Cultures Explained | 文化解密

The Chinese Style Modesty

BY XIONG SHIYU 熊诗雨

Many people have a stereotype of Chinese modesty and even think it is a kind of hypocrisy. In this article, Shiyu explains the reasons behind Chinese modesty from multiple perspectives, and explains that the essence of Chinese modesty is having “strength without publicity”. Let’s take a closer look at Chinese modesty.

 

Being modest is considered a good quality all over the world, but for different countries, there are different ways of showing one’s modesty. And in China, which is a country traditionally known as the “State of Ceremonies”, these habits manifest themselves both in people’s behavior and language. For example, if a Chinese student is praised for his achievements by his schoolmates, teachers, and relatives, the most common answer is that he would wave his hands and say “no, no” (meiyou meiyou) to deny the praise. And his parents will smile and agree with him, thank the paise giver and say that their children are not so good. And in circumstances like this, even if you know you are worthy of the compliment, denying the compliment is still an important part of the response.

credit: https://www.chinlingo.com/articles/601120/

The majority of Chinese people are used to this kind of practice and regard it as a part of Chinese culture. But foreigners in China might find that this Chinese-style modesty is hard to understand, or even hypocritical. And this kind of misunderstanding may cause unnecessary trouble in communication between Chinese people and foreigners, which shows the importance of exploring the reasons for the “excessive” modesty of Chinese people. So, in this essay, I will discuss the reasons for which Chinese people have this kind of practice.

Before exploring the specific reasons, we first need to know a concept called “social script”. In the article “Social Script Theory and Cross-Cultural Communication”, the author Hongdang Meng claims that “As people engaged in varieties of day-to-day activities they internalize certain concepts in different situations in their minds. These internalized situational concepts are defined as social scripts” (Hongdang Meng, 2008). Thus, from this definition, we can not only infer that social scripts are culturally-specific but also infer that Chinese style modesty is a part of Chinese social scripts based on China’s unique social culture, which is the key to gaining a deeper understanding of this phenomenon.

Modesty Word Cloud Credit: https://www.canstockphoto.com/modesty-word-cloud-40929154.html

Some researchers on this issue are also aware of this key point. And Wu Tong, who is one of them, writes in the book “My Country and My People, 2019 Edition” that there are mainly three reasons for the Chinese style modesty, which are “confirming to social norms, being trustworthy and showing sincere respect” (Tong Wu, 2019). From his perspective, Chinese society highly advocates the moral character of modesty, and maintaining modesty will make people possess more good qualities, such as persisting in learning. At the same time, modesty can shorten the distance between people and build a more harmonious interpersonal relationship. In other words, he writes, “at this point, it seems that when we are showing our weakness to others by behaving in a modest way, we are psychologically getting close to others and receiving trust all the better” (Wu, 2019). I strongly agree with Tong Wu’s opinions and such modesty must not all be defined as hypocrisy because when people understand that they lack ability in a certain respect and need to consult or learn from others, modesty, or admitting their own shortcomings, is an essential link to make progress.

At the same time, I think there are other reasons for the Chinese style modesty, which are also rooted in Chinese history and cultural traditions.

A Chinese old saying – Credit: https://nhungcaunoihay.vn/modesty-helps-one-to-make-progress-conceit-makes-one-lag-behind.html

First, because of the strong clan concept which exists for thousands of years, Chinese people are usually very sensitive to things related to seniority in the family, qualification, and age. So, China is a society with a strict traditional hierarchy, and respect for elders, teachers, and superiors is a social consensus. And one effective and significant way for young generations to show respect to these groups is keeping a humble silence in front of them. In the book “Encountering the Chinese”, the authors observe: “Young Chinese show humility and good upbringing to their elders by listening much and speaking little. Subordinates show deference to their supervisors in the same way. Senior people in China generally have greater freedom to talk because juniors demonstrate their place in the hierarchy by giving humble attention most of the time” (Hu et al., 2010). Thus, for Chinese people, being modest sometimes is an obligation.

Second, some people who are not familiar with Chinese culture may notice and point out: the above only explains why modesty occurs among Chinese people of different generations, but in fact, Chinese modesty is also very common among peers, such as classmates. To explain this, we need to understand what modesty means in Chinese culture. The most representative Confucian culture in China holds that modesty is an important way of self-cultivation through self-restraint and self-expression in a low-key and introverted way. 

 Credit: https://medium.com/on-the-couch/four-ways-to-cultivate-true-humility-90ee5af8e3ca

Chinese style modesty is not an unprincipled concession, nor is it a disguise because of lack of strength, but strength without publicity, hoping that both oneself and others have the opportunity to show themselves, to achieve harmonious relations. And when modesty becomes a way to make an individual more perfect, its scope of application becomes the whole society, regardless of seniority and age.

Yet some readers may raise another question: how to explain some actions of the Chinese people, which seem to be modest but in fact are jokes or even sarcasm? It is interesting to note that now some modest behaviors among peers will be used as jokes between close friends and below is a dialogue example.

Student A and Student B are friends and one day they go to the haunted house to play together.

It is obvious that in this dialogue, both A and B are not really being modest. They just play jokes and want to let the other go into the haunted house to be scared first. Among friends, such banter often has a playful and funny effect. But formal and good modest interaction among peers is not a kind of obligation or joke, but a kind of respect for peers or opponents. In essence, it is empathy from the perspective of each other. In return, the other party should respond in the same way.

There is no doubt that the time-honored culture of modesty has a profound influence on most Chinese people. In the international community, the respected image of the Chinese people is also often modest and courteous. At the same time, with the development of the Internet and transportation technology, the communication between China and the rest of the world has become increasingly close and extensive. Many Chinese, such as young generations who are exposed to the outside world by receiving international education and traveling around the world, are also beginning to recognize and acknowledge the beauty of a passionate display of one’s talents beyond Chinese modesty.

 Credit: https://pics4.baidu.com/feed/08f790529822720e4eb20d45260fcc40f31fab58.jpeg?token=c9af8fb09b4ad45065ff40f7fef5737c

Chinese modesty reflects the inclusive beauty of Chinese culture: acknowledging the strengths of others without denying one’s own. Such a cultural core is also one of the goals of building a harmonious world today. I believe that in the future, Chinese modesty will not become a stereotype, but will make a contribution to the realization of friendly cultural exchanges, and every culture from different ethnic groups and regions can be fully respected and become a highlight of cultural exchanges.

Editor | Austin Woerner

Layout | Shuzhe Wang  王姝哲  Lexue Song 宋乐雪

Shiyu Xiong (熊诗雨) is a sophomore at Duke Kunshan University. She enjoys reading and traveling and is also interested in literature and cultural studies. She wrote this essay in Prof. Woerner’s EAP 102A. She hopes you can enjoy reading her essay and she is willing to share her understandings with you.

References

Hu, W., Grove, C. N., & Zhuang, E. (2010). Encountering the Chinese: a modern country, an ancient culture. Intercultural Press.

Meng, H. (2008). “Social Script Theory and Cross-Cultural Communication”. Intercultural Communication Studies XVII: 1.

Wu, T. (2019). “‘Looking Down On’ Themselves”. My Country And My People, 2019 Edition.