The Chinese Work Ethic

23 Jul 2006

I always think it’s kind of funny when I hear people talking about the “Chinese work ethic.” Usually it’s an American who knows plenty of successful Chinese immigrants in the States and just assumes that China is a nation of the same kind of people. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that the hard-working Chinese immigrants in the States were able to immigrate to the States because they’re smart and hard-working, and so many of them are successful in the States for the same reason. (There are exceptions though.)

Of course there are hard-working Chinese in China too, but it is by no means a universal cultural trait. I thought I’d give one little story related to just one tiny facet of the complex “Chinese work ethic.” (The more I think about it, the more I think that the idea of a unifying work ethic for a nation as large and diverse as China is almost entirely meaningless, but I’m going to tell a story anyway.)


I left the subway station and took a shortcut down an alley on the way home. I passed by a low wall, and lying stretched out on the wall, sound asleep, was a young man. Judging by his appearance, he was a migrant worker. Next to him on the wall was an electronic produce scale, and just behind the wall was a big cart full of apples. It was late afternoon.

Right after I passed the sleeping guy, I saw another man and a girl coming down the alley towards me with another cart of apples. I guessed that they were working with the sleeping guy, so after they passed me I walked a few steps further and then stopped to observe what happened next.

Life for immigrants to Shanghai is not at all easy. Migrant workers have to work extremely hard for very low wages. I wasn’t sure what the relationship between the two men was, but I fully expected the older man to really let the young guy have it for sleeping on the job.

The older man stopped by the younger man and walked around to the other side of the wall, near the apples. I saw the young guy stir, and he noticed the older man. The older man said something, and I saw a smile spread across the young guy’s face. He slowly sat up, and the two men began chatting happily. The girl looked on, a big grin on her face.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Da Xiangchang Says: July 23, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    Interesting story, and the moral seems to be: Not all Chinese are hardworking. But this is hardly a revelation. No country has a “universal cultural trait.” Not all Frenchmen are cowards, not all Arabs are fanatics, not all Israelis are greedy, etc. The question, however, is: Are national stereotypes GENERALLY true? In other words: Are Chinese GENERALLY hardworking. I believe the answer is YES. Chinese people GENERALLY are greedy, status-obsessed, and highly envious of their social betters. These traits would therefore drive them to work hard to achieve higher status. They would certainly work harder than people whose culture values present-day happiness like, say, the Mexicans (though, without a doubt, the average Mexican is more well-balanced and happier than the average Chinese). So Chinese Americans’ success isn’t so much dictated by their parents’ financial background but rather by their parents’ Chinese cultural values–i.e., 1) do well in school and 2) get rich.

  2. Many ppl during the 60’s and 70’s immigrated to State dues to the open door policy and because of the poor economic conditions of that time. Growing up piss poor in Asia, fleeing for various reasons, and many were uneducated, they basically came to the states with nothing to lose. The cultural influence focused on education and success in the states where it was possible to attain. Fast forward to the next genration, the parent are now successful, try to instill the same value to the kids. But growing up in States where it is generally wealthy, don’t see the same desperate circumstances and hardships. The values don’t always get xferred to the next generation.

    I have been mulling over going back to Hong Kong to live and work for about a year. After a while, I’ve dropped the notion… why? In Hong Kong, the labor market is competetive, jobs are scare, and wages not that great… what you end up with is jobs that are typically 10-12 hours a day with half a day on Saturday. The competitive force make them hardworking. I talked to quite a few who have immigrated over to the states and when they here my interests in going to HK, they tell me why they left Hong Kong.

    On the other the hand, I here stories about all the factory workers in China who are making peanuts churning out goods. I here all sorts of varying stories aobu the hours they work…. now I wonder if they would be called lazy? I had the pleasure of visiting one of my uncles factories in Guangzhou… where it was a pseudo dormitory style factory. I never got a straight answer of how the pay system works and how hte labor and housing works….. perhaps they had answers they didn’t want to disclose.

  3. trevelyan Says: July 23, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Maybe he had just volunteered to watch the cart.

  4. It’s almost impossible to compare Western and Chinese work habits in any meaningful way. When I worked in Guangzhou the local staff seemed anything but hardworking compared to our habits in Australia. But they put in long hours (of doing very little), and there was no line between on duty and off duty. We tend to have a “work hard play hard” attitude, and we keep work and private life in separate compartments. Chinese people seem to mix business with pleasure much more. They are always working, but it doesn’t look like work as we know.

    Another difference: when I left Guangzhou we had six Chinese guys come to pack move our stuff out. They made a big fuss of packing everything up noisily and shifting everything en amsse – all very renao. Back in Sydney there was just one Aussie guy who did the same job in reverse, no fuss – and in less time. Sometimes Chinese people just look like they’re working hard.

  5. Kinda off-topic I know, but interesting to me as a Belgian and it was DXC who started it.

    Do U.S. Americans generally still think it was ‘cowardly’ of us frog/fry eaters to oppose Dubya’s little vanity war in Iraq? I know back then it was the practically universal opinion but how do things stand now? Is DXC still in the majority?

  6. And oh, on topic:

    When I used to be manager of some fifteen Chinese in Xi’an I have found most of them worked very hard, on average harder than Belgians.

    But there were some incredibly lazy and/or sloppy ones as well.

  7. anonymously cowering in fear of the French Says: July 24, 2006 at 1:41 am

    Tuur, I’m an American. I don’t think it was cowardly to oppose Iraq at all. Then again, I didn’t really think it was in the first place. It wasn’t universally supported at the time. The country has been increasingly deeply split ever since the 2000 elections.

    As an American living in Taiwan, though, I can say I think the EU, especially France, is hypocritical as hell selling weapons to China. Right now, China has over 800 missiles pointed at MY home, and the best of them are of European design. The fact that France participates in joint naval exercises with the PRC, near the Taiwan straight, just makes it that much worse. How do most Europeans feel about the weapon sales?

    P.S. The stereo-type of the French being cowards predates Dubya by decades, at the very least. Maybe it was from WWII, but I think the stereo-type started even before that.

  8. Tuur:

    Then as now, plenty of us (Americans) thought the whole affair was incendiary, suicidal BS and were grateful to our European friends for trying to talk our leaders out of it.
    Then as now, plenty of us thought (Americans) felt that Europeans were making a stark power grab in America’s time of weakness.
    Looking at the polls, the vast majority of Americans are now feeling some “buyers remorse” about the war.
    Like work habits, there is a lot of variation among people in nations at war about their governments’ actvities.

    Peter

  9. Tuur~

    It’s not the French opposition to the Iraqi War that make Americans think the French are cowards (a lot of Americans oppose the War, btw). It’s how the French rolled over for the Nazis back in WWII that give Americans that opinion. And since the French continue to have a very negative attitude towards America, despite the fact that the Allied powers litterally save their asses, a lot of Americans see no reason to change their assessment any time soon.

  10. I was down half-way in the article, fully relating to the article, until I saw “The Onion” logo. Speaking of the spoof newspaper from Wisconsin, they opened an SF office last year and I saw its newspapers in FREE BINS around the East Bay. But I haven’t seen them for a long time, not sure if it’s due to my place/time or if it’s due to the fact that newspapers aren’t being read at all these days.

  11. They would certainly work harder than people whose culture values present-day happiness like, say, the Mexicans (though, without a doubt, the average Mexican is more well-balanced and happier than the average Chinese).

    Da Xiangchang, how much first-hand experience do you have with Mexican workers? Here in my community, they work their a***es off from dawn to dusk and sometimes later seven days a week. Teachers in our school district have a hard time arranging conferences with even one parent because they’re always busy either working or taking care of children at home. Mexican migrant workers in the US do hard and sometimes dangerous physical labor like cleaning, construction, and meat processing. Mexicans here in the US work as hard as any immigrant group east or west, north or south.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: July 24, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    Sonagi,

    Reread my entry. I NEVER said Mexicans didn’t work hard; I just said Chinese generally work harder. And I still believe this. Mexican migrant workers work hard because they HAVE to to meet basic needs: food, shelter, etc. But once he’s achieved his basic needs, the average Mexican is content to enjoy life. Chinese people, however, often work hard even if their basic needs are met. If their neighbor has a Mercedes instead of a Toyota, they want to get the Mercedes. Of course, I’m stereotyping like hell here, but again, a lot of stereotypes have a basis in fact. And I live in Southern California and trust me, I come in contact with Mexicans every single day.

  13. @ Anonymous, Peter & Stuart.

    Thanks for the clarification. I honestly didn’t know the stereotype dates back to the Vichy regime (and I suppose, Indo-China).

    For your information: nobody in Belgium ever had any illusions the French were so very noble for opposing the third (present) Gulf War – we know our neighbours, their recent history and their consistent cynicism in foreign policy. In that respect they’re not that different from the U.S. or any other actual or would-be world power.

  14. Of course, I’m stereotyping like hell here, but again, a lot of stereotypes have a basis in fact.

    Yes, you are, and yes, there are always people who fit the stereotype, and that’s why people perpetuate stereotypes.

    Chinese people, however, often work hard even if their basic needs are met. If their neighbor has a Mercedes instead of a Toyota, they want to get the Mercedes.

    The Protestant work ethic exhorts people to work hard because labor is a virtue. Rereading your posts, I see that you are not equating the Chinese work ethic with the Protestant work ethic.

  15. feihong Says: July 25, 2006 at 1:50 am

    Da Xiangchang,

    If I understand what you’re saying, then I agree that Chinese immigrants are more enterprising than their Mexican counterparts.

    But I don’t quite agree with your reasoning. I don’t believe at all in the so-called Chinese work ethic. That Chinese people are culturally conditioned to work hard and be competitive. I dealt with too many lazy and unambitious people in China to really believe this. The Chinese-Americans you meet in California aren’t representative of all Chinese people.

  16. Da Xiangchang Says: July 25, 2006 at 8:29 am

    Feihong,

    I think the laziness in China is a residue of communism. You’ll never meet lazier people than communists since why work hard when your life will continue to suck no matter what you do? But BY NATURE, Chinese people are greedy; it’s just communism has imperfectly suppressed their greediness. Now, with a free-market system, Chinese people would finally be free to be themselves: money-hungry workaholics! This is quite different from, again, Mexicans who are not by nature greedy or money-hungry.

    Sonagi,

    “The Protestant work ethic”?!! Dude, the only work ethic Chinese people care about is the renminbi work ethic!

  17. Statistically speaking, Americans work the greatest number of hours per year and have the fewest days off. So much for stereotypes.

  18. Xu Kangjia Says: August 19, 2006 at 5:08 am

    Hmm, it’s very interesting to hear so many comments about how hard chinese work. I am working now in Belgium and I am a Chinese. It is true that there are average characteristics of each nation. However, I think it would relate to the culture much more than the race or the education of parents. It is also true that we are much easier to jealous the socioty better. Chinese are working hard, it is a right conclusion, even when their basic living needs are satisfied.

  19. Leave it to the Europeans who go on their 3 month vacation trips to some exotic country… see one or 2 examples of “exotic” behavior that reinforces some preconceived stereotype, then shout to the rest of the world that this stereotype is true and of course Americans have no clue about anything. I dare you to show me 10 western europeans who have been to the US on vacation, 90% only visit, NYC or Miami – maybe if they have an extra 2 weeks or 2 they go to LA or SF. Or for more fun, have them point out Arkansas or Oklahoma on a map.. Most don´t even know where Moldavia is and it´s on their own continent.

  20. Chinese only work hard when there is a direct “benefit” involved.. I believe most oversea Chinese outside of “mainland” has better work ethich..not necessary harder but more sincere.. These are just my personal experience and comment..

    Chinese need to learn the value of “how to get” there and not just take. They do not understand life is all about “give and take”…It is okay to take RMB100.00…but try to ask a buck..

  21. mexican people are one of the most hard working people in the whole world. they do jobs people dont want to or feel they are too good for. a mexican worker can easily do the job of two avg workers. i have worked with many diff types of people from diff countries at my job and mexicans always come out on top.

  22. I sought out answers regarding ‘Asian work ethic’ after watching a handful of video clips on YouTube of musical performances. I realized there’s a strangely high concentration of Asian performers, specifically Chinese, that blew me away. One in particular caught my attention: a twelve-year-old girl who has been playing guitar for roughly two years that has a technical prowess far beyond my own (I’ve been playing for more than ten years). I thought “I suppose it’s purely talent.” I understand talent has a lot to do with it, but what’s with this huge number of amazing Asian players? In college, in public and private recitals, on the Internet; how do they get so damn good? Is there something in China’s water that increases talent…no, no. Possibly there is a secret to their work ethic and maybe I’m not as hardworking as I though I was. After reading some of the posts above I’m not really convinced that any Asian culture is generally ‘harder-working’ than any other culture. I will assume that because China has nearly 20% of the world’s population that we’ll simply find a higher number of successful and talented musicians, shop owners, intellectuals, etc…. Another thing to consider is not simply how hard any individual or group works, but how efficient they are with their resources, their time, and also the quality of their work. Americans work harder, on average, than most other nation’s peoples, yet we are still not as efficient or productive as others. That’s rough. Anyway, to any Asian musicians out there, if you want to give me the secret I patiently await your answer.

  23. I’ve lived in Japan for 11 years, and far before that one year in Taiwan, but have never been to China. Over the past several years I’ve interviewed a couple hundred Asians about their jobs (see link below) and would like to visit Shanghai during late March 2008 to interview Chinese. If anyone can give me some tips or introductions I’d be much obliged. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything of substance to add to the discussion above, just that it’s been my impression that Chinese are generally more industrious and ambitious than people from most other cultures.
    theworldatwork@mac.com
    http://globalstories.net/worldatwork.htm

  24. Willard Says: July 7, 2008 at 11:19 am

    I have been workign in mainland China for nearly 8 months now. Completely separated from my American life, and I can see that the Chinese are very hard working, but not always smart working. I think there was a discussion between Diogenese and Socrates. Diaoganese stated “Movement is an Illusion”. So Socrates taking advantage proceeded to walk away. I see much movement here, but that does not mean that anything is being accomplished, nor are they working towards meaningful goals, measuring them, and then finding new paths. I think that most of the Chinese that make it in America did come from wealth, or what is worth even more, powerful connections. Power to the Chinese can get you any thing money at some point always runs out. This is why Harmony is always worth more to the Chinese than money. Harmoney can also be defined as losing control of ones self to serve another, in theory the Nazi’s did horrible things in Europe, but they did bring one thing, complete harmony and agreement among people that disagreed on everything

  25. All you people who think this is right say I . . . well i dnt think so its wrong to say this of people, the chinese are very hard working that’s why they are so smart, if most aussie were as hard working as they are we would be a smarter country for sure. . . so don’t critcise CHINA its an awsum country ! ! !

  26. That scenario that you saw doesn’t mean anything. The worker could have been given a rest period to have a nap after all the hard work. This is what some places usually do in China. For example when we went to a restaurant at the close time in the afternoon, most of them were sitting and resting their heads on the table. After about 2/3 hours, they start all over again to work the night shift.

  27. You assume because you saw a young guy sleeping on a wall he was lazy. Amazing.

    You have no idea what that young Chinese man’s life was like. He could have been up at three in the morning to arrive at the farmer’s market to buy better quality apples for a lower price. He may have sold some during the morning rush hour and then exhaused hauled his apples off the main street to rest. Then someone he knew came along and they talked.

    Did you hear what they said? Did you know what they said?

    During my trips to China, I’ve seen Chinese sitting around too. I’ve even run into Chinese beggars — usually little kids from a miniority area who came to one of the larger cities and found life was harder there than they had thought.

    Are there lazy Chinese? Sure. But do not judge that a man is lazy because he is taking a nap. He may have been working until midnight and only slept for a few hours before he was up to buy those apples and start selling them. And the best time to sell is when people are on the way to work, at lunch or one the way home.

  28. My recent experience:
    I am third generation American of European descent working for a Chinese company in the United States as a senior member of a product development team. Several other Senior Engineers are Chinese Americans. A group of Chinese engineers with Masters degrees and a couple years experience were brought over from China for several months to round out the team.

    The senior Chinese Americans are highly dedicated and put in 6 days a week; around 55-60 hours of efficient work. We are salaried. I put in 50-55 hours myself. I would gladly work with a Chinese American.

    Some of the younger Chinese seem to be amazed at our dedication. About half the young engineers from China share our dedication.

    The other half have trouble keeping focused on the task at hand and spend 30 to 50% of their time on the internet and messaging (not work related). I can give them a written out assignment checklist in the morning and check progress with them the next morning and get”Oh, I forgot.” Completely unacceptable! I have spoke with mid management and pretty much have to make do with a couple of part timers until they return to thier country.

    I visited the shop area recently to find three workers from China sleeping in the break room at 3:30 in the afternoon. Working hours here are 8:00AM-5:00PM.

    I am not sure I will ever understand the culture. All I can do is keep learning and try.

  29. […] when it comes to business and making money. Team this with their strong and somewhat controversial work ethic and an apparent willingness to work all hours of the day and you start to realise why the driver of […]

  30. You took a story from The Onion? Really? I hope you know that is a fake news website.

  31. Chinese are among the LEAST hard-working people in the world. Don’t believe me? Come and work and/or live here for a while. If I were an employer, the ONLY reason I would hire Chinese would be that I could get 5 for the price of 1, and hope that at least 2 of those 5 would do what they were paid to do.

  32. Stop the stereotype. Chinese work hard or slack for the same reasons Americans do. If there is any difference in the two, Chinese tend to have more pressure from the peers/relatives/families to ladder up, financially or in social status. Apart from that I can’t tell anything different and I’ve worked in both places.
    being a FOB Chinese immigrant aka skilled worker, I decide to stay here because:
    1. I went to grad school here and have many friends here.
    2. I like laid-back living style. America fits the bill.
    3. To shelter away from peer pressure.
    4. Competition here is not as fierce.
    5. Last but not least, my wife is American.
    I have worked both hard and slack off for the same reason you would have. My last boss was inexperienced and have politics with his boss. Lacking the know-how to handle pressure from above and being a jerk with no respect for people working for him, he exposed us under upper management microscope every time there was a problem. Requiring us to be on 24 hour alert for trading outage and taking phone calls at 4am but in return he doesn’t fight for your bonus and made stupid business decisions all over the place while I am the person to clean his a*s while he goes on trips in Israel. You wouldn’t work hard for him, so wouldn’t me. On the other hand, I have been working 65 hours a week on my new post when the effort and return/potential growth scales. There is really nothing specially about the Chinese working ethics, we all have the same needs in order to perform.

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