Lies, Damn Lies, and Chinese “Lies That Bind”

Do Chinese lie?

The Western media have jumped on recent revelations about doctoring the Olympic opening ceremonies and allegations about false ages of their gymnasts, and the recent book The Empire of Lies: The Truth about China in the 21st Century argues that the West is being too soft on China.

On the other hand, John Pomfret asks “Should We Give China a Break?” He refers us to Tim Wu of Columbia University, who asks “Are the Media Being Too Mean to China?” Chinese hosts expect guests to honor their hard work, Wu explains, but Western journalists see their jobs as ferreting out the “real” China, which to them is “the dirt, not the rug it was swept under.” Wu adds that it’s “the dishonesty, as much as the substance of what’s wrong in China, that seems to get under the skin of Western reporters.”

The major factor is that China still feels defensive after two centuries of national humiliation, and, as in any besieged country (the United States in World War II, for example), citizens give the government a pass on regrettable transgressions. It’s all in a good cause.

Jeff Wasserstrom at China Beat sees a “Great Convergence” in which we have made great progress in discussing Chinese behavior in the same terms we talk about our own, and adds that as for “populations that accept lies, while it would be foolish to suggest any kind of complete moral equivalency, this is another case of people in glass houses being careful about throwing stones.”

In much of the mainstream media, I still smell old Western prejudices, which makes me think it’s worth while to look back. After all, Shakespeare used “Cathayan” when he wanted to say “liar” and even today newcomers to China are warned that Chinese concern with “face” leads to evasions and cover-ups, and that guanxi – “relations” or “connections” – opens the back door. [1]

More than a century ago, the American missionary Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (1894; reprinted, with a Preface by Lydia Liu: EastBridge, 2003) explained the China difference using pungent terms echoed by Americans who live there today: “talent for indirection,” “disregard” for accuracy and time, “absence of sincerity,” and “contempt for foreigners.” Smith would not assert there was “no honesty in China,” only that “so far as our experience and observation go, it is literally impossible to be sure of finding it anywhere.” It’s easy to cherry pick outrageous quotes but the book wrestled with a genuine question: why do Chinese and Americans behave differently?

“Face” is Smith’s first chapter. Face provides “not the execution of even handed justice” but “such an arrangement as will distribute to all concerned ‘face’ in due proportions.” Truth was less important than harmony. Smith asserts that “any Chinese regards himself as an actor in a drama,” so “the question is never of facts but always of form.” Face seems to mean “mask”: only if you strip it off do you uncover the truth. He was perhaps the first to explain Chinese behavior by the circumstance of living in a closely knit society and being dependent on harmonious mutual relations, but his mistake was to take America as the norm and to look for “absence” or “disregard” of what were actually parochial American middle class ideals.

The most cogent successor to Chinese Characteristics was Francis Hsu’s Americans and Chinese: Passages to Difference , first published in 1948 (University of Hawaii, 3rd ed. 1981). Hsu was born in China and came to the U.S. after the war. His book, just as acerbic about America as Smith was about China, contrasted his remembered China with the complacent, materialist America where his daughters grew up. Because the Chinese “situation oriented” approach was group defined, polytheistic, and realistic it was more mature than the American illusion of an autonomous individual based in Romantic ideals, monotheism, and expectations of endless plenty.

Recently Susan D. Blum’s charming and thoughtful Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) took up the challenge left by Smith and Hsu to study the rules, expectations and beliefs regarding lying and honesty not only in China but everywhere. Blum and Hsu both explain anthropological theory through breezy stories of everyday life (and both talk about their daughters), but Blum’s starting point is Michel Foucault’s post-modern assumption that every society has its own “regime of truth.” This is akin to Richard Rorty’s provocative statement that truth is “what your contemporaries let you get away with.” (Rorty quickly adds that serious people care not only about producing agreement but also about justifying their methods for producing agreement.) [2]

Blum catalogues the reasons we lie: profit, comfort, flattery, clever management, spin, polite convention, tactful greasing of squeaky social wheels, and sometimes just for the fun of it. Plagiarism is a lie about authorship, but Blum elsewhere adds that the “value of cross-cultural and historic examples is that they point out the constructed nature of our familiar expectations.” That doesn’t mean we should abandon them, but we might hesitate to call plagiarism “sinful” for our values “are certainly not universal.” [3]

We can add a few more lies: Macbeth, like many in Shakespeare’s plays , distrusts what his eyes tell him and calls his visions “lies like truth” (Othello comes to grief by trusting “ocular proof”). A geographer says “a map is a lie.” [4] Bullshit is sheer indifference to truth. [5] And then there is Huck Finn’s wonderful term, “stretchers.”

If truth is what our society lets us get away with and lies come in so many varieties, we need to ask why do Chinese act the way they do. Blum groups the contradictory explanations:

● Chinese culture (Arthur Smith’s “Chinese Characteristics”). That is, Chinese behave the way they do because they’re Chinese.

● Modernity in the form of Communism; authoritarian rule shapes behavior.

● Modernity in the form of post-Communism; free for all Capitalism shapes behavior.

Chinese situations change. Take your pick.

Unlike Smith, Blum does not take American values as the reference point, but she agrees with Hsu that because they live in closer and longer lived groups, Chinese are more focused on the social consequences of a statement than its literal truth.

Are all lies bad?

Chinese and Americans agree that rearranging the truth to make others happy is different from lying to cheat them. I love my birthday necktie and don’t add that I already have one exactly like it. Should you tell social or political lies because your children would pay if you say what you think? In China, the costs are higher and more certain than in mobile societies where authorities control fewer resources and neighbors more likely to move on. Should doctors tell patients that they are dying? Chinese are more likely to say no.

Blum sees differences which go way back. Aristotle and St. Augustine exalted Platonic Truth which transcended time and place, but Confucius sought to explain right action as relative to the situation. If your father steals a sheep, do not turn him in: The result would be wrong. When Chinese today, especially urbanites, brag of their cleverness they echo the Daoist generals who used tricks and strategy to get maximum effect for minimum effort For a Chinese court painter to copy a landscape stroke for stroke was not deception or “forgery.” If the result was beautiful and it pleased the emperor, it was beautiful.

Philosophers will recognize this not so much a debate between East and West as between the deontological commitment to truth at any cost vs consequentialism. In ancient China the poet Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river when the ruler was deaf to his advice and the historian Sima Qian accepted physical castration to avoid castration of his political views. Like establishment intellectuals in Mao’s China, they spoke truth to power but did not rebel or challenge its legitimacy.

Likewise, the scholarly painters in China were centuries ahead of the Romantics in 18th century Europe in condemning academic painting as not authentic since artistic truth was individual, spontaneous, and could not be copied. Rock ‘n Roll says this in simpler words and at higher decibels: “I need to be me,” “I can’t live a lie.” Americans often say that government should help individuals — “be all you can be” — Chinese that individual should help the government build a Greater China.

Hsu points out that these differences cut two ways. To be “free” or “independent” can also be “irresponsible,” “lonely,” or “selfish.” What Chinese call “harmony” can be “conformity” or “repression.” American “straight talk” can be childish, reckless, or self-righteous, and Chinese “sweet talk” can cover up realities until they fester.

Chinese regimes evoke both the iron hand of repression and the velvet glove of Confucian harmony; Americans talk the individualism game but have conformity and wartime group think as well.


1. Yes, Chinese do lie.

2. No more than anybody else.

3. For the same reasons.

4. They are in a different situation.

Which explanation do we chose for which action? Are the Chinese authorities behaving like good hosts, lying dictators, or just like most authorities would behave in the same situation?


[1] Harvard Business Review on Doing Business in China (Harvard Business School, 2004) has many references to guo qing, translated as “Chinese characteristics.” (p. 123). Josh Gartner’s blog “China Expat” has a sensible piece, “The Great Chinese Myth: Guanxi.” Academic studies include Thomas B. Gold, Doug Guthrie David L. Wank, eds., Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and Andrew B. Kipnis, Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).

[2] Jim Holt, “Say Anything,” New Yorker, August 22, 2005

[3] See Blum’s piece on H-ASIA December 7, 2007

[4] Mark S. Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd, 1996).

[5] Laura Penny, Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005); Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).


  1. Very helpful post.

    We have a Taiwanese, international-school-raised, American-married friend here in Tianjin who sometimes acts as something of a cultural ‘double agent’ between Chinese and foreigners. Americans accept her as a American (her English is flawless and worldview Western), but she can do the same thing in Chinese with groups of Mainlanders.

    She says that when her Chinese friends complain about their Western friends, one of their biggest annoyances is being accused of dishonesty by foreigners. To them, such foreigners are clearly in the wrong.

    I blogged about ‘Chinese lying,’ though with an emphasis on personal relationships, the relationship between words and meaing, and communication styles: To “lie” or not to “lie”

  2. Very interesting post.

    But the accusation of lying during the Games would have gone down much better if not for the hypocrisy of it. The media had jumped up and down over lip-synching in BJ while Sydney was given barely a shrug.

  3. Very thoughtful piece of writing.Thank you.

    However, I think the more damaging lies on the run up to the Olympics have concerned rights to protest, press freedom, internet access. The opening ceremony ‘illusion’ doesn’t really hurt anyone, although the gymnasts – through no fault of their own – must now live a lifetime lie unless one of them comes clean.

    And there are far greater areas of concern than those connected with the recent Games. What of the appalling quality of reporting that passes for journalism in China? And, on a related note, the history printed in school textbooks is so selective (particularly CCP era history) that it can scarcely be regarded as having any connection with the truth.

    I’ve lived in China for some time and sense a greater lack of moral values here than other countries that I’ve called home, and it’s not good enough to pass it off as an example of cultural relativism. Unfortunately, it seems to be working for them, so I don’t see things changing anytime soon.

  4. Having lived and interacted with the Chinese for more than 10 years. I would have to say that Chinese live on a dangerous slope. Primarily they do use far more white lies, use far more deception and well outright lies to Non-Han. To tie in the blood pact is a requirement. The Han a fiercely proud racially and to have a subjective viewpoint of the “truth” or to avoid the truth seeking process is tantamount to Groupthink (As Orwell would put it.)and is dangerous. The Han are as proud as any German who was a member of the Nazi Party. Science, Math and Harder Sciences are not possible in an environment such as this, hence the West invented the Gun. If truth telling depends on context then it’s like waiting for the Sun to Rise and set, cause you never know when it will not happen. Sounds like fun, but playing dumb has it’s limits. When you’ve been lied too so much how can you detect the truth? The truth becomes impossible and the search for truth or at least evidence becomes to time consuming and laziness takes over. It’s easier to use lies in China. As well a nation of liars is easy to control. Once again you cannot know the truth if you are always getting spun. Finally propaganda is more effective on a nation of liars, because there is only one consistent source of information however slanted to believe in. That is why the communists are atheists. Man becomes God when he can manipulate others to his own bidding. Man worship is practiced in China, and like in Nazi Germany, Mao’s own undertakings, and Pol Pot the uberman rises. Nietzsche would be very proud of China. In America and most of the west we have disdain for Man worship because we believe all Men are created evilly, so we counter with laws rules, God, and principles which are generally consistent regardless of context. In the East men are seen as good and a force for good becomes rich. Good means to win at any costs, but the cheaper the better. Almost a Darwinistic Calvinism minus god, and switch Good works for God, to good works for my own children, screw everyone else. Know it, lived it, left it!

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