Hey guys!

Today I’m going to write about what the term “business” might mean to a Chinese person. Yes, this is an ontology post! When I was in Singapore last month on a business trip, the business leader Raymond Ng gave me a scholarship to attend his popular course on Chinese Philosophy and Business, inspired by the book of I-Ching (易经), or alternatively known as “The Book of Change”. I thought this might interest my audience.

I’d always been interested in all things East-Asian, or related to China, Korea and Japan. I’m rather proficient in all three languages, even though I’m weakest in Korean. I took Chinese literature for 6 years, and read the main classics, poems and popular literature. My ex-boyfriend was Japanese (I only had 2 boyfriends my entire life, lol!) and I spent a year in Japan at Waseda University. In 2013, my friend Fiona and I were sponsored by Korean Air to blog about Seoul. So you see, East Asian philosophy and culture has always been close to my heart, and I think the beauty of East-Asian philosophy is that you’d get a different take on life whenever you re-read the original texts.

Just last month I re-read the book Sun Tze’s Art of War (“孙子兵法”), and today I want to talk a little more about how language shapes your perception of what it means to do “business”. This idea was first constructed by my mentor Raymond, and I really do think it is intriguing! Here is some food for thought for you:

  • In Finnish, the term for “business” is “liiketoiminta”. My awesome Finnish friend Emma explained to me that “liike” means “shop” and “toiminta” means “action”. So when put together, it means the action of shopping–or the transaction of physical goods or services in exchange for money or other goods.
  • In Vietnamese, the term for “business” is “Kinh doanh“. According to Tung, “Kinh” perhaps comes from “kinh tế” (economics) and “Doanh” probably “doanh nghiệp” (enterprise). So when put together, Kinh doanh probably means “Economic enterprise”. Since “business” in Vietnamese relates to the word “economics”, it probably means that business involves politics and the prioritization of options and decisions.
  • In Malay, the term for business is “perniagaan“, which means “buy and sell”. This probably has to deal with the physical transaction of goods and services.
  • In Japanese, the term for business is ” ビジネス” or “営業/eigyou”. “ビジネス” is pronounced as “bi-ji-ne-su”/ “Business” and written in katakana, which is the language system for terms borrowed from the Western world. So this might imply that business is Japan is strongly influenced by America, and this is historically consistent. The Japanese kanji “営業” means “sales”, and when we conceive of business in terms of sales, it is likely that to the Japanese people in general, an entity/activity is not a business unless it involves sales and cash flow.
  • In Korean, the term for business is “사업(事業)/sa-eob“. This means making a career() out of doing tasks (). In hangul, it’s “사업“. This could imply that the concept of “service” and “human relationships” are highly prioritised in Korean businesses.

And here is the interesting part–what then is “business” in Chinese? It is “生意” (sheng-yi).

You see, the Chinese language is a very visual, rich and deep language. A single Chinese character speaks volume, and could mean different things. So what is the meaning of “生意”? When we dissect this term, “生” means “rise” and “意” means “meaning”. When both characters are placed together, one possible definition of “生意” could be interpreted as “giving rise to meaning”. This could mean that to the larger Chinese community, doing business is a means of giving value to individual consumer, the larger community and the world.

Another interpretation of “生意” could be to interpret “生” as “living” and “意” as “meaning”. So “生意” is an activity of “living meaning”. This means that when a consumer/business buys your goods, he buys effectively a “living meaning” that would follow him for life.

Interestingly, the term “生意” also implies that the price of a good can be valued to the extent which the consumer finds meaning. For example, if a luxury watch is priced at USD$100,000 when the cost of manufacturing is only USD1,000, the Chinese businessman is unlikely to consider it as unethical to sell such a watch to the buyer who is willing to pay. This situation however, might be seen as unethical to some other cultures, especially cultures who define “business” as the “physical buying and selling of goods”. In my opinion, this could mean the Finnish and Malay cultures. Would a Finn be fully comfortable with selling a watch made on a total cost of USD1,000 for USD100,000?

You see, I’d written about the Finnish marketing problem, and for the longest time I’d wondered why there is such a barrier for Finns to ask– in the words of one of my Finnish friends Markku– ‘Would you like some fries to go with that”?”

To me, as a Chinese Singaporean, this question is extremely easy to ask–because well, if my client were to order burger, of course I think that it would value-add him to have some fries with that. Isn’t it a nicer experience to eat burger and fries, instead of just burger? Also, what is the worst thing that could happen?–He’d just reject your offer.

But I wasn’t sure how a Finn would think, so I went to ask The Boyfriend–

Wan Wei: “Eh, why is it so hard for a Finn to ask ‘Would you like some fries to go with that?”

The Boyfriend: *Frowns* “Eiiiiiiiii, you cannot impose your will on others!!”

Wan Wei: *Frowns*. “Hmmmmmm.”

So you see, the concept of “business” is heavily rooted in language–different cultures perceive “business” differently from young, because we all think in different langauges. So intuitive yet so complicated, isn’t it? I guess if a Finn defines “business” as a highly transaction based, physical action of exchange or shopping of goods–like “liiketoiminta“–then the marketing problem would persist in Finland. This is because marketing would then be seen as a lie, or even something unethical. Whereas to Chinese people, they’d see it as perfectly normal, because in Chinese, marketing activities give huge personal value to the consumer!

Furthermore, as Finns increase trading and business activities with the Chinese folks, it would definitely be useful to consider the framing of such a simple term like “business” in multi-cultural contexts. To Finns, certain acts by Chinese folks might be considered as “unethical”. But to the Chinese folks, they might sincerely regard it as “normal and value-adding”.

Haha, inter-cultural communication is definitely not easy. But such things are interesting to think about, isn’t it? I completely agree with the great Austrian-born philosopher Wittgenstein when he says, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”.

Therefore, to encourage a more open-mind and greater inter-cultural understanding and empathy for your business counterparts, it is essential to go back to the roots of certain meaning and framing of fundamental concepts and words! 🙂

Hope you have enjoyed today’s post! Thank Raymond, haha. Let me know what you think in the comments–this might be an interesting discussion!


  1. Wan Wei once again very teaching concept of Business in other cultures. To Finn the concept of $100.000 watch is a good example how Finns react due to years of having the notion ramming into their heads that Equality for all is our aim, that’s fine except it also takes away the will to be super successful in business. You can;t help others unless you help yourself first, if the ship is sinking don’t you put on your own life vest on before you help your friend. Lesson Finns need to learn there is no ceiling in business long as it is done within the law and not to knowingly hurt anyone.

    1. Thank you for the comment Markku! I really appreciated your sharing on how Finns have troubles asking “Do you want fries with this?”

      And I agree on the point on law: the idea is to do business within the boundaries, sometimes maybe just close to the boundaries.

    2. Equality sounds like a nice concept, but it destroys even the person who you want to make equal of.

      Once the strongest emerge, he / she can help the people who are weaker and “equal” to the weaker ones.

      It is a law of nature to have a top predator. Many ecosystems would be weaken if you remove the top predator.

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