By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Chinese impressions

Sometimes I think that the more I learn about China, the less I understand. This particularly applies to the plethora of traditional views about everything from feng shui and the powers of various foods, to lucky or unlucky words and the flow of “qi” (energy). The ultra-modern administration building at the university in Xi’an I am now visiting has a big hole, deliberately created in the original design, at about the twentieth floor, apparently for some feng shui-related reason.  China Daily had an op-ed article recently called “Why Officials Are Superstitious.” It mentioned a local official who had changed the name of a local lake because it sounded like the word for “turn down,” and the official was worried it would lead to his being turned down for a promotion. Other officials have accepted bribes after priests told them their chances of being caught were small. And the local newspapers have reported on a billionaire in southern China who is considering 1,000 applicants to be his wife. One step of the winnowing process is to have a feng shui expert look at the faces of the semi-finalists faces to see whether the faces are lucky.

The China Daily op-ed suggested that increasing superstition reflects a lack of other core values in Chinese society today. That, in turn, relates to the other incredibly confusing element of China for an outsider – the simultaneous presence of occasional incantations of traditional Marxist ideology in the context of an incredibly market-oriented and money-making culture.

As I mentioned in passing in my last blog, brand-consciousness in China is huge. At the airport on the way to Xi’an, I saw a family member taking a picture of a traveller posed like a model, with her arms in the air against the billboard, in front of an ad for Tiffany. Many Western brands have been given different names in China, to make them easier to pronounce – L’Oreal is “Oh-lay-ah,” and KFC is “Kun-de-ji.”

I have had a number of conversations with students about what jobs are considered most attractive. It turns out that most students aspire to a job in state-owned companies, which I found truly surprising. (The Chinese economy is still dominated by state-owned giants, such as China Mobile or Baosteel, though most have sold a minority of shares to the public and are stock-exchange listed.) The reason is that salaries and benefits are good, and working hours are modest. I spoke with an employee of a state-owned bank who works on stock initial public offerings.Her daily hours are 9 to 5, with 2 hours for lunch – a schedule that would amaze any young investment banker in America! It is hard to imagine that China will really be able to out-compete the U.S. with this work culture and security-seeking. Students add that it is hard to get these jobs, because most of the jobs go to people with “connections” (guan xi).

I had been surprised when I was in Taiwan last December that the main impression a group of Taiwanese students I met with had about President Obama was that he was very handsome. In China, I have found the same reaction among students. While driving around an upscale neighborhood in Shanghai a few days ago, I saw something called the Obama Entertainment Center.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 25, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Jul 7, 2010 Lydia China

I do agree to Wonfucious and I also think this article is reflecting the real aspect of some phenomenon in China.

Sat, Jul 3, 2010 Wonfucious

well my friends are more inclined to get jobs in a mutilnational company to climb the corporate ladder. also iching culture doesn't necessarily mean superstition and in fact is an indispensible part of chinese legacy. china is so vast a country that some impressions, though true in some degree, can hardly be national representative and doesn't apply in other cities of china. that's not the observer's wrong. thing is china need to be better understood and various suggestions and observations, right or wrong, are inevitable and helpful.

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Steve Kelman

Nianmeng, thank you for reading the blog and making these comments. I am not "negative" towards China, nor am I trying to write only negative things. Nor am I trying to give a complete impression of everything about China. Instead, I am writing about some interesting things that made an impression on me and that I think might be surprising or unexpected for readers outside China. Best Steve Kelman

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 Nianmeng Shi

You know what sir? In your article you pretend that you know a lot about China. As a Chinese person who has lived in China for 45 years and who is by no means completely happy with what has been happening in this country, I would say that you are extremely biased against China and Chinese people. I know you know a lot more about China than is revealed in this article here but you have chosen to try to "reveal" the dark side" instead of attempting to offer a more balanced view about a people who have been modest, ambitious and hard-working in her 5000 years of history. Chinese people know that problems are everywhere and there's a long way to go before people like you can't just comfortably pick out something and declare to the world that it's like that everywhere in China.

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