Water or Wood: Social Behavior in China

People indifferent to the behavior of others in China

Social behavior in China is fascinating. Home to more than 1.3 billion people, China possesses unique cultural characteristics that allow its citizens to live in harmony. Nevertheless, cutting in line, being loud over the phone or invading other people’s personal space are all valid forms of social behavior in China. Dr. Caryn Voskuil dives into some of the unique patterns of behavior in China and compares them with those in the West

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When I first moved to China, I was baffled by what I considered the excessive patience of the Chinese people. On the streets, people often stood in front of or blocked other pedestrians, oncoming automobiles, and bicycles. This is an acceptable form of behavior in China. In the public transportation, shops and narrow lanes of China, there is regularly intense competition for seats, access to doors, and access to products or services. And what is the response of the average Chinese citizen? Complete indifference! It is as if no one even notices that their opportunities and comfort are being negated by the actions of those around them. Watching an elderly woman as her place on a bus was usurped by a younger person, I saw in her wrinkled face neither disgust nor concern. In fact, what I saw seemed to be nothing at all – a supreme resignation. This amazed me – and I wondered how behavior in China, which results in the suffering of such unpleasantness without complaint, or indeed even without the acknowledgement of any displeasure, is socially normal. Familiarizing myself with Chinese culture, I have come to understand that there is a reasonable explanation for accepting such social behavior in China, and it is not that the Chinese are fundamentally an unaware or indifferent people. What the Chinese are, however, is quintessentially tolerant.

If there is one thing that we see little of in the West, it is tolerance. I am not talking about the legal tolerance of other peoples and individual differences that is legislated by western laws and rules of social behavior. Certainly there is much of that type of tolerance in contemporary western societies. The tolerance I am speaking of is far more internal and essential. It is the tolerance that is synonymous with ‘forbearance’ and with ‘patience’. It is measured by either the ease or the tightness that one feels in one’s chest when faced with circumstances that are less than ideal or comfortable. It is a reflection of the deeply-held belief that life is fundamentally difficult, and that we do not and will never have complete control over our surroundings or those around us. In most western countries, being pushed or shoved in public, or having your place in line violated, would certainly result in protest and in some cases, violence. Toleration is rare and viewed as a sign of weakness.

In the west today, the industrial and technological revolutions that were spurred on by Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment confidence have led individuals to believe that the world can be molded according to their precise specifications into a sort of social utopia. Absolute comfort is seen as a reasonable expectation and indeed, as a right. For this reason, being pushed in public, inhaling second-hand smoke, or having one’s ears assaulted by excessive noise elicit intense and often violent emotional responses that many feel they must (and have the right to) express. Such responses are often the cause of a great deal of stress, and a single perceived ‘injustice’ can ruin one’s day. Behavior in China, however, dictates otherwise, and one notices little anxiety being produced over what westerners would perceive to be ‘injustices’.

Metaphorically, it is as if people who exercise social behavior in China are temperamentally like water, and Westerners are like wood. Water flows around impediments and is not cut by sharp corners or eroded by rough edges. It continues on its path regardless of impediments, and if momentarily diverted or delayed, it will eventually find a path and continue unaffected on its way. Like water, wood has a sort of strength – but it is a strength of a different sort. Wood is firm and substantial. It holds its shape and effectively resists pressure and counter-forces. However, when faced with barriers, wood must crush that which impedes it or be stopped in its path. It can not conveniently change form or momentarily split in half to avoid an obstacle. Because it can not bend, it must succeed or break.

When faced with the difficulties and discomforts imposed by daily life, a Chinese person will more often approach these as water, not letting themselves be bothered or impeded, but simply moving around and through them without becoming substantially agitated. Such is the social behavior in China. Westerners, on the other hand, tend to feel they must change those around them or manipulate uncomfortable situations when difficulties arise. As rigid as wood, they try to force life to yield to their wills, and as a result they more often get their way, but they also experience a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Certainly, western societies have gone to great lengths to legislate civil behavior and to smooth the rough edges from social interactions in an effort to improve the living conditions and standards of their citizens. One might well wonder then why it is that a recent poll has claimed that the Chinese are more satisfied with their lives than westerners. The accuracy of the poll may be challenged by some, but in my experience the Chinese I know certainly seem less troubled and apprehensive about the trials and tribulations of their daily lives than my western friends and colleagues. History and expectations are indeed part of this, but I also am convinced that the patterns of behavior in China and how the Chinese approach daily difficulties in the manner of water is the underlying key to their admirable composure in the face of life’s storms.

Westerners and Chinese often see each other as inscrutable. While acceptable norms of behavior in China, such as long-suffering and patience, may be seen as a form of weakness by many from the west, Western impatience and stubbornness when dealing with daily discomforts can equally be viewed as unseemly by many Chinese. It is only when we understand that our differences arise from varied cultural learning – a water-like approach as opposed to a wood-like approach towards managing life’s difficulties – that we can truly begin to appreciate and learn from one another.

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About the Author

Dr. Caryn Maureen Voskuil is an associate professor of literature at the American university in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She holds a Ph.D. and an M.A in literature and an M.B.A in international management. Dr. Voskuil is also an academic and a consultant specializing in comparative cultural analysis, gender issues and literature.