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[Photo of De Mente's Book]Boyé Lafayette De Mente teaches us about China by using stereotypes.

Take all your stereotypes about the Chinese, run them through a filter of Western superiority, and you have Boyé Lafayette De Mente’s Chinese Etiquette and Ethics in Business in a nutshell.

That the Chinese, and Asians in general, are misunderstood by the West is pretty much a given. That a writer who claims to have been studying Asia for the past 30 years still subscribes to the image of the lazy and corrupt Chinaman is just irresponsible.
The book claims to be a road map to business and social dealings with the Chinese. But it spends more time discussing how the Chinese are so infuriatingly different from everyone else, without explaining why or how foreigners are supposed to deal with them.

Orientalism

He says, for example, that the Chinese are simpleminded and are essentially incapable of independent thought. De Mente attributes this to centuries of putting emphasis on conformity and harmony. A typical Chinese would be afraid to make an independent decision since, as he claims an old Chinese saying goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” It’s an interesting point, but has very doubtful usefulness or veracity.

De Mente does not bother to cite his sources, identifying them only as various critics, scholars, and sociologists. Given all the stereotypes and caricatures, one almost expects De Mente to trot out some Fu-Manchu-type character to quote Confucius in broken English.

He adds that foreigners trying to do business in China will have to contend with the slow pace of things in the country, from bureaucratic red tape to the endless negotiations between parties. When dealing with Chinese, he says, one has to have money for bribes and unlimited patience unless one wants to be branded anti-Chinese.

De Mente even suggests that many Chinese values and customs are little more than “cop-outs” and “psychological ploys” to manipulate foreigners. Much, one might suppose, like putting the family name first, a custom that he stubbornly refuses to follow. The man who founded the People’s Republic of China, then, is the unfamiliar Chairman Zedong Mao, and the Taoist philosopher Lao Tze is styled Ze Lao.

One China Policy

De Mente briefly discusses the ethnic diversity of China in the first chapter of his book, but conveniently forgets it, lumping together Mandarin and Cantonese terms without identifying which language a word is from. He also omits tonal marks in his exhaustive vocabulary lists, making them essentially useless in a tonal language.

The book doesn’t take into account regional differences, either, assuming that what works in Guangzhou will work just as well as in, say, Shandong. This is a dangerous assumption to make in a country with an area of 9.6 million square kilometers and a population of 1.3 billion.

In an effort to jam as much information into his book as possible, De Mente touches on feng shui, tai chi chuan (which he inexplicably calls “dai ji juan”), and even includes a run down of Sun Tzu’s (Tzu Sun, in his book) Art of War into the mix. Not to make foreigners understand Chinese culture, it seems, than to reinforce the stereotype of the mystical martial artist introduced in 1970s kung fu exploitation films.

The book promises an “insider’s view” of China, and it does deliver on that. If by insider we mean an American stuck inside Beijing during the Boxer Uprising.

Print ed: 10/09

 

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