2008 Beijing Olympic Games

Don't ask so laowai don't have to tell

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Don't Ask. Photo from Peaceful Rise

This essay was contributed by Geremie Barmé, scholar, filmmaker and author of the new book The Forbidden City. It is published here by permission of author.

Talk About the Wind and the Moon

by Geremie R. Barmé (30 July 2008)

Casual visitors to China, as well as non-Chinese residents, are familiar with a particular pattern of curiosity. After my first five years in the Chinese world, and as a columnist for the arts supplement of the Hong Kong Communist-controlled daily Ta Kung Pao 大公报, in the late 70s I wrote a piece about what I had come to think of as the ‘One Thousand Questions’ (qianzi wen 千字问, a play on the title of the old ‘One-thousand Character Classic’, 千字文).

You’re familiar with the general line of interrogation: ‘What country do you come from? How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? How much do you make? What do you think of China/Chinese food/the Chinese government/the Chinese people?’ (Naturally, things have changed in the last 35 years, but the opening gambit remains, even though money, business opportunities, car types, stock tips and so on also feature today.) It’s all pretty standard (and well-intentioned) fare and most visitors or residents work out a way to respond to what can be a fairly persistent, and monotonous, line of questioning over time. After the first few hundred such encounters you also realise that more often than not once the answers to the standard questions have been ascertained the conversation may come to an abrupt end. It is as though curiosity having been satisfied everyone can just get on with their lives. Also, depending on your own mood, or the number of times you’ve been grilled that day, your response may range from the ebullient to the sullen. While you may tire of the routine, sometimes it can actually lead to real conversations and even lively friendships. In some instances such boring verbal foreplay can lead to humorous and more voluble contact with people who really know how to ‘rant’ 侃.

The authorities are obviously aware of this kind of rote curiosity and, like everything these days, are anxious to offer solicitous guidance in limiting inappropriate, unapproved or possibly consequential cross-cultural contact. So, from today (30 June 2008) the Beijing Olympic nannies have decided to intervene even in this innocent and relatively innocuous form of Sino-International exchange. Therefore, the Beijing media has been instructed to publish an official list of ‘Eight Don’t Asks’ (bage buyao wen 八个不要问) that are supposed to limit contact between the citizens of the Chinese capital with foreign visitors to non controversial, socially acceptable and suitably courteous topics that will not offend presumably hyper-sensitive ‘Foreign Friends’ (waiguo youren 外国友人).

‘With an estimated 550,000 foreign visitors during the Olympic period this will be a time of unprecedented contact and exchange between Chinese and Foreigners’, states the communiqué published today. ‘Despite the three decades of openness and reform and the noteworthy improvement of public civility in recent years’, especially since Beijing’s successful bid to host the 29th Olympiad, the authors observe that, ‘It is nonetheless necessary to produce and display a “Courtesy Guide Relating to How We Should Engage in Conversation with Foreign Friends And Not Invade Personal Privacy or Offend Taboos”. The guidelines are to be promulgated as the ‘Eight Don’t Asks Courtesy Notice’ (bage buwen liyi pai 八个不问礼仪牌). They note that, ‘the majority of the questions you might wish to ask are part of common conversation [among Chinese], and there’s nothing particularly inappropriate about them. However, when talking to Foreign Friends it is possible unintentionally to invade a person’s privacy or offend against some taboo, thereby creating an untoward misunderstanding.’

Of course, this latest little extra bit of interdiction is being undertaken to accommodate visitors and demonstrate to them a measure of cultural sensitivity. We would note that international media outlets and others are finding out that there are other dimensions of ‘Western culture’ related to freedom of expression and the keeping of promises that are being given short shrift by the Olympic hosts. But from the post-Cultural Revolution movement to get people to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to the national campaign promoting the ‘five emphasizes, four beauties and three loves’ (wujiang simei sanre’ai 五讲四美三热爱) in the 80s, right up to the Hu-Wen era ‘Eight Glories and Eight Shames’ (barong bachi 八荣八耻), enumerating kindergarten-style lists of behaviour for Chinese citizens has maintained a considerable purchase on the nation’s life. In all of this earnest, tea-totalling good behaviour some historians discern the glum shadow of the 1930s’ ‘New Life Movement’. But, to be fair to the host city, as today’s notice says, ‘no matter how great the differences [between China and the world], we can all use the global celebration of the Olympics as a platform to enhance exchange, increase mutual understanding and advance the possibility of harmony.’

As of today, the ‘Eight Don’t Ask Courtesy Notices’ are to be displayed prominently in all 126 Community Zones of the city and are to be published in all local Beijing newspapers. This notice reads:

Citizens, please be mindful that in your exchanges with Foreign Friends during the Olympic period that you:

Should not ask about a person’s income or the way they spend their money;
Should not ask people their age;
Should not ask people about their ‘love lives’ or marital status;
Should not ask about people’s health;
Should not inquire after a person’s residential address;
Should not inquire about an individual’s personal history;
Should not ask people about their religion or politics; and,
Should not ask a person about their profession.

So, just what should you ask, or indeed talk about? Visitors and locals might wish to recall a sentiment expressed by Lu Xun (d.1936), China’s most famous 20th-century writer. He too lived under a regime of intermittent censorship, and he often treated the cruel dystopia of his time with comic resignation. With his usual sparse eloquence he called two of his most famous collections of essays ‘The Book of Faux Freedom’ (wei ziyou shu 伪自由书, 1933) and ‘Permission to Talk About the Wind and the Moon’ (zhun fengyue tan 准风月谈, 1934).

There are currently 21 Comments for Don't ask so laowai don't have to tell.

Comments on Don't ask so laowai don't have to tell

Great article, thanks for posting ;)

(it is now my duty to make up for this by teaching Beijingers the game "Never Have I Ever")

Well, they can still ask the same question I've heard for 3 yrs: "From where are you come from?" It also leaves plenty of room for "Hello, friend, buy watch bag."

On a serious note, the list does make for some pretty boring conversations.

Can we get a source for this "communiqué"? I was just curious to check if this is actually more news in addition to the "eight don't asks" monster I inadvertently spawned last week, but I couldn't find anything except for an editorial by Yang Liguang on Xinhuanet.

Also, I think you mean "126 community zones of Dongcheng District," not of the city...?

Cheers!

Spelunker presents: "8 questions foreign guests should not ask Chinese friends"

1. How much do you get paid to post comments on the Internet?
2. What's your sign? (Go China? No, I meant zodiac sign!)
3. Is that your maid?
4. Why is the fingernail on your pinky so long?
5. Shall we go back to your place tonight?
6. Where were you during the Cultural Revolution?
7. What's this Fallin' Gong thang y'all ain't s'posed to talk 'bout? (Americans only)
8. (At hair salon) Which one of you young ladies can give me a haircut?

@ spelunker
ha-ha-ha No. 8 very good!
Expect blank stares

What about addressing the mocking laugh that accompanies yet another "bu!" from stores or service providers.

OK, The more verbose & up-scale shop assistants might stretch to a deadpan "meiyou."

It doesn't require language skills or getting your head around a foreign culture to rein in what appears to be amusement in the face of another's evident disapointment.

"Duibuchi" (sp?) - goes a long,long way!

And (gasp!) that's not just for the laowai's benefit either....

As Socrates said..Be excellent to each other.

lol,

"准风月谈" is "permission to talk about the wind and the moon"?

Joel

Geremie Barmé sent us a response to your comment:

Dear Joel

Thank you for the response and query. Yes, this particular 'policy suggestion' was developed by people in the East City District (where many non-Chinese live) and first test-run there. The 'Eight Don’ts' are being posted in the 126 community zones of Dongcheng, presumably this will spread to the city as a whole. Thanks for asking for a clarification.

As for the communiqué, actually it is still a 'guiding document', and its publication was limited. The media is encouraged to embed its message in various news stories. In my article I was quoting from the preamble to this particular work, something I didn't make entirely clear. Apologies.

Geremie Barme is always entertaining. I remember a discussion he had on a late night news show about the tibet situation here in australia and as an Australian-chinese I almost wet myself laughing.

Always with funny and truthful incites into china, Geremie please write more opinion pieces for Sydney Morning Herald and try an wrangle your own show on the ABC, I'd totally watch it.

Yep, 准风月谈 doesn't mean permission to talk about the wind and the moon. It means something like "wannabe talks of the wind and the moon". Lu Xun meant he wasn't quite qualified enough to talk about that sort of rubbish.

ForceB:
Yes, I was taking some license with the Lu Xun book title. He was being sarcastic as you say and writing essays that refused to give in to blather about loft, and vacuous, poetic topics.
Best,
Geremie

Questions the Chinese should ask foreigners of Spelunker's type:

What the hell are you doing here in China? Why the hell are you not back in your own country if you are so fed up? Do you not have enough money to buy a ticket home?

And follow with something they understand: The middle finger. Pinky wouldn't do it.

Spelunker's text message to Pffefer:
IPN你P9

All those people asking questions? What a great opportunity to practise your Mandarin (Shanghainese, whatever)... although if the questions were in English, they might have been wanting to hone their English skills on you for free.
I say, get yourself a list of 50 -100 questions in Chinese ready to fire off first. They will be so busy answering all your nosey questions that they won't have time to interrogate you. Offense is the best defense!
If you have been answering a lot of questions in English, it is all your own fault.

If these are the things that Chinese love to ask foreigners then perhaps us foreigners in China can use this as a list of things we should be asking our Chinese neighbours when we can't think of something to say in the elevator...

Spelunker,

No Englese allowed.

One thing the Chinese government forgot to add to their don't-talk list is:

-Don't talk about the weather in Beijing. Biased Western media likes to bring up the weather in Beijing and then accuse us of air pollution.

I cited this in a comment at Imagethief, and I thought it might be interesting here, too:

It's not just the Chinese who are interested in etiquette (though they might be taking it to a new level). Hilton's "Be Hospitable" program is providing cultural advice for US athletes. The advice includes:

- "Blowing your nose onto the ground is common and oftentimes blowing one's nose into a tissue can be perceived as rude if done in public."

- "Chopsticks should never be used as a pointing tool (especially toward other people) or licked for that matter."

- "It is thought to be bad social etiquette to show the soles of your feet."

My favorite: "Poor driving skills and bad road conditions can make travel by car or bus a scary experience." (In other words, keep extra underwear near at hand.)

Anyway, to get the list of tips, go to:

http://www.behospitabletraveler.com/

Then click the "awareness" section and then the "more awareness tips."

Cheers, Boyce

‘the majority of the questions you might wish to ask are part of common conversation [among Chinese], and there’s nothing particularly inappropriate about them..." (above, government blurb on the "Eight Don't Asks." )

"Nothing inappropriate about them?" In whose view, may I ask?

I've been living in different parts of China over 20 years.

I have never witnessed a Chinese person ask another Chinese in public, upon first meeting, "What's your monthly salary?" "How many girlfriends do you have?" "How old are you?"

On the other hand, I have been asked all of these questions quite a few times, and more personal ones, on the lift, in buses, and other awkward situations in public, by Chinese people I have never met.

I don't assume the questioners have any particular ill intent. However, I am confident that most of them realize that such questions -- if posed to their compatriots -- would be ignored.

Ironically, I have visited several cities in most of China's provinces, and the city where I have been asked such in-your-face questions most frequently just happens to be...Beijing.

So the "Eight Don't Asks" seems quite apt advice to novices in the capital.

Bruce


@Bruce

No, sorry, you're wrong. Those 8 things are considered normal conversation for Chinese people. When we came to the US, it was strange that those things are not OK, although now it's strange that they are OK in China. It's funny to me that people are complaining about the fact that the government issues these recommendations because they are exactly what foreigners complain about Chinese people (along with other "bad manners"). And they are even so paranoid as to think that Chinese people only ask foreigners these questions.

If you think not being able to ask those questions leaves you with nothing to say, you would be truly bored in America. Small talk topics in America include talking about how tired you are or other complaints, baseball, the weather, and what are you doing this weekend.

Fascinating piece! As a born-and-raised American, I totally agree with Yang--small talk topics in the US are dull, dull, dull (seriously, can we strike "I'm so busy" and "I'm so stressed" from the list of acceptable conversational gambits?).

When I was in grade school, we had a career day at school and (in front of the entire school) I asked one of the visitors how much money she made. When we returned to our classroom, my teacher made a speech about how much I had embarassed her and the entire class by asking such a personal question. It's always seemed like a totally stupid rule to me--after all, we all really want to _know_ how much money others make.

When I'm living in China, I do get tired of answering the same questions over and over, but when I'm in the mood for it, I find small talk generally much more engaging than in the US--and more honest (like the people who would say, "Oh, you need to work on this and this in your Chinese"--thank you! I need to know!).

Chinese government surely has done many stupid things but this is NOT one of them. It is more like something that may appear in an intercultural communication guide book, trying to inform Chinese people of some implicit conversational norms in Western culture. It certainly does not deserve the sarcastic tone of the author.

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