Didactic wall painted with images and characters

Stroke Power: Doing Business in China, with Character

International Business ChallengesLet’s do a little experiment that will change your way of seeing the world, forever. Well… maybe this one was a bit of an overshoot.

Blank Page

For a few seconds, I’ll show you a short text. All you have to do is take a look at it.

Ready? Go!

Chinese and Latin Characters on the same page

Experiment 1. Briefly look at the picture

Got it? Right. Now, answer this simple question: could you tell me what you have read?

If you’re not Chinese or Japanese, most likely, you’ve read the right part of the text, which is made up of latin alphabet characters. Most likely, you have largely disregarded the fact that there actually was a left part. At best, you’ve noticed the existence of “some Asian characters” in the picture.

The reverse equally applies to your Chinese counterparts. What you probably can’t imagine is what happens to bilinguals. If you are a Chinese native speaker, even if you can read English well, you have probably concentrated your attention on the left part of the picture. You have overlooked the English text. You know it was there, but you haven’t even tried to read it.

This half-blank-page effect happens whenever we are presented with texts in multiple character systems. A website, an advertisement, a menu at a Sichuan restaurant, or a Chinatown shop front. By the way, you particularly need to be aware of this effect if you deal with cross-cultural communication in written form.

Too Hard or Not Too Hard

It is commonplace, among us so-called Westerners, that learning Chinese is one of the hardest endeavors that we may face. And, indeed, I won’t say it is an easy one. Even when we are so lucky as to see real Chinese Characters, in real China, with our own eyes, we are so deeply persuaded of the difficulty, that we give up before even trying.

No doubt, learning Chinese seriously requires years of study and application. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that this beautiful language must remain totally obscure forever. And there are good reasons for that. When I first approached Mandarin Chinese and Chinese characters in particular, I discovered how charming the path to understanding them could be.

 Three Characters to Start

Besides an enriching experience, a basic knowledge of Chinese characters has another interesting consequence. In doing international business, it opens for you a whole world of improved relationships with your Chinese counterparts. Letting them discover that you can read some Chinese will boost their sympathy towards you.

Let’s get practical. Take for example the word for “person”. It sounds more or less rén and is written with one character: 人. Two simple strokes, to represent what can be easily interpreted as the stylized drawing of a walking person.

Now, think of something big. Think of the gesture you would make, if you were in front of another person, to express the concept. That’s it: you would stretch your arms wide-open, right? Take the “person” character and add open arms to it. And there you have the character for “big”: 大. The Chinese pronounce it approximately dà.

One more. What is it that is placed above our heads? The sky, right? Add one more stroke on top of the character for “big” and you’ll get 天, tiān, meaning “sky” or “heaven”.

Three characters corresponding to three simple words. At least in the proposed example. Generally speaking, we can say that, on one hand, all Chinese characters carry some meaning. On the other hand, words can be formed by one or more characters. Most Chinese words, in fact, are formed by two or more characters.

For example, this word: 外国人, pronounced wàiguórén, means foreigner. Have you noticed that it includes one of the characters that we have introduced, 人, rén?

Before You Go

Now, let’s make one last little experiment. This time, it will only work for the non-Chinese. Look briefly at the following picture.

Chinese characters, among which are the known ones

Experiment 2. How many characters can you recognize?

Now, forget for a moment about sounds and pronunciations, and concentrate on forms. How many characters have you recognized? I promise you that, whenever you’ll see the same three characters again, even if you don’t understand the sentences they’re in, not only will you recognize them, but you will also remember their meaning.


As you will see, this little experiment has changed your way of seeing the world, forever.

Oh, and don’t forget to write down your score in the comments below! How many characters have you recognized?

Chinese characters, with the known ones highlighted

Have you spotted them all?

Do you have a similar story to tell? In this case, please, leave your comments.

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