How to share an opinion in Chinese (意见 – Yì jiàn)4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
To have an opinion in China is serious stuff. There are at least 10 different ways to say the word, ‘opinion’.
The three of the main ways to say ‘opinion’ in Chinese are:
- 观点 (guān diǎn) – ‘view + point’
- 看法 (kàn fǎ ) – ‘see + way’
- 意见 (yì jiàn) – ‘meaning + see’
So far so good – all are based around seeing or having a view (guān, kàn, jiàn all mean to ‘view’, ‘see’ or ‘look’). The English word, ‘opinion’, comes from the Latin to ‘think’ or ‘believe’; a small but interesting difference.
Like in English, opinions can be shared, discussed, or given.
But unlike English, the word opinion can be a minefield in China.
Modesty is important. Its not just the necessary way to be, it is also used to show respect to others through self-depracation, while also demonstrating the modest one understands the system, and how to behave in it. This is not necessarily true in a western context. For example, as author Kishore Mahbubani puts it, whereas in the West a speech will often start with a joke to get things going, in China (and Asia), the speaker will often start with an apology.
With this background in mind, there are two kinds of opinions to be had: high ones, and low ones.
To say someone has a high opinion, is to say they have insight; they are a person of substance and vision. Their opinion is to be listened to. And the word ‘opinion’ is often used in set piece complements to heap praise on that person – normally much more experienced and senior. These include:
- 高见 (gāo jiàn) – ‘high + view’
- 见地 (jiàn dì) – ‘seeing + earth’
- 见解 (jiàn jiě) – ‘seeing + understanding’
To say that someone has a ‘high-view’, or that they have jiàn dì (您很有见地 – nín hěn yǒu jiàn dì), is not hollow flattery. It is accepted practice to treat the opinions of someone else in this way – with respect.
It is also a way to complement someone who might not expect to be the holder of a ‘high-view’ – which can be used to great effect when trying to make a good impression. To make things even more interesting, it can also be used sarcastically to give someone a good humoured and gentle ribbing.
The ultimate compliment to pay someone on delivering a high-view is to use an idiom to describe someone as:
高瞻远瞩 (gāo zhān yuǎn zhǔ) – “Farsighted”
Conversely, one speaks of one’s own opinions as unworthy, narrow, and even stupid. Each of the words below, if taken literally, are vividly self-insulting:
- 浅见 (qiǎn jiàn) – ‘shallow + view’
- 愚见 (yú jiàn) – ‘stupid + view’
- 肤见 (fū jiàn) ‘skin [deep] + view’
- 管见 (guǎn jiàn ) – ‘tube + view’
- 穴见 (xué jiàn) – ‘hole + view’
In other words, how could my opinion be worthy of your time – I am stupid, I see life through a small tube or a tiny hole, and I view things only on the surface. But, as with asking for high views to be imparted upon us, it is also expected that the individual could only possibly be the holder of a low and shallow view.
In doing so, new opinions are positioned in a way that can allow them to be raised, considered and gradually accepted.
Even if you are the world expert in a field, it is normal practice to caveat one’s opinions with one of the above self-deprecating precursors. To open up with sharing your own ‘high-view’ would not really be rude, rather surreal and confusing – because it just isn’t done in China.
A popular and useful idiom that can be used to the same effect is:
抛砖引玉 － pāo zhuān yǐn yù – Which literally means: lobbing a brick to gain a jade-stone.
Its origin is as number 17 of the 36 Stratagems – a classical Chinese text more than 2,500 years old – that describes strategies for war and combat, that is still relevant to understanding China today. Chucking a brick to get some jade in ancient China was a strategy for using something of low value to trick or entice the enemy into giving up something much more valuable.
So, when being modest in China in this way, we are actually deploying a 2,500 year-old strategy for winning a battle through deception!
Finally, delivered in a certain way, the word ‘opinion’ can be used to show displeasure, or to criticise. Contrary to how it might sound in English, if someone says they have a ‘big’ opinion (意见很大 – yì jiàn hěn dà) about you, this is not good, and should be translated as ‘we are very unhappy with you’.