Passage to China: the new old world

"When unreality assumes a shape the semblance still is false. When vacuity assumes form and place, it remains vacuity still." Dream of the Red Chamber1.

Sonia Bernicchi

Every time I go to China, I always wonder how the Chinese see the Westerners. What I know is that they call us "big noses", they state that "noodles" are better than "spaghetti" and that our food is fat and heavy confirming the idea according to which everything in the world is relative and, perhaps, what we retain to be great is not as good for others as we would like to believe.

I often travel to China, especially to Shanghai, but I have also had the opportunity to go to less westernized and much more Chinese cities like Zhengzhou. Here, I have not met many Europeans. Walking around, one understands what it means to be in a minority and to feel different. Their glances are curious and they want to know something more about these foreigners in their city. They always smile and those who speak English, try a respectful approach just to say a few words. There are plenty of clichés about China and the Chinese people. We cannot solve the matter by saying that China is a problem and treating all Chinese as stereotypes. I think this is quite reductive. It is true that China is a unique country, but not all Chinese are the same and to be able to appreciate their qualities we should see them as individuals.


My first trip to China on business dates back to 1995. I arrived in Beijing in November; the sky was leaden and thick, the city swarming with bikes and people walking around. Tiananmen Square was austere and melancholy. A huge screen marked the countdown to the day Hong Kong would revert to China, after British rule. Everywhere there were pictures of "Chairman Mao". A few Europeans were walking around. There were small groups of Chinese men who stared at me with a mixture of curiosity and shyness. To their eyes I must have looked like a giant from my one-metre-and-seventy-five-centimetre-height.I have happy memories of Beijing, of the Hutong2 and the markets, of bikes laden with toilet paper rolls, waste paper and bags, of bikers a bit bored, a bit absent-minded in their blue uniform and canvas shoes. For us, a means of transportation unimaginable but certainly practical. For that matter, wits are a gift of the Chinese along with discipline and perseverance. As children, to learn the language they have to study hard. School is selective so the attitude towards commitment is learnt early, as an integral part of their Buddhist and martial arts traditions.In our culture struck by the speed of change and by the need to go faster in search of incitements (which distract us non-stop), these values have been in part forgotten and should maybe be recovered. The writer Tiziano Terzani used to say that between two roads, one uphill and the other downhill, it is always better to choose the first, because coming to terms with ourselves may be hard and exhausting but it is always better to go far and aspire to lofty thoughts.


Spring and Autumn3. It is said that we do not read that much; but for eager readers, Chinese bookshops are a paradise. When I was in Zhengzhou I went to a bookshop to buy a book on Chinese grammar. I got in and found myself in a modern and comfortable "multi-level-store", full of people. Some browsed, some looked around, others read. I went to the section I was interested in, but was unable to find what I was looking for. Within a few minutes all the shop assistants who were there approached me. They did not speak any English and my Chinese was too poor to be understood but, half laughing and half communicating by gestures, we made it through.


Chinese kindness. We never talk about it but it is an aspect that I always appreciate with joy. At the airport, in the hotel, in the streets, with my clients. Kindness and respect. As Westerners, we are overwhelmed by ourselves and by our non-stop commitments. We forget about people and become rude, rough in our manners and intolerant of the time we dedicate to them.


Dragons and Skyscrapers. Since 1995 I have been travelling continuously to China and have taken up learning the Chinese language. I am unable to read but have started speaking. This has opened unexpected possibilities. China has changed a lot and it keeps changing rapidly. It is in a state of transition. From poverty to riches, from centrally-planned Communism to market economy, from a pre-modern to modern economy. It has been called the "New Old Word" and I like that description very much.Traditional and old superstitious beliefs live with modern and westernized values. Powerful cars drive next to the classic bicycles which today are motorized; futuristic shopping centres spring up near open markets swarming with street traders selling everything from clothes to shoes and food. Old superstitions, good and bad luck and symbolisms live together with an extraordinary modernity and speed.


The power of jade. It is considered the sacred gem of friendship. Bracelets, pendants shaped like Buddha, rings and necklaces. In China they are everywhere. Old and precious jade and not. The story goes that jade protects the person who wears it. When it brakes it means that jade has acted as a shield to prevent some misfortune befalling the person. Due to my frequent trips to China, I have begun to believe it too. I wear a jade bracelet and I buy them as gifts for my dearest friends. It does no harm and you never know!

Some superstitions are linked to the old lunar calendar. The seventh month is the one connected to death and its first fifteen days are called "the month of Ghosts". It is said that during this time the spirits of people who died a violent or untimely death come back. For the Chinese to travel, to get married or move is dangerous because of the many spirits thought to be lurking around. Numbers and colours have a special significance for the Chinese. "Four" is a homonym for death, while "Eight" is seen as good because in Cantonese it means, "to become rich". In the street you will often see cars with licence plate "888". The more eights, the luckier people are; however, this belief is very expensive. "Red" is the colour of happiness while death might also be suggested by "blue-yellow-white". In cars, it is common to see long amulets in red canvas with inlaid works tied to the rear view mirror, symbolizing protection and good luck for the driver.

The Chinese also have traditional beliefs about animals. Tortoise means long life; Horse, speed; Fish, wealth; Tiger, fierce.Something that has impressed me while going around the markets are the traditional paintings. Often, they feature bucolic scenes with countrysides, mountains, and rivers. Usually, there is a Buddhist monk and in the background, a tiny figure of a human, fishing. This, it seems, is a belief of the Taoist4 philosophy: the importance of nature and the insignificance of humans. I like it very much as it is an attempt to re-balance things.


By the way, speaking about superstitions, my last trip to Shanghai was unexpected. We have started working with a company from Kunshan which produces boxes. The person I am dealing with is Mr. Alex Chu, the son of the owner. He dresses like everybody else, in the blue company uniform, even though he is the director. He has spent his young life in Australia, "contaminated" by Western style and customs. He speaks impeccable English, wears "Crocs" shoes and his black hair is short and straight, styled in a very contemporary haircut.

We go into the production department where about three hundred and fifty people are working. Walking to the machine for the trial, I see a small Buddhist temple, human dimensions, with a "Happy Buddha", fat and smiling. Food offerings, incense, lotus flowers, coloured garlands, are all there as per tradition. I ask Alex why there is a Buddhist temple in the department. The answer is simple: there were lots of accidents at work before, but ever since the temple was put there, accidents were drastically reduced. There is blind trust in Buddha's power in lieu of safety regulations. We may smile, but this is their point of view.


Shanghai. It is perhaps the city that best represents the country's evolution and is captivating for the modern and ancient aspects that merge here. It is the city I love more with every trip I make there. It is an endless discovery of places to explore and to see again. It is vibrant and smooth and its look changes constantly, for there are always brand new buildings, skyscrapers, roads, bridges that weren't there on my last trip. Shanghai can be viewed from three different points: from the road, from the top of its buildings and from the river Hangpu, where it seems to withdraw from the frenzy of the world. In my imagination Shanghai has always been evocative: a metropolis, a gem of the East, the Paris of China. Land of adventurers, gamblers and swindlers, a city of easy wealth. Strolling around the Bund one feels the past with the old Hong Kong and Shanghai bank. To walk in the French district around the side streets of Yan'an Lu, through its dusty and damaged buildings, is to recall a magical past and once again to see the elegance of the 1930s and ‘40s . I love Chinese food, I love silk dresses, endless and swaying, and in Shanghai I have my favourite places, which make me feel at home. I love the cheongsam5 and the close-fitting silk jackets with their high neck, which create an impression of simple and quiet charm. In a world so noisy and excessive like ours, finding such elegance is not a trifle.


Chinese Style. We never think about it and we often believe that China only produces those cheap nylon clothes which are easy to find in our open-air markets, but it's not that simple. Truth is, in Shanghai there is a huge "fake-market" where it is easy to find everything which is designer-fake; this market is always on the move because the municipality has banned it. Westerners just love it and hang out in this maze to hunt for a good bargain to show off back home. Out of curiosity I went there once but I had to run for it, chased by a surging Chinese crowd wanting me to visit their stores.This aspect of China holds no appeal for me as the logic of the fake does not interest me. I am more in touch with traditions, with custom-made dresses, with precious silks in thousands of colours.

In Europe we are used to seeing the Chinese as emigrants, almost at the limits of segregation in their community, and we do not always have a positive opinion of them. But Chinese culture is something else, too. It is Confucius6, it is harmony, it is Buddhism, and it is poetry. We only have to read a few pages from the "Dream of the Red Chamber" a treasure in world literature, to understand what grace it holds: "The Palace of Crimson mist, the Dew of Heaven, the Gem of the Ruby Pearl grass". Words that open up and fire the imagination.

Someone has pointed out to me that when I speak about China, I always do so in positive fashion. Perhaps it is because I always go to Shanghai which has been open to the West for a long time and offers the right level of smoothness and aggressiveness. And I like it because it is contemporary. Lots of Westerners live there but some of them are not well integrated and live in a parallel world made of Carrefour shopping centres. I had never been to Xin Tian Di, so the last time I was in Shanghai, I decided to go there. It is an area with a lively nightlife, full of restaurants, cafés and jazz clubs. All of them are Western-style and it is popular among the Westerners living here. Meeting there is a way of feeling less alone and finding a common identity. It is like presenting a united front towards the differences in culture. Prices are high compared to the average and I felt that travelling in this area may be seen as a status symbol. As for me, I prefer looking elsewhere. I will be back in Shanghai soon. New professional challenges are waiting for me and on-going projects have to be consolidated. I am ready for the next adventure.-


China: the way of business "He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain". Sunzi Vi, Xushi, Weak points and strong.


How it started. Towards the middle of the nineties, I started travelling to China on business because we had decided to participate in special trade shows. I work in the paper and tissue field where "Made in Lucca" is well known worldwide for its technology, innovation and competence. My first experience was Beijing, interesting from a human and cultural side but less productive professionally. Our product was too far ahead of its time. Those who visited us were looking for possibilities to have joint ventures and needed machines and technology. In the years since, China has made great progress in the tissue field and today boasts modern companies with European technology and manufacturing products, which are high quality. After Beijing, we stopped all commercial activity until the beginning of the year 2000 when we felt it was the right time to approach the "Old New World" once more. We resumed our path step-by-step.


Challenging such a different culture, with a language that constitutes an obstacle, may be frightening. Getting there with our certainties and our commercial strategies as applied to our home markets means being unsuccessful.In the beginning, I returned home empty-handed. I believed in agreements which once signed by the Chinese, never came true. I tried to enter the market through potential agents, but they were unable to perform their role. I have been through every possible frustration and sometimes I have thought about putting my foot down. I never did because something told me that I was on the right path and that I had to go on. I have learnt a lot from my mistakes and I have understood I had to move in a different way. By nature, I am not patient and I had to sharpen this fine art, already acquired in India, and to learn to wait.The Chinese put Western impatience to a hard test. They know how to wait, they control the time factor to their advantage and the slowness of negotiations can be in complete contrast with the deadline pressure of the West. In China, everything takes time and this "time concept" is one of the most significant differences between our two cultures. Right now, we have been following an interesting commercial project for more than a year. This has meant many trips, many meetings always with the same counterpart, concepts repeated thousands of times, exhausting negotiations, endless meals, non-stop "Ganbei"7.


During the meetings I felt myself being watched and studied. It was almost like the counterpart was trying to understand if I could be trusted and taken into consideration as a worthy person to talk to. I have to say I have always been treated kindly and speaking a bit of Chinese has given me some credibility in their eyes. The effort to learn the language is much appreciated. Socializing requires endless patience from the Western side. For us, dinners or lunches are formal moments but for the Chinese they are seen as one of the pre-negotiation stages. In China, human relationships play a foundational role and there is no business unless a strong relationship has been created first. You should always accept an invitation because behind it, there is always a reason. It is also a way to introduce yourself and by understanding the hierarchical position of the Chinese guests, you will get an idea of the importance attached to your project. Also, with a watchful eye, you will learn to have good table manners according to Chinese etiquette. Meals are usually organized in reserved restaurant rooms. Waitress are always very kind, quiet and almost invisible and check that everything runs in the proper way. Courses are endless and are shared together with all the guests as if it were a new friendship. If possible, taste all dishes, with moderation. Expressing enthusiasm about the food you are eating is welcome and usually expected as a topic of conversation.

On the negative list, never approach subjects like Tibet, The Cultural Revolution or social rights. Conversation is something which has to be shared, and it is important to avoid issues that may constitute a source of embarrassment. Be ready to non-stop "ganbei" (toast) with Chinese beer, which cements friendship between the two counterparts and is auspicious for the positive outcome of the common project. I am very fortunate as I don't drink alcohol and am usually excused from this since I am a woman.


Confucian Heritage. The sense of harmony which pervades their whole social life, plays a central role in business as well. It is a Confucian heritage. It is believed that if everyone in society plays his or her proper role, then overall harmony will be preserved. For this reason, self-discipline and moderation are essential components of human behaviour. For most foreigners, avoiding confrontations, maintaining temper, not raising their voice and smiling rather than looking angry best preserves harmony. The preference for harmony does not preclude the Chinese from suddenly turning rude in their dealings with you, but this attitude is often tactical and a part of their negotiating strategy.

For Westerners, negotiations with the Chinese are exhausting and may wrong-foot the counterpart. It is not easy to understand who has the power to decide and the decision-maker does not always attend the negotiations themselves. In Chinese culture, business does not proceed step by step, focusing on clear goals as happens in the West. Once an agreement is fixed, the whole question may be reopened even after the contract is signed. While for us a signed agreement is the final part of a negotiation, the Chinese see it as a general deal. Relationships evolve, reality changes and contracts may be too strict an instrument to understand a scenario on the move. I have been following a project to supply a niche product for more than a year. Things are proceeding slowly and despite the fact that the trial order has been successful, it is no certainty that business is consolidated.

After having satisfied a demand, a thousand new ones may crop up and I have the feeling that at the negotiation table, the Chinese always want to have the last word. Consequently, the counterpart is expected to lead a zigzag discussion with smartness and diplomacy, granting some halfway conditions but without engaging in a race to the bottom too much. The Chinese party will put pressure on you and press you with demands for a better deal and you could reach a poor agreement, which may render all profit useless. The price must be negotiated only at the end. The Chinese will never give in and from your side, you should avoid giving in as well, making them understand that there is a limit to everything.


Another important point: during the negotiations never say "no" directly because negative answers are seen as rude behaviour. The Chinese way of communication is subtle and misleading to Western logic. For us "yes" is "yes" but for the Chinese "yes" can mean "no" or can indicate a scenario of many possibilities. Ambivalent answers such as "perhaps" or "I'll think about it" usually mean "no" as does postponing the discussion or remaining in silence. Avoid requiring immediate answers. It takes time to create a communication link. Creating trouble with the Chinese counterpart is seen as aggressive and as a loss of face8. Not causing anyone to lose face is also an important part of preserving harmony.

You should go further than the simple idea of profit, selling price increase or market share. Establishing a contact must be your first goal, and then the negotiation can start.

The Chinese are very keen about exchanging business cards, so be sure to bring an adequate supply. Ensure that one side is written in Chinese and present your card with two hands (presenting with one hand is seen as rude behaviour) and with a slight bow that conveys respect.

As Westerners we are inclined to put ourselves at the centre of events and often think that we can definitely establish the rules of the game if only because we export our knowledge and culture. In Chinese business culture, modest behaviour is appreciated and humility is a virtue. Many Chinese feel that foreigners are inferior and lack culture and manners.

According to Confucius, a man who can look after himself is able to run his business and his country. So if you do not lose your temper, if you are patient and if you are able to build up the negotiation according to the concept of time as circular and not linear, you have a real chance. There is a lot to learn from the New Old World. We can discover unexpected qualities about ourselves and other qualities will be sharpened. Learning that we can communicate and do business in different ways is a cultural treasure and leads to tolerance towards people. In China, our knowledge can be spread but not imposed. I am learning a lot from this experience and as Confucius says: "while you acquire new knowledge, think over the old one". •


1. The Dream of the Red Chamber was written by Cao Xuequin during the Qing dynasty. It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels. Telling the stories of four illustrious families as Jia, Shi, Wang and Xue and the love tragedy between Jia Bao Yu and Lin Da Yu as a main plot, the novel describes in detail the complicated relationship and social structures typical of 18th century Chinese aristocracy.


2. Hutong are narrow streets most commonly associated with Beijing. They are alleys formed by lines of "Siheyuan", traditional courtyard residences. In the past there were about six thousand Hutong. During the mid-20th century they dramatically dropped, as they were demolished to make room for new roads and buildings. Recently, some Hutong have been designated as protected areas to preserve this ancient aspect of Chinese cultural history.


3. The "Spring and Autumn Annals" is the official chronicle of the State of Lu, birthplace of Confucius.


4. Taoism is a Chinese religion and a philosophy and emphasizes various themes found in Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi such as vitality, receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life etc.


5. Cheongsam or Qipao. It is a woman's dress with distinctively Chinese features. Usually made of silk, it fits a female figure well. Its neck is high, the collar closed. It is buttoned on the right side, with a loose chest, a fitting waist and slits running up the sides.


6. Confucius was born in 551 BC in the Chinese state of Lu. His philosophy is based on personal and government morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. His teachings may be found in the "Anaclets of Confucius" a collection of brief aphoristic thoughts.


7. Ganbei is the traditional Chinese toast with rice wine or beer and it literally means "to empty glasses". One has to drink in one go and during meals, a challenge may start between who can drink more.


8. "Face" is roughly translated as "good reputation", "respect" and "honour". It is a concept linked to the meaning of the social role. When someone assumes a social position, that person accepts the fact that his role becomes public and to keep social order intact, face has to be protected no matter what the costs are. It is always very important to save face and never to lose face when doing business in China.

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