One person's humor can be another's humiliation

china cultural difference cultural dimensions Feb 04, 2020

As soon as I saw the satirical cartoon, I could foresee what the Chinese response would be. 

Upset. Insulted. Humiliated.

Chinese officials are demanding an apology from the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, for publishing a Chinese flag with five coronavirus particles on it instead of stars. This joke about a country in times of trial is reminiscent of 2013 when the tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan and the French paper, Le Canard Enchaîné, depicted mutant sumo wrestlers and predicted this new form as a future Olympic sport (Japan had just won the bid for the 2020 Olympics). Or, in the incident in 2011 at the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in France; the 2012 YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims, or in 2005, the Jyllands-Posten paper had previously drawn criticism for publishing satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. These examples popped into my mind because of the business cases my students and I had worked on regarding the cultural implications of such satirical actions.

The China embassy released an official statement in reference to the cartoon, “Without any sympathy and empathy, it has crossed the bottom line of civilized society and the ethical boundary of free speech and offends human conscience.” The editor of Jyllands-Posten refused to apologize and said that the paper didn’t intend to joke about the infections in China. His stance, “We cannot apologize for something that we don’t believe is wrong…we have no intention of demeaning or mocking the situation in China and we don’t think the drawing does that.” Danish politicians backed him up. Even the Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said in a statement directed at China "we have freedom of expression in Denmark - also to draw".

Many memes were also popping up on YouTube and elsewhere – an airplane photo-shopped with a mask over it; Corona beer bottles facing down competitor beers all wearing face masks; a 1993 Simpson’s episode about a pandemic virus being transported in a box from another Asian country, had people tweeting and retweeting. However, at such a low time when authorities were trying to figure out how to handle this epidemic, it was not a joke to China, but a knock down of their entire country’s morale. Part of the upset might have been that the large star (representing the government) now made into the form of the virus, was infecting its people (the smaller stars) also in the form of smaller viruses. The cartoonist defended himself, "There is no mockery or scorn in the drawing," Nybroe said. "We have no reason to believe that the coronavirus originated from the Chinese authorities, we have no reason to believe that they are bad at restricting its spread." 

Only two weeks ago, it was a festive time in Beijing in anticipation of celebrating the 2020 Lunar New Year. In the Great Hall of the People, the red decorations were up all around – a symbol of good fortune, happiness, and prosperity for the coming year. Any decoration in a statehouse, though, never overshadowed the enormous bright red and gold flag of China. This was noticeable upon entering the Great Hall, when with about 60 other foreigners, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister Li Keqiang in order to discuss mutual collaboration in science, technology, innovation, and education. Only a few days later would we learn about the coronavirus outbreak.

Being in such a place of grandeur and importance (regardless of what one thinks of the politics) was awe-inspiring. These were the hallowed halls of a nation that took itself, its people, and its place in the world seriously...and with pride. China’s history is over 5000 years old and as the 2nd largest GDP in the world, yet in many ways it is still developing. Its accomplishments in the last fifty years alone is remarkable. But part of what is behind various actions the government takes (trade, territory, technology) has lingering remembrances of the humiliation brought on by the two Opium Wars in the mid-19th century with the imposition of trade and unequal treaties that compromised China’s territorial sovereignty. 

China is a proud nation, a hierarchical nation, and a collective nation. Satire is not commonplace; rather clever sayings with double entendre aimed at challenging (because of the riddle that needs to be solved) and instructing (education and learning are extremely important in Chinese culture) each other. For example, one form of riddle is used during the Mi-Autumn Lunar Festival and is called, Lantern riddles燈謎 (dēng mí) with “dēng” meaning light and “mí” meaning riddle. Those clever enough to figure out the ingenious riddles are commended for knowing rich, classical, and meaningful content about China – such as characters, idioms, historical figures, literary references, or names of cities and beautiful location throughout China. The value is about the shrewdness of knowledge not the critical irony of satire. It’s a collective activity where people come together to challenge, inform each other, and engage in a time of remembering how their culture has affected the past, the present, and the future. China is a nation proud of its past, its present, and its future.

So, this cartoon that poked fun at the Chinese flag was like mocking an entire nation – kicking it when it is down. All flags are symbolic of a nation – the colors and/or images tell a story because they represent something from history that is meaningful to its people. Since flags represent a nation, there is a tacet knowledge that it should be respected. Whereas those in western cultures might not give a second glance at satire and even expect it in daily life, China will not be mocked.

China’s flag is red with five gold stars, the largest on the left side surrounded by four smaller ones to its right. There are several interpretations of what the stars mean; one is that the large star represents the government and the four stars represent the people. Being adopted in October of 1949, the red symbolized the communist revolution under Mao Zedong, with the large star representing the new CPC government, and the four smaller stars representing four occupations at that time which were important to the nation’s social structure: 士农工商 (shí, nóng, gōng, shāng) which included scholars, farmers, workers, and merchants. It is a proud nation based upon these historical and hierarchical values.

These are two very different points of view – one that looks at the situation with humor and the other with insult.

The Chinese embassy made a statement, “This is an insult to China… Without any sympathy and empathy, it has crossed the bottom line of civilized society and the ethical boundary of free speech and offends human conscience.” Nybroe, the cartoonist said, “We have no intention of demeaning or mocking the situation in China and we don’t think the drawing does that.”

How can this be? 

Both have entirely different world views.

If you look at the Hofstede Cultural Dimensions, you will notice that China and Denmark have opposing views of how people in societies should act – their world views. China (blue) has very high-Power Distance (80/100), which means the extent to which the less powerful members of society accept that power is distributed unequally. While people may not like this hierarchical structure, they understand that government is centralized and able to control society for the “good” of the group and not the individual. Denmark, on the other hand, has a very low-Power Distance (18/100), which means that inequality is minimized because people have equal rights. The government exists to serve the people, not control them.

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Additionally, China has a very low Individualism (20/100) which means that as a collective culture, people belong to in-groups (such as families or their place of work) where everyone is cared for together and no one “rocks the boat” with anything that could be considered out of harmony. Denmark as a very high Individualism (74/100) where people look after themselves and their immediate family. Self-expression is valued and it doesn’t matter if you “rock the boat” because others know that they should just “get over it”.

These are two very different ways of ordering society: China has high Power Distance and low Individualism whereas Denmark has low Power Distance and high Individualism.

By examining the cultural dimensions (that are based on over 50 years of social science research) we can see that the reactions to satirical depictions of a flag disrupt the social harmony as a collective nation as well as the pride and control of hierarchical values. In contrast, because people can speak their minds through individual self-expression and people within that society know not to take such jesting personally, satire is accepted…and enjoyed.


Our world has grown very small and we are all interconnected in some way. Most of this is good; however, in the case of the coronavirus, it is catastrophic in how quickly the disease has spread and the lives lost and people affected. Whatever our viewpoint – are cartoons meant to be funny and add some levity to such a dire situation – or insulting because it makes light of a situation out of control – one common view we might all share is to hope the best for China and its people as well as those around the world who have also been affected. May our good thoughts, fervent prayers, and well wishes spread to all corners of the world in support of our fellow human beings.


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