the most extreme and uncommon example to illustrate it. That’s a mischaracterization (furthermore, your example doesn’t apply. See #3). “Religious people” do not “often” mass murder children in cold blood; so I think that’s an inaccurate characterization, especially considering that the topic at hand is lying, and is in the context of the larger current discussion of morality in China that was sparked by China’s lack of ‘Good Samaritans’. Both “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” and the original Good Samaritan story — which deliberately obliterates the moral double-standard between insiders and outsiders — originate with “religious people.” So if you’re going to broadly characterize “religious people” as they relate to this broader discussion (and I don’t think we should), it would be more accurate to say “religious people often” love and serve outsiders, seeing as how the vast majority of the charity, aid and volunteer work around the world is done by “religious people” as a direct expression of their “religion.”

    Three, the Norway mass murderer’s actions were not primarily motivated by “religion” (see here, here and here). He makes an interesting anecdote for in-group/out-group issues, but his “Christianity” was a matter of culture/civilization, not actual belief in God/Jesus.

    Four, “religious people” is a poor anecdote for ilustrating in-group/out-group dynamics, because (a) “religions” vary so widely in their stance to outsiders that it makes little sense to talk of them as a single group, and (b) the most racially and culturally diverse and integrated place I have ever personally seen is in church on Sunday morning.

    The point I am trying to make is that people have roughly two sets of morality, one that they use for the group they primarily identify with and one for outsiders.

    I can agree with this partially and up to a point, but I think you may be projecting China’s relatively strong and bright division between insiders and outsiders, it’s long accepted moral double-standard between insiders and outsiders, and the lack of philosophical and moral absolutes, onto Western culture. Insider-outsider dynamics happen everywhere, but they play out in very different ways in different places.

    I think that for Westerners, feudal and religious ties have been replaced by national, racial, or humanistic conceptions primarily.

    That very much depends on which Westerners we’re talking about. And it’s odd to me that you seem to link feudal and religious. Again, it looks like you’re maybe projecting a Chinese grid onto a Western cultural landscape.

    even within Chinese groups, I think there is a strong tendency to downplay honesty and rely on manipulation (for good or evil) and self-censorship to maintain relationships, but I have found that keeping this feudalistic aspect of Chinese society (although I know feudalism is an anachronistic category in describing Chinese culture) in mind makes the culture more intelligible and less challenging to my brand of humanism.

    I’m not sure what you mean here, but it sounds interesting. What do you mean by your brand of humanism? And how does it relate to the tendency in Chinese culture to downplay honesty in favour of manipulation and self-censorship?

    Just to be clear, I’m not at all interested in defending Western cultures or trying to make them seem superior to Chinese culture. I could talk all day long about deep, dark problems in Western cultures. But I don’t want to gloss over significant differences between China and (for example) American culture either.

    1. Joel, In your wildest dreams you will never be interested in defending Western cultures.,even when your throat is about to be slit and a Westerner comes to your aid.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comments, Joel. It seems as if there are a lot of abstract words we are using about which we have different perceptions.

    I didn’t expect my comment about religion or religious people to attract that much attention, since my primary point was that Chinese behavior can be seen as ‘political’. I only mentioned religion to point out that this being ‘political’ was not merely the province of interstate relations, that people who hold a certain ‘universal’ moral standard often chuck it to the wayside when the Other appears.

    Moreover, because the Westphalian system we live under today is, from an historical perspective, new and relatively untested, it seemed necessary to point out that prior to it, we lived in a world of religious power blocs that reveled in holy wars and glorified those who returned from them ‘red from the winepress of the Lord’, as was once said.

    In the modern, secular world, religion can now dare to assume the love-thy-brother stance, precisely because it is politically irrelevant. We generally accept that it is a private matter and its only acceptable public demonstration is in the realm of humanitarianism. If it is as cute and cuddly as you intimate, it is only because we have built up a massive legal, constitutional, and cultural barrier to it having a political or institutional role.

    I think that that is the proof for our estimation of religion in the modern world: don’t let it near the exercise of power, especially guns. Because we all know what will happen when it gets hold of them. This sense is so deep-rooted now that even those who might describe themselves as religious are oblivious to the ‘wall of separation’ they have placed in their own consciousness. They accept (and it appears you do, too) that religion has no legitimate relationship with the exercise of power.

    They leave the dirty work to politics, where deception, killing, etc, is understood to be necessary. And, they get around moral qualms by ignoring them or decrying things like Abu Ghraib or praising the self-sacrifice of soldiers rather than their ability to efficiently eliminate the enemy.

    There are religious people who do not accept this bifurcation; at least rhetorically, they don’t. But, most of them pay their taxes, etc. Religious principles are understood to be inappropriate objections to the exercise of violence at the international level (and also in the control of crime). A religious person can object to the dehumanization inherent in some policy or activity, but only as a violation of humanitarian feeling. You can’t say, we should not not attack country X, because God said Y. You have to couch it in humanitarian or democratic terms.

    I would also like to say that I never said or implied that religious people often commit mass murder, although, if we were to look at the history of monotheism and set the parameters for terms like “often” and “mass murder”, one could make a plausible case. You say I am applying a Chinese grid on to a Western landscape, but I think you are applying a very narrow slice of the religious realm to the whole of religious history and psychology.

    Also, I don’t think that I ever ‘linked’ feudalism and religion. Prior to Westphalia, Europe was dominated by both feudalism and religion, but that does not mean they necessarily imply one another. I just asserted what I think is a fairly benign historical observation, that the formal solution to the wars of religion was a turn to national sovereignty, ethnic identity, and humanism. By the time we get to Rousseau and socialism, these are fused together in a strange fashion, but even Burke’s appeal to religion was an appeal to tradition as such, which gave rise to Paine’s quip about Burke’s forgetting the bird for the plumage. In a perverse way, the Norwegian mass murder harks back to Burke’s resistance to the French Revolution.

    In any case, I don’t think there’s a need to point out that feudalism is dead in the West, but I should point out that part of my point was that feudalism is an anachronistic concept when applied to Chinese civilization, so I don’t understand how I can be accused of applying a Chinese grid to Western civilization, since feudalism is not Chinese.

    Finally, as for the relationship between ‘my brand’ of humanism and adjusting to the contours of Chinese culture, what I meant to say was that when one encounters a culture where the values that one takes for granted as the very stuff of human nature are seemingly routinely flouted, this can be a profound challenge to one’s humanism. For me, I started to question what “human” actually referred to. Was it a biological distinction or a cultural one? I had to go back to the drawing board to determine what the content of “human” was. The Buddhist/Indian perception of reality was also a huge challenge. Does “human” refer only to a collection of organs? Or, is it more than that? I think this problem is already implicit when we speak about someone being “inhuman” or being “civilized”, but I think that the tension in our concept of humanity will become more problematic if someone spends time in a radically foreign culture for a long enough period of time and they make an effort to make sense of it.

    In any case, to make a very long story shorter, reading Joseph Campbell permitted me a way to make these ‘foreign’ (in more ways than one) responses to reality intelligible, or at least, he helped seal the deal. More significantly, Campbell made the most ‘barbaric’ acts in ancient or primitive civilizations (sacrifice of children, etc), in their context, beautiful. The things that compelled some cannibalistic tribe to perform unimaginable and morally despicable rites are also fundamentally human and intelligible and even aesthetic.

    It doesn’t solve everything. After all, what happens if and when you run across a cannibal? Or, any kind of act that can be viewed at once as fundamentally immoral and a high expression of the human ‘spirit’? To return to the question of ‘lying’ in Chinese culture, identifying the dynamics of Chinese culture both expands one’s understanding of what it is to be human (although this can mean some sacrifice of moral idealism) and makes the particular forms less shocking and abrasive. This kind of thing is said all the time, but I find it is almost always uttered in the interest of a kind of aggressive humanitarianism rather than a genuine dialogue with humanity as it has been historically constituted.

    In the instance of lying, I think that the Chinese tendency to engage in lying–or, more precisely, manipulation, since I have learned in Asia that selective truths can sometimes be the best kinds of lies–becomes less offensive to our sense of human decency when we acknowledge it as something we engage in, as well. Because our in-group is larger (nation, civilization, humanity) than the Chinese ones (family, clan, village, guild), our ‘hypocrisy’ is conducted at a further remove. We take a very similar line to deception and trickery once we have defined someone as the enemy. We look forward to a more civilized world, but in the meantime, we all know murder and deception are necessary. Would anybody raise a fuss if it were revealed that “we” (Americans, say) were helping Israelis or Saudis off Iranian nuclear scientists? We’d appeal to the principle of the lesser of two evils. Our inhibitions about murder would take a back seat to ‘reality’.

    And, my point is that when your family, say, is the only thing in the universe you can trust, or you are the only thing you can trust, it’s not a different morality that comes into play, just a different moral calculus. In foreign relations, they say, there are no friends or enemies, only interests. And, that’s how the Chinese relate to other groups and individuals. One can decry it (I often do), but the ultimate challenge is to find a way to convince “them” that their longer term interests or their sense of self benefits from expanding their sense of identity. That is easier said than done, however, because the smaller identities often react violently to such a suggestion and see it as a betrayal and the height of immorality. At least in Taiwan, there is an extreme sense of guilt and crisis when it comes to altering one’s constellation of loyalties. The ones who have little trouble doing so have usually already been long alienated.

  4. A lie is a lie and everyone knows it. People will justify it any way they want.
    My ex-Chinese wife would constantly lie about anything including the most trivial things and it was the main reason why i divorced her.
    I hate lies and do not expect them from my wife. It was a normal part of her DNA and i could not let myself live life in a shallow, deceitful environment.

  5. I have a Chinese foreign exchange student living with me and this article came in VERY handy. I wish that I had read it before he moved in. I am at the point of him being placed in a different home because of the bald face lying. It is exhausting.

    1. Elaborate what you mean by bald face lying. Examples would be good. Is it merely a case of him saying that he liked the breakfast you prepared but in fact, he didn’t? Something along that line?

      1. Right. I think it’s really important to distinguish *intentional deception* from sincere politeness (what North Americans call ‘white lies’) and non-literal communication (where regardless of what they literally say, there’s no intent to deceive; they fully intend for you to understand their meaning, which is based on the nonverbals, and if you were Chinese you probably would effortlessly).

        I think even most North Americans will acknowledge that there’s a significant difference between outright deception intended to disadvantage someone, and ‘white lies’, even if they ultimately think white lies are wrong, too.

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