The Comparison Between Chinese And Western Cultural


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The Chinese and Western culture communication becomes more and more frequent because the international cooperation has increased a lot. However, the Chinese and Western cultural taboo come to be a sensitive issue during the communication. The taboo is something or some kinds of words which people are prohibited to do in the daily life or at work. We all know that it plays an important role to know the Chinese and Western cultural taboo in the international communication. Moreover, we study it from the perspective of social etiquette can make us have a better understanding of each other and reduce the misunderstanding in the social communication. But now there are some obstacles during the Chinese and Western cultural communication, what's worse, we may feel embarrassed in the social occasion, because we lack of the knowledge about the culture taboos. From the perspective of social etiquette, this thesis not only studies and compares the Chinese and Western cultural taboo on conversation, giving others presents and visiting others and so on, but also gives some suggestions to the learners. To our Chinese, we should learn the Western culture taboo and listen to some lectures about social etiquette. We also should learn from others in the social occasion. To the Westerners, they should learn the Chinese culture taboo. They can make friends with Chinese, and then they will have the chance to know Chinese culture and its taboos better. This thesis study and compare the Chinese and Western culture taboo from the social etiquette can make us learn more about the social etiquette and the Chinese and Western cultural taboo.

Key words: Social etiquette; Chinese and Western culture; Taboo; Comparison

The Comparison between Chinese and Western Cultural Taboo: From the Perspective of Social Etiquette


1.1 The Need for the Study

Nowadays the international communication becomes more and more frequent. Facing with the current trend, which is that we Chinese have more opportunities to touch and know the foreign culture, especially the Western culture. There comes up a problem that sometimes we do not know the taboo about the foreign countries, and then we just talk about it during our communication with the foreigners. As a result, we make the conversation so unpleased and make ourselves feel so embarrassed. What's worse, it will destroy our friendship or even make our deals failed. Though there are many people studying the taboos in the Chinese culture or in the Western culture, there are few ones comparing taboos between them. In order to make us know the differences clear and have a better social communication in the future, it is very useful to study the taboos between the Chinese and the Western culture from the perspective of social etiquette.

1.2 The Structure of the Thesis

This paper will analyze the taboos between the Chinese and the Western culture from the perspective of social etiquette. First we will know what taboo is and its origin. In the second part, this paper will show us how the taboos embody in both the Chinese culture and the Western culture in some respects. What's more, we will know more about social etiquette. This part will also make us know both the Chinese culture and the Western culture much better so that we can avoid the culture collision between the two different cultures. Then in the next part we will compare the taboo in the different cultures. In this part, we will know the same aspects and the different aspects about taboo in the Chinese and Western culture from the social etiquette. At length, we will give some suggestions to people in order to let them know what they can do and what they cannot do in the social occasion. We hope that through this paper we can have a better social communication between the Chinese and the foreigners.

2. Literature Review

2.1 Definition and Origin

What is taboo? When we see an unfamiliar term, maybe we will ask. Now let me explain it for you in detail. First, taboo as an English word, according to the dictionary it has two lexical categories: noun and verb. As a noun, it refers to a subject or behavior that is forbidden to use, mention, or approach because of social or cultural rather than legal prohibitions. As a verb, it has the same meaning as prohibit and ban. Second, according to Sigmund Freud who is the founder of the psychoanalysis and his book named Totem and Taboo, we know that taboo has two different kinds of meanings. On one hand, taboo is holy and lofty. On the other hand, it is also mysterious, dangerous, unclean and forbidden. What's more, the subjects of the taboo are divided into two aspects. One usually refers to something which religion or custom regards as forbidden, not to be touched, spoken of and so on. The other refers to something that is our general agreement neither to discuss nor to do.

The word taboo was acquired from people who would seem least likely to have it, the inhabitants of the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga. The use of taboo in English should date back to 1777 when Captain James Cook visited Tonga. He wrote some words to describe the cultural practices of the Tongans. Just as he wrote: not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing…On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a made use of, they say, that it is taboo.

2.2 Classifications

There are a great number of domestic researchers studying the taboo from various aspects. Such as Xu Deming (2003), he was interested in the taboo in the Chinese culture. He studied what taboo is, how it originates and develops. What's more, he also studied the future about the taboo. The second example is Ren Cheng (1991) who also studied taboo in the Chinese culture, but the content of his book was much more detailed than the former one. He said the Chinese taboo was filled with the thoughts and feelings of the Chinese traditional people. There is another example is Wan Jianzhong (2001) and his Taboo and Chinese Culture. From the title of the book, we know that this is a book which is also studying the taboo in the Chinese culture. All the above are the researchers in China who studied the taboo only in the Chinese culture.

Nowadays the international communication becomes more and more frequent, naturally there are more and more researchers beginning to study the taboo between the Chinese culture and the Western culture. Give an example, Meng Zhaofeng (2006) who wrote an essay about the taboo between the Chinese culture and the English culture. She studied the taboo from the aspect of greeting, number, food and the personal private. Give another example, Wang Liyin (2007), a researcher who studied the taboo from the perspective of social etiquette between the Chinese culture and the Western culture.

From the studies above, we can summarize the classifications of taboos. There are a lot of kinds of taboos, and here we give some examples. First, we have the body taboos. As we all know that everyone has the consciousness to protect his own body. To a certain extent, our body is our life. And our Chinese believe that only the body belongs to us, anything out of our body is not belonging to us. Because of this, the body taboos come up. Second, we have the diet taboos. As a Chinese proverb goes people rely on the food. It reflects that we Chinese people pay more attention to the aspect of diet. We think the diet will affect the people's health, character and even the change of the environment around. Maybe due to our belief in the traditional religion, we have many taboos in the diet. In addition, we also have the taboos in the social occasion. During the social communication, everyone has his manners and position which are suitable to him. In other words, people obey the customs and taboos about the social etiquette unconsciously. We all know that the range of social etiquette is very wide, and there are also quite many taboos about this aspect. The last classification I will mention is the language taboos. People use language to communicate with each other and make friends in the life. But language is not only a kind of tool, when we use it we also should pay attention. For instance, sometimes we cannot say something directly, then we should avoid or we can use another word to replace. This is the language taboos. All above are some classifications of taboos.

3. Taboos in different cultures from the perspective of social etiquette

3.1 The brief introduction of social etiquette

Nowadays the international communication becomes more and more frequent, the term social etiquette is mentioned a lot by people. It illustrates that people pay more attention to the social etiquette during the communication. They know that a good social etiquette plays an important role in a successful communication. And then we will ask: what is social etiquette? First social etiquette is a rule in the social communication among the people. It is a code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class or group. What's more, it is also a kind of language and a kind of tool. The good social etiquette can reflect a person's fashion or status. Social etiquette involves a wide range. It includes the social conversation, visiting and giving others presents and so on.

3.2 Taboos in Chinese culture from the perspective of social etiquette

As we all know that the range of social etiquette is very wide. And there are also a lot of taboos in Chinese culture from this perspective. Give an example we can't call the names of the senior directly. It is not polite. And in Tianjin when we visit a friend who is ill, we can't bring the pears to him. We should bring some apples, oranges, peaches and other fruit which stand for the happiness and peace. Another example is that when we join the old people's birthday, we can't give him a clock as gift. In a word, there are all kinds of taboos in Chinese culture from the perspective of social etiquette. The reason is that China is a country with the extensive culture. So here I will choose several typical aspects to describe taboo in Chinese culture from the perspective of social etiquette.

We begin with the conversation aspect. When we communicate with others, we Chinese avoid talking about other's shortcomings, weakness and the sore spots related to other's dignity. Just as a proverb goes: beat somebody, don't beat his face; say somebody, don't say his shortcomings. I still remember that when I was in the middle school, there was a girl in our class who was very big. During the break time, the classmates would talk about her or even laugh at her. "Hahaha…She is almost two of mine. And look at her it's so difficult for her to cross the door!" "Yeah, she eats a lot, just like a pig! Hahaha…" This made her very angry and sad. What's worse, she rebuffed making friends with those who hurt her. In addition, we Chinese don't say "die" directly, we will say "pass away", "pop off", "decease" or "kick the bucket" instead of it. Above are the taboos in conversations.

Now I will talk about the taboos in diet. In China, people won't pay more attention to which kind of food we eat, instead people care more about the etiquette of the diet. For instance, we will care about the seats in the dinner, and then we can't sit at some place where we want to stay. Another example is that when we Chinese drink tea, we don't add other things to it, such as milk or sugar. Also in China when we drink wine, we won't drink several kinds of wines at the same time. We prefer only one kind.

The next aspect I will talk is the taboos in giving presents. As we all know that we will give presents for the festival, for the congratulation to others and for the greeting. At this time remember that we can't give others some gifts which are violating the laws and disobeying the rules. For example, the presents which are the blue films, the drugs or the guns. These are banned to render others as presents. Moreover, we cannot give others presents which have the harmful effect on them or make them feel disgust. In addition, we should keep in mind that when we give others presents, we cannot give them the old-fashioned or the abandoned things. If we do that, we will hurt others and they will feel that we are not polite. Instead we should give them what they want. Just do as Jin Zhengkun who is a distinguished professor of social etiquette. One day, his wife discussed with him to give what kind of New Year's presents to their parents.

His wife said: "You are studying the etiquette. Then you make the decision that what kind of presents we should give our parents. You choose, and then I will buy."

Jin responded: "Ok. We can buy a red woolen scarf for mum, and give dad a pair of cute gloves."

His wife surprised: "What? A pair of lovely gloves for dad?"

Jin: "Yes."

His wife bought them and said: "Is it suitable for us to give them these two presents? They are so cheap."

"No problem!" answered Jin, "They will know that we still care about them. And then they will be very happy."

In fact, it is true. Their parents are pretty excited when they received the presents. Form this example we can see that the suitable presents are the best. This is what we should do in the respect of giving presents.

All above are some aspects that I choose to talk. And then we have a brief perception of the taboos in Chinese culture from the perspective of social etiquette.

3.3 Taboos in Western culture from the perspective of social etiquette

Just as the taboos in Chinese culture, there are also a lot of taboos in Western culture from the perspective of social etiquette. We know that there are quite many English-speaking countries in the whole world, so we can see the diversity of the Western culture. Now I will have my pick of some aspects to describe taboos in Western culture from the perspective of social etiquette.

First, I will talk about taboos in visits to others. In the Western countries, if you want to visit somebody, you should tell him in advance. You can't visit him suddenly. This will make him unhappy instead of surprise. What's worse, he may rebuff your visiting. Why would it be happen? Because you visit him suddenly interrupt his arrangement for work and life. This makes him uncomfortable. In a TV series named Bones, the Doc. Temperance Brennan visited FBI Seeley Booth's home suddenly, or we can say she just broke in his house. When she entered Booth's house, Booth was very confused and also quite embarrassed. At this time, Brennan felt sorry and apologized to Booth. So we can see visiting people suddenly is a taboo in the social activity.

Second, this is the biggest taboo in Western culture, which is the privacy of a person. Just as the proverb goes: A man's home is his castle". That means a person's home is holy and cannot be invaded. You don't have access to the site without the permission. The western people place a high value on privacy. It is not appropriate for us to ask questions about personal information like age, family background, salary, or prices of their possessions and questions on personal activities. It is advisable we shouldn't talk about suck things, when we communicate with the English-speaking people unless they indicate clearly that they don't care or they talk about them first themselves. Some of these questions such as, "How old are you?" "Why don't you get married?" "How much did that pair of shoes cost you?" Some of these are allowed in Chinese society, but they are all taboos in formal Western society. When we communicate with the foreigners, we should avoid these topics.

Third, this is about taboos in public places. In the English-speaking countries, people will do things in order in the pubic activities. For example, if you go to the bank or the post office to do something, or you visit somewhere, you should stand or wait in a queue. And you'd better keep a certain distance. People can't jump the queue. Another example is that if you go to the restaurant to have dinner, and there are no seats for you. At this time, remember that you should neither disturb others nor walk here and there to find a seat to sit by yourself. What you should do is to wait. English-speaking people also absolutely forbid to speak loudly in the public places. They think that will disturb others. I still remember that when I was a high school student, my father and I went to the Pearl of the East in Shanghai. In the elevator, there were two naughty foreign boys who were playing and laughing. Then their mother looked at them angry and did a gesture which meant be quiet. The boys didn't make sound any more. From my experience, we can see that foreigners pay more attention to the manners in the public places.

The last aspect I will mention is the taboos in giving presents in the English-speaking countries. According to their tradition, the Westerners will give presents to each other on the traditional festivals, especially the Christmas Day. They will give some little gifts to express their wishes. But they won't give a lot of precious presents to their friends. If you do that, others will think that you are bribing your friends. And your friends won't receive them too. So just remember this when you want to give presents to the Westerners. Maybe we often hear that in the English-speaking countries, it is prevailing to give friends flowers as presents. But here some tips you should remember. You can't give others flowers in plural. Because they think that flowers in plural will bring them the bad omens. In addition, you neither give others the white flowers which are seen as the symbol of the bad omens and the symbol of death. In America, we also can't give presents in the public places. Nor can we give some cheap necklaces, or people will think that you look down on them. In the western society, we can't give others presents without any significance. In general, we will give others presents when they get married or on some important festivals.

4. The comparison between Chinese and Western cultural taboo from the perspective of social etiquette

4.1 The same aspect

Though the Chinese and Western cultural taboos are different in some respects from the perspective of social etiquette, they still have something in common. Now I will list some respects.

First, no matter in China or in the western countries, people avoid talking about anything related to excrement in the social communication. If you have to do that, you can use euphemisms instead of that kind of words. For instance, when you want to go to the bathroom, you can't say: I want to have piss. Instead you should say: I want to wash my hands or I want to go to the lavatory. Maybe you still remember this kind of situation that people get together to have dinner happily no matter in China or in the Western countries. Each of them enjoys himself. Suddenly one of them says: "I am going to have shit." At this time, someone maybe will spurt the food or the wine in his mouth. From this we can see that we should pay more attention to our etiquette about this aspect during the social communication.

Second, neither the Chinese nor the westerners will talk about sex in the social communication. People also avoid talking about or doing anything connected with the private parts of the body. If you do that, people will consider that you are not a cultured person. Nowadays, both in China and the western society, we often hear that someone is doing something in the public place without wearing any clothes or just show their bodies for some reason. I still remember the news that two graduates of Peking University who ran on the playground in the night to celebrate their graduation without wearing any clothes. When this news was uploaded to the Internet, there were all kinds of comments, but most of them were negative. Their behavior made a bad effect on the public. People said they should not do this. If they want to celebrate, they could choose other methods.

Third, the words related to vituperation are taboos in the social etiquette. If you use this kind of words, usually you will offend others or make others angry. What's worse, you may come into conflict with others. These words include bitch, cow, shit etc. Maybe most of us still remember the situation in the film that people are drinking and chatting in a party. At this time, someone for some reason says "fuck" to the other person. The other person is very angry and throws the goblet to the ground, and then they fight with each other. Obviously, in the social occasion, you use the words related to vituperation is the taboo.

The last respect I will mention is the taboos about sick and death. Though they are natural phenomena, people are afraid to talk about them. For example, if someone has the cancer, the English-speaking people will say he has the big C instead of he has the cancer. And if someone died, they will use "go to heaven" "go to another world" "to be gone" instead of "die". While in China, people will use "pass away" "pass out" "close one's days" "fall asleep" "join the great majority" instead of "die".

From these aspects, we can see both the Chinese and the Westerners have something in common about the taboos from the perspective of social etiquette.

4.2 The different aspect

Obviously, there will be the different aspects about the Chinese and Western cultural taboos from the social etiquette due to the two different cultures, ethics and the different religion.

The first aspect we will discuss is about the taboos in visits to others. We know that it is polite for Westerners to tell their friends in advance and arrive there several minutes later. But to our Chinese, we don't need to tell our friends in advance. What's more, we often arrive several minutes early. This is totally different from the English-speaking countries.

Next aspect is the taboos about the privacy in the social communication. As we all know, during the social communication, the Westerners can't talk about other's privacy, including marriage, the property, men's income and women's age etc. These are all taboos in the social conversations. While in China people can get together and talk about these things. In our opinions, this is a way to care about others. So we should know more detail information about others.

The last aspect we will discuss is the taboos in giving presents. In America, people won't give others lily as present except on the Easter. The reason is that people regard lily as the symbol of death in USA. And the Americans also won't give others presents which are very valuable. But in China, we will do quite opposite compared with the Americans. We Chinese prefer to give our friends a lot of presents which cost the more the better. However, there is one thing we can't give others as present. That is the clock. If your present is a clock, then others will associate it with the funeral. So just remember no matter when you can't give others clock as present in China.

Above are the differences about taboos in Chinese and Western culture from the social etiquette.

5. Cultural Roots of Taboo Differences

5.1 The Chinese Culture and Its Effect on Taboo

Because of China's unique culture, we have the special Chinese cultural taboo. As we all know, China is a fascinating civilization with a 5000 year's history. Chinese culture, varied in form and rich in content, has remained one of the most original, ingenious and vital traditions among all civilizations. But the taboo is associated more with the Chinese traditional culture. The society developed from the slave society, feudal society to the modern society. At the ancient China, the level of the development was low. And the development of the science and technology was restricted by the feudal culture. As a result, people at that time couldn't understand the complex relation between the nature and the society. They still believed that the supernatural power made by the God controlled the nature and the matters in the world. Because of the feudal culture, people were scared, stupid and even believing the superstition. Then the taboo was generated unconsciously. In the ancient China, for example, the Qin Dynasty, the king wanted to rule his country for a long time. He would control the subjects' mind with the stupid feudal culture. He would make people believe the God and be afraid of it. As time flied, people would believe what the king said and in the belief of the superstition. Nowadays, though the science develops quickly, people in great numbers still believe the superstition. For instance, Chinese people won't say "die" directly during the social communication, they will use other words to replace it. Because they are afraid of death, they don't want to mention it. Just like people give presents to others, if they give others flowers, they won't choose the white ones or the chrysanthemum. The reason is that both of them are used in the funeral. If they do that, others will be unhappy.

5.2 The Western Culture and Its Effect on Taboo

Western culture is made up of many elements, which have gone through changes over the centuries. It is generally classified into five stages. The first stage is the Classic Age, which refers to both the Ancient Greek Civilization and the Ancient Roman Civilization. The former one came to be founded on the ideas of freedom, optimism, secularism, rationalism, the glorification of both body and mind, and a high regard for the dignity and worth of the individual. Though the ancient Greeks respected their God a lot, they still believed each person had his own freedom, dignity and worthiness. The Greeks also believed that the thoughts and actions of human beings were determined by themselves. So they strove to understand the world and to guide their future by rational and logical thoughts instead of superstitions and emotions. For example, the Westerners will give others clock as present for some reason. But in China, people won't do that. The reason is that we Chinese people believe the superstitions, so they think the pronunciation of the clock in Chinese sounds like death. As a result, they won't give others clock as present like the Westerners. What's more, the ancient Greeks felt that each person should be treated fairly and justly. The second stage of the Western culture is the Middle Ages. The characteristic of this period of time is the Church Culture which focuses on the original sin, because of this human nature was totally restricted. For instance, it is forbidden to talk about sex or anything related about sex in the social occasion. And in the western society, it is also banned to talk about others' privacy. The third stage of the Western culture is the Renaissance. In essence, it was a historical period in which people made attempts to get rid of conservatism in feudalist Europe and introduce new ideas. And the fourth and fifth stages are Neo-classicism and Romanticism.

In a word, the Westerners influenced by the Western culture are more open and more rational, and the taboo in the western society is also different from ours to a certain extent.

6. Suggestions and Conclusions

6.1 Suggestions for the Chinese

To our Chinese, we are not very familiar with the Western culture and its taboos. If we want to communicate with the Westerners frequently and happily in the social occasion, we should be familiar with the Western cultural taboos and know more about the social etiquette.

Then how can we do? We can make us know more about the Western cultural taboos by reading some books in this respect. Or we can learn from others by watching them how to do in the social occasion. We also can listen to some lectures about the social etiquette. For example, in China, there is a famous professor named Jin Zhengkun, whose lecture about social etiquette is quite interesting. We can understand what we can do and what we can't do during the social communication. There are also some suggestions we can follow. First, if we want to visit the Westerners, we should tell him in advance, and be there on time or just several minutes later. If you have told him that you will visit him, you shouldn't call off or postpone the visiting without any reasons. If you really have emergency to deal with, you should tell him in advance. And then you also should apologize for the visiting which you have been there. When we chat with them, we should avoid talking about the privacy. Remember that talking about the privacy is the biggest taboo in the western society. Second, in the public places, we Chinese cannot speak loudly as we want. If we do that, we will disturb others and make a bad impression on them. So we should pay attention to our social etiquette.

Only we Chinese know more about the Western cultural taboos and the social etiquette can we have a better communication with the Westerners.

6.2 Suggestions for the Westerners

As we all know that our China has a long civilized history and extensive culture. Obviously, the Westerners are not familiar with our Chinese culture and its taboos. To the Westerners, they should try their best to know more about our Chinese cultural taboos and the social etiquette. For instance, they can make friends with our Chinese and learn from us. If it is possible, they can travel around China, and then they can know more detailed about our China. Nowadays, there are more and more foreigners coming to China to do business or to work. They live and work in China is a good way for them to know the Chinese culture and its taboos. Just like one of our foreign teachers Jesses, who works in our university and makes friend with us. He will chat with us or even travel with us. This is a good opportunity for him to know Chinese culture better. Moreover, there are some suggestions for the Westerners to follow. When they visit the Chinese, they should arrive there a little earlier instead of a little later. In addition, during the social communication, they cannot talk about shortcomings about others. If they do this, the Chinese will feel hurt. There are also a lot of taboos in the Chinese culture from the perspective of social etiquette, and the Westerners should pay more attention to them if they want to communicate with the Chinese happily in the social occasion.

6.3 Conclusions

To sum up, we have a brief knowing about the taboos in Chinese and Western culture from the social etiquette. We know what taboo is and its origin. Moreover, we still know the taboos not only in Chinese culture from the perspective of social etiquette but also in Western culture. At length, we compare the taboos in the different cultures from the social etiquette aspect. This paper makes us have a better understanding about taboos, the Chinese and Western culture and the social etiquette. What's more, we know what we should do in the social communication both in China and in the western society. In a word, the good manners and the good social etiquette in the international communication can make us more confident, more natural and know each other better.

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