In the West, lying is the sign of a bad upbringing or bad character. In China, telling a lie is a blurry and unclear concept. Mothers don't get upset at children for telling a lie. There is no clear concept about lying. Seldom will you hear someone say “you're lying". There is no cultural value attached to this expression within the linguistic makeup of the culture. There is no word for “liar" in Chinese, no heckling of children who tell a lie in front of peers - liar liar pants on fire; common phrase used to instill the shame of lying into children in our culture.
Lying is a frequent and acceptable activity within Chinese society. To a certain extent, everyone lies, and most people know that the other person is lying. Why do they accept it? It is acceptable to lie in Chinese society. It is not a sign of a bad up-bringing or poor character; what is important is the outcome -face. Face is an important ideal in Chinese society. Individuals need face and a nation needs face. An individual needs face in front of friends and acquaintances and a nation needs face in front its citizens and the world.
This value system is, in many ways, exactly opposite from our own. But let's keep in mind that it is a real and thriving value system throughout China and possibly many other countries in the world that don't fall into the standard European culture-set.
Possibly we will be able to understand the concept of lying in Chinese society by the expression “a white lie". A white lie is told to save someone from what is perceived as a bad or unfair outcome. The idea of lying in China is much the same. Being as China has a different moral up-bringing from what is common in the West, lying has become a means to an end. Lies are told on a constant basis and within their society no one would question what is being said. It is understood that the “lie" is for a reason of perceived good. No one is judged as being of poor character; rather it is viewed as an opportunity to -save face. To question this “save face mechanism" would be seen as a sign of poor character. The individual questioning it would be viewed as someone to be avoided. However, when these “lies" are exposed and the person is seen as having purposefully told a lie they will lose all credibility and worse yet -lose face. This seldom happens in Chinese society because people will opt to let something ‘slip’ in the best interest of not creating waves -not purposefully causing someone a loss of face. But when waves are created, most Chinese will not comprehend the reason behind causing the person to lose face. Most people will feel that it would have been best just left alone. In the end, the person who caused the loss of face will be viewed as a person of weaker character.
The question of the age of athletes in the Chinese Olympics team falls into this scenario. Everyone may know that the athletes are not of age. But no one will cause their country to lose face by providing information to the world that they may have lied. Rather they will cover up the lie to save national face and gain national glory. In this way the Chinese people will feel a sense of national pride. If the lie in question were to be exposed it would destroy the false belief system that is in place in Chinese society; the belief that winning is more important that playing a fair game. For them it may not be so much how the game is played, but rather what it takes to win.
If this scenario were being played out within the parameters of Chinese society it would have taken on a different progression. The documents would have sufficed as proof that the girls may be of age. Even if the person accepting the documents may believe otherwise and with the possibility that the documents may be falsified, they would still accept the documents as proof. If they were to reject the documents or continue the questioning, they may be viewed as “unreasonable" within the Chinese cultural value system.
We should all be able to clearly see that China is on a mission to impress the world. They are acting out of a sense of national insecurity. This insecurity has been brought about by the way the people have been educated and taught over the past few generations. Within Chinese society, it is not important what you do rather how you are perceived by others. Face plays a big part in this outward perception.
China is coming from a vastly different social value system than the rest of the world and it will take generations for us to really come to understand one another. As China becomes a bigger world player we will see more of these “misunderstands" arise.