A loyal reader sent this to me and though obviously dated, I found it quite interesting. I re-read Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America a few years ago and was again amazed at how accurately it portrays the United States today, even though it was written in the early 1830s.

The “this” that our reader sent me is a look at America from the perspective of Wu Ting Fang, a Chinese diplomat stationed in the United States in the early 1900s. The “look” is fascinating, both for what it says about the United States and for what it says about China.

The article is entitled, Wu Ting-Fang in America and there is also a podcast version as well. The article is by John Leonard, the M.D. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston.

By 1914, Wu Ting-fang had been a Chinese diplomat in the United States for eight years when, “prodded by an American woman,” he wrote a book on America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat. Dr. Leonard describes it as making “a disorienting, but useful, look at ourselves, even today,” and I agree.

Wu is troubled by America’s casualness in the names given to children:

When he met a man named Coffin he was truly revolted. Names are too important. He’s not superstitious (he claims) but such a name is surely cursed.

I think we can all agree this naming casualness is even truer today.

Wu’s views on the differences between American and Chinese negotiating tactics still holds true today:

The Chinese are tightly bound by protocol and Americans are hopelessly blunt. While we highly value time, Wu suggests that Chinese circumlocution lets parties feel one another out, establish rapport, and save time in the long run.

Wu was both “astonished and delighted by the independent intelligence of American women. He saw them as “far ahead of Chinese women at the time.” He saw them in the “in the workplace, the professions — even running for public office.”

Wu took issue with “American independence:”

He [Wu] really dislikes the independence of our children from their parents. He talks about a young man and woman leaving his parents household when they marry. The idea that the woman isn’t being trained in the role of a wife by her mother-in-law strikes him as bizarre.

I would think most Chinese still view America similarly with respect to the independence we give our children.

Wu does not understand why the people (not the Congress) elect the President here and he is “appalled at the way we grind to a halt during elections.” Wonder what he would think of China’s nearly perpetual Golden Weeks? Wu was “astonished to find middle-class women preparing dinner for guests, and then dining with them.”

In the end though, Wu’s study of difference took him, “as it must take us all, to the essential smallness of outward trivia that divide us” and he “quotes that great Chinese(?) poet William Wordsworth, who says,

Alas! What differs more than man from man,
And whence that difference? Whence but from himself?

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Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.

  • sadaff

    splendid post. deep insight

  • Great post. You might also be interested in “The European Diary of Hsieh Fucheng.” He was one of China’s first diplomats to go to Europe (late 19th century) and his observations and occasional culture shock are fascinating reading. It was translated into English by Helen Chien a few years back. (Note that his name is often transliterated as “Hsieh” but the Chinese characters are “Xue” Fucheng ???.)

  • nanheyangrouchuan

    It is not that surprising that diplomats from countries with such traditional and rigid cultures would be so shocked and offended by American “casualness”. As for names, isn’t the trend now to either name your kid from people on teeny bopper TV shows or as I read recently in the NYT, any name that makes your kid more “googlable”.
    To this day it shocks Chinese when they meet westerners in China who loaf around in a worn t-shirt, shorts and sandals and snicker at their “commoness” only to find out that this person is a multimillionaire Wall St, Silicon Valley, general entreprenuer or trust fund type taking some time off to live a bohemian life in a foreign country. No self-respecting wealthy chinese would be caught dead in anything less than the best european clothes, japanese electronics and american music at all times while being driven back and forth to the convenience store in an imported luxury car that is so black not even light can escape it (and with white, lacy curtains).
    Traditional cultures have always sneered at our “liberalness” and that liberalness is what brings their poor, hardworking souls to our shores to invent new things, new ideas and to give birth to future white collar, skilled blue collar and entrepreneurial kids for the betterment of the US.
    Let them sneer, it masks their jealosy.

  • Mao Yuan

    Speaking of culture differece, it reminds me something really interesting. Basically, I agree the assertion in some earlier posts that doing business in china is like doing business anywhere else in the world. However, I have to say the westerns had learned a lot from their practice in this mysterious land. For example,after the inking of deals, operation and implementation would become very nasty, especially when the foreigners are confronted with their cunning Chinese partners that have a solid government background.
    The Brilliant JinBei Auto disturbance is one of those cases to further exemplify the preceding comment: (please see photo evidence at:
    http://www.autohome.com.cn/news/200704/19980.html or
    http://bbs.auto.sina.com.cn/?h=http%3A//bbs.auto.sina.com.cn/g_forum/00/4E/00/view.php%3Ffid%3D107367%26tbid%3D6879&g=11 )
    This scene occurs in a recent auto show. Although the alledged ‘cheating’ has not been proved, (or even, it can never be proved to the public if the case is deliberatedly concealed), it is weird enough to see a foreign investor to resort such a way. As a matter of fact, in China where the freedom of expression is ****** , we only see the to kinds of people who raise slogan boards to express anger and dissatisfaction: one is the poor peasants
    who are deprived of their land and suppressed by the local g*******t, the other is the anti-Japan younglings. These pictures really caused ripples on the internet but gradually disappeared from the major websites for some unknown reasons.
    The natives who witnessed such scene would say: since when the foreigners learned so well how to do business in China. I would answer: When in China, do as Chinese do.

  • very thoughtful, thanks. much more ought to be done by way of cross-cultural study and understanding. i offer a view on two limited, but important topics:
    thanks much.

  • hallo84

    “I would think most Chinese still view America similarly with respect to the independence we give our children.”
    I don’t agree if anything the current consensus is that the children are too attached and not independant. You only need to hear the kinds of horror stories of unemployed 30 year old singles still living at home.
    Independance of Children is taken by chinese parents with mixed emotions. In one hand historically Chinese parents are more protective and does not want to let go (the problem enhanced by the one child policy), but independance is promoted to be a ever more important trait for success.

  • Therese

    I’m surprised that you didn’t link to Wu’s America, available online at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/609
    It’s now on my to-read list.

  • Sadaff —

  • Jeremiah —
    Thanks for the rec. This will likely be my last foray into your “turf.”

  • nh —
    I have actually found the Chinese lawyers with whom we work (all of whom are making a lot of money) to dress quite casually. More so than the German or Korean lawyers with whom we work.

  • Mao Yuan —
    Are you saying this foreign investor learned protest tactics from the Chinese?

  • Just thinkin’ –
    Yes, much more should be done.
    I read your two posts and I found the one on corruption severely flawed. I have no trouble viewing government as an money-making enterprise, but the governmental official who takes a bribe is not doing so on behalf of the government, but on behalf of himself. Corruption is a turning away from the market.

  • hallo84 —
    You make some interesting points re changing views on children’s independence in China. Thanks.

  • Therese —
    I certainly should have, but I did not even think of checking on it. Thanks for the link.

  • China and America: Then and Now

    From Seattle-based Dan Harris, at his insightful China Law Blog, see Chinese And American Cultural Differences–La Plus Ca Change…. Learn how the Chinese diplomat Wu Ting-fang–an Asian de Tocqueville eighty years later–viewed America in 1914….

  • Really outstanding, Dan. And interesting.

  • nanheyangrouchuan

    “I have actually found the Chinese lawyers with whom we work (all of whom are making a lot of money) to actually dress quite casually. More so than the German or Korean lawyers with whom we work”
    That’s a small percentage.

  • nh —
    I would dare say that any personal experience one has in China is a small percentage, what with it having 1.3 billion people and all.

  • China and America: Then and Now

    Plus c’est la meme chose, plus ca change. From Seattle-based Dan Harris, at his insightful China Law Blog, see Chinese And American Cultural Differences–La Plus Ca Change…. Learn how the Chinese diplomat Wu Ting-fang–an Asian de Tocqueville eighty …

  • There is actually a reason for American bluntness which is especially apparent if you live in New York City. Basically with so many different people living in different parts of the world living next to each other, subtle communication doesn’t work, and so if you have to get your point across, you have to do it very directly.
    As far as Nan’s point. There is also a difference in every part of the world between people that really have money in the bank and social climbers who want other people to think that they do.

  • One other point is that there is a difference between “causalness” and lack of social hierarchy, and it’s very common that being “causal” in the United States marks you as high up in the social hierarchy. The CEO of a big company can get away with showing up to work in blue jeans and a tee-shirt, a chauffeur or waiter would get fired for doing so. Think about your last job interview, who was dressed more formally, the interviewer or the interviewee? I know that computer programmers show up to work dressed much less formally than business people, because they have special skills that are hard to replace, and they want people to know this.
    Marking “causalness” with “I am powerful enough to have free time and flout convention” isn’t a new thing. The modern business suit is derived from the English riding suit. The polo shirt and khakis “business causal” style also comes from “leisure wear.”
    One issue in dealing with different societies is that it is sometimes easy to miss the status markers.

  • Dan Hull —
    Thank you.

  • Joseph Wang —
    Very good points. And you are absolutely right that casualness is not the equivalent of a lack of social hierarchy.

  • Dear China Law Blog,
    Thanks for the reply to my post about corruption. But as I see it, corruption (as we are using that term) IS the market, in many places, including China; and folks would do well to see it that way for the time being. And the Government is not designed to make money for the Government, but for the PEOPLE who are in the Government. Just like owning or managing a business is not designed to make money for the business, but for the owners or managers of the business. The Government and the business are just the protective vehicles through which folks make money.
    I recognize that my views here are unconventional, but I would be grateful for the chance to explore the point further with you.

  • Redux – China and America: Then and Now

    We liked the subject of this recent post much–so once again: Plus c’est la meme chose, plus ca change. From Seattle-based Dan Harris, at his insightful China Law Blog, see Chinese And American Cultural Differences–La Plus Ca Change…. Learn how…