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Concluding remarks – debt of gratitude / 人情

Just as the concept of “debt of gratitude” evolved throughout history and Western languages the concept of 人情 (renqing) underwent transformations in the Chinese speaking world. Interestingly it is during the Qing Dynasty that the meaning of renqing seemingly started to refer to gift-giving ethically endowed with the expectation of “return” or “repayment” (bao报) dictated by the rules of propriety (li 礼). Without falling into the excesses of any dichotomous appraisal, it is perhaps at this point that a comparison between “debt of gratitude” and 人情 can begin to show similarities from a human perspective for we are all under the same Heaven, as well as differences from a cultural perspective due to variations of emphases on ideas of individual right or social obligation. If understood in the sense of mode of relationship that entails 报 and in spite of its formal similarity with the debt of gratitude, the idea and practice of 人情 appears to follow a principle of self-interested reciprocities albeit as condition for social harmony – at least in the traditional sense and unlike the notion of guanxi 关系 that smacks of instrumental reciprocities for mere mutual self-interest in a more contemporary context. The reciprocity is also what makes the notion of “gift” (kuizeng馈赠) comprehended as mode of payment for which return is expected central to understanding  人情. The debt of gratitude in a Western context certainly equally involves a degree of reciprocity insofar as it is a response to what could be tacitly perceived as a gift. But, unlike in the Greco-Roman world that shares much similarities with the traditional Chinese conception of 馈赠 as far as reciprocity and the make-up of society are concerned, the Judeo-Christian tradition – which still colours much of Western cultures – tends to conceive the gift as self-disinterested in intention and this, regardless of its aporiatic dimension and the practical impossibility  of any notion of “pure gift” that Marcel Mauss famously highlighted. Disinterestedness, anonymity, and unconditionality become then the paradigmatic features of an idealized conception of the gift.  In the case of interpersonal relationships, the giver withdraws in the act of giving with no expectation of return as a way of valuing other fellow human beings. As a result, the receiver is never coerced to pay back the giver in the name of social cohesion. This conception of the gift therefore shifts away from the notion of 馈赠 within the context of 人情. In a different way the disinterested gift does not fully apply either to the debt of gratitude, for the latter remains a response within a dynamic of reciprocity. However, far from being explicitly formalised and expected, the return crucially rests on a principle of freedom of decision that guaranties that the pledge for social harmony does not transform into social coercion. Perhaps, then, and bearing in mind the limits imposed by cultural and historical differences when comparing and translating the two terms, what brings together semantically and practically “debt of gratitude” and 人情 is the element of reciprocity that effects the fabric of society; what sets them apart is that the former is expressed as a free move of natural recognition of values whereas the latter rests on a ritualistic enaction of a constructed model of propriety.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified) French

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Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of the European Union to China

Mutual understanding is the foundation of international relations. If globalization leads us to use a common lexicon, we often tend to forget that meanings differ from one culture to the other. Lack of understanding or, sometimes, confusion in meaning, breaks communication.

When China speaks in a foreign language, it uses a lexicon that is more often than never not on par with its own history and culture. It uses words to which it may assign, consciously or unconsciously, different meanings. No dialogue can be effective if interlocutors disagree on the very meaning of what they say to each other.

More than 2000 years ago, Confucius noted the imperative “to assign proper meanings to concepts”, zheng ming 正名. That is precisely what this digital platform offers by attempting to bridge the gap of cultural differences, while respecting the essential value of cultural diversity without falling in the trap of cultural relativism. This initiative aims thus to confront key concepts between Europe and China by designing a methodical guide to handle and solve eventual misunderstandings.

Remarkably, the origin of this project stems back to the 1980’s when a number of dialogues contributed to create a trustworthy network of scholars in Europe and in China. With the renewed support of the European Union, the ‘EU-China Forum on Cultural Misunderstandings’ gathers a group of high level European and Chinese intellectuals who share the awareness that cultural misunderstandings impede mutual comprehension and positive interactions between the EU and China at all levels.

The digital platform ambitions to be a constant, accessible and tangible instrument for uploading contributions and conducting initial debates in preparation of the November 2021 Forum.

The contributions of all participating authors will be included in the EU-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings, published digitally and eventually also in a physical form. It intends to be a meaningful, scientific and literate instrument for the benefit of mutual understanding between Europe and China.

It is certainly my hope that this editorial project of a Europe-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings may constitute a reference tool for further research and exchanges.


Nicolas Chapuis
Ambassador of the European Union to the People’s Republic of China 
May 2021

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