Subtlety in China

With our Western education and culture, we may be tempted to express ourselves quite directly in China, to forget certain subtleties, to talk about the problem that others poses to us instead of having the indispensable discourse “we have a problem, how can we solve it together? ».  Subtlety comes into play in the language, in the unspoken, from everyday conversation to political discourse to the business world.


You have to become a detective to understand all the uses and meanings of words in Chinese. Let’s take an example with tiáo zhěng, 调整; these two characters together mean to adjust, reshuffle.
We can often use this word to, for example, talk about adjustments to the amount of social welfare compared to living costs, we can use this character tiáozhěng in this case. So far, so good!

You’re not firing anyone!

Over the years, I have frequently come across it, in conversations or in articles or on TV shows. I was quite intrigued and the subtlety jumped out at me when a company boss explained to his sales manager in front of me that he had to be careful with his vocabulary when firing an employee with deep pockets: “You’re not firing her, you’re making adjustments! 你不开除她,你调整! ” I understood that tiaozheng was sometimes and even often used to avoid exposing the reality in a crude way. When we think that the decline in growth is inevitable, if the word tiaozheng is present, it may come instead of the word “decline”, and conversely, if we want to evoke the possible rise in property prices (which irritate the more modest social strata), this word may overshadow “increase”. How convenient! Instead of talking about economic turbulence, we will talk about adjustment.

Fire in Chinese

The unsaid in Chinese reigns

Of course! This is not a general rule, 调整 is not used like this all the time, it all depends on the context and the personality of the speaker. Just keep in mind that direct style is not the characteristic of Chinese culture and the use of the language reflects this. While we must avoid making generalizations, we must nevertheless recognize that the unsaid reigns! And tiaozheng fits into this type of scenario.

Shadow or Light

While writing this article, I just remembered the remark of a very interesting book, “A la découverte du chinois” by Emmanuel Cornet: “…Chinese culture does not like to expose itself under the light, and very often relies on the “unspoken”, a great source of misunderstandings between Chinese and Westerners…. One could almost say that a word too direct is like a lover who confesses their flame too directly, or a novel whose author shouts its profound message without subtlety…”. (Chapter 4.3 ).

Turning negative into positive

In Chinese, the unspoken makes the situation less painful or less sensitive depending on the case. Firing a person can be synonymous with failure or it is an acceptance of failure in the head of our business leader and in front of his employees. In this way, the situation slides into a positive one with reshuffling/adjustment measures to make improvements. 

Or how tiaozheng helps to transform the negative into a positive! 

22 May 2020

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