Why don't the Chinese smile very often

Intercultural myths: the always smiling Chinese

A lot is said about distant cultures, there are also legends about the Chinese, although the Middle Kingdom has long been part of the neighborhood in the global village. In this series we examine some common myths about the East Asian giant and its people. We start with the picture of the forever smiling Chinese. It is the case that the Chinese are smiling, grinning or looking mischievous all the time and everywhere, right?

No of course not. If you look closely, assuming you make it to China, the opposite even seems to be the case. What's up with the Chinese smile? When and how do the Chinese really smile and to what extent does their smile differ from the German habit? The first thing that strikes you is that China is sometimes referred to as the “land of smiles”. What's it all about?

The Middle Kingdom as the land of smiles

If you search the Internet for book titles with the key words “Land of Smiles”, you will find a whole series of countries with this name: Japan, Thailand, Myanmar and others are considered countries of the smile. The fact that China in particular is also characterized in this way has to do with a romantic operetta by the Austrian composer Franz Lehár (1870-1948): Lehár later renamed a play originally christened “The Yellow Jacket” to “The Land of Smiles”. It is about a count's daughter who falls in love with a Chinese prince, and is set in Vienna and Beijing in 1912. Since Karl May at the latest, readers in Germany have known about the malicious smile of the Chinese. The author, read by tens of millions of Germans, considered it necessary to have to spread an ugly picture of a malicious Chinese in his stories. You may know the stupid grin of the Chinese from the Lucky Luke comic series, which Germany has enjoyed leafing through for decades.

Is that a chinese smile? What's behind it?

Smiles and politeness in everyday Chinese life

As already mentioned, in everyday life in China you don't see the smile that has become cliché in the West that often. The Chinese can be very polite in certain situations, for example when communicating with a supervisor in an official manner. In a familiar circle, however, they like to forego unnecessary courtesy. Among good friends and in the family there is sometimes a gruff sounding tone, which is by no means meant to be angry, but rather illustrates mutual closeness. So you will hear a thank you or thank you from friends and family less often than would be the case in Germany, for example. Smiles are also less common here, although everyone is happy and the mood is harmonious. Incidentally, with Chinese lovers it can be observed that in addition to existing terms such as Schatzi and Mausi (e.g. baobei 宝贝), teasing nicknames such as Dummerchen (shagua 傻瓜) and the like are often used to express one's own feelings.

Smile as a communicative lifeline

In China, people smile as an expression of positive feelings. But in some situations the smile has a communicative function that may seem very contradictory to Germans. In China, it is common to express embarrassment or insecurity with a smile. Some Germans have already wondered, if not excited, about this. From a German point of view, this smile can easily be seen as an attack, especially in conflict situations, even though it actually aims to disarm. Even in situations of grief, the Chinese smile to show sympathy or helplessness. This has also led to confusion on the German side. Here you just have to bear in mind that there are different expressions in East and West.

Conclusion: No forever smiling Chinese

So it turns out that the Chinese are neither constantly smiling nor, on principle, hide anything underhanded behind their smile. On the contrary, smiling expresses one's own feelings very directly, although in China there are other reasons to smile in addition to those known in Germany. In the Middle Kingdom, a smile is only meant to be evil in the rarest of cases.

More on the subject:

Is China's Culture a Food Culture? Or: do the Chinese really eat everything?

China in German advertising: rolling "R", bamboo cones and pirated copies

20 signs that you've been in China for (too) long

China's Self-Perception: Business People in Chinese Guidebooks

Intercultural myths: the always smiling Chinese

Category: China humor, China's self-perception, Chinese cultureTags: courtesy in China, image of China, intercultural faux pas, clichés about China