Thinking (in general, and about China in particular)

This post was published on the Chinese news and culture blog: Forbidden City News

In all its dimensions (surface area, population, economy, history, aso.), China is “enoooooormous.” How do you chew such a big chunk? The simple answer would be: “one bite at a time.” Except it’s not that obvious. Here are some reasons why.

The bell curve

Many things on our planet follow a “normal” distribution that’s also called the bell curve. Let’s not talk about China, a tricky subject if ever there was one, but about the size of human beings. On average, it’s about 1.65 meters. Now, imagine yourself in a conversation where you are relaying this information. How long do you think it will be before someone tells you (sometimes in an accusatory, triumphant or disdainful tone) that you did not mention basketball players? In a pleasant disposition, you add them to your description. But how long do you think it will be before someone brings up the topic of Snow White’s friends? You see the problem.

General and particular

Talking about China is the same thing. You say a generality, and you’re going to get a rebuke from the neighbor, whose son–who happens to be a sinologist–lives in a district of Guangzhou where it’s not as you say. We must learn how to navigate between the general and the particular. Remember that the individual occurrence may be counter to the general, but that doesn’t change anything. I have had this kind of conversation with Chinese colleagues on many occasions. I would ask them how they do things in China, and the answer invariably was: “You know, there are one point four billion of us, so it depends.” It’s very frustrating for a westerner used to be expecting certitudes.
As you get used to it, you realize that, yes, it depends, “and” (not “but”) still, there is a trend. That gives an idea of the culture. One definition of culture that I like is “that’s how we do things here.” But it’s also a story about Russian dolls: the people from Xintiandi in Puxi (left bank of Shanghai) are not the same as the people from Jinqiao in Pudong (right bank). So now we have to choose, we want the pedigree of all Chinese people or a generality which, by definition, will not be able to describe all its exceptions (and does not even try)? Let us not waste our time trying to fit the particular in the general and vice-versa.

chinese population distribution

Generalization and stereotype

Also, it is essential to understand the difference between generalization and stereotype. The first one is the application of a “rule” for practical purposes and speed. But, and this is a big “but,” with flexibility and adaptability. More than a rule, it is a rule of thumb. I see an Asian guy in a Chinese restaurant, so he’s Chinese: fast, practical. But then he speaks Korean, so he must be Korean: flexible and adaptable.
Stereotypes are the “quasi-ideological” application of the same rule. You know, in life, there are two types of people… Etc. Addiction to categories prevents us from navigating delightfully between micro and macro, general and particular, everything and its opposite.
There are other traps. You may consider the addiction to knowing better than others. That craving may be imaginable with Bordeaux wines (I say this because I don’t know anything about it). Still, I don’t believe that is possible when China is the topic.
To reach the goal of knowing better than the others, it is often sufficient to show that they have no knowledge on the topic, i.e., “making them look stupid will make me look good.” The toolbox is vast, including all the logical fallacies like: “How dare you quoting so-and-so, he was an alcoholic!” Uh… yes! Or, “Everyone knows that…!” Er… no. I’ll leave it up to you to do your research on the subject.

Robinson Crusoe’s syndrome

Finally, there is an ailment specific to foreigners in China. It had been described to me as a variant of Robinson Crusoe’s syndrome: “I am lost in China; there can only be one of ‘me’ in China.” If you have wandered a bit around the Middle Kingdom, you may have come across a “laowai” who was looking at you sideways for no other reason. Because of you, he was no longer alone in China. Don’t worry, the moment you went back home, he again became “the only one” to be able to talk about China.

As I said at the beginning, China is “”enooooooooormous””, so rather than wanting to be absolutely right, let’s remember that story where an elephant is brought to a village where no one had ever seen one. At nightfall, some of them slipped into its enclosure. The morning conversation: “it’s a pipe that goes up to the sky,” said the one who had touched the trunk. “No, it’s a huge column,” said the one who had found one of the legs. “Poor you, it’s a sail,” said the one who had been near its ear.” I hope that got you thinking about China (and about thinking in general).

About the author

Stephane Baillie Gee

Stephane Baillie-Gee is a senior consultant. He works on advanced management and leadership in the scope of organizations of the future. He also helps bridging the communication gap between Western and Chinese cultures and organizations.