​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Take That, You Worker

         On my first trip to China, with a tour group in 1981, we tried to give tips to the guides, drivers and others. Our offers were uniformly rejected. In fact, many of the workers seemed insulted, as though we were evil capitalist exploiters trying to subvert the noble working class with our filthy lucre.
          By the end of the decade, tips were being gladly accepted by the tour guides and tour bus drivers -- that is, by workers who were in regular contact with foreigners. One guide explained that they wanted only to make their guests happy, and the tourists had always acted so upset when their tips were rejected that the Chinese leaders had changed the "no-tipping" policy. (Yeah, right.) He also said that the tips were pooled and turned over to the manager of the tour company at the end of the day, so they could be divided equally among all the company's employees. (Yeah, right, again.) The pretense of turning in and equally dividing tips had been abandoned by the early 90s.
          These days, people in the foreign tourist industry expect to be tipped as individuals and will be unhappy if they're shorted. Some other workers, like installers, deliverymen and movers, don't expect a tip but will be happy to accept one if offered. Workers in most other service businesses, like waiters, barbers and cab drivers, would be astounded if you offered to tip them.
          I'm talking about common laborers. The situation is different for doctors, lawyers and other professionals. The Chinese custom is to give these people a hong bao (red envelope) stuffed with money. The hong bao differs from a tip in one important respect: It is not given at the completion of the transaction as a reward for good service; it is given before the service is performed in the hope that it will motivate the recipient to do a good job.
          This custom was described recently in a New York Times blog post entitled "
From China, With Pragmatism", by Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. In general the article is quite insightful and I highly recommend it, but with specific regard to the comments about hong bao for professionals, I have to disagree.
          According to Professor Asma, giving a hong bao to a doctor, for example, would be viewed by most Americans as bribery, but to the Chinese it is simply "good manners". They see it as a natural and acceptable way to encourage good service. "The gift tells the doctor: (a) to take special care with our child (b) we respect your surgical skills/education and 'give face' accordingly (c) we are devoted to our child, will hold you responsible and have the means to do so." He implies that the American attitude is "dogmatic" while the Chinese is "pragmatic", which he quotes William James to define as "judging actions by their respective practical consequences."
          I'm not sure how Professor Asma defines "bribe", or why he believes hong bao does not fit his definition. More importantly, I think he has overlooked a significant part of the message that the hong bao sends to the recipient. It tells him that he need not strive to do a good job, and indeed is expected not to do his best, unless he receives a suitably large "gift" in addition to his regular salary. In fact he is better off doing sloppy work in the normal course, since if word gets out that he will work hard even without a hong bao, he may never see one again.
          If pragmatism means looking at practical consequences, then one has to ask, consequences for whom? Certainly the hong bao has desirable consequences for the recipient's bank account, but on the other hand, it has severe adverse consequences for the nation and society as a whole.
          Over the centuries, Chinese artists and artisans have produced some of the most exquisite works of art that the world has ever seen. They obviously took great pride in their work and spent long hours perfecting their skills. That attitude, unfortunately, is not a part of the culture as a whole. What we in the West call the "protestant work ethic" is a product of northern European culture which has never penetrated the Great Wall.
          The typical Chinese worker will do only what is absolutely necessary to avoid being fired, and sees no reason to do any more than that. Sloppy design, sloppy workmanship and sloppy maintenance are the order of the day here. The Chinese even have a term for it: It's called a "horse-horse-tiger-tiger" work style (马马虎虎), supposedly after an artist who painted an animal so nonchalantly that people couldn't tell whether it was a horse or a tiger.
          If you want to see photos of typical Chinese workmanship (or the lack thereof) just let me know – I've got plenty of them.
          In the West we're taught to take pride in our work; that a job worth doing is worth doing well; and that we may receive a financial bonus if we perform accordingly. The Chinese are taught to do a good job only if they are bribed beforehand to do so. Giving a hong bao may be a practical recognition of this Chinese reality by the donor, but I don't see it as pragmatic in the larger sense. And even if it helps the donor achieve his goals in the short run, it hurts him in the long run, since perpetuating the custom decreases the level of service he will receive throughout his life.
          I am not a particular fan of the protestant work ethic. It produces societies in the West that run very efficiently, but at the cost of high-pressure and stress-filled lives. Chinese society is much more relaxed, but the cost is frustration at the resulting inefficiencies and inconveniences. My only point is, whatever the merits or demerits of the Chinese work ethic, the practice of giving a hong bao is much less pragmatic than giving a post-service tip.
          But never fear, you can enjoy the translations on Chinese-Stories-English without giving the translator either a tip or a hong bao.


Email comments to jimmahler1@yahoo.com