« Uncertainty, Complexity, and Taking Action | Main | Nanobama »

Hurt Feelings and China

Even if China isn't likely to be a drop-in replacement for US hegemony in the 21st century, it will certainly be a key player on the international stage. It's useful, then, for futurists to pay attention to the interesting details of how China interacts with other nations.

Last month, the Atlantic's James Fallows posted a fascinating set of items about the use of the term "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" in diplomatic communiques from the Beijing government.

Ah, it "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." This is the phrase I wait for in every Chinese government statement on matters of international disagreement.

Yes, there is a real concept buried beneath this boilerplate slogan. The concept might be expressed other places as "an insult to the dignity of our nation," or "disrespect for our people and their principles" or something. But it is generally used quite sparingly in other nations' pronunciamentos, because in the end listeners don't find it that persuasive.

Joel Martinsen at the Danwei blog lists the number of times the term has popped up in various diplomatic disputes, and with which countries. The biggest inflictor of hurt to the Chinese people? Japan, unsurprisingly, with "hurt the feelings..." used 47 times in official statements. The US came in second at less than half that number, 23 times. NATO, the Vatican, and the Nobel Committee have all hurt the feelings of the Chinese people more than once, as well.

It's a term that has some resonance in Chinese language and culture, apparently, but as Fallows notes, is less persuasive outside the Chinese borders. Outsiders are unlikely to take the phrase with the intended level of anger; the phrase has great potential for massive miscommunication, and it will be interesting to see whether China learns to speak diplomat-ese, or whether the rest of the world has to learn what China means when it says something odd.

The potential for "hurt feelings" is a two-way street, however.

Shanghaist links to a video of Chinese elementary students reciting a poem; the video is apparently whipping its way around the Chinese Internet, gaining quite a bit of attention and play in China. The poem includes the following lines:

Lead: Earthquakes, shifting back and forth like the positions of Sarkozy, with his dirty tricks, trying to shake the great China
Lead: Did China retreat?
All: No. The Shenzhou-7 launched. We are victorious!
Lead: Pathetic Europe will never stop the insurmountable force of our great dynasty
All: Just the aftershocks from the earthquake would destroy France!


Lead: Do not waver, do not slow down, do not make big changes

Lead: Do not change the flag, Do not turn back

All: Step ruthlessly over all anti-China forces

China and the West both have a lot to learn about diplomatic engagement with each other, it seems.


Respect is a two way street.

Dear Jamais,
This resonates with a piece of work that we posted last year ("Why worry about China?"), which certainly filled my postbag with comments about how I could question the glorious path of China's destiny.
The post is at http://eufo.blogspot.com/2008/10/why-worry-about-china.html if anyone would like to see it.
With best wishes,

You'd think that the biggest source of hurt feelings for the Chinese people would be the Chinese government itself. Historically, they've cause millions of unnecessary deaths due to famine, and today they are constantly trying to control what their citizens see and think, even installing software "cops" to walk across the screens of Internet users. Their press is so unfree, even *Russia* has more freedom of speech!

Interesting find, though.

The concept of "face" is the basis of interactions in Chinese society. You don't make somebody lose face. You don't disrespect them, especially publicly.

One example is that the students met with the Chinese Communist leaders in 1989 while dressed in their pyjamas, ostensibly due to the fact that they were on hunger strike and too weak to dress. This, reportedly, was a gross insult to the Communist leadership and may have had a lot to do with the violence that followed.

There are real cultural differences here that are blind to both sides. "Hurt feelings" on the part of the Chinese may have an entirely different meaning and solution than the translation implies. It would be good for a cultural anthropologist like Edward T. Hall weigh in here.

This is definitely in line with what I saw when I traveled around China previously. While it's such a large country and it's obviously impossible to speak for the entirety, I would offer the following.

When I went to China, I guess I had an idea that the Chinese would really be like Americans (or other western people) and they would have the same wants and desires as us. However, I came away realizing that this just wasn't the case. The Chinese people are a fundamentally different people (which is neither good nor bad) and so a lot of their actions really need to be viewed through a different lens. Certainly will make future interactions interesting!


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37