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How to survive a compliment in China

Subtle nuances of language and behaviour are an important part of dealing with China, but often totally missed... Receiving or giving a compliment is one example of a cultural minefield for the uninitiated (or even quite experienced) foreigner there.Read more...

Andrew Methven
24 June 2019
                        

Subtle nuances of languageand behaviour are an important part of dealing with China, but often totally missed. Receiving or giving a compliment is one example of a cultural minefield for the uninitiated (or even quite experienced) foreigner there. Michael Bloomberg missed, or perhaps inelegantly tripped over, one such self-inflicted complement-caused embarrassment last November at the New Economy Forum in Singapore.

Introducing China's Vice President, Wang Qishan, Mr Bloomberg praised his old friend as the 'most influential political figure in China' (for people with no knowledge of the Chinese political system, the Vice President is probably not the country's most influential political leader, and calling him that probably won't go down too well with his boss). 

In his usual off the cuff style when facing an international audience, Mr Wang took it in his stride. He quipping back but in a way that Bloomberg completely missed, along with everyone else in the conference room. He said:

“When I hear words of praise, I fear that it is peng sha (捧杀). When I hear words of criticism, I don’t worry so much because that is bang sha (棒杀)”

Cryptic. I don't envy the interpreter at that event! If it were me, I would be stuck on peng sha, taking the rest of the speech trying to describe it; a 'lost in translation moment' explaining and gesticulating for several minutes (to the confusion of both sides of the conversation) about what was just said in one or two tiny words.

The short explanation of peng sha is "to be complimented to death", or an attempt to cause someone to fail by excessive praise. Bang sha literally means to be clubbed to death, which was a form of capital punishment in ancient China. Nowadays it means to defeat an enemy by criticising them. Bang sha and peng sha are often used and referred to together.

The magic of this play on words is in the characters for peng sha and bang sha, which is why they are put together.

Look carefully: pěng (捧) and bàng (棒) are the same except for the bit (or the radical) on the left. Peng is an upward movement shown by a hand (扌); bang is a downward movement shown by a stick (木). The opposite action can be used to achieve the same objective - defeating or disadvantaging an opponent by raising them up (pěng), and then knocking them down (bàng).

This small detail was lost on the audience at the New Economy Forum. But it is this that makes learning Chinese, and understanding the stories behind the language, addictive and an endless source of entertainment for China geeks like me.

The story of peng sha goes back nearly 2,000 years.

It was first described in the book, Fengsu Tong (风俗通), written around 195 AD. The author was Ying Shao (應劭), a historian, writer and politician who lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25 - 220). Ying was a close supporter of one of China's most famous warlords of the Three Kingdom's period - Cao Cao.

The Fengsu Tong is an encyclopaedic record of cultural practices and mystical beliefs of life in East Asia at that time. Of the thirty chapters in Tongsu Feng only ten survive. One part of the ancient text describes what today is called peng sha: 

长吏马肥,观者快之,乘者喜其言,驰驱不已,至于死

cháng lì mǎ féi

guān zhě kuài zhī

chéng zhě xǐ qí yán

chí qū bù yǐ

zhì yú sǐ

In English this means something like:

The rider’s horse is beautiful; the crowd cheers for the horse; the rider enjoys the praise; he rides the horse faster, and doesn't stop; until [he / she / it / all of the above]... dies. In other words, the complimenter is using deception to de-horse the rider.

Anyone who has tried learning Chinese will be familiar with the emotional torment of being continually laughed at, or having your ego fluffed up by excessive (and probably false peng sha) praise for your excellent Chinese.

Now I realise all those years of learning Chinese while coping with bipolar tendencies may have been because of bang sha and peng sha!

I survived. Just.

In more recent times one of China's greatest modern writers, Lu Xun, also talked about peng sha and bang sha in an essay published in 1934.

He said: "nowadays there are dissatisfied literary critics that have two ways of criticising - peng or ma (骂 – to curse). Apart from the sound of the words there is no difference between the two - peng and ma are both forms of attack if done carelessly. These days critics are careless and tend to peng sha more than they do ma (or bang) sha".

So complimenting someone in China is complicated. Go too far with niceties and it immediately sends the signal that peng sha or bang sha, or both, could be on the cards.

How can a foreigner survive being complimented by peng sha in China?

First, take some pragmatic advice from China's influential vice president:

I have [always] tried to keep calm and have a clear mind”. Second, from my own experience there are three useful rules to follow:

  1. Always start with a small compliment.
  2. Compliment equally when complimented.
  3. Fight a big complement with an even bigger one.

In that speech Vice President Wang also said that “history, the present, and future are closely related, and it is necessary to learn about China’s history and culture to understand its choice of path and system, and how they are supported by Chinese culture.”

The subtleties of the Chinese language reflect a depth of shared history, culture and knowledge that most Chinese have in common, but are completely unknown to the outside world.

As countries like the UK necessarily become more involved with China, and as China continues to learn about and become more engaged with countries like the UK, the joke will be increasingly on us unless more people take the time to understand the differences.