Traffic an embodiment of Chinese logic

Updated: 2011-07-06 10:35

By Jerry Woods (

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It has been said that Henry Ford freed the common man from the limits of his geography.

In the late 1920s to early 1930s, there was a shift in the American psyche when the automobile was no longer considered a luxury but a necessity, as people were willing to sacrifice food, clothing, and savings in exchange for a shiny new piece of the American dream.

Although I don't think this has happened yet in China, in talking with many Chinese I get a very strong sense that for a growing sector of the new middle class, this is starting to emerge.

Using this as a jumping-off point, in my opinion, a 20-minute automobile ride in Shanghai traffic will yield more insights into the Chinese concept of logic than would a weeklong "Introduction to China" class.

From what I have read and observed, Chinese base the concept of logic using personal considerations of circumstances at hand and also take into consideration all kinds of diversity and contradiction - which leads to a more flexible decision-making process.

Trying to explain this to a foreigner can be difficult, but one left-hand turn into oncoming traffic will be a fabulous eye-popping example of the type of flexible decision-making that is appropriate and even "logical".

From my Western point of view, it seems "logical" to wait for the oncoming traffic to pass before trying to turn left, but for a Shanghai driver it is perfectly "logical" to try to beat the oncoming traffic - especially if another vehicle ahead is providing a block and it is possible to slip in behind using them as a shield.

From my Western point of view, it does not seem logical to try pass a slower-moving vehicle on a two-lane road if there is oncoming traffic, but for a Shanghai driver it is perfectly logical to start to pass, as he knows the oncoming traffic will simply swerve, allowing all three vehicles to simultaneously fit into the two-lane space.

This is another (often hair-raising) example of decision-making based on following the rules that are appropriate for the situation at hand - not necessarily on abstract principles considered as absolutes using straight-line thinking based on empirical knowledge from observation and experiments.

Shanghai traffic has been one of my best teachers, as it has prepared me to handle similar business situations where I have found myself trying to solve a problem that, at first glance, does not seem "logical".

In closing, I have a Chinese language book entitled Approaching Chinese - not Mastering Chinese or Learning Chinese or even Understanding Chinese.

The word "approaching" implies I will never ever reach a level that would suggest I was "there" and, like the Shanghai traffic, will never be a static target as it continues to evolve and change.

I have applied this same philosophy in my attempt to understand the amazing Chinese culture, and I accept the fact that I will only be approaching a complete understanding of the assumptions, motivations, and inner workings of the "Chinese mind".

In the meantime, I am content to continue my training from my master, Shanghai Traffic.

The author is the General Manager Of Asian Operations for Automatic Systems, Inc., lived in Shanghai for a year and a half, still travels frequently to China. Jerry is a guest lecturer on his experiences in China and of the Chinese Culture under the auspices of Dr. Dennis Karney at The University of Kansas Edwards Campus. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.