Directness, Hierarchy and Social Roles in Chinese Culture

Social hierarchies, “face” and etiquette have traditionally played an important role in Chinese society. These elements of social interaction are reflected in the way people talk and act. In particular, it has been argued that Chinese people “are much more vague and indirect than Westerners”. One may find such views even in authoritative news outlets. For instance, in an article published in The New York Times in 2009, a professor was quoted as saying that “Americans often perceive the Chinese as indecisive, less confident and not tough enough, whereas the Chinese may see Americans as rude or inconsiderate.”

But is this assessment true? Are Chinese people really less direct than Westerners? Or is directness simply related to social roles in different ways? In the present article we shall examine how the network of rigid relationships, of formalities and duties that bind people together in Chinese society shapes communication and social behaviour in a way that differs from the West.

Indirectness in the Context of Hierarchy and Social Roles

In his autobiographical work Six Records of a Floating Life (Chinese, 浮生六記 pinyin: Fú Shēng Liù Jì), scholar Shen Fu (沈復, 1763–1825) vividly described family life during the Qing Dynasty. As was common in imperial China, Shen’s family structure was defined by rigid hierarchies and social roles. He depicted his father as a generous, but strict, distant and often autocratic man, a Confucian patriarch, who was the undisputed head of the family and whose authority could not be challenged. Shen Fu’s mother, too, appeared as an austere and severe figure. Conversations between Shen Fu and his parents were usually limited to the acts of commanding (parents) and obeying (son).

In the particular social constellation of the Chinese Confucian family, the daughter-in-law had a very low position. In many cases, she was little more than a servant whose duty was to take care of her parents-in-law. Accordingly, the members of a Chinese family did not talk with each other as equals would do. Everyone was constantly aware and reminded of the different hierarchical roles each family member had, which depended on age, blood relation, gender etc.

The result of this rigid network of relationships was that the individual needed to value carefulness, discretion, and at times secretiveness, over honesty, truthfulness, and authenticity. Six Records of a Floating Life presents a few interesting examples of this phenomenon.

Let us now see the first example:

In 1785 I [=Shen Fu] was working for my father at the Haining government offices. Yün [Shen Fu’s wife] usually enclosed notes to me in letters from home, so one day my father said to me, ‘Since your wife can handle brush and ink, she can write your mother’s letters for her.’ But sometime later there was some gossip at home, and mother suspected Yün of writing something improper about it in one of her letters. After that she did not let Yün take up the brush for her.

When father noticed that later letters were not in Yün’s hand writing he asked me whether she was ill. I wrote and asked her about it, but Yün did not reply. After a while father grew quite angry about this, and said to me, ‘Apparently your wife will not condescend to write letters for your mother!’ It was not until I returned home that I realized the cause of the misunderstanding, and I wanted to put things right for Yün. She hurriedly stopped me, however, saying, ‘I would rather have father blaming me for this than to have mother unhappy with me.’ So things were not cleared up after all (Shen 2004, Chapter 3).

This passage is just the beginning of a series of episodes that will eventually tarnish Yun’s reputation in the family and lead to her being driven out of her parents-in-law’s home. The interesting thing to be observed here is that Yun, out of filial piety, prefers to avoid explaining herself and clearing up the situation. Whatever reasons she might have had for not writing the letters, it would have been improper, or at least risky, for a woman in the low position of a daughter-in-law to stand up for herself and argue with her parents-in-law. If she had been direct and honest, she could have effectively defended herself, but she might have appeared unfilial.

But gossip is not the only consequence of hierarchy and social roles. Despite her willingness to be blamed for something she has not done, Yun is also ready to lie when it suits her. One day, Shen Fu’s father ordered him to go to Wuchiang County:

Yün took me aside. ‘If you are going to Wuchiang, you have to cross Lake Tai. I would love to go with you and see something more of the world.’

‘I had just been thinking how lonely it would be going by myself,’ I said, ‘and that if you could come with me it would be lovely. But there is no excuse for you to go.’

‘I could say I wanted to go home for a visit. You could go to the boat first, and I would meet you there.’

‘Then on the way back we could stop the boat under Ten Thousand-Years Bridge,’ I said. ‘We could relax in the moonlight, the way we used to at the Pavilion of the Waves.’

As we can see, since Yun, as a woman, is not free to leave the house and go wherever she wants, the only way for her to travel with her husband is to find an excuse and lie. Lying appears as the only way to break away from the rigid hierarchy of the family.

Let us now examine another example:

In the spring of 1790 I was again working for my father, at the secretariat at Hungchiang. A colleague of my father’s named Yü Fu-ting had brought along his family to live there with him. One day my father said to Fu-ting, ‘I have led a hard life, often away from home. I would like to have someone to live with me and serve me [i.e. a concubine], but I have not been able to find anyone. If my son respected my wishes he would find me someone from our home county so that our dialects would be the same.’

Fu-ting passed this on to me, and I secretly wrote to Yün telling her to find someone. She did, a girl named Yao. As father had at that time not yet accepted her, however, Yün decided it would be best not to tell my mother about what was going on. When the girl came for my father to meet her, Yün made up a story saying that she was a neighbour’s daughter who was visiting. And when my father sent me to bring her formally from her home to his residence, Yün again listened to the advice of others and made up a story saying that my father had admired her for some time. When mother learned what had happened she was outraged. ‘But this is the neighbour’s daughter who came for a visit,’ she said. ‘How can he marry her?’ Yün had made mother angry with her too…

While there I received a letter from Yün saying, ‘Your younger brother Chi-tang once borrowed money from a lady neighbour and asked me to be the guarantor. Now she is anxious to have the money back.’ I asked Chi-tang about it, but he only said that Yün was meddling in his affairs. I merely replied at the end of a letter, ‘Father and I are both ill, and we have no money to repay the loan. Wait until younger brother returns home and let him take care of it himself.’ Father and I recovered not long afterwards, and I returned to Chenchou.

Yün’s reply to my note arrived at Hungchiang after I had left, and father opened and read it. In her letter, Yün wrote of my younger brother’s borrowing from the neighbour, and also said, ‘Your mother thinks the old man’s illness is all because of the Yao girl. When he is a bit better, you should secretly order Yao to write to her parents saying she is homesick. I will tell her parents to go to Yangchou to fetch her home. This way, both sides can disclaim responsibility for her departure.’

When my father read this he was furious. He asked Chi-tang about the loan from the neighbour, but Chi-tang said he knew nothing of it. Father then wrote a letter reprimanding me, in which he said, ‘Your wife has borrowed money behind your back, and is now trying to say it is all little uncle’s fault. Moreover, she called her mother-in-law “your mother”, and referred to me as “old man”. This is outrageous! I have-already sent a messenger with a letter back to Soochow, ordering that she be expelled from the house. If you have any shame at all, you will recognize your errors!’ (ibid., Chapter I, my emphasis).

What we can see here is that hierarchy and social roles make it necessary for the individual to be cautious and secretive, to play a complex game in order not to disrupt what is considered the proper social order. Every interaction can become problematic if one is not careful enough. This teaches individuals to manipulate language in order to avoid confrontation towards superiors or other people on whose goodwill their own fate depends, though this strategy usually turns out to create more misunderstandings and tensions than it averts.

No website can survive without readers’ support. If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for making our work possible!

A father can reprimand his son and daughter-in-law in the harshest terms, and even drive them out of the house. This is evidence that the myth that Chinese people are not direct or avoid confrontation isn’t true. Directness depends on one’s social roles and position in the hierarchical system of interpersonal relations. The father is hierarchically superior to the son and the daughter-in-law, therefore he doesn’t need to be deferential.

As already mentioned, lying can become a useful instrument to achieve one’s goals without compromising oneself. In a system where social roles are strong and relatively inflexible, challenging authority can lead to conflicts that can have negative repercussions on one’s life. By lying one can avoid confrontation and at the same time do as one wishes.

Six Records of a Floating Life was written two centuries ago. In the meantime, Chinese society has radically changed. The position of women has improved immensely; they are no longer relegated to the home, unconditionally subordinated to their husbands and parents-in-law. The Chinese Empire has collapsed, and with it the unchallenged prestige of Confucian doctrines. Moreover, the authority of parents has diminished considerably. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that hierarchy and social roles have disappeared. They have simply changed.

The following excerpt from Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China will show how social roles (parents-children / women-men etc.) influence the way in which people communicate. Because of such social roles, people prefer to use a vague, ambiguous language, sometimes even lies, in order to advance their own interests.

The phone rang. It was a friend of Min’s, calling from Dongguan to see if she had arrived safely. “My mother is thrilled to death to see me,” Min reported. “My mother and father have aged a lot, and the house is all messy and cold. You don’t feel like doing anything but sleeping.”

The phone rang again. It was Ah Jie, who was staying in Dongguan for the new year. “I can’t talk now,” she said in a low voice. “There are a lot of people here.” Because Min’s mother disapproved of the match, Min had taken the path of least resistance: She had lied and told her mother she had broken off the relationship. Now she had brought her secret home. Every time the phone rang, it threatened to expose her. In a few days, Guimin would be arriving home with her boyfriend …

The car [of the train] was packed, but within an hour both Min and I had squeezed onto the edges of seats. Hu Tao had joined us, and Min gave him her seat and sat on his lap while they listened to her MP3 player together. This seemed a rare intimacy, and finally Min came over to me. “That boy is the one who was my boyfriend before,” she said. “What? Hu Tao?” She had dated Hu Tao the year before, when he lived in Dongguan—he was the one she couldn’t find after she lost her mobile phone. Hu Tao had called on her first day home, thinking to pick up where they had left off. These secrets had been held so deeply that I had no idea, and now I struggled to put the pieces together. “Does he know you have a boyfriend?” I asked.


“Do you plan to tell him?”

“I want him to find work in the factory first,” Min said. “Then I’ll tell him and he’ll be on his own. We can just be friends.” She laughed at her own nerve. “He’s not as good as my boyfriend now, right? My boyfriend is more reliable.”

There were more secrets. Guimin was not returning to Dongguan, as her parents imagined. That morning she had boarded the train for Changsha, the city where her boyfriend lived; they would move in together and he would help her find work there.

“I’m the only one who knows,” Min said. “You must not tell my mother. She’ll be even angrier than she is already.” She walked back down the aisle. Later I saw her sitting in Hu Tao’s lap as he untangled her hair with his fingers. She looked at me through the blur of hair and hands, her smile full of delight and shame …

She did not have a plan for resolving her dual-boyfriend dilemma, but in the end it would be decided for her. Later that morning, Min would introduce her boyfriend and Hu Tao, and each would be furious to learn of the other’s existence. Min would try, and fail, to find Hu Tao a job in her factory. Her boyfriend would tell her, “If he isn’t gone in three days, I will find people and come after him.” Min would lend Hu Tao three hundred yuan. And he would disappear from her life, probably for good (Chang 2008, pp. 300-3001).

We can observe how Guimin tries to enhance her own interests (being together with her boyfriend) by confronting her parents with a fait-accompli. On the other hand, Min’s actions show that she understands herself as a recipient of male attention and care (“He’s not as good as my boyfriend now, right? My boyfriend is more reliable.”).

Both sisters use a vague, ambiguous language because they are aware of the risk of exposing themselves. Guimin assumed that if she had talked to her parents they would not have listened to her, because they believe in their authority to decide for their daughter, or at least to influence their daughter’s decision. Min, on the other hand, loves neither of the two men who are courting her, but she prefers not to talk to them directly.

They can be both useful to her, so why should she spoil it all? For example, Hu Tao bought her train tickets which were hard to find during Chinese New Year. A direct confrontation might have only caused her trouble. By remaining vague, she didn’t have to take action and yet she could profit from the situation.

But what exactly is the difference between Western and Chinese culture in terms of directness?

We shall argue that Westerners are just as indirect as the Chinese in social situations that are comparable to those of Chinese society. Let us look, for instance, at the relationship between professors and students.The website has an interesting article that advises students how to handle conflicts with professors:

When you enter into a problematic situation with a teacher … the first question to ask yourself is if extreme action is really necessary. If it’s only one little problem and you won’t ever have a class with that professor again, why risk your grade? If it’s something you can overlook, even if you are in the right, why cause a big fuss? Sometimes it really is just better to suck it up and do the best you can going forward …  Like it or not, your professor is in a position of power over you, so you need to treat him or her with the respect the position asks for. When you speak, sound professional and clear with your statements. Even if your professor gets under your collar, bite your tongue and continue to be respectful.

People in the West understand that the relationship between a professor and a student is not based on equality. Therefore, communication cannot be direct. Students know that there is an etiquette to follow. They understand that they have to give “face” (in the Chinese sense of mianzi) to their professors. By the same token, when people have a job interview, they understand that they cannot just be straightforward and do whatever they want, but that there is a set of predefined rules as well as social barriers between interviewers and interviewees.

The main difference between the West and China is that in Chinese society social roles and hierarchies are more important and apply to more social situations than in the West. One may imagine life in the Chinese-speaking world as an endless job interview, where almost every relationship is governed by strict rules and determined by hierarchical barriers. Most importantly, the family itself in China is the primary source of hierarchy and social roles.

Family, friendships and other social relationships in the West are, by contrast, loose and increasingly tending towards equality. Let us examine a passage from People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. The book tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a young American woman who went to Japan to work as a hostess (and was eventually murdered). Let us see how the author describes Lucie Blackman’s family:

Conflicts were inevitable in a house of teenage children; very often, they were between Jane [Lucie’s mother] and Sophie [Lucie’s sister]. In these battles, it was Lucie who served as the peacemaker; to some people she seemed more than a sister to Jane. “In that house she actually became like the mother figure,” said Val Burman, a friend of Jane. “When Sophie used to scream and shout at Jane, it was always Lucie who would be the one to sort the problems out. She grew up quickly after Tim [the father] left. She became the mother, and Jane was the child” (Parry 2008, p. 36; my emphasis).

This kind of situation may be familiar to many Western people. Family relationships in the West tend to depend more on personal character than on a predefined, rigid hierarchical structure. Social roles are so fluid that they can even be reversed. As a consequence of the lack of a strict social hierarchy and of rigid social roles, communication in the West tends to be straightforward in more situations of social interaction than in the Chinese-speaking world.
No website can survive without readers’ support. If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for making our work possible!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s