Chinese Market Research Surveys: Cultural Insights and Translation Tips
Updated: Sep 25
Official Name: People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国)
Population: 1.38 billion
Official Language: Standard Mandarin
Currency: Renminbi, 人民币 (¥)
GDP: 11 trillion USD
Area: 9,596,960 sq. km. (3,705,410 sq. mi.)
China, which ranks second globally in GDP after the United States, is one of the largest and most populous countries in the world. From various dialects to different local customs, there are a number of challenges market researchers will face if conducting Chinese MR surveys. In this post we’ve compiled a few aspects of the Chinese language and culture that you’ll want to consider when preparing your market research studies so that you can get accurate data cost-effectively and on time.
Establishing contact and getting quality data with the help of a little Guanxi
Social capital is an important part of all cultures and societies. How that social capital is structured and used, however, differs from culture to culture. Guanxi—a concept rooted in the teachings of Confucius—is the form of social capital the Chinese rely on. Not only is it the basis for a lot of the business conducted in China but it also plays a fundamental role in daily Chinese life. If you’re conducting market research in China, establishing guanxi will be critical for a number of reasons. A paper from Simon Fraser University on the importance of guanxi in market research revealed the following:
“Recruiting is a major challenge for B2B research in China;
Guanxi is used to recruit participants;
Information sharing through guanxi networks can provide more reliable data; and,
Guanxi is often established during the research process of one project and developed over time for potential future research needs.”
But what is guanxi more specifically? In essence, guanxi is a “network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another.” While in the West we use business contracts, nondisclosure agreements, and the like to conduct business, in China one’s gaunxi is used as a means of holding others accountable and strengthening partnerships. “Trust and credibility (xinyong) are . . . critical components and ‘face’ (mianzi), one’s public image, is necessary to develop trust and credibility. Guanxi, in turn, may be developed as a result of one having face in his/her community.” Without guanxi, it may be difficult for you to find the appropriate respondents for your particular studies because they may not trust you enough to share their insights.
And even if you’ve found what you think are the right respondents, if there isn’t some trace of guanxi between you and your respondents, the answers you get back won’t necessarily be reliable or provide a full picture. That’s why the right respondents may in fact be the ones with whom you share mutual contacts, be it friends, family, business associates, or even participants of previous research projects. “This process differs from that in western markets like the UK or the US where recruiting through friends and personal networks is considered unethical and raises concerns about the integrity of the data,” writes Patricia E. Heywood, author of the paper from SFU.
Why you need to speak the local dialect
Mutual contacts, however, aren’t the only means of establishing guanxi. Coming from the same town or region or speaking the same dialect can go a long way. But if you’re a market researcher from the United States, establishing guanxi through geography or dialect won’t be easy. That’s why you’ll want to find a local partner or use an interpreting service that can establish guanxi through the use of the local dialect in your focus groups and face-to-face interviews. When you communicate to people on their terms, they’ll be more willing to open up to you. To many, dialect represents home and familiarity. And establishing a sense of familiarity allows people to relax and give you the kind of insights you’re looking for. In a country as large as China, this couldn’t be truer.
Because of China’s size and rich history, it’s natural that a variety of dialects would have emerged over the centuries. If you just take a look at what’s spoken in China today, you’ll see there are a total of ten dialect groups, each containing numerous other dialects. Mandarin, which is the most predominantly spoken form of Chinese, contains eight smaller dialect groups, which are further broken up into anywhere from three to ten individual dialects. In short, there are more than 200 individual dialects across the country. So you’ll want to figure out ahead of time which dialects your target respondents speak so that you can plan ahead. On the other hand, if you translate your online surveys, then you’ll want to make sure your translation partner understands the linguistic differences between China’s various regions so that they can be adapted accordingly.
A sampling of the larger dialect groups by population:
Mandarin (836 million)
Jin (45 million)
Wu (77 million)
Hui (3.2 million)
Gan (31 million
Xiang (36 million)
Min (60 million)
Hakka (34 million)
Yue (71 million)
Ping (2 million)
You should take the nuances of Chinese Market Research translation seriously
As a market researcher, you put a lot of time and effort into crafting your questions so that they capture certain nuances and elicit certain responses. Expressing subtle shades of meaning through the words you choose will be different in English than in Chinese. So what happens when you have your well-thought-out survey questions translated into a language like Chinese? You run the risk of getting back skewed data. Well, that is, if you don’t hire professional translators who understand the nuances you’re trying to convey in your questions and who know how to culturally adjust them for your target respondents. In ancient Chinese, words and phrases were usually represented by single characters. But gradually, as new concepts were introduced into society, single-character words were combined to create two-character words with more subtle and specific meanings.
Ting Chi, a former Localization Engineer at Language Intelligence, and a native of Beijing, remembers an instance where a translator had translated the word “audit” in a way that she didn’t think was appropriate for the context, although the word was technically correct: “He used the word 审计, but for me, that Chinese word is most commonly used for auditing financial documents. Maybe because 审 means ‘examine’ and 计 means ‘calculate.’” If the content being translated isn’t about financial documents, however, there are a couple of different options that can be used, each with subtly different focuses: 审核 – examine and verify 审查 – examine and inspect 核查 – check 核计 – assess/calculate What this means is that if you want to get accurate and reliable responses, then you’ll want to make sure that the translators you hire are linguistically skilled enough to understand the nuances of the questions you intend on giving to your respondents.
Skewed data through acquiescence bias (?)
There are two things that could skew your data: deference and acquiescence bias. The Chinese are generally very polite and tend to defer to socially accepted norms and opinions instead of expressing how they actually feel about a given topic. This is at least the case in most face-to-face interviews, phone interviews, and focus groups, all three of which may not produce the same sense of anonymity that online surveys do. And in a culture where socially accepted norms tend to take precedence over individualism, any sense that their responses could be made known to others could lead respondents to provide false answers. Aside from deference to social norms, there is also a high degree of acquiescence bias.
Respondents tend to give positive answers. And in the case of yes-or-no questions, respondents are more likely to respond with a “yes.” This tendency to respond with affirmatives is largely rooted in Confucianism, which, as this blog post tried to point out, is an important part of Chinese culture. By remaining aware of this, you’ll more accurately be able to make sense of the data you get back. But by taking advantage of the insights from your language services provider and your local partners who have established guanxi with your survey respondents, you’ll go far in avoiding skewed data.
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