From August 2009

Bian Lian “Face Changing” Performance

Ba Guo Shu Feng Restaurant

Last Friday after work I went out for a friends birthday at a Sichuanese restaurant called “Ba Guo Shu Feng” in Shenzhen. Situated in a rather up-market shopping mall the interior was very nicely done with traditional decoration and ornate lanterns hanging from wooden panelled walls.

Very Spicy

As you might expect all the dishes were very spicy. We tried eggplant, beef with vegetables, dumplings, noodles and a sort of salad (top right) which turned out to be one of the hottest things I’d ever had!  All the food was pretty good and beautifully presented although a strong stomach is needed for all the chillies.


During the evening the restaurant also had a performance of “Bian Lian” (meaning “face-changing”) which is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that involves performers wearing brightly coloured costumes and moving to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly coloured masks, which they change within a fraction of a second. It’s quite an impressive feat which is hard to capture as they move so fast!

Green Face

The changing faces reflect a character’s mood: for instance, red represents anger and black represents extreme fury. The exact method by which the performers change the face is a closely guarded secret that is passed down from generation to generation (males only) although it is believed that most involve wearing silk masks in layers which can be pulled off one by one.

The Food Was VERY Spicy

After changing faces the performer proceeded to fire breath as well which felt somewhat dangerous in an enclosed wooden space but thankfully China hasn’t quite caught onto “health and safety” regulations  yet. A fun evening was had by all 🙂

10 Things You Couldn’t Do 25 Years Ago

Retro Old TV
Photo by gothopotam

A couple of weeks ago I turned 25 which was a fairly unremarkable event but did get me thinking about how technology and the internet in particular has changed our lives over the past quarter of a century. Many things we take for granted today were unthinkable 25 years ago and have fundamentally changed the way we live our lives. I put together a quick list of 10 things I couldn’t do 25 years ago but now rely on daily…

  1. Communicate with people on the other side of the world in real time from virtually anywhere
  2. Write something and make it available to billions of people for free without any technical knowledge
  3. Search billions of pages of information and find almost anything in less than a second
  4. Watch world events unfold in real time independent of traditional media organisations
  5. Stream & download music, tv, and films over the internet from anywhere free of schedule limitations
  6. View products, compare prices, make purchases and buy tickets without leaving your chair
  7. Surf the web, make calls, send emails, listen to music, watch movies, record photos & videos, know where you are and a million more functions all using a single devise which can fit in your pocket
  8. Start a business without relying on the traditional costly overheads of office space and infrastructure
  9. Translate text between languages at a touch of a button with passable results
  10. Store massive amounts of information in a very small space (remember encyclopedias?!)

1984 Poster
Illustration by Luiza P

Doing similar things 25 years ago (or even 5 in some cases) was slow, laborious and labor intensive. Today information moves at the speed of light and as the masses gained access to simple tools for dissemination we’re producing more than ever before in our history. With over 1 trillion pages and 1.6 billion users we are living in an age of hyper-connectivity where people are only as far apart as the devices with which they connect to the internet. If the industrial revolution brought us cars and bridges then the information revolution has brought the democratization of knowledge to the masses (arguably at the expense of privacy). How far we have come in such a short space of time…

What would be on your list?

I Want My Life Back

I Want My Life Back

If you don’t know what this means then you probably don’t have the problem (via).

The biggest time suck in my digital life right now is Twitter which has a tenancy to get  worse with the more people you follow (and the more you are followed). While my inbox is usually manageable my Google Reader subscriptions (100 of them) also have the ability to sap my attention with endless interesting articles to read and follow up. Where it will end I don’t know…

During quiet moments I daydream about being a cave man.

Chinese Culture 101 | Part 8 – Practical Tips

This post is the last of a series exploring Chinese culture. To get up to speed see the links at the bottom of this page for more.

When working with Chinese teams/partners here are some practical tips which will hopefully make things a little smoother:

  1. Spend as much time as you can in China to learn and form relationships. Remember that western logic does not apply and a long-term patient approach will be required.
  2. Never openly criticise, ignore or make fun of a person in front of others (even jokingly). When discussing individual performance emphasize good points before bad ones.
  3. Be very specific when assigning tasks, defining schedules and setting expectations. Any ambiguity could be used as an excuse for inaction or misinterpretation.
  4. Incentives of compensation (money), promotion, or the potential to gain face (mianzi) are all good motivators. Encourage and reward the type of behavior you wish to build (e.g. creative thinking, delegating decision making etc.).
  5. Hiring good local people is often the key to success as they will know best how to operate within the local environment but be sure that they are trustworthy before entering any partnership. The Chinese don’t consider contracts as seriously as in the west so be very explicit about the terms of your engagement. Expect changes down the road.
  6. When meeting someone for the first time having a suitable small gift (such as food/drink from your home country) is a good gesture. Business cards should be presented and accepted with both hands and read before being put away (as a sign of respect).
  7. Chinese may ask you personal questions or make observations about your age, income, religion or appearance but don’t take it personally. Likewise Chinese rarely say “please” or “thank you” as this is seen as unnecessary formality between friends.
  8. Dining is about showing respect and hospitality for the guests and is often used as an extension of the boardroom. The host should propose the first toast and this should be reciprocated later on by the guest. Seating may be arranged in order of seniority also.
  9. Be aware that some colors have different meanings in China, the most obvious being red which symbolizes prosperity/luck in China but warning/danger in the west. This is important to take into account when publishing or designing products.
  10. Try to avoid sensitive topics of conversation regarding politics, especially concerning Tibet or Taiwan. Close Chinese friends may be happy to discuss these things but not openly in the workplace. Playing the moral high ground will earn you no respect.


To be successful in China requires that you recognize and accept that there will be differences which may make you feel uncomfortable or frustrated from time to time. Different ways of thinking and reacting to whatever situation you are in will be needed.

Go forward comrads!
Photo by HKmPUA

At the end of the day China and Chinese people are hard to define or understand, and not just to foreigners, even Chinese people find themselves fairly incomprehensible at times. Chinese historian Professor Yi Zhongtian puts this well:

The Chinese people are frank yet tactful, honest yet sophisticated, suspicious yet gullible, stubborn yet flexible, unscrupulous yet loyal, advocate etiquette yet often appear unmannered, stand for the golden mean yet are extreme, value the quality of being thrifty yet like to parade their wealth, maintain traditions when convenient yet love to chase modern fashion, believe contentment brings happiness yet often daydream about becoming overnight millionaires, believe the word of the fortune teller yet lack affiliation to any religion, like to form groups yet often fight, love to be controversial yet know how to smooth things over, do not like to be meddlesome yet love to gossip, know how to “seize the day” yet always talk about taking life easy…

In many respects China is one big contradiction which refuses to be placed in a box. With this in mind take the advice given here as guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules. Remember to trust your intuition (common sense still applies) and that people will be more forgiving to foreigners if you make the occasional cultural faux pas! In China you will find all extremes but that’s all part of the challenge and adventure of doing business here. Be patient and have fun!

While this is the end of the series I’ll be following up soon with an expanded and consolidated version to download – I hope it’s been interesting and useful look at Chinese culture. If there’s enough interest I may write another to delve more deeply into other aspects of life in China.
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Chinese Culture 101 | Part 7 – Differences

This post is part of a series exploring Chinese culture. See the links at the bottom of this page for more.

Having explored some of the main concepts in Chinese thinking the table below summarises the key differences between eastern and western cultural values:

Cultural Values West (US / Europe) East (China / East Asia)
Logic Linear (direct associations) Spiral (roundabout and subtle)
Communication Explicit or direct, verbal, likely to “speak their mind” Implied or inferred, non-verbal, subtle
Identity Individualistic, independent, values freedom Group orientated, values harmony and stability
Agreement / Disagreement Argumentative, verbal Difficult to say no, non-verbal
Thinking Rule or law orientated, detailed, analytical, logical Context or situation specific, holistic, intuitive, big picture
Punctuality Start and end on time Appointment times flexible
Respect Success, achievement, wealth Seniority, wisdom, ability
Business Relationships Superficial, contractual, economics come first Personal, long lasting, relationship comes first
Decision Making Distributed authority, fast, proactive, planned Manager has final say, slow, considered, impulsive
Openness Open to alternate ideas Receptive but superficial
Conflict Resolution Legalistic, confrontational Mediation through 3rd parties
Time Horizon Short term (think per quarter) Long term (think years ahead)
Risk / Spending Risk-takers, spend for today Risk-avoiders, save for future
Dining Knives & forks Chopsticks!

Remember that the above are general impressions to keep in mind but there will always be exceptions to the rule. Younger Chinese will often be more open and flexible than older Chinese who may be stuck in their ways – a different approach will be needed for both, with more attention required for the latter.


Meetings are on the whole fairly similar to what you would expect in the west but remember that Chinese rarely get straight to the point and they will often speak formally or indirectly. It is only when you have gained their trust (through guanxi) that they will use more informal language and reveal their true intentions. Often only the most senior attendees will talk and all questions should be directed to those people.

Great Companies, Great Leaders - Tianjin WorkSpace 2008
Photo by World Economic Forum

Do not be afraid to ask someone to clarify or repeat themselves and that silence is not a sign of weakness in China. Suppress the urge to interpret things at face value as often the unsaid message is more important than what is being said verbally.

Turning Differences into Success

Whilst differences can sometimes create uncomfortable situations for those not used to them they can also be used to the advantage of both sides.

The Chinese are more often than not friendly towards foreigners and frequently go out of their way to try and be helpful (sometimes even when you don’t need it!). Those who have worked in China before generally find the Chinese to be hard working and eager to learn from the experience of others. For young people, having completed their education at great expense to their family, there is often a lot riding on their shoulders and the drive to succeed is high.

When beginning any sort of business in China, it’s often wise to partner with a company which already has a presence there. While government departments and state owned enterprises are often stuck under mountains of bureaucracy, private companies are able to take far more agile approaches to meet your needs. Foreign or jointly owned enterprises will have a wealth of knowledge and experience which will give you a head start. Partnering with them will also open doors to arranged introductions to other qualified parties, while shielding you from unscrupulous ones who might try to take advantage of your relative naivety. You will also find that larger companies have established training programs designed to familiarize their own employees with western business practices and culture.

Job Fair in Nanjing, China
Photo by evadedave

The key to success in China is building relationships. This fundamental element of Chinese culture helps build companies for long-term success rather than short-term gain. While decision making can be slow compared to the west, it is thoughtful and considered. Because so much of an individual’s success is intertwined with the success of their personal network, they will risk less for individual gain and focus more on making the right decision for the company. It is the relationship that they will protect. In this respect it’s particularly important not to cut corners and to spend time building on them in order to make the most of your investments.

Next time we present some practical tips for how to approach cultural differences in China.

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How To Cook Dumplings

Last weekend I learnt how to cook Chinese dumplings. For those who might not be familiar with these tiny parcels of deliciousness a dumpling consists of minced meat and chopped vegetables wrapped into a piece of dough and then boiled, fried or steamed.

Dumplings Ready for Cooking

There are also sweet varieties but I made the traditional type and for your entertainment filmed a short video of the process:

Pretty simple but somehow I don’t think Jamie Oliver has anything to worry about!

Ingredients needed:

  • Minced pork (about 1:1 ratio with vegetables)
  • Spring onion & cabbage finely chopped
  • Soy sauce & rice wine (or vinegar)
  • Dumpling pancakes (some people make their own but it was too much hassle for me)


  1. Mix together the minced pork and chopped vegetables with a drizzle of soy sauce and rice wine
  2. Place a small amount of mixture in the middle of each pancake and seal the sides with water
  3. Boil the dumplings for 3 minutes being careful not to let them stick to the sides of the pan
  4. Drain the water and serve plain or with hot chili sauce

Dumplings for Lunch

These are just the most simple type of dumpling to make – there are many more shapes and varieties with different fillings. Take a look at these great guides for more inspiration (1, 2). You’ll see that dumpling making is a pretty serious business!

Chinese Culture 101 | Part 6 – Core Concepts

This post is part of a series exploring Chinese culture. See the links at the bottom of this page for more.

Face (Mianzi)

The concept of “face” or “self-image”, known as Mianzi in Chinese, is core to Chinese culture and one which is critical to understand. It can be loosely described as someone’s social status or reputation in the eyes of others and is integral to both social and business dealings. Throughout a Chinese person’s life it must be maintained and enhanced through giving to and receiving from others in both words and actions. By showing respect and trust recognition is earned and mianzi is built. It may be something as small as who gets in the lift first to the awarding of multi-million dollar contracts but without it you will have very little power or influence.

Mianzi also extends beyond the individual level to families and even the entire nation. For a student to receive high marks is for the face of the parents as well as the child. Likewise an athlete winning an international competition gives face to the nation.

To make someone lose face (even unknowingly) is a huge dishonor and could mean the end of a relationship. This is usually avoided by the telling of what are called “white lies” in the west, that is to say something which isn’t completely true to save the other person face (e.g. grading someone as average when in fact you mean poor). Business disputes are also often handled informally by a third party outside the legal system to avoid loss of face.

One of the most common confusions arising from mianzi can be seen when confirming schedules. Asking someone if they will be able to deliver on time will most often return the answer yes, even if they mean no or maybe, as to say anything else would mean implying that they were not competent. To avoid this situation try asking the question in an indirect way or get that person/group to set their own schedules to make them primarily accountable to themselves.

Connections (Guanxi)

Closely associated with mianzi is Guanxi which literally means “connections” or “relationships” as it essentially boils down to exchanging favors – “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. It can loosely be compared with the idea of networking in the west but usually goes much further in terms of developing and nurturing the relationship through social exchanges and favors which must be repaid at greater value in time. In such an environment issues of cronyism and corruption are not uncommon when guanxi obligations take precedence over normal rules or laws.

Much of this notion of connectedness can be tracked to the belief that one is always part of a network or group, be it family, work or socially orientated which was strongly prevalent in agricultural history when people lived in communes. A person’s identity is inextricably linked to their network and is rarely treated on an individual basis (which would be considered selfish). This nurtures a strong sense of belonging and patriotism but can negatively affect independent and innovative thinking as well as hindering open communication.

Chinese Guanxi (Connections) Diagram

In this context relationships between family, friends and business associates are often closely interwoven. Anyone or anything outside this web of trust is considered a stranger and will often be treated with indifference or worse. When beginning a business relationship it is important to spend time to form your own circles of influence and become comfortable with anyone you may form a partnership with. Common sense and intuition are still important in any situation.

Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)

Known as the ‘Doctrine of the Mean‘ or ‘Golden Mean’ this concept involves balancing one’s position among a group to maintain conformity and a sense of harmony. To do this while still achieving ones personal objectives is considered the ideal way of living and stems from Confucian philosophy. This can be applied to all areas of life, be it in the home where one should respect their parents and keep their spouse/children happy, or in the workplace where one should behave in a way which is seen to be neither ambitious nor lazy at the same time.

This concept is important when trying to motivate or reward people as otherwise it may be used as an excuse for complacent or passive behavior. The fact that China is generally a peace loving nation can also be attributed to this principle.

Yin and Yang

Another core element of Chinese philosophy is the concept of Yin and Yang which seeks to describe how opposing forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world. Many natural dualities such as dark and light, female and male, honor and dishonor are given as examples of Yin and Yang. The ever turning symbol underlines the belief that things can change and always will, so as in western culture keeping your enemies / competitors close is also important as you never know what tomorrow will bring.

Yin Yang Symbol

The need to balance opposing forces can sometimes explain why seemingly contradictory theories and principles are able to coexist in relative harmony. Within an organisation trying to balance peoples positions can be an effective way of managing teams although it can lead to internal power struggles and inefficient bureaucracies.

In traditional Chinese medicine health is also represented as a balance of Yin and Yang (anatomy and physiology). When a person becomes ill practitioners attempt to determine the exact nature of the imbalance and then correct it through the use of herbal remedies, acupuncture, diet and lifestyle changes. As balance is restored in the body so is health.

Next time we examine and summarize key differences between eastern and western cultural values.
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Chinese Culture 101 | Part 5 – Food / Dining

This post is part of a series exploring Chinese culture. See the links at the bottom of this page for more.

Much of Chinese culture revolves around dining and culinary experiences where both business and pleasure are combined with an astonishingly wide array of tastes and smells. Being such a large and ethnically diverse country with different climates and natural resources each region has its own local specialities which the Chinese are often keen to try and introduce to others. Generally you will find hot and spicy food in the north with mild and cooler food in the south (more about regional cuisines here).

Photo by KellyB

A Chinese dining table is usually round allowing everyone to engage equally in conversation and will be set with two bowls (for rice and soup), a plate (for meat and vegetables), a cup for tea, and a pair of chopsticks for each person. Food dishes are placed into the centre of the table to be shared between everyone. Don’t be put off if you see people spitting bones/seeds onto the plate as this is perfectly normal when eating Chinese food.

Some thing is cooking ( 北京街头小吃 )
Photo by faungg

Contrary to what you might find in your local China Town, Chinese food is generally healthy and often beautifully presented. Texture, flavor, color, and aroma are key considerations for all Chinese cooks (above nutritional content). In addition specific foods have different meanings and must be eaten on various occasions such as festivals, weddings, or to welcome an honored guest.


Heavy drinking is often a part of doing business and it is expected that you’ll keep up with others. If you do not want to drink alcohol make it clear before you start. Be warned that Chinese spirits are particularly potent!

Next time we look at the core concepts which influence Chinese thinking and how this effects personal and professional relationships.
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Chinese Culture 101 | Part 4 – Education

This post is part of a series exploring Chinese culture. See the links at the bottom of this page for more.

Up until 1905 Confucianism was the national educational doctrine and more than 80% of the population was illiterate. As a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought the basic teachings of Confucianism stress the importance of education for moral development of the individual so that the state can be governed by moral virtue rather than by the use of coercive laws.

Kids in the classroom
Photo by chrissuderman

After government reforms in 1905 Confucianism was replaced by a more western style of education, the number of students increased rapidly, and today the literacy rate is over 90%. In 1977 the fiercely competitive College Entrance Examination (CEE) was introduce and around 20% of students go onto higher education today producing over five million graduates each year (including more than 500,000 in technical fields).

Kids, the Children's Day in the Hope School
Photo by AlanYe

While China’s education system has rapidly developed there remains a heavy emphasis on passing examinations which stem from the ancient Imperial exam system and the competition for university places among the huge population. The upshot of this is that exams dictate the curriculum and while Chinese students can master and memorize incredible amounts of knowledge and information, they often lack the ability to critically think, develop their own opinions, and engage in creative activities. Facts are learnt, but rarely questioned.

Photo by Patrick

Due to the social turmoil experienced by many people in their 50’s/60’s the field of business management is relatively young and still emerging which can make finding experienced leaders difficult. Many Chinese who have returned from overseas have taken managerial positions here. Things are slowly changing but it is a gradual process which requires investment in training and responsible mentoring.

Next time we focus on the importance of food & dining in China as an integral part of doing business here.
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Shenzhen Anime Expo

1st SCAF

This morning I attended the first Shenzhen Anime Expo held in the “Shenzhen Convention & Exhibition Center” (Futian). In fact I’m not sure what the real name of the convention was since it was cryptically named SCAF (not the Southern Californian Anarchists Federation) with no other explanation in English.

Doraemon & Friends

As well as showcasing many toy manufacturers from China there were also different kinds of activities, including cosplay (people dressing up as their favourite character), video game and dance competitions. Apparently over 100,000 people attended during the weekend and to say it was crowded would be an understatement. How Doraemon kept smiling I don’t know.


The Chinese are crazy about games like World of Warcraft (a massively online role-playing game) and Counter Strike (a first person shooter) as illustrated above by the massive crowds of fanatics eagerly watching the game-play. When you go in an internet cafe in China you’ll notice nobody is surfing the net but instead just playing these games (usually in the dark)!


There were also a fair few cosplayers who were getting harassed by crowds of people (mostly men) vying to take their photos. Cosplay comes from Japan where it can be quite a serious business to dress yourself up as authentically as possible with people taking it to fairly crazy extremes. Frankly it was about the only interesting part of the otherwise overly-commercial exhibition.

Delicious Lunch

After an hour and a bit of being pushed around I decided it was time for lunch and headed to my favourite Vietnamese restaurant which was conveniently opposite the exhibition centre (review). As ever the food was delicious but strangely this time I got told off for taking photos. Some people don’t know a good thing coming to them!