The truth about lies

Charles W. Hayford surveys three books to illustrate how the discussion of Chinese and Western perceptions of honesty has progressed over time

By Charles W. Hayford
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Monday, September 29, 2008

Do Chinese lie?

For years, newcomers to China have been warned that Chinese concern with "face" leads to evasions and cover-ups, and that guanxi -- "inside connections" -- opens the door to opportunities. Last month the Western media jumped on revelations about doctoring of the Olympic opening ceremony program and allegations about underaged Chinese gymnasts. Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management decided that Rudyard Kipling was onto something when he claimed that "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." There is, he says, "more than a duality between East and West inherent in these games; they embody a paradox between the collaborative spirit of global unity and the patriotic spirit of nationalistic competition."

On the other hand, in "Are the Media Being Too Mean to China?" Tim Wu of Columbia University pointed out that there was a clash of cultural expectations. Chinese, as Olympic hosts, expected guests to honor the hard work of their hosts, while Western journalists saw their jobs as ferreting out the "real" China, which to them was "the dirt, not the rug it was swept under." Wu added that it was "the dishonesty, as much as the substance of what's wrong in China, that seems to get under the skin of Western reporters."

So it's worthwhile to look back to earlier attempts to explore Chinese cultural attitudes toward sincerity, authenticity, and truth.

More than a century ago, the American missionary Arthur Smith's Chinese Characteristics (1894; reprinted, with a preface by Lydia Liu, 342 pp: EastBridge, 2003) explained the China difference using pungent terms echoed by Americans who live there today. It's easy to pick out outrageous quotes, but the book wrestled with a genuine question: Why do Chinese and Americans behave differently? For starters: "talent for indirection," "disregard" for accuracy and time, "absence of sincerity," and "contempt for foreigners." Smith could not assert there was "no honesty in China," only that "so far as our experience and observation go, it is literally impossible to be sure of finding it anywhere."

Smith's first chapter is titled "Face." "Face" is "not the execution of even handed justice" but "such an arrangement as will distribute to all concerned 'face' in due proportions." Truth was less important than harmony within the group. Smith asserts that "any Chinese regards himself as an actor in a drama," so "the question is never of facts but always of form." "Face" seems to mean "mask": only if you strip it off do you uncover the truth. He was perhaps the first to explain Chinese behavior by the circumstance of living in a closely knit society and being dependent on harmonious mutual relations, but his mistake was to take America as the norm and to look for "absence" or "disregard" of what were actually parochial American middle class ideals.

The most cogent successor and rebuttal to Chinese Characteristics was Francis Hsu's Americans and Chinese: Passages to Difference, first published in 1948 (562 pp: University of Hawai'i, 3rd ed. 1981). Hsu, just as acerbic about America as Smith was about China, contrasted the "situation oriented approach" of the China he remembered from his youth with the complacent, materialist America in which his daughters grew up. Hsu saw Chinese as willing to adjust what they said to the situation, whether to please the listener or fit into the group. This approach was communal, polytheistic, realistic and just more mature than the American one, which was based on the illusion of an autonomous individual based in Romantic ideals, monotheism, and expectations of endless plenty.

Recently Susan D. Blum's charming and thoughtful Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (242 pp: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) took up the challenge to explain differences in behavior without saying that Chinese are just peculiar. Blum studies the expectations and beliefs regarding lying and honesty not only in China but everywhere. Like Hsu, Blum presents anthropological theory through breezy stories of everyday life (and both talk about their daughters), but her starting point is Michel Foucault's post-modern assumption that there is not one set of universal truths. Every society has its own "regime of truth" a concept akin to Richard Rorty's provocative statement that truth is "what your contemporaries let you get away with." (Rorty quickly adds that serious people care not only about agreement but also about justifying their methods for producing agreement.)

Blum catalogues the reasons we lie: profit, comfort, flattery, clever management, spin, polite convention, tactful greasing of squeaky social wheels, and sometimes just for the fun of it. And then there is Huck Finn's wonderful term, "stretchers."

Blum points out differences that go way back. Aristotle and St. Augustine exalted Platonic Truths which transcended time and place, but Confucius sought to explain right action as relative to the situation. If your father steals a sheep, do not turn him in: The result would be wrong. I tell my daughter that I love my birthday necktie but don't add that I already have one exactly like it. But should doctors tell patients that they are dying? Chinese are more likely to say no.

Philosophers will recognize this not so much a debate between East and West as between virtue ethics, deontological commitment to truth at any cost, and consequentialism.

Likewise, there was a running debate in both China and Europe over authenticity, creativity and sincerity. For a Chinese court painter to copy a landscape stroke for stroke was not deception or forgery, but there were also hermit scholar painters who condemned court painting as not authentic, since artistic truth was individual, spontaneous, and could not be copied. Only in the 18th century did Western Romantics arrive at this position.

Sincerity is the outward expression of inner feeling. American Romantics assert that truth comes from the heart, without inhibition -- in vino veritas. Confucius said that at the age of seventy, when he had, as we would say, internalized the rules, he could do whatever he pleased and still not do anything wrong. Americans often assume freedom is absence of restraint -- "get the government off my back!" -- but for Chinese that freedom comes from self-discipline or membership in a group with the power to act.

These differences cut two ways. To be "free" or "independent" can also be "irresponsible," "lonely" or "selfish," and 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. Telling the truth -- though the heavens may fall -- can be a value in itself or a self-indulgent power trip. Or both.

In any case:

  1. Yes, Chinese do lie.
  2. No more than anybody else.
  3. In different circumstances.

This review draws on pieces (with footnotes and references) posted at Frog in a Well on Aug. 28 and Sept. 8, 2008.