Language and history

The Chinese characters refer to a whole symbolic and the choice for a name requires study and research. It is the same in the commercial context. For its opening in 1989 in Taiwan, the Carrefour group had chosen its Chinese name with relevance the three characters meaning home, joy and happiness 家樂福, jiālèfú. Besides, the sound reminds the French pronunciation. The symbolism, but also the Chinese history resonates in the language. The expressions, the chengyu 成语 (a fixed expression with four characters) and the sayings, charged with the story of the Middle Kingdom, abound.

成语 chengyu

A chengyu is a fixed form often of four characters, which has often crossed a large part of Chinese history. Written in classical Chinese, it follows neither the grammar nor the syntax of Chinese. It often reflects popular wisdom, or/and refers to historical moments far away or close to our time. Let’s take an example.

卧薪尝胆,   to sleep on firewood and lick a gallbladder

The origin of this chengyu goes back to the 5th century BC. J.-C. Gujian, king of Yue’s state, lost his kingdom during a war against the kingdom of Wu. To quell the suspicions of his enemy, he became a shepherd. After three years, he gained the confidence of the king, who gave him complete freedom. He took the opportunity to prepare his revenge. To maintain his unrelenting spirit and not to soften in a too comfortable life, he slept on straw and tasted bile every morning. Used in everyday language, this expression means to nurse vengeance; to endure hardships to accomplish some ambition.

Chinese proverb

Success of 卧薪尝胆

A series of thirty episodes took the name of this expression, 卧薪尝胆 wò xīn cháng dǎn. It relates the wars between the two kingdoms of Wu and Yue, and shows Gujian’s perseverance and patience in regaining his country. Chinese producers are releasing many historical series, which are quite popular. The language does not leave history, just like television. After 1989, the government wanted to unite the country around nationalism, is, of course, in favour of these sagas that show the greatness of Chinese history. The reactivation of National Studies ( 国学), traditional Chinese studies, is also part of this movement.

In the literal sense, lying on the straw, tasting the gallbladder, the expression is meaningless. It forces us to go back to Chinese history, twenty-five centuries ago, to understand its meaning. The Chinese language makes history even more alive and closely links the speaker and history. Can we have the impression that the language is turned towards the past?

Read more about Chinese proverbs here.
The Chinese series on Youtube, episode 1 with English subtitles

21 July 2020

玉不琢,不成器 Jade must be worked to be useful

Chinese proverbs of June :

玉不琢,不成器 yù bù zhuó, bùchéngqì, Jade must be chiseled before it can be considered a gem or Without study and work, nothing can be achieved.
Article with the proverb.

Chinese proverb Sunzi

知己知彼,百战不殆, zhījǐzhībǐ, bǎizhànbùdài, If you know yourself and your enemy, you won’t be in danger in a hundred battles.
Article with the proverb.

Boss, strategy?

Some executives in China do not always manage to understand the strategy of their Chinese employer, we can reassure them, this is also the case for Chinese employees. I have often encountered this type of situation. Why is this?

A meteoric growth

It should be remembered that China has grown madly since reforms were launched 40 years ago. As Zhong Qinghou, founder of the Wahaha group (ex-partner of Danone) in Hangzhou, 宗庆后, pointed out in an interview a few years ago, :  China is moving too fast to make plans for the next 5 or 10 years. What is true today won’t be true in 2-3 years. 1 to 2 years is the reasonable maximum (I quote from memory). 

Facing fierce competition, being extremely reactive is mandatory.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs often face fierce competition in which there is no holds barred. The winning teams work schedules that would make a French labour inspector catch syncopations. Lee Kai-Fu, Taiwanese, a venture capitalist in AI in Beijing, explains it very well in his book, “The biggest change in history”.

QAI and China

You have to know how to turn around quickly and not stay in rigid patterns and when a dark horse, 黑马 (an outsider who wins the bet), comes along. Reactivity is certainly an asset in many businessmen I have known.

Cross the river by feeling the stones

The proverb “Cross the river by feeling the stones, 摸着石头过河” can also illustrate typical behaviour in a highly changing and swirling environment. Experiment first and move forward with the lessons learned. In fact, it has almost become a strategy. This proverb even became a slogan worn by the Deputy Prime Minister, economist Chen Yun 陈云, in 1950. It was later honoured by Deng Xiaoping, 邓小平, the “father” of reforms. It serves as a reminder of the importance of experimentation. Major theories must give way to pilot experiments that will teach lessons. In some areas, the reform policy has sought to build on pilot experiments, and it has been tried and tested to see whether the overall strategy can be applied to the entire country. Shenzhen, where the portrait of Deng Xiaoping is enthroned, was the first pilot city for the opening in China. When you look at the accomplishments of the past 40 years, you have to recognize the success.

jeu de go chinois


Of course, I am not saying that long-term strategy does not exist in companies. The last twenty years have seen training companies teaching the basics of business development and management; universities now have much better curriculum. Many executives have been trained at the best institutions abroad and have returned with excellent credentials. The progress is considerable.
At the political level, moreover, next to these stones on the river, the authorities are drawing up plans for decades, see for example the article yesterday on the island of Hainan, where there are plans to turn the province into a free zone by 2050. The advantage of not having governments that can change direction with every presidential election is that it allows long-term development strategies to be held without being too disturbed.
Obviously, this subject can be developed endlessly, I give some frameworks that allow a better understanding of a changing reality, these are not absolute truths, which can apply in 100% of cases. The larger the size of a company, the clearer the strategy becomes. Moreover, we should stop on the theme of the importance of change and the strength of adaptation in China, but that’s another story for another day. 

5 June 2020

What does the boss mean?

What’s he saying?

Since the birth of this site, I’ve been receiving a lot of messages. Some readers have asked me about the differences in the type of communication with company managers, asking me if it is usual for the boss to be rather vague sometimes on important points. My answer is simple: “It’s pretty standard! “I even attended a training session in Guangzhou where the speaker had spent an hour on the subject: “communicating with your boss, knowing what he says and wants”.

The implicit, 含蓄

Professor Pei had put the theme in the context of Chinese culture with a parenthesis on the word 含蓄 Hánxù, which means implicit, reserved. The first character 含 means to contain, to enclose and the second 蓄 to accumulate, to amass. It also designates a mode of communication, verbal and non-verbal, implicit and indirect. It is used to express emotions, reactions and even ideas. He explained to us its importance in Chinese literature and art, where the suggested abounds, as does the unsaid in language (see the article here). The Chinese world is not one of direct expression. One of my bi-cultural Pekinese colleagues highlighted to me with a smile: “The French are like children, they say everything they think. We Chinese are much more restrained. “It’s a caricature, of course, but the comment highlights the differences.

李白 Chinese poet

What to do?

Pei had asked us to think for a few minutes about how to behave in front of a boss who spoke in half-words (说半句话). The only answer which made the unanimity is summarized as follows: “It is necessary to learn how to manage your boss. “
I had a partner who fell into that category. At first, I imagined a lot of things, but soon I realized that his executives had the same problem as me. They avoided talking about important things on the phone because the problem would get worse.  Or if they had no choice, they would skillfully ask for confirmation in a message on We Chat or by SMS (before the We Chat era).  Or those who had the courage to be frank asked the Emperor to be more explicit.

Was it strategic?

When faced with complex situations, lack of clarity has its advantages; if there is a problem, the other can say that he never said that. 
Moreover, the Chinese proverb “言多语失, to easily make mistakes while talking more” sums up one aspect of this aspect in communication well, reserve is sometimes motivated by caution. I have always believed that China is the country of strategy and that many Chinese are strategists. This art of the implicit and the unspoken makes it possible to move one’s pieces forward with dexterity on certain occasions. 

Of course, the thirst for progress in China forces to forget about habits that do not lead to a company’s development. Moreover, trainers often insist on the importance of communication. Is this the end of the implicit? I don’t think so!

PS: Once again, China is varied and diverse. We should not take any of these observations as general laws that allow us to decipher everything. They help, they help a lot, but diversity forces us to be perceptive to know when they work, help a little or when they do and don’t work. In the North, especially in the Northeast, personalities are more direct… I have experienced situations that are not very “implicit” between Shenyang and Harbin… 

See the article on Subtlety in China

3 June 2020

The Chinese friend

We have already mentioned the connotation of the word friend, 朋友, in China and the importance of this “concept” in society. A friend can be a simple relationship that allows us to do each other favours and return the favour, in social life or in business. The proverb reminds us of the importance of this notion: ” Depend on parents at home, rely on friends outside, 在家靠父母,出门靠朋友.” (see here); with a friend, one can therefore have important common interests and “little arrangement between friends” (see here). One can also become friends from a simple meeting, when the other helps (see the meeting of the Cantonese in the train). To come back to the characters, let’s look at the origin of the characters. The word is composed of these two characters 朋 and 友.

朋, péng

An ancient meaning of péng, 朋, the first character, designated a unit of currency. In its original spelling, it represented “bei” attached together. A site specializing in Chinese currency explains that “in early pre-imperial China, around 1500-1000 B.C. and the Shang Dynasty, cowries called bei were used as currency. They are small shells. They were gathered in ligatures and were thus the first means of payment. The cowries are not only used in China. They were one of the first currencies used in the world. Nowadays, some African countries still use it as a divisional currency. Some cowries had holes in the back and were assembled in ligatures of about twenty pieces called peng. There are also other explanations, the character represents the tail of the phoenix.

China friend

友, yǒu

As for the second character, yǒu, 友, originally it represented two hands that were bound together to signify friend. It has the meaning of acting together.


NB: In order to memorize characters faster, it is useful to associate an image with the character, see the illustrations above. Some characters are pictograms very close to reality like the sun or the moon, or other ideograms have the “idea” of the signified. 

For articles on Chinese language, see here.

30 May 2020

China: The wager US lost

Donald Trump, as early as his election campaign in 2016, had already proclaimed aloud the observation that his predecessors had refused: the United States had lost a battle with China. The whole strategy of his administration is to slowdown China’s development. 

The Taiwanese economist Lang Xianliang mentioned part of the problem on his Weibo account: “Many people wonder why there is so much tension between the United States and China. The heart of the problem lies in China’s growing technological capabilities: especially the huge advance in 5G that has created unprecedented fear and anger in the United States. Since the Second World War, the United States has relied on advanced technology and a financial system to dominate the world. It will defend itself like crazy if its position is challenged. Before analysing the current tensions, it is useful to look back at American strategies in the past. »

Openness is good for America: Europe and the Marshall Plan

The United States wanted to take advantage of globalisation with China, as it had done with Europe and part of the world after the Second World War.
In 1945, the United States had a GDP that represented more than 50% of the world’s GDP ( 60 to 70% according to some estimates), held two thirds of the world’s gold reserves, was responsible for 90% of world production in the automobile, shipbuilding and aeronautics industries and also had an enormous technological lead. Faced with a devastated Europe, they set up a Marshall Plan to turn Europe around and sell their merchandise. The strategy worked well. 

Warming relations

With the warming of Sino-American relations under Nixon, the idea gradually sprang up to do the same thing again by “helping” China to set up a market economy, to see the opening up of China and democratisation of the country. An idea that is naively transplanted to other countries with a simple equation that often works: democracy = open markets = turnover for American groups and political influence.
Deng Xiaoping’s trip in 1979 was an important step in a great cooperation.  Bush Sr., who experienced Beijing on a bicycle in the 1970s, is considered a linchpin in the normalization of Sino-American relations. Kissinger found him too “soft”. After June 4, 1989, he did his best to maintain relations between the two countries. He came under criticism for his “allegiance” to Beijing. 


China’s rise to power

Bush Jr., preoccupied with the fight against terrorism, did nothing consistent to counter the rise of the Chinese economy in the first decade of the 21st century. U.S. consumers were able to enjoy cheap Made in China products while the Chinese government financed U.S. debt with its huge foreign exchange reserves. It was called Chinamerica.
The subprime crisis did not increase the vigilance of the White House against the rise of the Chinese rival and Obama’s two terms in office did not show a great offensive.

Growing opposition to China’s ascent

Over the past 15 years or so, opposition to China has grown and grown: China is the sole beneficiary of this deal. The Sino-American marriage no longer works, investment in American treasury bonds is no longer enough, the trade deficit is colossal. On top of that, China is catching up with the US.

And Trump arrived

2016 signed the alarm bell for demon-globalisation, with the election of Trump. Europe has given birth to Brexit. A few days after his election, Trump gathered the bosses of high-tech companies at the Trump Tower. In response to Trump’s question, “What can I do for you? ” a unanimous answer was summed up as follows: “The biggest threat is the theft of our intellectual property by China.” Gradually, U.S. officials in their vocabulary add more and more “Chinese Communist Party” and use the word China less and less. They have nothing against China and its people, but they blame the CCP, which is unreliable and is accused of all evils, according to their statement. S. Bannon, a former White House strategist who works with a controversial dissident, billionaire Guo Wengui, is quite active on this issue.

From low profile to more ambition

On the other hand, the end of the first decade saw a more confident China abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s line of keeping a low profile (韬光养晦*). With Xi Jinping, the tone is rising and ambitions are being displayed with the construction of the Silk Roads, numerous shareholdings in strategic ports abroad, military bases abroad, the replacement of the dollar in certain trade agreements. Enough to irritate the hawks in Wahsington.

China hasn’t said its last word

The U.S. government’s observation is simple. Past leaders have made a bet: China’s opening would be beneficial for the business of American companies, but the trade figures speak for themselves and show a great imbalance. Trump simply wants to make a readjustment.  The first stunt with the trade agreements signed in January 2020 gives a victory for Washington, but China has not said its last word. China’s strategy is much more refined and is not questioned every four or five years with each new election; it is a long-term strategy.

China seems to be emerging less weakened from the health crisis. Is year 2020 a turning point in relations between the two economic giants or will the contradictions “settle down”?

*韬光养晦, tāo guāng yǎng huì
Hide your talents and rest in the dark, lay low in the shadows, keep a low profile.

Articles on Chinese-American relations here et here.

26 May 2020

Beijing-Washington: War and Peace

Chinese-American relations have had a hectic week. At first, the harsh tone of the American administration dominated.  Faced with its failure in the fight against Covid 19, the temptation is great to blame China, to put the spotlight on the lack of transparency of the Chinese government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited significant evidence that the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan. On the other hand, US intelligence said it had no such evidence and White House adviser Anthony Faucy, an epidemiologist, believed the virus was natural.

If the White House ventures down the path of confrontation by asking for financial compensation for the spread of the epidemic, it must weigh the consequences, it could lose all the benefits of trade agreements; Beijing had committed itself to increasing its purchases of American products by 200 billion over 2020 and 2021. A second phase of this agreement is planned. The Chinese government would logically forget the agreement and American companies would suffer the consequences.
In the midst of economic difficulties with unemployment exploding, the loss of Chinese orders would be another thorn in the side. The spectre of an electoral defeat at the end of the year would draw nearer.

Very quickly, American pragmatism apparently regained the upper hand.  Voices from Washington were saying that if the trade agreements were respected, everyone could be satisfied.  The “Business First” clan seemed to be winning. On May 8, Beijing announced that the two sides, after a telephone conversation, expressed their readiness to strengthen their cooperation on macroeconomic and public health issues and to make every effort to create a favorable atmosphere for the implementation of their preliminary economic and trade agreement, with a view to achieving positive results.

Proverbe chinois

The American attitude seems a priori rather disconcerting. But: both sides have an interest in getting along and all the outbursts of voices should not mask the strategy of each clan. The economic journalist Wang Jian, 王剑, describes the American tactics of the last few days using a Chinese proverb: “Until you see the rabbit, don’t let go of the hawk, 不见兔子,不撒鹰”. Until the objective is clear, no concrete action will be taken. In other words, the US administration was groping around, looking for guidance to determine the best direction to take. The unemployment rate, which has soared to 14.7%, has certainly also prompted the US President to return to more concrete considerations and to refocus on trade agreements.

This week seems to be a turning point towards a calmer sky. Trade interests should regain the upper hand. The way to the signing of phase 2 of the agreements is therefore open for the benefit of all.

12 May 2020