China in 5 Words: Didiao (低调)

In 1850, the United States had fewer than twenty millionaires, by 1900 it had forty thousand. Some were as bumptious and proud as James Gordon Bennett who, upon being refused a seat by the window at a restaurant in Monte Carlo, bought the place.

More than anywhere else, Bennett’s spiritual descendants thrive today in China, a country that is going through an even quicker period of exponential growth. These include military officer and government official-turned entrepreneur Wang Jianlin who announced his entry into the film business in 2013 by throwing a party in northern China’s Qingdao City with Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In 2013, Dong Mingzhu (pictured below on the right), often described as China’s most successful businesswoman, and one-time Forbes Asian Businessman of the Year Lei Jun (pictured on the left) had a 1 billion RMB bet on national television about the future progress of their businesses.  Gambling is illegal in China.

However, these characters with their deluxe-sized personalities form the minority among China’s wealthiest people. Since it is so easy to fall foul of the government’s laws on bribery, insider trading, and other white collar crimes, going from the Forbes Rich List to jail is practically a rite of passage. For that reason, most of China’s billionaires recognize the value of being didiao – low-key.

Business is not the only field in which being didiao is advisable. Flamboyant left-wing politician Bo Xilai, who ran a high-profile anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, came tumbling to earth in 2012 and was sentenced to life imprisonment the following year for corruption, bribery, and abuse of power. Before that, Bo was hailed as a possible future president, but it was his quieter, more strait-laced peers who got the promotions that seemed certain to be his.

In “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain praises East Asian cultures for not fetishizing extroversion. She states that in the West we claim to encourage individuality but really that is only one type of individual, the one who is alpha, gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight.

The reasons for this go back thousands of years. In ancient China, fertile plains and rivers lent themselves to rice farming and compelled people “to cultivate the land in concert with one another.” By contrast, the ancient Greeks, who lived amid mountains and coastlines, relied on herding, trading and fishing, and they were able to be more independent. In that history, psychologist Richard Nisbett saw the makings of Greek ideas about personal freedom, individuality, and objective thought.

In “Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed” journalist Will Storr cites this history as the founding influence of Confucianism. The ancient sage Confucius (551-479 BC) created an ideology that emphasized harmony, collectivism, and filial piety.

In the mid-twentieth century, Confucianism gave way to Communism as the dominant ideology but now they live side-by-side in a sort of marriage of convenience. One thing that the two belief systems have in common is a strong belief in the expression “nobody likes a show off.”

I learned the value of didiao the hard way. Chinese women can render themselves unmarriageable for life if they are seen holding hands in public with a Westerner. My first Chinese girlfriend suffered this fate, so I exercised didiao with all subsequent ones.

It is not just lanky white guys who need to keep their private lives private. In “River Town”, memoirist and journalist Peter Hessler recalls being on a boat on the Yangtze River and noticing that in his cabin lay a couple who, in the middle of the night, were having very quiet but very determined sex. This is a consequence of personal space being expensive3.

Working in China, I learned the value of stealth nonconformity. Economist Robin Hanson coined the term, explaining: “I’ve known some very successful people with quite weird ideas. But these folks mostly keep regular schedules of sleep and bathing. Their dress and hairstyles are modest, they show up on time for meetings, and they finish assignments by deadline.”

I once had a Western colleague in China who, despite having no authority to implement his will, enjoyed getting into people’s faces and asserting his wishes, often resorting to swearing and childish name-calling when things did not go his way. On one project, I once told him that his goal could be more easily achieved outside work, independently of the institution that employed us. He rejected my suggestion. To some people, an achievement is not an achievement if you don’t get to stomp around the office being a pompous ass about it.

As Confucius constantly reminded us, modesty is not just polite. It is smart. His ideas about being low key have been picked up by everyone from “How to Win Friends and Influence People” author Dale Carnegie to a Chinese doctor whose wife committed suicide after being terrorized during the Cultural Revolution.

Quoted by New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, he put it in starker terms for the present day: “Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.”

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