Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends…

Out in my neck of the woods, it is not uncommon to hear a businessperson from a Western country, following a disappointing episode with a Chinese supplier, say something like: “They’re all a bunch of liars!”  Of course, they’re not all bad. Part of the problem is very different definitions of what constitutes ethical and honest behavior between the Chinese and the Western world (Note: I’d include the Japanese in the group of people who don’t understand Chinese “lying”).

In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.

Chinese values are rooted in concepts of duty to oneself, one’s family, one’s company, one’s friends and associates, but not to anyone else. There is no “Good Samaritan” ethic going on; kids are not really taught from a young age that they have a duty to help strangers. The teaching is more along the lines of “don’t make trouble,” “don’t do anything shameful,” or “be a good student.”

Also worth noting is the fact that many more things are covered up by the Chinese than they would be in the West. People don’t tell each other about things that would make someone lose face or cause social embarrassment, and once the “deception” is discovered, all is generally forgiven after a brief explanation along the lines of “it wasn’t convenient for me to tell you the truth.” Things like job loss, serious illness, legal trouble, or problems with children are seldom talked about, and often kept hidden, even among close friends and relatives.

In a business context, you might not hear about a shipment that was supposed to go out last week but will now likely never go out until it is too late. This occurs with great frequency in greater China, and there is very little concern or shame on the Chinese end, because it simply isn’t viewed as being wrong.

For the unprepared Western businessperson, these ethics can be quite unnerving. I’ve personally seen many a business deal, and many a friendship, fall apart because of these radically different values.

The Bottom Line: Don’t expect your Chinese suppliers to have the same set of ethics that you have. There are differences across the board in what constitutes ethical behavior when you’re talking about East and West. Tread carefully, and set up plenty of checks and balances until you really know what you are doing.


Filed under China, Communication, Culture, Culture Shock, Taiwan

24 responses to “Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends…

  1. Jeff

    I wish I would have read this article a couple years ago. I’ve always known of the cultural differences and my Chinese friends straight out tell me Chinese people lie to make it simple I assume. By western standards I’ve observed that what a Chinese person might not consider lying is a lie by American standards. I can’t really speak for the entire western civilization, just American. I’ve noticed face is more important than the truth or honor. My concern is that as more and more small businesses become owned by cultures that don’t view honesty the way it is viewed in American culture we might have a big tax issue. Since much of America is small business we probably already have a big tax evasion issue with many small businesses. Also, because this is occurring I think there might be a problem with non-Chinese people buying small businesses from Chinese and possibly from other recent immigrants to the USA. From what I have heard first hand many Chinese owned businesses tend to sell under the table so the government won’t really know the true sale price. The seller does this to avoid taxes and also to conceal that it is actually worth more because it has always been more profitable, but since it has been evading taxes all this time they can’t suddenly sell it claiming higher than stated income. Long story short, you won’t see too many Chinese selling businesses to non Chinese or really selling to people they don’t trust. I could be totally wrong, but somehow I don’t think so. I think this country needs to take a long look at how to prevent this from happening. There is some simple fixes that can take care of a lot of it, but I imagine there would be lot of people screaming ‘racism’. Whatever is done can be done across the board so this shouldn’t really be an issue.

    • Johleen

      I’m a Chinese girl living in China. Surprised to read your blog by chance. Really agree your view even I would also lie sometimes. It’s a saying in China called “Beautiful Lie”, which exactly means the one you just said lying to save face. It seems that people here lie and lie all the time and even begin to trust their lies. Even though it’s a part of our traditional culture, I don’t think it can help us to do anything except saving face. What’s worse, it’ll lead to a very bad situation in the nation, and other countries might start to doubt what we say all the time just as you wrote. I’m really sorry about that. Living in a lying country, I learn a lot of skill to cover the bad things we did, really! I never been aboard, never known how a non-lying country looked like, but I hope one day I could.

      • Ziggy

        Wow! You are Astute!This thread is enlightening. As an American I still don’t quite get it, though. At the risk of writing a “Dear Abby,” inquiry, I need some enlightenment to reconcile contradictions in my Chinese fiancé. I’m trying to differentiate trying to understand a Chinese, from understanding a woman, and how to put the two together.

        I had suspected her of lying many times, yet when I addressed my concerns she immediately repented in her behavior. So, I sought ways for her to keep her face, forgive her and moved on. She offered me a verbal confession on only one occasion, yet after repeated denial. Her denial made me feel as though she thought I was a stupid fool. So, I proved my case to which she vaguely confessed – apparently out of fear of losing me. I don’t think I could have offended her more. She accused me of “abusively conquering” her. I was clueless as to what she was talking about because I never heard of “conquering” a woman. When I asked her to clarify her thoughts, I think she too emotional to think clearly. Yet, she gave me a partial explanations. She told me that because I didn’t believe her that I was trying to conquer her. When I asked her if she were abusive when she didn’t believe others, she responded, “I’m not going to answer any more questions.” Additionally, while scolding me, she instructed me how to deal with her in the future: “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Never charge me for an offense.” Since, I understood her demand, I agreed to attempt to comply to the degree I possibly could.

        Another time after a misunderstanding she withdrew from me for a few days and accused me of being cruel for telling her that she was avoiding me. She claimed to be too ill to communicate (via Skype) with me, which I later substantiated was a lie. Since I became increasingly more distrusting of her, I decided that our relationship was untenable and broke up with her. She then immediately (while “too ill”) advertised herself on a dating website and sought out other men. After catching her red-handed, she vehemently denied this and repeatedly attempted to cover this up which further substantiated her lie. Well, since she expressly refused to address my interrogations, I told her that because I couldn’t trust her that I never wanted her to contact me again.

        After about a month, I sought to make amends for my harshness, confess lies I told her. Paradoxically, it somewhat appeared that it was more her culture in her than her character that habitually lies. Although she never has admitted a wrong, except the first time, and always points out mine, I sensed a sincere contrition on her part while she still tried to maintain face. To her claim that if I love her then she shouldn’t need to apologize, I agreed while requiring her to reckon with the past to pave the way to future trust.

        I don’t think I’ll be able to trust her unless she’s honest with me, while she thinks I’m abusive for disbelieving her. Well, if she were a Westerner, I wouldn’t have second thoughts about turning my back on her and never looking back. Yet, since she’s Chinese and because I love her, I’m willing to consider possibilities.

      • truettblack

        I was writing about business. One of the assumptions is that the two parties do not yet have a personal relationship.

        A love relationship goes beyond culture. Personality plays a bigger role. And things change for Chinese people once you have a personal relationship. Then, you don’t lie unless it is a very innocent white lie to protect face. Good luck.

      • renge

        Is this really an issue about Chinese? or is it for all human beings?
        There are several white people in my life just can’t stop lying too.
        Regardless those politicians from various governments, or bankers from different countries.
        It’s just racism when people have all these stereotypes.
        All these articles and comments made me think, are only Chinese being brain washed?

      • truettblack

        I don’t think you read the article at all. You’ve got to move past the title to understand.

  2. I am a Chinese, I can answer this question to let western people know why we lies some times.
    First of all, Chinese also think lie is not good, and we will not lie unless we don’t have choice. But it is not serious as murder or adultery.

    I feel suprised yesterday in a church fellowship in Canada, I asked them, if this is in World war II and there is one Japanese child, you and once angery US solider(this is just a story not real scenario), I ask all of them if the soldier ask you whether that kids is a Japanese kids. if you say yes, he will kill him, if you lies and the child will be saved. What do you say, will you lie and go to hell? All of them says, they will tell the truth. I am so suprised, I said, I will lie. They all attack me, says I lost integrity. it is not your responsiblity if kid got killed. I said, in Bible, the most important thing is to love God and neigbhor, how you love God, will you scarfice your self and let you to go to hell by lying, so that the child can be saved? Still no one agree with me.

    What I am trying to say is that we Chinese normally will not lie in daily life, even if we lied, it just try to protect each other and it will not cause serious harm to other person, if it cause serious harm, and we lied, then we will think that is unethical, and feel really guilty. We will think it is wrong. But I guess Western people think even those kind of small lie without serious harm are serious as adultery.

    Most of time, when western people think we Chinese lied, I guess the lie will not cause any concrete harm. just some small inconvenience, and it is because if we don’t lie, we will suffer serious loss.

    Chinese tend to tolerate each other, when other person cause us some small trouble, we think we should forgive them, it means we are a generous person. That is why, if other Chinese lied to us, we will not think it is immoral, because, the harm is small enough to be ignored, we should be generous to each other.

    So we lies under certian condition to protect ourselves and without cause any serious trouble to others, also, we will forgive others if they lies to us and only cause a little inconvenience.

    In my oppinion, western don’t forgive if we lied to them, we think western people are not considerate and generous to others. (Even though western are generous at donation to society, but Chinese are generous on willing to scacrifice himself or die for his faimliy. )

    That’s why Chinese business owner may only want to sell their business to Chinese I guess.Because it is not easy for us to trust Western people. We don’t think they can be our friends according our moral standards.

    I am not a business man, I don’t know what Chinese Business man think. This just a common Chinese logic.

    • truettblack

      Thank you very much for your comments. I work daily with Chinese people. They are my friends, my clients, and my family members.

      They know the difference between what is right and what is wrong. The tendency to lie when it serves the greater good is understood to be a moral choice among most Chinese people. Westerners tend to be more black and white about these things, often to our detriment. I’m not saying that I advocate lying. I tell the truth in most situations and expect the same from others. But there are times when telling the truth does far more harm than good, and that is when I’ll go Chinese-style. I don’t see much wrong with it.

    • Stas

      **All of them says, they will tell the truth. I am so suprised, I said, I will lie. They all attack me, says I lost integrity. it is not your responsiblity if kid got killed. **

      Then these people are not much for Christians. It is their responsibility. We are our brother’s keepers and they should, as adults, put themselves between the soldier and the child.

    • Stas

      By the way, there is a giant difference between lieing to save a child’s life from a murderer and lieing about the quality of a part or the late shipment or your capability to make something, so as to earn more money.

      One sin is a lesser sin to prevent a greater sin, the other sin is a sin for self gratification: be it put more cash in your pocket or save face (that is to save your own ego, which is what face is).

  3. Jay

    As a Western business owner I have to say that lying is part of the normal “day-to-day” business of our Chinese suppliers. It has nothing to do with “saving face”, or “protecting” somebody else. The lies that I encounter from Chinese business people would be punishable with prison sentences in Western countries. We have had money and goods stolen from us by manufacturers, and in any culture, not just Chinese culture, stealing is wrong, and Chinese people know this. Chinese businessmen, however, don’t seem to have a problem with this. Some people may say things like “oh it’s so important to establish a relationship with Chinese business people first”. This might be true, but it doesn’t seem to change their behavior. We worked with a supplier for months developing a product, with our design (not theirs), our brand, and our colour scheme. We had developed a relationship with them, and did business with them. Within 6 months this supplier was selling our design, complete with our brand name and logo, to other manufacturers.

    In fact, unfortunately our company has not been able to find a Chinese supplier who would not be imprisoned for their actions in any Western country. We have now stopped manufacturing in China and are taking our business elsewhere. We are not the first, and we will not be the last.

    I’m afraid what’s lost in this discussion is the difference in severity of the lying done by Chinese business. Westerns will tell lies like “your hair looks good” when perhaps we think a persons hair does not look very good. This is lie, and it is wrong, but it is usually tolerated in Western society. This could be considered our version of “saving face”. But stealing money, property, and goods is a crime, and has nothing to do with culture or saving face. These are acts perpetrated by criminals, and criminals should be punished. Perhaps is because China is still a Communist country, and how is it that individuals get very rich in a communist society and own businesses and factories? We know how from the Soviet Union – they are corrupt and bribe local government officials; they are crinimals.

    • truettblack

      I’m sorry you got burned. As I wrote in the post, it’s a frequent occurrence, and many of the self-aware Chinese people I work with would agree that there is a a serious business ethics problem in China.

      Having said that, are you willing to acknowledge that there are in fact several honest suppliers out there? That has been my experience. You have to do your due diligence to make sure you’re with someone who won’t rip you off, but they do exist, and there are more than just a few.

      And thank you for posting respectfully. Your opinion, and the way you delivered it, is appreciated.

      • Shifax

        I do agree with you. We do business with Chinese companies for last few years; but never met a honest company, who is not going cheat or lie! Whenever they will get chance; they will get you. So as a business owner, we have to be very careful. We have lots of bad expreance. As an American business owner, sometime we have no choose. But lately we are working with other Asian countries and we found country like Thailand, Malaysia and they are much much better then Chinese business, they are honest comper to Chinese Standerd!

      • truettblack

        That’s not exactly what I wrote. I wrote that there is a different definition of honestly in China, and you have to make sure there are incentives set up to remain honest. But I would never say that there are no honest companies in China. There are plenty.

    • Stas

      China has long ago stopped being a communist nation in anything but name. It is still marxist, mind you, just a different form of Marxism: Fascism.

      In otherwords, government is in bed with business. The same as in most major American corporations: legions of scandals to prove that fact, regardless of which president is sitting.

      These are cultural issues. In Communism this became, as in Russia, the norm due to constant shortages. In otherwords, artificial manipulation of the market by the government elite (yes this will be hitting the US to).

      Russia now ranks ahead of Japan on contract law and its enforcement. Sure contract negotiation can be a lengthy thing and quoting is also lengthy because the company wants to make sure they know exactly what is expected and such. However, you will not find Russian companies running off with your plans and selling elsewhere. Why? Because you can sue them freely into bankruptcy for breach of contract.

  4. Stas

    Like it or not, a lot is rooted in religion. Orthodox Christianity, for example, is very strict on the Golden Rule. A religion built upon martyrs and saints who, like Christ on the Cross, prayed for the forgiveness of their persecutors. Honesty is something the Church teaches. Sure many in society still lie, I’d be a fool to think otherwise. However, they do it, knowing it is wrong and it is something that, at least for most people, causes them pains of angst.

  5. truettblack

    Just a quick note here. This topic tends to create very emotional responses in the people, mostly Western, who disagree with what I’ve presented here. A few points:

    1. What I’ve written here is supported widely by cross-cultural research (check out Scott Seligman for starters). I didn’t pull it out of my back pocket. There are cultures on the planet where absolutes seldom apply.
    2. If you feel strongly about this issue, please feel free to post your opinion, but do so with respect. If you leave comments insulting me and/or my family members, they will be deleted with a chuckle.

  6. I came across your blog and find it very…amazing.
    Mahalo, for the topic on “Lies”….and when it’s acceptable in Chinese culture.

  7. Shaun suckling ( please do not publish surname)

    I found your site after googling “Chinese lies” funnily enough because I am in a relationship with a native Chinese woman who has lived in Australia since 16. Since moving in together there has been a litany of “little” lies which seem to happen at regular intervals always to cover up things she is not proud of…more economical with the truth than the average westerner shall we say.

    One of these included some property matters she is in deep water for and I am effectiely paying for…the truth and depth only come out at the last minute when there is no other option for her, and even then it’s not the whole truth. That never came until the bank started the foreclosure process on her. At least i hope that’s the total truth i have now. I’ll keep searching for the interpersonal implications and rules, but there is an interesting parallel with your blog and for business dealings. I’ve spent 11 months under the same roof and I dont have a relationship yet that gives me the truth…

    • truettblack

      White lies in relationships are common, but these are not white lies. She is telling some whoppers, sounds like. I think fear of shame might be at work here. Shame, and avoidance thereof, is a huge motivator in Chinese culture.

  8. Tony

    Interestingly a few years ago a Chinese girlfriend said to me after a lie that embarrassed me that she didn’t know she had to ‘give me face’. In China its an obligation to survive.

    As there was no rule of law in China people naturally depended on family and other close relationships for support. The Italians do much the same but not necessarily to the same degree. But both are family based societies where loyalty to the family is the first consideration with adherence to national laws coming a distant second when there is conflict.


  9. confusing lie caused

    Sadly for me who is considered Chinese with Japanese blood that for these 25 years long now I can understand why the people surrounding are suspiciously lie to me sometimes. Empirically I was always innerly mad and directly distrusted them anymore once I know they lie to me no matter how small the issue is. For me liar is liar and if you could lie to me for small things then you can lie to me as well for critical issues. However it doesn’t mean that I am 100% freely from this sin. As a human I might have lied but very seldom compared to how I perceive them in terms of telling all the lies. Somehow this culture is deeply rooted and I wonder how if a Chinese kid is raised in totally different culture, let’s say in westerner family. Would they reflect the norms and values the Westerners embrace most? Or will they genetically engineered act as their ancestor?

    In addition I would like to say that lying habits might save person’ face but it will destructively created more problem in society. For instance as I experienced by telling the lies that you are not responsible for problem caused in your job might cause others being accused as problem maker if they are mostly related to the issue. Somehow it is fairer and clean up all the clouds of nowhere if people do act more honestly. I also realized as mentioned that Westerner is also lie for small things like your “hair is very good” as I met lot of them before. But I do believe that lie is totally unnecessary and I would make my life free from all lies as we could communicate in other ways to paraphrase and indirectness. I don’t see that indirectness and paraphrase might create friction between western and eastern business practitioners.

  10. oliver

    it’s about the inexistence of middle class. anything public that exists : eg : a shop, is the result of a long lasting dynasty of noodle friers…or industrial tycoons, name it. this means that new comers have very little wiggle room to enter an existing marketplace. buy in is very expensive, stock moves very slow, sellers stick to prices even on outdated stuff, because it’s the buyer eyes that does the price. as a result, telling the truth is of no point, or else you end up on the loosing side. and there you have it : their society programms them to never telling the truth (the politeness ratoinale only comes handy). which means sooner or later, your emotional involvement in “this deal” will leave you with the impression you are the only one doing the talking, as they nod to just about anything…until it’s too late for you to realise your investment is bogged down. you loose, they lie….it’s just cheaper, for them. and if you complain ? well what the heck did you come to them in the first place ? it is VERY easy for anyone being approched, to revert the arguments..since YOU are emotional on the issue, and they are not. voila…

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