Decoding China

How valuable is speaking a country’s language if you can’t speak its culture?

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 18, 2015)—You think “nǐ hǎo” and savvy Chinese bistro know-how will get you far in mainland China? Think again. Beyond easily apparent distinctions, “Society in China is based on a set of principles and ethics that differ significantly from the West,” said Matthew Christensen, a professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages.

Helping students and “sinophiles” become aware of and fluent in cultural literacy is Christensen’s most recent undertaking. Though much of his career has focused on Chinese pedagogy and, as of late, directing BYU’s Chinese Flagship Program, his book, Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China (2013) is an etiquette and culture guide on how to get things done in China. “We focus a lot on language and linguistics and how you speak, but you know that in order to be a real participant in a foreign country you really have know about the history and the politics and what’s really going on.”


In Decoding China, Christensen defines cultural literacy as an understanding of cultural codes. “The notion of a cultural code implies that there are those who understand how to do things (i.e., native speakers), and those who don’t know the code (i.e., non-natives). Decoding cultural practices enables you to understand and act like a native. This then puts natives at ease, which leads to the opportunity to develop and maintain relationships with them.”

Developing cultural literacy helps non-natives understand subtle references that come up all the time in everyday speech. In English, we do this when we quote a line of Shakespeare or off-handedly reference an historical event. If you’re not “in” on those things, “you’re just lost,” said Christensen.

According to Christensen, knowing cultural codes may be more valuable than knowing actual words. “Really, the most dangerous kind of person in China, or wherever, is someone who has really good linguistic skills but no cultural skills whatsoever,” Christensen said. If a non-native speaks really well, natives assume that he or she knows all the rules of etiquette and behavior. “And when you don’t, that causes real problems. That’s the danger in having good language skills but weak cultural skills: you’re going to offend people because you’re going to be kind of clueless.”

The book is packed with tips – which trains have air conditioning, how to maneuver the Chinese banking system, how to eat hotpot – and involved lots of very practical research. While working on the book, his former research assistant would email relatives in China to get on-the-ground information. “The book really takes all this information, narrows it down and focuses it, and spoon feeds you what you need to know to get started. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s enough to let you ease your way in without so many bumps and bruises,” Christensen said.


While he’s into the more academic side of Chinese language and linguistics, Christiansen says there’s something kind of fun about getting into the minutiae of cultural know-how. In fact, for years he’s maintained a blog on Chinese culture called “Into the Middle Kingdom,” which he originally started for his Chinese 101 students.

The blog focuses on various aspects of Chinese culture, but has a particular interest in Chinese cuisine. “Food is really integral to Chinese culture,” Christensen said. “Every kind of social engagement or celebration or business meeting is always centered around a meal or eating.”

He tells his students: if you want to get in good with somebody, just ask them about the local cuisine. “You’ll be walking by a construction site and these construction workers have a wok and a little hot plate, and they’re cooking lunch,” he said. “They insist on freshness, and they shop every day at the market. They take eating very seriously, like the French or the Greeks. It’s a big deal.”

Christensen was also, at one point, a first-timer in China. He served as a Cantonese missionary in Hong Kong, and started at BYU as a freshman after his mission, when he began learning Mandarin. Learning the cultural codes for himself involved “a lot of trial and error,” he said. “There’s a lot of just trying to figure it out on your own.”

He participated in BYU’s first study abroad program to Mainland China in 1985. “Back then, China had a raw, rough quality, and at the same time had an aura of deep history and cultural richness that attracted me from the start.”

China had just opened up to foreigners in 1981. When he arrived in Mainland China to study abroad, “the streets were teeming with bicycles and people but few cars,” said Christensen, “and everyone was dressed in dark blue or green Mao suits. Though I was expecting a dour, downtrodden people having just a few years prior survived the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese were happy, open and generous. I felt at home.”

Since 2002, as a developer and director of the BYU Flagship Program, he’s helped train other students of Chinese to function professionally in China. The Flagship program, which is federally funded by the Department of Defense, prepares students in a yearlong on-campus intensive language and culture training, after which they spend a year in China. “They do direct enrollment, which means they go to one of the top-five universities in China, and they take engineering or political science classes in Chinese with Chinese classmates, just like a foreigner would come here and take classes here,” said Christensen. “They do that their first semester in a university, and then they do a four to six month internship in their field.”

There are nearly 140 students who have completed the program. According to their exam statistics, 66% of the program’s “alumni” reach the superior level of language proficiency.

“Our students are pretty highly recruited, and they’re all over the world,” said Christensen. “A lot of them are working for government and commerce. We have students that are in embassies around the world and consulates in China, and of course we have students that are doctors and lawyers and whatever else.”

Of his own experience in China, Christensen said, “To walk along a cobbled path along a stone city wall that was constructed a thousand years ago fills me with wonder. Who else has walked this same path?”

Christensen’s book, Decoding China, is available online at the BYU library with a NetID.

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)

Danielle covers the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursing a degree in Russian with a minor in women’s studies.