Friday’s proverb: Money

“He who has money is a real man.
And he who has no money is hard put to be a man.”

I am putting the Chinese here in case you don’t believe me when I say that this is is an actual proverb… “Yougian nanzihan; wu qian, hanzi nan.” It’s a play on words, but it gets at something right at the heart of the Chinese culture. Us Americans are raised to believe that “all men are created equal,” which is arguably the most well known phrase of any legal document in the world. But here in China people really believe that money is the be all, end all.


And they have no problem asking what we consider to be extremely rude questions. Many times the Mr. has been flat out asked “how much money do you make?” Worse still, I get asked–assuming, of course that I don’t work–“How much money does your husband make?” Or people will ask us how much we pay in rent. Or how much my bag cost… the kinds of things that people just don’t ask perfect strangers in the U.S. It makes us incredibly uncomfortable and it is so hard for us to get our head around the fact that this is not rude here.


Even though they place all of this emphasis on money, there is no shame in having or not having a lot of it. And I think this is because it is such a classist society–see my post about why there are four stars in the Chinese flag–that it’s not really your own fault either way if you do or don’t have a lot of money. It’s more about whether you were lucky enough to be born into the position where you could have a lot of money.

I asked a friend recently what we do that the Chinese find equally rude and surprisingly she said when we thank a taxi driver for a ride or thank a waiter for service… ‘Really??” I asked… but yes. Apparently when you thank a service person it’s actually embarrassing to them because they are just doing their job. They are just earning themselves money and the self-respect that the proverb is talking about. And by thanking them you imply that they have done something outside the norm that surprises you, i.e. you’re surprised that they could perform this service that is merely expected… meaning you should expect that your driver will take you to your destination.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop myself from thanking the waiter when he refills my water glass… but I’ll do my best to do other things, like smile or say ‘have a good day’ rather than saying thank you all the time. ‘See you next time,’ I suppose is the best substitute because you imply that they did a good enough job that you will come back. And you’re building relationship, which is so important here. Now I am not suggesting that you American readers stop saying ‘thank you’ either, but I do think that even in the U.S., there are sometimes even more polite things we could say to the people who help us keep our daily lives together.

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3 responses to “Friday’s proverb: Money

  1. Cool money!

    I have a question. Is there a polite way not to reveal your finances? Or is being reserved and private about such things, i.e. not telling, considered rude?

  2. This is so hard to swallow! I can see being more frank and open about finances than we are, but that proverb– “hard put to be a man”??!?! Wow.

    The question of thanking people for their service is interesting, though. The French girl who stayed with us this summer said that she was surprised that we would make small talk with clerks at the store. To her, you just have a business relationship and no need to make it more than that. Maybe it could also tie into the independent and individualistic tendencies of Americans that we don’t assume that other people should do things for us.

    (The French girl actually said that she said that she thought Americans were extremely polite! Not what you normally hear from Europeans.)

  3. Pingback: Giving thanks « The Gimlet Eye

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