I mentioned recently that I'd had developed a perverse alertness to the phrase "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people." For me, hearing it is like letting scalding hot water run over a poison ivy rash. It is painful and yet somehow.... satisfying.

The Shanghai-based author and consultant Paul French, who has been here much longer and heard the phrase much more often than I have, sends a note putting it in practical and historical context:

For me that has always acted as a full stop in a conversation or negotiation. When the other side says that to do something (concede invariably) would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people (i.e. building that supermarket and refusing to pay as much as I want you to for the land would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people) it's a way of saying - thus far and no further.... That phrase really is the point at which no more negotiation is possible. I can't think of an equivalent phrase in English or American/European business-political etiquette.

But you got me wondering if the hurting of feelings predated 1949. Seems not - can't find it anywhere in KMT pronouncements nor did Sun Yat Sen use the phrase in 1911 or the students during May 4th 1919. Indeed this week is the anniversary of China declaring war on Japan, Germany and Italy in 1941 and their formal declaration of war on the Axis was quite well written actually - http://chinarhyming.blogspot.com/ -- and no talk of hurt feelings.

Offered gratis, to PhD candidates in search of a worthy topic: the linguistic, historical, ideological, and cultural aspects of the emergence of "hurting the feelings" as a major theme in international relations. Just give French, and me, a line in the Acknowledgments.

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