Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fu (Fuu) – A Mother Bird Sitting on its Eggs!

Why Truth in China is Hard to Come By!

Boyé Lafayette De Mente

When the first Westerners began to take up residence in China they often complained bitterly and at length that the Chinese didn’t know how to tell the truth—that they automatically lied even when there was no benefit and no danger to them individually or to anyone else.

This was particularly vexing to the horde of Christian missionaries who descended upon China from the early 1700s determined to win bodies for their particular brand of religion, and to the traders who flocked in with visions of vast riches to be had by selling the Chinese things they didn’t need—especially a heroin, for which the British went to war with China to enforce its virtual monopoly on the drug trade.

There are, of course, historical and cultural explanations for the Chinese view and use of fu (fuu) or truth, and part of this explanation is embedded in the ideographic character that has traditionally been used to write the word.

This ideograph is a stylized rendition of a mother bird sitting on her eggs or hatchlings to prevent them from being seen and becoming tempting targets for hungry animals and other species of birds.

The reason this symbol was selected to represent truth was because throughout China’s long history telling the naked truth could be disruptive to personal and work relationships as well as well as get one into trouble with the ruling elite—and the latter could be fatal.

Rather than speak truthfully or bluntly about anything the Chinese were conditioned to speak in vague terms, and to simply ignore questions about things, including things that were often neutral and posed no threat. The wise course on virtually every level of society was to avoid taking responsibility for anything by passing the buck to higher ups by inaction or a meaningless response.

Until recent decades, this reaction to questions was often especially exasperating to foreigners who might have asked a hotel clerk if there were any vacate rooms and either got a shrug or a ritualized response that meant “no” to those who were really clued in to Chinese culture, but didn’t make any sense to the clueless.

A great deal of the people-to-people communication in China is nonverbal and requires acute cultural intuition to understand and master. It generally takes substantial knowledge of the language and customs to achieve this level of telepathic understanding.

Another factor in the Chinese use of truth that still prevails to some extent is that the government has traditionally treated factual information about the country as state secrets not to be disclosed to the public, especially to foreigners.

This information paranoia has weakened considerably but enough of it remains that people are still charged and punished for inquiring about or passing on information that in other countries is routinely made public knowledge by the government and by private organizations.

Over the centuries the Chinese developed specific tifa (tee-fah), or “ways of saying things,” that became institutionalized, ritualized and sanctified that were usually benign enough, but when the Communist party took over in 1949 it created a totally new set of tifa that were designed to control the thinking and behavior of the people, and failure to use these expressions in the right way at the right time could be deadly.

This insidious “Big Brother” effort to program people in “Communist think” has also mostly gone by the wayside, but its influence can still be seen and felt. People must still be careful about what they say because they never know what could be used against them.

Despite all of the fundamental changes in life in China since the 1970s arriving at the truth in most public and official situations is still not a simple straightforward matter. It must be arrived at by carefully finessing each situation through follow-ups, secondary sources, and a great deal of patience.
Copyright © 2007 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente.

For a comprehensive discourse on the traditional Chinese mindset, see the author’s book China’s Cultural Code Words (McGraw-Hill), which consists of definitive essays on the cultural nuances and uses of 305 key Chinese words. It is available from Amazon.com and major book retailers. To see a full list of his books, go to: http://www.phoenixbookspublishers.com/.