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.”

China in 5 Words: Sajiao (撒娇)

One of the hottest issues of the past year has been that of territorial behavior over the vagina, especially by people who don’t have one. Despite its media being controlled by a government that has no desire to see large numbers of powerful men fall from grace, China has been influenced by the #MeToo movement.

This represents impressive progress for women in a country where concubinage and foot-binding were common practices within living memory. In Chinese business, the position of women appears to have overtaken the West.

There are 78 self-made female entrepreneurs worldwide with wealth exceeding US$1 billioneach, of whom 49 come from China. Among the top firms in the United States, women make up 10 percent of the investing partners and only half of the firms have any female investing partners at all. In China, 17 percent of partners are female and  80 percent of firms have at least one woman investing.

However, the increase of women in business can be partly explained by the fact that the government and The Communist Party remain good old boys’ clubs. And within business, there is an income gap. On average, women earn 22 per cent less than their male counterparts.

This is partly explained by the fact that women devote 15 per cent more time to family than men, while men spend 9 per cent more time at work, a symptom of the vast political and cultural apparatus that aims to keep women in their place.

The government has long seen unmarried men as disruptive, predatory, and ill-disciplined. The gender imbalance caused by the One Child Policy has led it to use its power to promote the institution of marriage.

State media has given females who remain single after age 27 the degrading title of “leftover women”. Headlines run by national wire service Xinhua News have included: “Overcoming the Big Four Emotional Blocks – Leftover Women Can Break out of Being Single”; “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy”?

In her book “Leftover Women”, Leta Hong-Fincher claims that blame for the large number of birth defects in the People’s Republic is usually directed at women for marrying too late instead of the severe environmental degradation caused by the economic miracle. A popular rhyme tells women to marry a man so they can have food to eat and clothes to wear. Moreover, masculinity is defined by home ownership, so women who buy their own property can scare off potential husbands.

Cultural expectations about women’s behavior in China are best encapsulated by the gloriously stupid 2014 film “Women Who Flirt”. The tomboyish heroine spends the film learning to sajiao, a word with no English equivalent, to attract a man.

Both a verb and an adjective, sajiao is a kind of cutesy

tantrum that East Asian women are known for being particularly good at. Whereas in Rocky, the central character spends the film learning how to box, in “Women Who Flirt”, she works hard at learning how to say “taoyan” (which as a verb means “hate” and as an adjective means “annoying”). If one really knows how to say “taoyan” with the right tone, it can have a similar effect to Austin Powers saying “oh behave”.

It may be unwise to read too much in to such a silly movie, but its message is a reflection of its state funding. Being single is unequivocally a defeat, and a woman’s salvation lies in doing whatever it takes to get a man.

China in 5 Words: Hello (哈罗)

Imagine if, in The United States, there was a song that celebrated the American people as a race characterised by blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin. In China, a country described last year in The Atlantic as possibly the world’s most likeable superpower, something very similar happened.

The lyrics of “Descendants of the Dragon” – which started life as an eighties pop hit and was given a hip-hop makeover in the 2000s by Leehom Wang (pictured) – go some way toward explaining my early experiences in the People’s Republic.

At that time, I often caused people to stop and stare, sometimes even slow down their cars, as if I was the Eva Herzegova wonder-bra ad from the 1990s. The song’s implication that, since I don’t have black hair or yellow skin, I will never be Chinese was most manifest in a constant stream of catcalls.

Every time I stepped outside, they came from across the street, from upper-story balconies, and from passing motorcycles, the latter sounding like mosquitoes buzzing in the night. The catcalls usually consisted of one word: “hello”.

If anyone was responsible for this being considered socially acceptable, it was the education guru Li Yang. His Crazy English school taught millions of Chinese that the way to learn English was to shout it at the top of their voice and that every time they saw a “foreigner” they should view them as an “English opportunity”.

It would be melodramatic to call any of this “racist”. Many people had genuinely never seen a Caucasian before. Their country was closed off for much of the period when Europe went about originating such phenomena as eugenics, the African Slave Trade, and the Holocaust. It is understandable that they did not get the memo about racial sensitivity.

That is not to say there isn’t an ugly side to this behaviour. Lu Xun, who has been described in print as “China’s Orwell”, once said that Chinese have never looked at foreigners as equals. Foreigners are always either looked up to as emperors or looked down on as brutes.

I once had a Cameroonian boss. When we went out together, he would also have “hello” shouted at him but in his case, it was often followed by more sinister catcalls. In my English-teaching days, I once witnessed an immigration officer ordering my employer not to bring in any black teachers.

Jung Chang, author of “Wild Swans”, remembers playing army games as a child of the 1950s in which the bad guys would attach thorns to their nose to look like Caucasians and shout “hello” a lot to emphasize their otherness.

This mixture of xenophobia and xenophilia still colors how Chinese companies do business today. The preference for foreign brands is so pronounced that a 2010 op-ed in China Dailycalled on the public to stop worshipping them. The length to which Chinese companies go to copycat Western companies has resulted in such delightful brand names as Dolce & Banana, Pizza Huh, and King Burger.

The catcalls of “hello” were sometimes accompanied by shouts of “Laowai”, a word which in theory means “foreigner” but in practice is closer in meaning to the Spanish word “gringo”. There is a popular self-help book in China titled “Don’t Be Shy, Just Say Hi”. Its Chinese title translates directly as “How to Make Friends with Laowai”.

In the 2000s, a respected public intellectual wrote a viral essay urging Chinese women not to sleep with Laowai. There was no backlash against the essay.

Whether sucked up to or looked down on, Laowai always seem to be seen as innately different to Chinese. In fact, because it is legally impossible for a foreigner to become a Chinese citizen and culturally impossible to integrate into the society, this necessitates that they are treated differently. It is natural that foreigners in China will start to behave differently.

Treating foreigners as an “English opportunity” assumes that you know what a “foreigner” looks like. Many of the countries where English is the most spoken language, including The United States, South Africa and Australia, had racism woven into their early history. For this reason, today treating somebody differently because of their ethnicity is the ultimate cultural faux pas.

To successfully do business in other countries and with foreigners in their own country, Chinese businesses need to know this kind of thing.

Since 1989, China has gone through the best period in its 5000-year history in almost every way, from infant mortality and life expectancy to personal freedoms and prosperity. The number of Chinese companies in the Global Fortune 500 has increased 14 years in a row.

The treatment of all foreigners as outsiders is a relatively minor blotch, but one that appears unlikely to change and harms China’s ability to attract the best and brightest. They are not quite as bad as drive-by shootings, but it is difficult to feel at home when constantly subjected to drive-by hellos.

Review of “The Handsome Monk” by Tsering Döndrup

My review of “The Handsome Monk” by Tsering Döndrup, translated from the Tibetan by Christopher Peacock, has been published by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. 

You can read the whole thing here

The author is something of a specialist in conjuring up vivid scenes using bodily fluids. “Piss and Pride” is a rather suspenseful story, centring on a retiree who must test his bladder control to the maximum to uphold the dignity of his people. In “Notes of a Volunteer AIDS Worker”, the narrator graphically details how he contracted the disease and what it is doing to his body.

In “Ralo”, the titular character is known for the prodigious amount of snot that he produces. Initially published in the early nineties, this story was later extended to novella length. It is not one of the tighter pieces but contains some very astute satire about how Western tourists see Tibet as “the last unspoilt holy land on Earth”.

The collection is at its strongest when characters are grappling with the moral implications of their own behaviour. Many of these involve the Tibetan people being dominated by the Han and succumbing to the kind of anguished compromises required to survive.

One of the most extraordinary of the stories is “A Show to Delight the Masses”, which carries on the Tibetan tradition of mixing prose and poetry in summing up the life of corrupt official Lozang Gyatso. Much of the narrative unfolds in a sort of celestial rap battle to decide whether the main character is a good person. Since his sins have included urinating in a monk’s mouth, the answer is somewhat self-evident, but the story is no less gripping for it.

Beyond the Wings: February 2019

This is the first edition of my personal email newsletter, which will be something like the individual equivalent of a corporate newsletter.

The title comes from a stanza in “The Insomniacs” by Adrienne Rich.

My voice commands the formal stage;

A jungle thrives beyond the wings—

All formless and benighted things

That rhetoric cannot assuage.

I find that most of my work, including essays, fiction and music, focuses on outsiders, weirdos, and goofballs. That is, people and things that exist ‘beyond the wings’ as opposed to centre-stage.


This month I have mostly kept busy with the final semester of my MBA, plus exercise and Spanish classes, but I made a new music video. It is a love song and basically an attempt at transcribing “Song for Tom” by Fascinating Aïda into Chinese.

Fascinating Aïda are one of the best musical comedy troupes around, and they also have a lot of good serious songs, including “Old Home” and “Little Shadows”.


This month I attended three excellent activities involving Chinese writing. The first was a talk on women in Chinese literature by Zhang Lijia, author of the excellent “Lotus”, which is set at the turn of the millennium and about a Chinese prostitute who uses her earnings to support her brother’s education while trying not to get caught.

The second was a Surrealism in Fiction workshop by award-winning millennial writer Yan Ge, author of the novella “White Horse” and the novel “The Chilli Bean Paste Clan”. The third was a literary translation workshop with Helen Wang. In the middle of all this, I was accepted onto The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing and am already working on my first book review for them.

The Wider World

The word racist has been used a lot this month. Michael Cohen accused Donald Trump of being a racist, but his testimony is unlikely to damage the president’s chances of being re-elected, at least not in-and-of itself.

Jussie Smollett is alleged to have paid two people to stage a racist attack on him. This seems silly because Liam Neeson may have done it for free. As Bill Burr pointed out, it’s a bit like those times when you lied to parents or teachers as a kid and the whole thing got wildly out of hand.

Speaking of race and speaking of showbiz, the Oscars were held in February. The list of winners appears to have partly redressed the lack of diversity and representation of the “Oscars-so-white” controversy of recent years.

I saw most of the contenders. “Green Book” was well-acted and watchable but undeserving. However, as Bill Maher correctly observed, director Peter Farrelly, whose credits include “There’s Something about Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber”, should have got a special Oscar just for growing up.

My MBA thesis will talk about the issue of diversity in the publishing industry. I closely followed the dispute on this subject between Lionel Shriver and Penguin Publishing last year. I am way too much of an on-the-fence wimp to publicly weigh in on the debate, but hopefully the thesis will add something of value to the conversation.


I have recently been working on a novella about a cyberbully who makes a woman’s life a misery. I developed a fascination with this issue when I encountered a sick libeller who went by the online username of iWolf.

I later found out his real name is Randal Foley. He has long refused to explain himself or engage me while communicating under his own name, so my only option is to be the bigger person, and make this video