I want to talk about the similarities between China and France. Having lived in Paris for almost two months this summer, I developed a strong feeling that these two countries are, in surprisingly many ways, so similar to each other.
I will start with some details in living that I noticed in Paris. When starting a new life in a new place, it is always the small things that come to attention first before we get a grab of the bigger picture. That was indeed how I started to be pleasantly surprised by Paris.
1. The sheer existence of “commissariats” (police stations/派出所) was the first thing: when I was in Montreal, Vancouver and Seattle, I never knew where exactly was the PD closest to me – only that it was a 911 call away. Whereas in Paris and China, commissariats were stationed in many neighborhoods, making the police force at least seemingly more accessible than their North American counterparts.
2. The French road signs are much more similar to the Chinese ones than the North American ones.
3. Parisien apartments seem to welcome chauffage collectif (collective heating/集中供暖), with heated water from heating stations running through specially designed metal pipes in households and keeping them warm in winter. China – or at least northern China – does that too, but it is certainly a concept I never witnessed in North America, where heating is delivered by electronic heaters.
4. “Door close” buttons in elevators. I’m not saying North American elevators don’t have them, but they are almost always nothing but a placeholder: press it or not press it, doesn’t seem to affect elevator door closing time at all! Whereas the Parisien elevators I came across were all equipped with a functioning “door close” button, much like their Chinese friends.
5. French people do not have to tip. If you’ve had dinner with me in Canada or the States, you remember my intense “doing tip math” face at the end of the meal, right? Never had to do that in Paris, or China for that matter! A warm compliment was enough anywhere you go.
6. French merchants appear to be more willing to use changes. One thing you hear quite often in Paris is “vous n’avez pas la monnaie ?” (You don’t have changes?), which happens when, say, you use a 20 euro bill to buy a 1.5 euro item. In China, people would also double check with you when you use a 100-yuan bill for something less than 20. Besides, the following conversation can happen in France or China, but never North America:
Merchant: The total is 16 dollars.
You: (gives a 20 dollar bill)
Merchant: Do you have 1 dollar?
You: Yes! (gives a 1 dollar bill)
Merchant: (gives you a 5 dollar bill back)
This conversation will almost certainly go this way in North America:
Merchant: The total is 16 dollars.
You: (gives a 20 dollar bill)
Merchant: (gives you a 4 1-dollar bill back)
7. Politeness. The French have many ways of staying polite, not unlike the Chinese. Where a French would vouvoyer, Chinese say “nin” instead of “ni”. Similarly, French try to avoid using people’s first name before they get quite acquainted. Well… the Chinese do the exact same thing. This kind of politeness isn’t that strictly observed in NA, not even French Canada: in Montreal, it is quite common to be greeted in a restaurant or a phone shop with “Tu vas bien?”, which almost never happened in Paris.
I can go on, but this list would seem endless if I browse through it all. Now that I’ve presented some similarities in details of living, let’s get into something a bit deeper behind the scene.
It was a friday evening after work in Paris. I stepped into this parisien pub near the pantheon, for an event I found on Meetup.com. I made a friend who had been working in Paris for the past 5 years. When he told me how his manager was making him and his peers work overtime almost every day because of the manager’s poor coordinating skills, I asked him if he ever confronted the manager to raise the issue. He told me no, and explained how it would never make a difference except make the manager dislike him. I finished that conversation by giving him a mini lecture on the virtue of communication, something I was trained into believing in North America.
Little did I know I was gonna get an exact opposite lecture in no time. Just a few days later, a disagreement happened at work between myself and the person I worked for. Now, here is how I imagined such a conversation would go: we would each speak our mind and try to convince the other, then when the time comes, it is him and not me who makes the final call. But that conversation went off rails very fast, when he stopped my first attempt to speak with the words “No Ellery I will not listen to you”. After I finally cooled off from that non-conversation, I told this story to a few French people. Much to my surprise, they found it much less irritating than I did. One even got really surprised when he heard that I tried to “talk back to the boss”.
It took me a while to realize one point: the person I worked for, he genuinely saw no need to listen to someone who works for him. In a similar way, I find the French to have a high degree of respect to hierarchy, and belief in “the system”. And for the longest time, I thought it was the trademark of China: complaints are yelled out all the time by grumpy hoi polloi, but hardly ever in an official form; people take the words of their supervisors as seriously as a soldier does a direct order; everyone seems to believe that the people they deal with know what they are doing, even if they disagree with them. I would never have imagined to see these in France, yet I did.
One of the consequences of such respect to “hierarchy” seems to be the preference in a “big government”. As unitary states, both modern France and modern China have their government much involved in every aspect of the countries. You see French people take pride in talking about their collective belief in Fraternity, Equality and Liberty – almost a national spirit – but less people would refer to it as the motto of the Fifth Republic. Similarly the Chinese brand their traditional cultural products with the country’s five-star red banner; they sure didn’t think about the fact that flag is designated to the communist-led People’s Republic government when they do so. In both China and France, policies and bills get nationwide coverage and enforcement much easier than the US, where each state runs most of its own legislation.
This “hierarchy” of course also projected into the histories of the two countries. Both China and France embraced feudalism way longer than many other countries, before revolutions kicked in. Somewhat luckily, that system worked just fine for both of them in a long time. While the French had their chapters by Charlemagne and King of the Sun, Chinese have their sweet memory in the splendid Han and Tang dynasties. (In fact we love the Han so much, almost in an “ubi sunt” way, that our language is called “Hanyu”, the language of the Han.) As an example, the similarity of the glory of feudalism times can still be traced in the layout of the cities of Beijing and Paris. Both capitals possesses a line of monuments as a heritage of history. For Paris, it’s the Axe Historique (Louvre – Tuileries – Concorde – Champs-Elysee – Arc of the Triumph). For Beijing, the “Central Axis” (Zhengyangmen tower – Tian’anmen – Forbidden City – Jingshan Park – Bell tower).
So it seems “respect to hierarchy” is the key in understanding the similarities between China and France. But where does such respect come from? I do not have adequate knowledge to speak for France here, but for China I can safely attribute much of it to Confucianism, the dominating philosophical system in China since almost 2000 years ago. Among other things, Confucianism requires a man to “cultivate your self, then your family, then the country, then the world” (修身，齐家，治国，平天下). It then dictates the mandate of Shi, the noble men, is to look out for the hoi polloi to the best of their abilities.
As such, Confucianism seems to layout the passage towards nobility for everyone, and requires the nobles to take big responsibilities. Maybe this could be a reason why Chinese people likes hierarchy, and why they put faith in “the system”. I suspect similar ideas can be found in the French philosophy, if one were to study it. As a side example, take a look at the novel The Three Musketeers, and how D’Artagnan looked up to Mister de Treville, and how the latter looked out for him. If you dub that story with Chinese background, it wouldn’t seem weird to me at all.