The other day, in a post entitled, “To Succeed in China Know the Now,” I blogged on the relative importance of knowing Chinese culture for doing business in China.  My views on this are summarized here:

Knowledge of Chinese history and culture is an asset for doing business in China.  However, because circumstances in China change so quickly, staying abreast of China’s current situation is far more important than knowing its past.  The most successful businesses in China usually emphasize knowing their own businesses inside and out first, understanding China today second, and China’s history and culture third.

Asia Business Law Blog just did an excellent job probing the need for cultural knowledge in a two part series, entitled, “Do The Top Ten Cultural Tips For Doing Business In China Really Help?” [link no longer exists]  Their first post quotes from Doug Berman, a second year law student at Indiana University School of Law (who I actually had the pleasure of meeting when I was there lecturing on International Law a year and a half ago), who also questions the value of the books that purport to teach a nation’s culture in a few hundred pages:

How many more books do we need by the new China hand on the block explaining to the wide-eyed corporate executives the top ten tricks to put in one’s knapsack?

While I am hardly an insider, over the years I have seen (and you probably have as well) how people of similar extraction in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China may behave quite differently in certain respects. Even in China, such “fixed” cultural attributes find variation among young/old, educated/uneducated. It is odd that such books often tout the tremendous changes in China and then fall back on cultural essentialisms…

Moreover, and more fundamentally, knowing that “guanxi” is important only takes one so far. In many ways, learning Chinese culture (or any culture for that matter) is a lot like learning chess. The basic rules are easily memorized; responding to every situation that can arise is very, very difficult. No wonder we often fall back on our acquired understanding and background when the going gets rough. I think the problem is that very few foreigners, especially businesspeople, are willing to put in the many years to learn the language, get that Ph.D. in anthropology or East Asian studies, and, more importantly, immerse themselves in the culture.

I like Asia Business Law Blog’s reply to Doug because it recognizes the inherent value in learning another’s language and culture, but it also makes clear it is quite acceptable for that not to be the businessperson’s primary goal:

I love your well-founded skepticism about providing businesspeople with drive-thru lessons about China. I was reading about the philosopher Zhuangzi yesterday and he said something to the effect that our lives are limited and what there is to learn is unlimited. Taking the finite to learn about the infinite is an inspiring conundrum, but I think it highlights nicely the fact that people make choices about what they want to achieve in life, and the businessperson wants to increase their profit margin. Others, perhaps not unlike yourself, want to truly learn and understand the culture, which requires learning the language and actually being in the culture.

Doug then replies, in part two [link no longer exists] of the series, by conceding that knowing about culture is not always a prerequisite to commercial success in China:

Putting aside my obvious passion for China and a bias against people who represent the MNC [multinational corporation] view (which, unfortunately, I made all too obvious in my earlier post to you), I do think there is an argument to make that knowing about culture may not always be a prerequisite to commercial success in China. For many reasons, I would like not to believe that, given that it downgrades my own stock. On the other hand, the post Dan cites does not say this, merely that MNCs understand how to make money and do localize to the extent they need to do so.

Doug goes on to say that he still considers knowing the language and culture as very useful:

My tentative answer is still that knowing the language and culture is very useful, at least on an individual level, at the very least because it is important to the Chinese themselves and gives respect. No other country have I been to where speaking the mother tongue takes you so far.

I agree with all of this. The Chinese (like every other culture of which I am familiar, with the exception of the French) greatly appreciate foreigners who have an interest in Chinese culture and language.  No country appreciates the stereotypical “ugly American” and I always strongly advise anyone doing business in China to learn the basics of Chinese culture, etiquette and language.  Something as simple as just knowing how to say “I am pleased to meet you” in Chinese goes an incredibly long way towards showing your Chinese hosts that you care about their country and about them.

Ever since I read a Fast Company Magazine article entitled, “The Mintz Dynasty,” I have been waiting for an opportunity to use a great question posed in it.  The article itself is on the huge successes achieved by the Dynamic Marketing Group, an advertising and communications agency formed by Dan Mintz in Beijing eleven years ago. The question, from Dan Mintz, in many ways sums up the whole issue on culture.  Mintz complains about Westerners coming to China and then he asks this question and gives his own answer:

Why would you think people in government here all think the same when there’s nowhere else in the world where that’s the case?” Mintz asks. “It’s like thinking every Chinese guy knows kung fu.

Anyone who thinks they know China and its 1.3 billion plus inhabitants from reading a few books is as misguided as those who think every Chinese guy knows kung fu.  And anyone who thinks reading a few books on Chinese culture gives them the measure of the individual Chinese person with whom they are dealing is mistaken. In the end, we must treat them as individuals.

What do you think?

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  • uncle ho

    –Anyone who thinks they know China and its 1.3 billion plus inhabitants from reading a few books is as misguided as those who think every Chinese guy knows kung fu.–
    hehehe.. why should that be such surprise? i saw last statistics about martial arts. There are more europeans who know martial arts then chinese.