Versions of Truth

My friend Wayne (no, not that Wayne) is a great source of interesting conversation topics. The other day he and I were eating at a Turkish restaurant by Xiangyang Market with two friends. One friend was a Chinese girl, and the other was a Chinese American girl. Wayne suddenly asked us this question: “Have you ever noticed that the Chinese and Westerners seem to have different concepts of truth?

Of course we wanted to know what he meant by that. His reply: “OK, let’s do a test. Here we have two girls, one Chinese and one Western. I’ll prove my point with a question. Suppose John had two eggs for breakfast. I ask him what he had for breakfast, and he tells me three eggs. Did he lie?

The Chinese girl, after a few moments’ thought, replied “no.”

The American girl immediately answered, “of course.”

We were impressed. His question demonstrated his point beautifully. We concluded what Wayne probably already had: that the Western concept of a “lie” is based on a concept of objective truth independent of human intent, whereas the Chinese (and perhaps Asian in general) concept depends on a human intent to deceive.

To the American, saying I had three eggs when I actually had two is a lie simply because two does not equal three. My intent is irrelevant.

To the Chinese, it’s ridiculous to call this statement a lie because it wasn’t outright deception. I didn’t stand to benefit from the inaccuracy, and no one would be harmed by it either.

I don’t doubt that philosophers and anthropologists have already been all over this issue, but I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to that kind of thing. I think most attempts to reveal how fundamentally different two cultures are amount to mostly a load of bunk. I’m more of the school of thought that believes cultural differences are interesting, not dividing. I believe division comes mainly from ignorance and miscommunication between cultures.

But then something like this comes along, and it’s right in front of my eyes in black and white, and I’m left a little stunned. I wonder what subtle ripples of this “fundamental difference” have affected me. I probably haven’t even noticed.


John Pasden

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


  1. One of those truely great, eye opening posts 🙂
    personally, I didn’t think it was a lie because it was ‘close enough’, which probably puts me more in the ‘chinese’ mindset. Maybe it’s the same for S.Asians too then?
    Good stuff!

  2. i don’t understand why that chinese girl said it was not a lie, any good intention involved in johns reply?

    personally, i think chinese tend to observe the outside world with personal likings involved, like what we called – “selevtive reading”. but regarding the concept of truth, there are no differences between chinese and westerners, i think.

  3. That’s interesting! My father is a barrister, and at a dinner (with a couple of other barristers and judges) he talked about something similar. There is a shoplifting case: a man who bought a bottle of lotion, but he discovered that the “use by” date has already passed. He had lost his receipt, so he knew he couldn’t return it. He went back to the shop, placed the old lotion he bought on the shelf, took a new bottle, left, and was caught. The judge, who is a respected Chinese judge, acquitted him. When several other judges were asked about this case, all the western ones said the man is guilty, while all the Chinese ones said he is not. Again, the Chinese judges mostly say the man did not intend to shoplift/lie/cheat, so he was not guilty.

    I am Chinese, but brought up on an American/Western education, so I am conflicted on these issues…haha!

  4. That was a very thought-provoking entry.

    With all respect, “bunk” and the like is sometimes an expression for something you don’t understand. Sometimes people who are very interested in applied linguistics/linguistics have come to the conclusion that the softer social sciences are too, well, soft. But look at how the emphasis on linguistic competence in the sixties and seventies relegated to “mere” performance the whole sphere of real-life human action, thereby trivializing significant linkages between linguistics and art, linguistics and philosophy, linguistics and politics and so on. Performance is actually the profound process of enacting the human world. And there are some social scientists/anthropologists out there who have talked about interaction/truth/performance whose rigor and intellectual capacity makes me cringe. One of my personal favs was Erving Goffman.

    Ah, but as I don’t have anything useful to contribute to the discussion, I’ll get off my soap box now. I would just end by saying, the devil is in the details. Ah, how the devil is in the details!

  5. I think your definiton of lie as “a concept of objective truth independent of human intent” is completely off base. The definition of lie is:

    1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.
    2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.

    In other words, it’s all about an intent to deceive; a lie cannot exist without it. In Wayne’s hypo, it’s not clear what ‘John’s’ intent was.

    Your definition of lie reads more like the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’.

  6. Roy,

    That wasn’t my definition of lie. Key words: “based on.” There can be no lies without truth, and I was talking about truth.

    Man, you really sound like a lawyer. 😛

  7. Laska,

    I see your point. I think I became a bit jaded with anthropology during my studies as a Japanese major. Let me tell you, the Western “experts” write some absolutely ridiculous stuff about Japanese culture.

  8. this essay of Mr. Lin Siyun at might help to elaborate my point of view : 2000/05/28 ººÓïµÄ¾«ËèÊÇ°ý±áÔÞÂ¡ªÓ뫵ÑÏÈÉúÉÌȶ£¨Èý£©. enjoy.

  9. John–I’m sure you’re right about the Japan “experts” you are referring to.

    I think I sounded pretty arrogant doing my college professor impersonation, don’t you? Except I didn’t proofread for grammar. 🙂 B-

  10. Bingfeng, that looks like a very compelling essay and a very interesting point you are making. It’s too bad that it will take me a whole day to read it… 🙁 but it looks worth it 🙂

  11. so you sem to be implying that anything that is not true is a ‘lie’:

    “saying I had three eggs when I actually had two is a lie simply because two does not equal three”

    but that is not necessarily a lie. It is only a lie if there was an intent to deceive about the number of eggs ‘John’ ate.

    I bet if you rephrased the hypo:

    John, knowing he had only two eggs, deliberately told me he ate three

    and asked your Chinese friends did John lie, they would say he did, because he intentionally misrepresented as true what he knew to be false.

  12. Roy,

    But what if intent is unclear? What if everything’s nice and vague and fuzzy, including any and all implications I made? What would you do then?

  13. the Western “experts” write some absolutely ridiculous stuff about Japanese culture.

    Same stuff would be said about Chinese culture, or about Western cultures by Asian “experts”… but did the experts lie, or did they say it incorrectly? Or, did we read beyond the statements and thus inferred (recognized?) the ridiculousness?

    What about exaggeration? “Oh, boy, I had a hundred eggs this morning and I can still use some more.” Would anyone pick that out as a lie? If not, then what’s wrong with accepting John’s three eggs atatement (knowing the truth) as not a lie but a harmless just-saying-it?

  14. then I would probably not call that a lie; there cannot be a lie without the intent to deceive. Without such intent, the statement is merely either ‘true’ or ‘false’. I could might accuse you of being a damn lie, though!

  15. Roy,

    But maybe it is there, but you can’t tell if it is or not. Or maybe it’s kinda there, like I sorta intended to deceive, but not really, or something. You know?

  16. I don’t think the question illustrates a difference in the meaning of “truth.” It demonstrates a subtle difference in the meaning of lie. Your friend didn’t ask, “Which is true: did John eat two eggs or three eggs?” He asked, “Did John lie?” These are completely different questions. Whether or not John lied has little to do with what is true. When I read the story and the question, my first thought was, “Well, was John intentionally being deceptive when he said he ate three eggs? Or did he forget or was simply mistaken?” I might have arrived at the same answer as your Chinese friend with some additional information (and I’m Westerner). If the question had been, “What is true?” I would have said two eggs and so would your Chinese friend. Hmmm. This discussion makes me hungry for eggs.

  17. I agree with Roy to some extent. There is a difference between “true” and “correct,” just as there is a difference between a “lie” and “false.” However, those are philosophical/semantic distinctions that most people don’t actually use in everyday life.

    In a common-sense fashion, I would say that if you say something that you know to be untrue or incorrect, then you are lying. If John knew (he didn’t forget and wasn’t mistaken) that he ate 2 eggs, and said he ate 3, then he is lying. Whether or not that is a “western” viewpoint, I really don’t know.

    About the bunk, I used to think all of this culture gap stuff was mostly bunk. And I still think most differences are merely personal, not cultural. However, I’ve learned that you can’t underestimate cultural differences, either. But it is always hard to find the precise fault lines of the cultural gap; separating out what is due to personality, language issues, etc., and what is due to “culture” is very difficult.

  18. Very interesting discussion. Also, this is a great blog, John. I’ve been lurking for about 2 months or so and have enjoyed reading the posts and accompanying comments each time I can make it here.

    Anyway, getting back to the discussion at hand, I have to agree with Prince Roy, that knowing “John’s” intent is vital to answering the question. Without that knowledge and presented as Wayne did, my answer, after some thought, would be “I don’t know.”

    However, in the same situation, I probably would have answered as the Westerner had – that “John” had lied. I find this very interesting. In the spur of the moment, why would I (and why did the Westerner) not see the importance of intent? I acknowledge that it is difficult to pin down cultural characteristics, but I wonder if Westerners’ tendency to exalt truth has caused us to see falsehood or mistakes as deception. Or at least to assume deception first, and other reasons later.

    Anyone have thoughts on this?

  19. This is my first time that I have ever made a comment.

    As a student of syntax and semantics, I think it’s fairly ridiculous to conclude that Chinese people have a different verison of intrepreting truth. To say that Chinese people have a different way of intrepreting truth, would imply that Chinese people are clearly illogical and the idea of a “Chinese scientist” would be clearly an oxymoron.

    Let me ask other Western cultured people here a question… If I was casually speaking with a friend, and I was to ask him, “hey, what did you do over the weekend?” and he replies, “oh.. nothing..” Is that a lie?

    Then we have the example of Bill Clinton. Did he tell a lie? Or did he fib? Was it a white lie? These examples seem to say to me that Westerns ALSO give a clear distinction between an outright lie, and fib/white lie.

    Now as I understand it, in the English language, there’s general prototype of what a lie in general terms should consist of. Therefore, in western cultures, fib and white lie, would be placed under a general term lie (hypernym). Because there’s a hypernym lie, we can switch out the term fib/white lie, with simply the word lie. Just like in English, we would say to our friends, “My neighbor’s dog was barking up a storm last night.” We did NOT say, “My neighbor’s cockerspaniel was barking up a storm last night.” If we did say something like that, our friends would be thinking.. okay.. why did he/she just say “cockerspaniel.” In Chinese, it might be different. There might be a fib, and there might be a lie, and they aren’t placed under the same overall hypernym, lie.

    Next time, why don’t you ask the Chinese lady if she has another word for fib/white lie. Check to see if the word is being used as a compound word, or is a totally different word with a different morphology.

    Moreover, since I don’t know the whole situation, how good is the Chinese lady’s English, or if you asked the question in Chinese, how good is your Chinese? By this, I mean, it could be that you/she were taught the wrong word, to mean the same thing in another language, when it’s not the exact equivalent. For example, eine Tasse in German does not directly translate into a cup in English, but that’s how people are taught. Therefore, the word lie in English, could have been taught to the Chinese lady in a manner that would sound harsher in meaning than egg situation that you described.

  20. Love the conversation.

    It is my experience that, in general, the Chinese language divides the world from a subjective perspective: the relationship of phenomena to humanity. English, on the other hand, attempts, for the most part, to classify phenomena from an objective perspective based on their innate characteristics.

    My favorite example is Drugs. In English drugs are things that have an effect on human physiology and include both medicinal and recreational use of these substances. In Chinese, to refer to the same phenomena, there are two highly subjective terms: medicine and poison (although I suspect a Chinese term has been created to correspond to the English word drug).

    Both of these perspectives are valuable and it is highly beneficial to a person to see things from both perspectives.

    Chinese, in response to the introduction of a scientific perspective, has undergone a major revision which has enabled it to communicate with “Sai Xian Sheng” (Mr. Science).

    It is of interest that the Chinese word for logic is luo ji which is a transliteration. However, I am not so lacking in ¡°you mo¡± (which appears to be a transliteration of humor) that I would suggest that the Chinese are illogical.


  21. In my experience, Chinese culture (and most non-Western cultures) are more relationship-oriented. This means that lies are Ok if they preserve the relationship, save face or generally aren’t a big deal. Western cultures are more confrontational, and have no problem with labelling something as a lie even if it offends, or telling the truth even if it hurts someone’s feelings. Some people say that this is because modern Western culture has been influenced by Christianity and therefore is more truthful. Even if that were true I think its a stupid comment, because Christianity is supposed to be a balance of truth and love… if we focus too much on truth without love it’s harsh and legalistic. So I think we have a lot to learn from the Chinese even about ourselves!

    In saying that, I still get really offended when my Chinese friends lie to me, and sometimes they have got themselves into big trouble in New Zealand. Same with marking plagiarism. All six cases of serious plagiarism I had this year (eg downloading whole essays off the internet), the students were Chinese. They did not seem to comprehend that they had done anything wrong. One student even went back to China for his holidays and paid another student $200 to sit a summer school paper for him! Is this kind of right/wrong just cultural, and I am stuck in my own culture???

  22. There is a philosophical side to this, which the philosophers probably have argued over hundreds of years. There is clearly also a legal side, where I find Joyce’s illustration above fascinating in that the verdict depends on the court and even the ethnicity of the court.

    If we separate out those two aspects, we are left with the language aspect, the meaning and usage of words. The only conclusion I draw from this discussion has been that we must be careful about the choice of words in both languages and in translation. English: misstatement, false statement, lie, or deceit. Chinese: ¿ÚÎó (kou wu), ºú˵ (hu shuo), »ÑÑÔ (huang yan), or Æ­ÈË (pian ren). The former four cannot be translated directly into the latter four in that order without a critical, contextual or even exocontextual analysis.

    Having said that, I too still have difficulty coming up with the Chinese girl’s logic behind “No, John did not lie” if she is taking “lie” to mean ºú»Ñ (shuo huang), and I am Chinese. I can only, maybe, understand her “no” if she, however, was thinking of Æ­ÈË (pian ren), but that’s a bit stronger than “lie”— more like “lie deceptively.”

  23. Kaili,

    Your comment is interesting to me because I discussed this “cheating” phenomenon on my blog a while back. I think it is partly cultural — some things that people in the West define as cheating, many Chinese do not. Or else they know it is technically cheating, but they think it is no big deal because “everyone does it.” I know some Chinese that have gotten into trouble in American universities because they seem to have a different definition of cheating or seem to think that a “litte cheating” is acceptable or commonplace. American universites (esp. graduate schools) take even a hint of cheating very seriously — you’ll probably be expelled — since everything in the academic world is based on reputation.

  24. Plagiarism takes place among whites (students and professors) in academia too. You even hear the “theory” that it’s not plagiarism till you are caught. The Chinese do it more blatantly (perhaps due to their view of “everyone does it” as pointed out by ÍеÄ) and therefore got caught.

    In history, the Chinese invented merit examinations for selecting civil servants (and education). Then they ruined that system by plaguing it with blatant deception and corruption. After miserable attempts to purify it, e.g., with total regidity in format, that system and to be abolished and by then China had fellen behind the West in the quality of appointed officials. Pity.

  25. Everyone is missing the point – John is a big boy yet he only ate 2 eggs. Are you on a diet mate or worried about scary egg cholesterol?

    Besides all that, isn’t your anecdotal sample space a little small?

  26. Ben~ haha! Good stuff. Perhaps he’s on the Atkin’s diet…

    This is an intriquing conversation. I guess I’m “Western” in that I see things kind of objectively. I wonder if we westerners look for objectivity in some “universal” standard. i.e. “2 does not equal 3.” When something/someone deviates from that, we perceive it as the antithesis of the standard. Hence, John lied.

    But, in this story, isn’t it more of a moral standard that we are dealing with? (Instead of simply a mathematical objective standard.) One culture views the statement subjectively, the other objectively. That, I believe, has huge implications on moral codes (i.e. the story above about the judge).

    Yet, I’m sure both a Chinese person and a Western person would both agree that killing someone with concious malace against that person is flat out wrong. Murder. So, is “3 eggs” a benign/moot point??

    It’s intriguing to hunt out where the “difference” (as you say, John) is located…

  27. Da Xiangchang Says: November 19, 2004 at 8:34 am

    All of you guys are extrapolating earthshaking philosophical differences from one little incident. Why doesn’t someone do this experiment: find 25 Westerners and 25 Chinese, and ask them the same question. I’ll bet you it’ll even out the larger the sample size. Your experiment is tantamount to flipping a coin ONCE and it landing on tails and concluding that coins flipped will ALWAYS land on tails. Armchair philosophizing really doesn’t work–just look at Marx! Trust me, while there are cultural differences between Chinese and Westerners (duh!), they DON’T have “different concepts of truth”!

  28. Da Xiangchang,

    I agree that the “experiment” was far from scientific, but your analogy is way off. The results are not at all random. The whole point is: how can two people possibly answer such a simple question in opposite fashions?

  29. How do we know that one or both of the girls didn’t lie?

  30. I think Da Xiangchang is accurate in his observation. The universe is the same in all cultures, the cultural difference is how we interact with that universe and how we describe it. As an example, PETA, so I heard on TV, just announced that they have scientific research that shows fish have “feelings” and we should no more eat a fish than we eat a dog or cat. Living here in China, I am trying to figure out what their point is. Which brings up another similiar anecdote. While working in Vietnam, I went to the housing complex office for some business. Entering the office I saw a foreign couple, European or Australian I believe, with a pet dog. A Vietnamese office worker was petting the dog. I said to her in Vietnamese, “pet today, eat tomorrow”. She looked at me and said, “not so loud, foreigners are very sensitive about eating dog.” I was surprised that I was not included in the foreigner group.

  31. I think John is lying that he has any friends at all, let alone a girl friend, let alone a Chinese one. I don’t think he’s ever even eaten an egg.

  32. Adam F: Surely it is a subjective statement to claim that you look at it objectively? 🙂

  33. Kikko Man,

    I respect your suspicions, but I don’t respect your use of two “let alone’s” in one sentence. 😛

  34. to lie or not to lie, this is a big question 🙂

  35. Well, I take it back. After debating this with my gf (who is Chinese), maybe Chinese do have a different conception of truth. Her argument went like this:
    – a “lie” is a socially constructed concept (just as language itself is)
    – Chinese would tend to include the social consequences of a statement in the criteria for a “lie”.
    – if a statement is false but harmless or if the speaker has a good intent (saving face, social harmony, etc.), Chinese are probably less inclined to classify it as a lie.

    In (my) Western eyes, this is irrelevant. If you know something is false and say it as if it were true, then it is a lie. Period.

    I attempted to point out that the consequences of something are separate from the thing itself. She countered: the Chinese criteria of what constitutes a lie include the social consequences of the statement. So the criteria for a definition of a “lie” are different.

    I’m still digesting all of this.

  36. 🙂 dogs… I absolutely love dogs as pets, but despite this fact (or because of it) I find cooked dog humor very funny. Last night one of my Chinese students (an elegant, slight and fine-featured young lady) threatened to cook another student’s pet dog if it wouldn’t behave. The threat doesn’t seem so empty here. 🙂

    Coming back to the universe: The universe includes everything, right? And everything includes cultural differences. That is, I may see the world one way and you may see the world another way, either because of cultural or because of individual differences. But the whole universe comprises our two ways of seeing things, even though I may be unable to completely grasp or share your perspective. And this holds true even if our perspectives have little to do with objective truth. Falsehood is part of the universe too, right? In other words, the universe, which is the same in all cultures, also includes all cultures and perspectives because it is univesal: The universe is self-referential.

    (Or is the universe just objective phenomena, whatever that is? In that case does anyone really have access to it? After all, all we have to explore the universe with is our five senses, our religions, our scientific methods–we don’t have anything else: We can’t imagine what we can’t imagine. Or are we so bold as to assume that the human capacity for knowledge really is so universal as to be able to grasp objective truth. I believe that truth is God’s department, but that is a discussion for another day… 🙂

    Now, let’s say in my native language we have two forms of second-person address (“polite” ‘you’ and “normal” ‘you’). In your native language, let’s say you have five forms of address, or only one. Are our universes really the same? After all, our experiences of social relationships can be translated, explained etc., but they will never be shared in their nuances until we have both learned each other’s languages and we have acquired shared experiences with similar forms of social relationships.

    Coming back to the discussion of “lie,” the post by the semanticist was so interesting because it underscores the lack of a one-to-one correspondence between languages semantically. Gin, are things so cut and dried? For example, you said pianren doesn’t really translate as “lie,” it’s actually a little stronger, like “lie deceptively.” Maybe “cheat”? But will we really use “cheat” in the same places Chinese people use pianren in? In my experience in China, people can casually use “pian” or “pianren” in a teasing way with a friend who is making stuff up for fun. In American English, we would be more likely to say, “No way, you’re lying!” than we would be to say “No way, you’re cheating/lying deceptively!”

    And back to the discussion of cultural difference, there are, I suspect, really fundamental differences from “Chinese culture” to, say, “American culture” in the politics of personal identity maintenance which govern the use of such terms as “lie.” Yes, both cultures may accept white lies, but are they used the same way in the mechanics of maintaining face? And if they aren’t used in the same way, how much do we really understand by translating from Chinese to English? Direct translation of single words is like using a scoop to pick up a grain of rice.

    And what about chengyu ³ÉÓï? Very rich in context, very difficult to translate some of them. I would imagine that they are a simultaneous interpreter’s nightmare.

    Notice, however, that with my view of culture, I am not subscribing to extreme cultural relativism. In my view, there still must exist absolute moral rights and wrongs. But it becomes difficult to draw the lines. The question of intent as raised by Joyce and others is really fascinating.

  37. ÍеÄ,

    Thanks for bringing that up. I think I originally intended to say something to that effect, but it didn’t come out quite that way. I tend to just kind of spontaneously write up the things I’ve been thinking about, and as a result, I leave out key points all the time.

  38. ÍеĖYour post came in while I was writing mine. Very interesting.

  39. Kaili (at 11:22 AM) is right!

    What is truth, is a question of philosophy.

    What is a lie, is a legal question.

    With regard of this particular experiment, the truth is fixed—Wayne supposed as truth that John ate two eggs. The questions left: who said what and meant what and why, would be more fruitful to discuss whithin the boundary of language and culture, but I even think the gravity of cultural difference is overblown in the minds of some.

  40. I like to repeat Leska’s statement at 12:18 PM as mine.

  41. Who cares what a lie is in a legal sense? Lies are an integral part of society, and how we view them and even how we use the word “lie” frequently doesn’t conform to some legal definition or even Prince Roy’s dictionary definition.

  42. Ah, but if you are interested in number theory, you will be likely to see Davenport-Schinzel Sequences everywhere! 🙂

  43. I’ve seen somewhere a ‘spectrum’ of cultures with regards to ‘context specificity’. (I bring this up because for high context-specific cultures, lies are judged by their context — social consequences as ÍÐµÄ notes). Japanese culture was at one end, where context is everything. American culture was at the other. German culture was close to American, and Chinese close to Japanese. What fascinated me was that I often get offended by my American friends and acquaintances by how straight up they are about everything, even if it hurts people’s feelings. So to find that Kiwi culture, like British culture, was more in the centre of the spectrum made me realise it wasn’t just me being over-sensitive — it was my whole culture!!

    (note this does not say that Japanese and Chinese cultures are the same, it just says that they are close in terms of ‘context specificity’) (can anyone think of a simpler word for that?)

  44. Da Xiangchang Says: November 19, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    I’m with Aristotle:

    A is A

    If you say A isn’t A, then you’re a [goshdarned] liar!

  45. I don’t know how many people only view comments by the popup window, but the Google ads generated for this individual entry (click on the entry link) are interesting in themselves.

  46. an old remark i made that is relevant to this topic:






    well, a question to westerners here – suppose a “lie” will do no harm to your friend, and telling the fact will harm your friend(both in short-term and in long-term), what would you do?

  47. bingfeng,

    It is interesting how you framed your question. Most Westerners would say that whatever the consequences may be (positive or negative) has absolutely no bearing on whether or not something is a lie. If it is a lie, it is a lie, regardless of the consequences. It is a separate issue. People always tell “white lies” to protect other people’s feelings, but if you want my honest opinion, honesty is almost always the best policy. Lies simply lead to other lies, usually because you have to lie to support or cover your first lie.

    Anyway, to answer your question, I would tell my friend the truth even if it would hurt him — and I would expect the same from him. To me, lying to someone is a sign of disrespect in a if they need to be sheltered or protected from reality.

    I would choose truth over social harmony every time. To be honest, I don’t really care about social harmony. You know the old line about social harmony: Switzerland had 1,000 years of peace and harmony and produced nothing but the cuckoo clock. Italy had 1,000 years of war and social strife and produced the Renaissance, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, etc.

    Cultural difference? I think it is a big one…

  48. In my experience of China, telling untruths is not bad, but being “insincere” is.

  49. So in light of what ÍÐµÄ has shared, the situation becomes something like this:

    Q: Did John tell the truth?

    Chinese A: No.
    Western A: No.

    Q: Did John lie?

    Chinese A: No.
    Western A: Yes.

  50. Íеģ¬i don’t think they are separate issues, however, who can ensure that what you do will lead to what you expect, who knows, so, in my view, it is both OK to tell a lie or truth in case you have a good intention.

    in my culture, social harmony is more important than anything else, this value justifies the act of telling a lie with good intention.

    in western cultures, seeking truth is in most cases the ultimate goal of life (am i wrong?), so it is unforgivable to tell a lie.

    but which value is superior (i find no word to replace “superior”)? i don’t know, here is an interesting story on “the value system”:

    after WWII, an american soilder walked around in an italian city, found an italian man sleeping by the street, it was a sunny afternoon, the american got anger and kicked the italian:

    “get up and work”

    italian asked:”why?”

    “because u must make money”


    “making money enable you to be independent”

    “what’s good of independence?”

    “independence makes you free”

    “why you what to be free?”

    “freedom allows you to enjoy life”

    “now i am enjoying life”, the italian man smiled.

    different values help us see the world in different perspectives, and what we see are only part of it. so is telling a lie good or evil? i don’t know, it depends, depends on what in what culture you live and under what values you are guided.

  51. A close (Chinese) friend of mine didn’t tell his mother she had a terminal illness.

  52. I would tell my friend the truth even if it would hurt him — and I would expect the same from him.

    Very good. Most of the time I practice it your way, telling the truth as option #1, even back in China. However, what if, in the words of Jack Nicholeson, “you can’t handle the truth”? What if the truth kills the listener of a heart attack or suicide? In this case there is also an option #3, silence, that is, telling neither truth or lie. I sometimes practice it this way, too, even in less extreme circumstances, although technically that is an act of lying but cannot be caught. I do lie, too, option #2.

    To take this one wild step further. OK, you may chose to refuse to lie even if the “truth” kills. You do this because even though telling the truth hurts you satisfy the conscience in you that strives for THE truth. Now what if, having killed the guy, your truth was later overturned—it wasn’t THE truth after all but a temporary misunderstanding. Then would your conscience suffer? Telling a lie or keeping my mouth shut may have avoided such a complication. Would an American still refuse to be influenced by social consequences?

    I beg your forgiveness as I know I’ve gone off from the what’s a lie question (by Da Xiangchang’s comment) but instead have started dealing with the act of telling a lie.

  53. In the medical field, Chinese do not tend to tell a loved one about terminal illness such as cancer but Americans do. When I asked around why, I was told “oh, we used to keep that from the patient in the fifties but we’ve stopped that practice.” That gave me an impression that it was an advancement in the sociology of medical treatment or something, and that the same advancement will be coming to China. Now I’m not so sure.

    This posting is terrible, it got me into all these conspiracy moods. BTW, ÍеĒs gf’s theory got me to understand better Joyce’s courthouse split of opinions.

  54. Gin,

    You can always construct execptions. What if someone held a gun to your head and said, “What do you think of my shirt?” Would you tell him the truth about his ugly shirt or would you tell him it is the greatest shirt in the world? Or what if by lying you could save the lives of 100 people? etc. etc. Let’s just leave those as execptions — those are complicated moral questions.

    The bottom line: it isn’t that Americans don’t take the consequences of telling the truth into account at all, just that they probably emphasize it less or in a different way than Chinese. (well, maybe).

    A common ‘western’ sentiment: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” In other words, I don’t care what your intention is, just do the right thing. That is all that matters. Is that un-Chinese? I don’t know.

  55. Agreed. And no, that’s not un-Chinese. The Chinese version would be I don’t care what consequences, just do the right thing. That we do, or I do.

  56. I think we’re more likely to find concrete examples of actual cultural difference in observed behavior than in sentiments. When someone says protecting and respecting our loved ones is really important, then of course we all agree. And lies are bad. And it is better to do the right thing than the easy thing, etc. But the behavioral consequences, right down to the minutae of how certain situations are handled, will be different from culture to culture.

  57. I think language naturally works to obscure differences rather than to reveal them. With its blunt concepts, it is a great pulverizing force. This might be one of its evolutionary goals…to produce the illusion of understanding and belonging, thus reinforcing social cohesion.

  58. John:

    I think that the Chinese people would also say that John is “lying” if given the definition that Western people are using. What I think is that Chinese people when learning English aren’t told the exact equivalency (if there is one.)

    When you pose the question, “Did he lie?” I suspect in the heads of Chinese people, that it’s being translated into “Did he decieve anyone?” This is probably because of Chinese-English dictionaries, not because Chinese people don’t have the equivalent word for objectively telling the truth.

    Tell the story of the eggs to other Chinese friends, and ask them.. What did John do, attempting to not say the word truth or lie, or anything that may lead someone to influence their anwser. The words they use to describe the situation might perhaps more accurately describe the Western sense of a lie.

    Although, interesting enough, if you were to look up the definition of lie in the Mr. Webster’s dictionary, they will give the following as a definition for a lie:

    1 : to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive
    2 : to create a false or misleading impression

    I once had a guest lecturer of Old English talk to the class about her current research. Her current research interesting enough was about the “art of lying”. Therefore she cited a story about a Quaker that took place in the 19th century around the time of US civil war. As we all know Quakers can’t tell a lie (in the sense that they can’t say anything false). Therefore, one day slavers were trying to capture their run away slave, and happen to stop by the gate of the Quaker. They ask the Quaker, “Did you see a slave around here?” The Quaker states, “Yes, I did.” He further states, “There’s a train station here nearby, within the time that I last saw him pass here, he could of made it to the train station.” The slavers then ask, “Where’s the train station?” “Due east.” So the slavers quickly run eastward towards the the train station. Later afterwards the Quaker’s wife was talking to her husband, and asks how did he get them to leave and did he lie? The Quaker states, “I did not lie, I merely did not state whether or not the slave passed through or by our gate.”

    The question is, did the Quaker lie? Webster says he did. However, we would be more inclined to say he decieved the slavers. What exact word would Chinese people say, without hesitation?

  59. Western concept of lie is based on objective truth while Chinese concept of lie is based on the intent to deceive??! Wow, slow down there chief.

    First of all, it is very possible that the Chinese girl indeed perceived John¡¯s statement as a lie; but for whatever reason, most likely respect for the new foreign friend she just met or out of timidness, she didn¡¯t want to accuse John as liar. Note that the Chinese girl only answered the question ¡°after a few moments¡¯ thought¡±. I doubt if she was using that time trying to figure out whether ¡°two eggs¡± equaled ¡°three eggs¡±.

    Now even if the Chinese girl truly failed to conceptualize John¡¯s statement as a lie, consider the following two hypos: Suppose John¡¯s girlfriend asked what time he got in to work this morning. John told her it was 8:30 when in fact he didn¡¯t arrive till 8:32. Now suppose Michael Phelps told a reporter that his record time in 100M Butterfly was 39 seconds instead of 51 seconds. Most Americans, and Chinese, would excuse John¡¯s action while pin down Michael Phelps; even though John ¡°lied¡± about two whole minutes in time difference while poor Michael only shaved merely 12 seconds off his record. Why such disparity? Because circumstances matter! If one wants to get technical about it, obviously both of them lied. But we let John slide because, well, it was no big deal. And that¡¯s exactly what the Chinese girl did. So if there is any thing different between the Western culture and the Chinese culture (I hate generalizations) as to explain the two girls¡¯ responses, it¡¯s the fact that they had different comfort level of vocally designate a lie, not that they had different understanding of a lie.

    On a more abstract note, my definition of a lie is an expressed or implied statement (doesn¡¯t have to be words) with
    1. intent to deceive the audience;
    2. the totality of the circumstances would induce a reasonable person to falsely interpret the ¡°true¡± statements.
    Obviously this is not the Black¡¯s definition of a lie, don¡¯t hold me hostage for it.

    Damn, just wasted 15 minutes, back to work. Tootles.

  60. I don’t get John’s story about the Chinese version of truth. I am a typical Chinese. For me and most Chinese people I know, to lie is to deliberately deceive people, that includes people who like to exaggerate things.

  61. Oy Vey, I really hate these kinds of debates. Not because they are boring but rather because they tend to go in circles and veer too far into metaphysics. I expect sooner or later, someone will bring up green apples and chairs. ^_^

  62. green apples and chairs

    soon enough for you? 😉

  63. There is a lot of philosophy and semantics here, and quite a lot of good knowledgeable individuals. I am impressed. But I would like to respond to Laska. You do have some good comments. But concerning the universe, I think we should start out simple, let us just think of the universe as the three dimensional physical universe with the time dimension as the fourth referrant dimension. We as human beings interact within that universe, and that becomes a major component of our culture. We use language to describe that universe and our interaction within that universe, that becomes the other major component of culture. From that we can make our model as complex or as simple as we wish.

    We all know that there is no one-to-one mapping or correspondence from one language to another, or in general there is not. But there is equivalence in general from one language to another. Chinese may have gege and didi and English only brother, but in English we can append older or younger to give an equivalent of the Chinese. I do not believe there is any significant metaphysical difference between Chinese speakers and English speakers because of this difference. Each language group will evolve words that are useful in how that language group organizes itself and interacts with its environment. So Chinese speakers found it useful to have the word ±í¸è. English speakers did not find it useful for an equivalent word, but if that information is needed, an equivalent can be constructed, usually in the particular for English; whereas Chinese speakers found it more useful to have the particular rather than the generic. So if we were translating from Chinese to English and came across this term, we would normally just use the word cousin, but if more information was required by the context than the English would suggest, then we could amend it with perhaps paternal coursin. And if we needed to make it equivalent to the Chinese, we could say something like “father’s sister Agatha’s son Arnold, who is older than I am”. But I do not find any significant metaphysical difference in the two peoples because of the way the language is constructed.

    I had read a book by a Japanese linquist, I apologize, I forget his name and do not have his book handy to refer back to here in China. He was describing the words “tabemasu”, “nomimasu”, “eat”, and “drink”. These words reflect an act that is common to all and one would think there would be a one-to-one correspondence between “eat” and “tabemase”, etc. But there is not, although they agree on most occasions, there are exceptions. He analyzed the Japanese and concluded that “tabemasu” implied the grinding of food by the molars, and if that was not the case, then one would use “nomimasu”. English did not use this assumption, although he did not identify what assumption English speakers used for “eat”. There are other terms that can be used, but we are just limiting our discussion to these two terms, “eat” and “drink”. Thinking on this, I concluded that in English we use “eat” or “drink” by what utensils we employ. Let me use a hypothetical to demonstrate my thoughts. We have a young child sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of soup in front of him (there is a spoon in the bowl). His mother looks at him and says “after you eat your soup, you may go out to play”. If we change the bowl of soup to a mug of soup, then the mother would say “after you drink your soup, you may go out and play”. If we are accurate in our description, then a better semantic translation of “tabemasu” would be “chew”, but that would not be a more accurate social-linguistic equivalent. In most circumstances, English speakers will use “eat” in the same context that Japanese would use “tabemasu”, not “chew”. But none of this posits significant philosophical or metaphysical differences between Japanese and Americans. Americans may eat foods that normally are not eaten by many Japanese and vice versa, but that is just the specifics related to their environment and nothing more.

    That now brings me to some comments that ÍÐµÄ made. When he talks about speaking truefully or honestly, I think I understand what he is saying, but I would identify it differently. I would say he is speaking directly or bluntly and just calling it honestly or truthfully. Let me give a anecdote to illustrate my thinking here. Many years ago I went to Japan with my boss. He was a larg man, German ancestry from Wyoming. He had a degree in chemical engineering. He was a very blunt man, blunt to the point of being rude. He was being forthright and to the point. We were in Japan to set up a demonstration experiment with our Japanese colleagues, part of a consortium looking to acquire this technology of ours. We were in a meeting with a Japanese man, English was used. The Japanese was a scientist, his degree I forget what it was in. He had studied and worked in the United States and was familiar with my boss. My boss immediately and very bluntly made certain demands. The Japanese responded in a manner that we would think as being very Asian. He began not directly referring to the issue at all, but layer by layer it became apparent why it would not be very usefull to comply with the demand. It took the wind out of my boss, and he responded with rational attempts to resolve the issue. As a matter of course, we came to a very reasonable resolution of the problem. But I thought that if that other individual had been an American with as strong of a personality as my boss, he could have responded with a blunt and honest answer and a clash of personalities would be the result rather than a resolution of the problem. There are occasions when being blunt and direct is more efficient at obtaining our goals than not being blunt, but I believe we over use it in America. That is why we have books such “The Art of Negotiation” or “The Art of the Deal” and all sort of win-win books.

    I know I have been too windy here, but let me end with my thoughts on the experiment with the Lie and the eggs. Again, I think Da Xiangchang has a significant point. Let us take the experiement and just modify it slightly. What if we had two groups of Chinese, one who acquired their mastery of English in America and the other who acquired their mastery of English in China. What if they responded differently, just as differently as the American and the Chinese. We then have a different result. Instead of finding a fundamental difference in philosophy between Chinese and Americans, we have a difference of language usage between those who learn the language in its cultural context, American and those who learn the language in a different cultural context, China. We have the results from one test, it is difficult to know what information it is giving us, there just is not enough data.

  64. All really good points, and interesting comments to read. I’d have to say that I agree with JFS and elfuzz (and others); there is simply not enough evidence to make such a general statement such as “Chinese and Americans have different versions of the truth.” It’s certainly an eye-opening experiment, but your sample size is too limited.

    I’ll venture to say that experiments such as these might be one of the main catalysts for maintaining and/or actively causing culture differences. It’s somewhat equivalent to a Chinese person staying in a particularly dangerous neighboorhood in LA, hearing gunshots all the time and assuming that the entire US is ridden with crime. This doesn’t seem the same at all because we’re not dealing with fundamental issues such as the perception of truth, but the Chinese person basing their idea of the whole of the US based on one experience in LA is somewhat akin to assuming there are fundamental differences in Chinese and American perception of the truth based on that one experiment involving two people each from China and America.

    It’s certainly interesting that they would split on a fundamental issue, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable generalizing it past those two people.

  65. oops, that last one was me..

  66. agree with eht last note made by Wulong

  67. JFS, Wulong, Bingfeng and others–With regard to the universe, rational people can disagree 🙂 In a rather blundering and long-winded way, I just meant to say that there may not be such a clean-cut dichotomy between the observer and the observed when we are using language to describe the universe.

    It’s true that the universe is full of three-dimensional objects. But, at least the way I’m using the word, it’s also true the universe is full of a lot of other things, such as feeling tired before my first cup of coffee, my love for my parents, my relationships, the feeling I get when I’m scared and so on. Notice how many things we do with language. We describe our experiences, talk to ourselves, write poems, conduct political campaigns etc.

    Of course, I’m very interested in sociobiology and what genetics and neurobiology have to say about our experience of the world. Much behavior, however, is learned. Biology has culture (and language) on a leash.

    So back to the universe: When I am saying I love my wife, I am describing (ahem) a three-dimensional object, yes it’s true. To a certain extent. But am I also, er, enacting our love, whatever that is. My point is, to an outsider, my “observation” may actually say more about human beings than it does about me and my wife. If the measurement tool is the concept “love,” it is a blunt tool–maybe I’d better write a poem or a song to let her know exactly how I feel. Should I call her “sweetie-pie” or “little heart-liver”? 🙂 Again, is there really such a strong division between us and our world?

    Another way of looking at this is that positing a strong dichotomy between us and the universe (i.e. there are things out there and we observe them) strikes me as human-centered. What other ways of looking at the universe are there?

    Now, with respect to culture, if I say didi and you say little brother, I agree, the one will substitute for the other. If I need a concept, I can create it. No strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here. I’m just saying that as we perform/live out/enact our lives, of course there are differences in the behavior of Chinese families and American families with respect to social relationships. For example, in China I go to my in-laws house bearing gifts for National Day and Spring Festival. I call my wife’s aunt “Auntie,” her little borther “Didi” and so on. I have a little brother and let me tell you, despite all the similarities, it’s just not quite the same having a little brother in China as it is having one in the States. So I expect we actually agree. You will find differences from the U.S. to China (and other places) in the mechanics of how people manage their relationships. In China, you will not tell you mother she is terminally ill, in the U.S. you will. In a Chinese class, if you don’t know what to say or can’t answer a question, your friend or classmate will help you out. In the States, that would be often be rude–“I can take care of myself, thank you!” There are hundreds of examples.

    So for me the way cultural differences are acted out through the medium of language is very interesting. Syntax is compelling, but it is just a starting point. Metaphor, narratives, humor and way people talk to each other take us further. For example, calling a buddy “big brother,” “little brother,” or “brother” is a little-used metaphor in the U.S. It sure does change the feeling, though, doesn’t it? There are bigger metaphors, too, such as the war on poverty and the moon represents my heart. 🙂

  68. Green apples and chairs… must destroy Aristotle! ^_^

  69. JFS and Laksa great comments, makes me feel all inspired to work on my thesis now.You must have had a bit of free time for philosophising this weekend! It seems like most people are now agreeing that it’s a linguistic thing, not a truth thing?

    Although I must point out that I don’t think we are all basing our comments just on John’s ‘sample’ right? I mean, everyone has obviously noticed something going on here for awhile and that just set it off…?

    I think one thing that does happen though, when you deal with other cultures, is that you try to code everything into your own understanding. For example, I think I’ve given the example before of thinking that everyone in China was ‘giving me the evils’ (narrowing their eyes at me), a sign of dislike in my culture anyway. It turns out they just weren’t wearing their glasses. So we interpret people through our own cultural lense, until something happens, like the eggs, that makes you think — wow, I have been here for so long and never clicked what was actually going on!

    I think it must be some kind of inbuilt coping mechanism — you just read things through your own lense and only slowly pick up on the differences so you have some time to psychologically adapt…

  70. My head just exploded. Thanks a lot, guys… 😉

  71. Hi,

    This is Wayne. Yes, that Wayne who is partly responsible for creating this havoc.

    John, you neglected to mention that we were also talking about ‘false modesty.’

    The Chinese laugh at the concept of ‘false modesty.’

    Here is some more food for thought.

    Suppose Garry Kasparov (the great Chess champion walks into the room)and a journalist asks him, “Garry, are you a talented chess player?”

    And Garry responds, “I am so-so.”

    Question: Did Garry just lie?

    It is quite obvious that Garry’s chess ability is better than ‘so-so.’ He is in fact not telling the truth because his abiility is far beyong ‘so-so.’ Therefore, it is fair to declare Garry a liar, i.e. he is not telling the truth.

    However, most Chinese would think it is absurd to say that Garry is lying because being modest exempts one from lying!!!!!!!


  72. Ahh, but asking for one’s opinion is so subjective… how can it be lying? See, compared with you he is a good chess player — but possibly he compares himself with perfection — in which case he is ‘so-so’, merely on the way to perfection. How can you call opinions lying???

    (ps I’m not Chinese…)

  73. Can one be simultaneously modest and deceptive?

    That is the question.

    According to my theory, The Chinese mind says no, Western mind says yes.

    False modesty to Chinese is like frozen fire. It does not exist.

  74. I think I subscribe to the last comments made by Laska and Kaili. The issues of encoding and observer interference is perhaps analagous to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as propsed by Werner Heisenberg in 1927 and as expounded upon by others since then.

    That there are cultural differences among different peoples is rather obvious, and those differences can be rather dramatic in some instances. For example, in the United States, where we pride ourselves on our independence and self reliance, will quite regularly que up in some order to conduct business in a public setting; whereas in China, a country that prides itself on its social harmony, will just as regularly jostle and struggle in a more independent and self engaging fashion. But none of this, I would dare say, means we should divide the species into subgroups based on significant metaphysical properties that differ from one another.

    I also have the same emotional attachment that Laska mentioned about poetry and our relationships to one another, etc. But I would venture to mention that even in the United States, that land of barren and isolated social relationships, there are places in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, and Utah (along with almost every other state) where various collectives of individuals will address one another as brother and sister, father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, as the circumstances may present itself.

    I apologize for continuing to write on this subject, but normally I am working with things and measurements and contracts and money; and I find it a pleasure to be a part of a conversation on ideas such as this. Thank you.

  75. Wow… I’ll be reading this for the next week! Nice work, John, you managed to throw out something short where everybody had different perspectives which led to a pretty rich discussion. I’d have to agree with the one anonymous dude who said that you should look into the morphology (since I teach that in my university in Xinjiang, it’s an interesting and at root controversial topic – who says dictionaries can’t be exciting?! … ok, I’m a nerd). But what language you discussed this “lie” example in (or was it both?), and how things were translated both verbally and mentally is where the whole concept of truth is hinged. The history of western philosophy is replete with the question of whether ideas in the mind really correspond with reality (if there is one, sometimes we ask that) and with the ideas other people have, which is the case in inter-cutural communication. In ICC you can actually conveniently dispense with reality and get on with the question of whether we’re talking about the same thing, real or not – in fact, claims of a mediating “reality” you both refer to become useless, if not downright oppressive. This is where some postmodern ideas actually, dare I say it, become applicable to something in real life. All you have left, really, is the word(s).

    Two other things: first, on cultural differences being bunk, I feel I run into far too many to consider it a meaningless idea. But John, you said that you consider “cultural differences are interesting, not dividing”, and I think your point is one of emphasis – cultural differences are too often cited to posit another group as “too” different or weird – not, as I believe, exactly where to start a polite and interesting discussion (which is what you managed to pull off here, and it’s not a very easy thing). I would hesitate, however, to claim that Chinese and Western cultures have different concepts of truth. On the other hand, I think Gavin points to a real conceptual difference, that of perspective when he mentions that “Chinese language divides the world from a subjective perspective: the relationship of phenomena to humanity. English, on the other hand, attempts, for the most part, to classify phenomena from an objective perspective based on their innate characteristics”. Time and again, there has been both anecdotal and statistical evidence that points to (I wouldn’t say concretely proves) the notion that Chinese society, language and culture has been based more on definitions of relationship rather than the Western perspective where something outside you and I is called in as a device of mediation. And when thought of that way, as two imperfect (we’re only human) perspectives, it gets all Rashomon on you.

  76. I actually feel you are lying about the 2 “let alones”. You love em. By the way… I’m from Lakeland… us crazy FL guys relocating to China is just weird…

  77. It’s me again.
    Interesting stuff. But I also wonder whether this curious observation has anything to do with Chinese mentality itself, or indeed Chinese people’s poor grasp of English sarcasm.
    Note: It is definitely English sarcasm, and not the American totally in your face type.

    For example:
    if a person A was making a sarcastic comment about someone’s ability, they might say,’We have been suitably impressed by this young man’s remarkable…talents’.

    If Person B was English, there would probably be a wry smile. But swap him for a Chinese person, you would probably see a slightly confused picture emerging from his face.

    I think this perhaps reflects a counter-argument to the example laid out in the article:
    In this situation an Englishman would not feel that bloke A had ‘lied’, but merely ‘euphemised’, but Chinese bloke B would probably have thought ‘has he just told a white lie?’, or ‘is he trying to be polite?’.

    Therefore in both cases of ‘lying’, there is a certain justification in including ‘intent’ when dealing with truth.

    Chinese people I think find sarcasm hard to grasp at first because they do not understand the intent behind it. Sometimes the intent can only be deciphered by subtleties in intonation.

    Sarcasm does have an equivalent in Chinese, it’s ‘fong chi’ (in Cantonese at least), but the way it is used is much more obvious and the intent to mock is usually clearer. And because sarcasm is usually reserved for satirical or literary purposes in Chinese (I think), and a lot less prevalent in conversation, I think many Chinese tend to take people’s words at face value (especially those of a foreigner), and hence do not ‘get’ it when they actually mean something else.

    Therefore we have two more or less identical situations where foreigner A makes a statement and foreigner B thinks he has lied in case 1 (about the eggs), but has told the ‘truth’ (or at least not lied) in case 2 (about the guy’s ability), and vica versa for the chinese.

    So we come full circle, and the main differentiator is the intent to deceive, and I guess my argument is that this is not a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon, but rather a demonstration of how different cultures read ‘intent’.

    Hope that made some sense.

  78. Very interesting perspectives! As a native Chinese, I fully understand that it is not a lie in some Chinese people’s eyes, but I have to say that your story does not provide sufficient evidence that ALL or at least MOST of Chinese people think that way. The answers to your question will vary, first, based on how you ask the questions and how the audience interpret your question; second, depending on the individual level of perception of “lie” and “truth”, maybe the girl is just not detail-oriented and doesn’t care about the details. Therefore, your conclusion can NOT be safely drawn that Chinese do not generally count the inaccuracy as “lie”.

    I enjoy your article. Look forward to reading more about your perspectives on China.

  79. Just recently, I had a lecture concerning implicatures. While this isn’t the first time I heard about implicatures, suddenly it became more relevant when I remembered the story that you wrote about.

    Basically the gist of the matter is that semantically, people can interpret numbers in many different ways due to implicatures. The very basic interpretation of a number in supposedly all languages is to add the notion of “at least” to a number.

    Therefore, an example is:

    “If you make 2 mistakes you automatically fail the exam.”

    So what happens when you make 3, 4 or 5 mistakes? Do you miracously pass the exam? Of course you still fail. This is because the sentence really means, “If you make AT LEAST 2 mistakes, you automatically fail the exam.”

    So, some semanticist have done some work on this idea, i.e. Larry Horn, that stated that the number 2 denotes in reality, at least 2. When we state that I ate 2 eggs, this really means, well I ate at least 2 eggs. However, due to ideas of implicatures and our prejudices concerning the situation, we will interpret that normally as that I ate 2 and only 2 eggs, because that is what describes the situation most clearly.

    Of course, the above comments still apply concerning how the situation was posed and stated, however I think this idea contributes a lot in explaining what is happening in this mysterious “truth” case.

  80. Family, Kids, Study, Trees in Japan

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    Simon World has it’s bi-monthly Asian Blog roundup. Some highlights include:

    Truth via Eggs:

    The Chinese (and perhaps Asian in general) concept [of truth] depends on a human intent to deceive.
    Happy Corner:
    Suddenly, three to four students …

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  89. Dalian Dragon Says: November 6, 2005 at 9:40 pm

    What about when a Chinese person tells you a falsehood with “good” intent?

    For example: Telling you that your Chinese is really good when it, in fact, sucks. Or, when they tell you that everything is “OK” when, in fact, there’s really a problem.

    Many Chinese would say that, in those instances, they’re not lying because the INTENT was “good”.

  90. John ate 2 eggs and said he ate 3 eggs…


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