If you take a taxi with two of your Chinese friends and they ask you to share the bill by paying 9.5 yuan, then you decide to pay 10 yuan, what do you think they will say? At this moment, they may say “你真是个讲究的人” (You’re so jiangjiu). Additionally, when it comes to Chinese rituals, if you are in front of a high threshold when entering a temple or an old house in China, Chinese people may ask you to step over it instead of stepping on it because they think stepping on it may bring the hosts bad luck. Chinese people say “我们讲究这个” (This is one of our jiangjiu’s).
As exemplified above, jiangjiu has three basic meanings, firstly, as an adjective, on the one hand, it describes people who are considerate, willing to contribute more and detail-oriented in matters of etiquette and custom; thus, jiangjiu can represent Chinese people’s generous and gentlemanly personalities in a sense. Secondly, Chinese people use jiangjiu to praise fancy and delicate objects in a distinctive style, especially those objects showing their owners’ aesthetics. For instance, Suzhou gardens are designed in a jiangjiu way because of the enjoyable combination of lakes and pavilions. 1
Bird-eye view of a Suzhou garden Image credit: https://699pic.com/tupian-501593052.html
Moreover, when it is used as a noun, jiangjiu refers to some social norms people are paying attention to or some rules to follow, such as table manners. For instance, the person with the highest status sits in the seat facing the door. Therefore, jiangjiu is commonly used in Chinese people’s daily conversations.
Cultural keywords are distinctive words in a culture upon which many other words are based. Marianna Pogosyan, a scholar researching cultural differences, argues that a cultural keyword is required to be salient, ubiquitous, untranslatable, and reflecting cultural values. 2 According to these essential components, jiangjiu is a typical cultural keyword because people who are not Chinese can hardly find an accurate alternative word to express its deep meanings, as jiangjiu reflects Chinese traditional culture to some degree.
When interacting with Chinese people, non-Chinese people may feel curious about Chinese social norms related to jiangjiu. Chinese people have many traditional festivals and people celebrate them in various ways, which is called a sort of jiangjiu. For example, during the Spring Festival, Chinese people love to copy poems on red paper by using brushes and paste them on their doors because they believe pleasant words can bring families good luck in the coming year. What’s more, younger generations should visit their grandparents or elder generations with gifts in the first few days after a Chinese New Year. Adults may chat together and make distinctive compliments by saying, “你这件衣服做工真讲究” (Your outfit is very jiangjiu) or “你家装修风格真讲究” (The decorative style of your house is very jiangjiu).
Meanwhile, children usually play with their cousins and excitedly look forward to their red packets (a special form of pocket money with great blessings) from elder family members. Interestingly, the amount of money in red packets prepared for children is sometimes different based on how close their relationship is. Usually, the closer the relationship, the thicker the red packet, with grandparents oftentimes giving the thickest red packets to their grandchildren! Thus, the amount given is also a jiangjiu.
Traditional Chinese festivals haven’t disappeared even though China has a long history because their aim is mainly the same, that is, to bring people together and maintain close family relationships and friendships. Upon deeper research, one finds that jiangjiu was also frequently used in many Chinese classics, such as Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦) written in the Qing dynasty. As an old Chinese saying originating from The Book of Rites goes, “往而不来，非礼也；来而不往，亦非礼也”，which means one should return as good as one receives, so we should be polite enough and had better give gifts back or even contribute more. 3 If someone offers you help when in need, you are supposed to be willing to give them a hand actively when they are faced with difficulties. If someone pays for your meal this time, you should ask them to have a more or at least equally expensive meal together next time and pay for it to show your friendliness and respect. Otherwise, other people may think “这个人真不讲究” (this person is really un-jiangjiu).
This jiangjiu manner also exists in Chinese hospitality. If we are going to visit our friends at their homes and they have prepared fresh fruits or delicious snacks for us, we may say “都是好朋友，这么讲究干嘛呀” (we are close friends, don’t be so jiangjiu) because we think making preparations, to some extent, brings hosts unnecessary problems.
Maybe other cultures have some similarities including enthusiasm and preparations. However, the Chinese have complex rules to follow, such as the time or place with which to return the favor. Certainly, the setting of the “rules” depends on different people. Take my family as an example, we tend to give some home-made canned fruits to guests when they are about to leave. Even though some gifts are cheap and simple, we are still delighted to exchange and cherish them much because the jiangjiu relationship among people is more essential than RMB.
Furthermore, there are many other words in the Chinese language whose meanings are connected to jiangjiu. For example, 仗义 zhangyi，义气 yiqi and 客气 keqi, which can also be considered as Chinese cultural keywords. Zhangyi is related to friendship and justice to describe a person who is worth trusting; yiqi comes from classical novels associated with deep brotherhood, and keqi is mostly used colloquially to respond to others’ gratitude. They all describe kind personalities or pleasant relationships among people, but jiangjiu is used more frequently nowadays. The reasons are not hard to find. To begin with, yiqi seems more like an old phrase which we can find in China’s black-and-white films. Secondly, zhangyi is mostly used in friendships but rarely occurs in communication among family members. Additionally, keqi always appears after others’ thankfulness, meaning, “you are welcome”. However, jiangjiu is used much more widely these days as it can be used versatilely to express the meanings of the other three keywords.
兄弟义气 (桃园三结义): Yiqi between friends Image credit: https://www.twoeggz.com/news/1465046.html
To sum up, jiangjiu represents a lot in Chinese culture and plays an essential role in helping protect and promote Chinese traditional culture from the perspective of language. Jiangjiu culture takes the responsibility of building close relationships in a polite and friendly way. Though internationalization increases and foreign cultures collide with modern Chinese society, culturally inherited traditions embedded in language such as jiangjiu continue to thrive across China.
Lin Xiaobing (林晓冰) is a sophomore DKUer majoring in Economics. She enjoys observing the beauty of daily life and recording her feelings through text or photographs. She wrote this essay in Austin Woerner’s EAP102A class.
Editors | Austin Woerner, Laura Davies
Layout | Wang Shiwei 王诗薇
- For an interactive experience of viewing jiangjiu style, you may follow this video link: http://www.szzzy.cn/Panorama/Pc/. ↩
- Marianna Pogosyan, “Cultural keywords: What languages reveal about cultures,” Psychology Today (2017). Para 4 Retrieved from:https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-cultures/201711/cultural-keywords ↩
- Confucius, James Legge, Dai Sheng, and Luc Guo. The Book of Rites = Li Ji. (Beijing: Intercultural Press, 2013) ↩